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Howard and the Mask

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Howard Manson sighed as he headed for the last room he had to clean before his shift was over. He worked on the janitorial staff of a college, and on Monday and Wednesday evenings it was his turn to clean the art hall. He did it to keep himself young, even though he was easily past retirement age. Heading up the stairs to annex seven, his ears were accosted by the loud music that all those kids were listening to anymore. It was strange: he hated that music, and yet, the crooning of the gentleman singing was somehow calming and exciting all at the same time. He couldn’t decide what it was about the song, but he walked with more speed to the room, anxious to see who was in there.

As he reached the door he found it open and stuck his head in, eyes roving the room for its inhabitant so he might send the artist home for the night in order to lock up. He caught the eye of a young blonde thing over a lump of clay she was working with. She was sitting on the ground. The ground. Ridiculous hippies, he thought. Her eyes lit up, and she smiled genuinely, as if she had been waiting for him. He looked around, confused, and then collected himself.

“Miss, this is the last room in the hall,” he said. “I’ll be collecting your trash if I can, and sending you to your dorm for the night.”

She laughed, a dancing sound. “I was just making a mask for fun. Would you care to join me?” She had one of those ungodly rings through her nose, and Howard hated those. Those kids with their tattoos and their disgusting piercings, he thought, bah!

But at a second look, the nose ring the girl had seemed to fit her, as if showing the viewer her freedom, as if she were demure and yet untamed, all tangled up together. She was still smiling at him expectantly, awaiting a response from him.

“Well, Miss, we really need to be getting home.” Her smile didn’t fade at his rejection; on the contrary, she leaped up from her seat and picked up a large lump of clay from the table nearby. She was wearing a floor-length dress made of some sort of wild fabric that changed colors and hues in swirling patterns all over the dress, and Howard thought she surely had each color of the rainbow, and maybe more, on it. As she was turned, Howard saw she had a tattoo as well! A single feather rested on her bare shoulder blade, which separated towards the top and burst into a flock of birds flying away at the top of her shoulder. He was once again astounded by her daring, and figuring even if he had somewhere to be, it could wait, he moved to the table she was at and took the clay from her.

She smiled and pulled up two chairs, also picking up her mask and placing it on the table. She sat down, and motioned to the seat next to her. He sat, and, watching her motions, started to form eyes out of the clay. She smiled and sang along to the song playing. He listened as she told him it was by a band named “Jet” –whatever that was- and they were her all time favorite band. She wasn’t wearing any shoes, and her hair was long. She told him all sorts of thoughts she had, and asked him his opinion on many things, including, but not limited to, snapdragons or magnolias, oils or acrylics, and had he ever heard of a band called Cat Power? She was marvelous, really, and he was almost embarrassed to say he had disliked her upon meeting. Soon, he had rolled up the sleeves of his custodial uniform and was making a large and bulbous nose for his mask.

She looked over approvingly, and asked, “What’s the story, Morning Glory?”

“Ah, pardon?” he inquired back. She laughed, and reworded the question. “What’s the story behind your mask? Who is he?”

Howard thought about it a minute, and answered, “well, I suppose its me. He’s got beady little eyes, but a large mouth, and he’s overall rather ugly as a person.”

Her mouth didn’t smile, but her eyes did, as she responded. “So, he has a small view on the world and a large opinion to share. I think, that’s why he’s ugly.”

Howard thought a long time on what she said. He thought about her music and her clothes and her tattoo. He thought of the ring through her nose and hated himself for assuming she couldn’t be personable, respectful, and clean. She was organized chaos, or maybe a cool breeze on a hot day. He sighed and looked down. “Yes, exactly.”

This time, her smile met her lips in a glorious frame. She touched his arm understandingly, and reached down to his mask. She worked at it for a while, and Howard couldn’t see what she was doing. He simply backed up and let her change the face, his eyes on her tattoo.

After a few minutes of silence that was neither uncomfortable nor companionable, but just was, she spoke up. “What did you say your name was?”

“Howard.”

She looked back at him, young, free eyes, meeting old and defeated, and asked, “May I call you Howie?”

He smiled for the first time that night. “Anything you like.”

She grinned and stepped back, revealing his mask. She had widened the eyes, making them into large semi-circles and curved the large mouth upward, giving the mask a joyful, almost giddy expression, like it was always laughing at the world.

This time, when she laughed, so did he.



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