Our 119th issue of prose fiction brings you truth. If you could name yourself, what mask would you wear? If you could close your eyes to the world’s harsh truths, would you? Just for a little longer? Writers Richard Cody and Alireza Araghi ask those questions and show you what’s behind that curtain.
I lost my childhood innocence in July of 1971 – the summer before my eleventh birthday. I had no idea what innocence was until I lost it. Even if I had been somehow aware, I never would have guessed that such a thing could happen at the zoo.
My parents and I stood at the edge of a crowd, ten people deep, watching the gorillas. There were three of them in a cold concrete pen surrounded by an empty moat. The only thing besides evolution and empty space separating us from those large and powerful primates was a single iron bar in the form of a rail that ran the length of the moat on our side. The gorillas sat dark and lumpish in their pen, indifferent to the playground equipment around them. A large male slouched near the edge of the moat, facing the crowd. Once or twice I glimpsed a dark glint under his heavy black brow. Behind him a female hunched, swiveling her head slowly back and forth from one end of the moat to the other; she seemed to be watching us watching them. A smaller, younger ape perched motionless at the edge of the moat opposite me and my family, staring at crowd. Standing between my parents, I studied the bored faces of the gorillas and munched pink popcorn.
The three of us stood there for a couple of minutes at the edge of the crowd before my world changed irrevocably and forever. The large male slowly slid his arm away from his body. His eyes were narrow slits of darkness gleaming in the larger darkness of his face. As I watched, his great black hand closed over a small brown shape that lay beside him on the concrete. It was excrement, or as my father so succinctly put it just moments later, gorilla shit. I hadn’t even seen it a moment before but now it occupied my entire attention as it rose, cradled gently in the male’s palm, into the air. His arm hung there, lolling above his crested head, for what seemed a very long time. In that time, the female continued her survey of the crowd and the youngster began to scratch the back of its neck. I saw these activities peripherally, from the corners of my eyes, as my mind continued to focus on that black hand suspended in the air. Then my father spoke and the world shifted around me.
“Move back, he’s gonna throw that.”
I was not sure then and I don’t know now if my father was warning the entire crowd or speaking only to my mother and me, but he was right. The male flung his arm suddenly forward and released the brown blob with shocking speed and precision. The dollop flew across the moat and splattered the chest of a man wearing a green plaid shirt. I saw his face go from wide-eyed surprise to wrinkled disgust in less than two seconds.
Everybody took a collective step backward as the female followed the male’s lead. A second missile plopped at the feet of a young couple not far from us. My father gripped my shoulder, moving my mother and me farther away from the barrage. But it was too late. I had seen with the first fling of that long black arm that the world was not the safe place it had always seemed. If I had been standing at the front of the crowd it might have been me wearing a smear of gorilla dung. I gazed at the scattering people. Some were laughing, others appeared nervous or disgusted, many were turning away. I couldn’t find the man in the green shirt. The gorillas were still now, even the female’s head had stopped its endless rotation. I felt a great and sudden sympathy for them, trapped and resentful in a world that wasn’t theirs. Until that moment, I had thought of the zoo as a happy place.
“The elephants will seem boring after this,” my father said.
He was making a joke but I could find nothing humorous in it. His words seemed like a ploy to distract my thoughts from the incidents of the past few moments. I stared hard at the gorillas, pink popcorn dangling and forgotten in my hand, and knew that I had become privy to a secret I hadn’t even known existed: Adults were not gods who shaped and controlled the world. There were forces beyond my mother and father, forces beyond our neighbor Tim who rode a motorcycle and smoked cigarettes, forces beyond all the parents of all my friends. There were forces that moved like air around us, stirring up unpredictable events, causing animals in a zoo to lash out with contempt if not violence.
“You all right, honey?” My mother patted my head.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Wanna see the elephants?”
I considered the possibility of being trampled. “Can we see the penguins instead?”
“Penguins it is,” said my father.
Remembering the pink popcorn in my hand, I took a bite. I had never before noticed how much that stuff tasted like cardboard.
Richard writes from California, where he penned and published three books available here.
The Blue Sky
Alireza Taheri Araghi
Einstein was sitting on a bench in the courtyard looking at the newspaper. You could see in his face he wasn’t reading. He slipped his hand under his mask and rubbed his eye. I couldn’t say if he was scratching his eye or crying. It was likely he would cry. He was so sensitive.
I was looking for Beggar. I said maybe Einstein knew where he was.
“Haven’t you seen Beggar?” I asked Einstein.
“He was in the cafeteria half an hour ago,” he answered.
His eyes didn’t show well through the holes of the mask.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Everyone knows it wasn’t you. We’ll talk to him. We’ll tell him it wasn’t you. Who does he think he is? He can’t kick you out like this every time.”
Einstein didn’t answer. We all knew him. He was slow, all right, but not impolite. He would never do such a thing. But the Modern Physics professor hated his guts and whatever happened he would kick him out of the class.
That morning the Prof was scribbling diagrams on the board and we were yawning and I was looking at the second hand of my watch when all of a sudden I don’t what nasty it was who let out a deep moo. The Prof threw the chalk on his desk and, as usual, kicked Einstein out. If we caught him no doubt we would tell on him. If he had done it in Electromagnetics class, we would have given him a pat on the shoulder and treated him to a coke and told him, “Awesome, boy!” If he had had an iota of sense he would have known he shouldn’t do such a thing in that class, with that Prof and Einstein being there.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We won’t let you fail this time. Beggar has talked to Doctor. You are going to practice together two weeks before the final, this time you’ll get a nice B or something, make him eat crow and get rid of him, too.”
Doctor was of one of the rarest species of the genus straight A’s that had ever passed through the entrance of our university, with a GPA of 4.88/5 getting closer and closer to 5.
Such smoke billowed from the cafeteria window you might think the place was on fire. I opened the door and went in. Smoke drifted in through the holes of my mask, little by little and made my eyes tear. Beggar’s big bulk would hit you in the eye even from behind the wall, let alone from there at the door, but the two figures next to him couldn’t be recognized through the smoke. One looked like Aristotle but he didn’t have his plastic olive crown on.
I went ahead. On the table there were two cups of coffee and a tea and a sugar bowl and an ash tray and Aristotle’s olive crown. The tea was for Beggar. He never drank anything but tea. The third one I didn’t know. The long nose of his mask came right to the tip of his cigarette, so long the smoke rose up right into his nostrils. And a big red smile was spread on his face from ear to ear. It was a girl. Probably one of Aristotle’s girlfriends. I said hello and sat down.
“Don’t we know who made the sound?” I asked. “Poor Einstein’s in the dumps.”
Beggar blew the cigarette smoke out of the nose of his mask like a dragon and shook his head.
“We’re all going to talk to that Prof, aren’t we?” I asked.
Beggar blew the cigarette smoke out of the nose of his mask like a dragon and nodded his head.
As far as I could see there were six more people other than us in the cafeteria and I was the only one without a cigarette in my hand. Beggar took out his pack and offered me. I took one and put it on the table. Beggar took a look at the cigarette and asked, “What do you want? Money?”
“Yeah, dear old Beggar,” I answered. “Flat broke. I’ll return it in a month. You know I keep my promise. I’ve always had. Hell or high water.”
“It’s Queen’s birthday?” he asked with no tinge of sarcasm or scorn in his voice.
“No sir, it’s sure Queen’s mother’s birthday,” sneered Aristotle.
“No,” I said.
“Oh, God,” Aristotle snapped. “Sorry I forgot. Queen’s birthday was last week when Lizard and I coughed up all we had to mister. This time, no doubt, it’s the auspicious birth of Its Majesty, the Supreme Feline Entity, Queen’s cat.”
“Don’t bother him,” Beggar said taking a look at Aristotle, then back to me he went on, “How much do you want?”
“Enough for a couple of books. Three, four thousand,” I said.
He set the money on the table. I put it in my pocket, took the cigarette and lighted it with Aristotle’s.
“Why don’t want to accept it? Queen doesn’t even like you, let alone love you. Everyone knows it.”
“I am deeply in the opinion that you, dear sir, are thoroughly mistaken, Mr. Beggar. Her Majesty Queen is enamored with His Excellency Robin Hood’s boots polished no later than six month ago.”
I looked at my boots and didn’t answer Aristotle. “How do you know?” I asked.
“You can read it on her face.”
“Who says that? What you can read on her face is that she not only likes me, but also loves me. That’s what you can read on her face.”
Beggar crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and pointed to my cigarette. I tapped the ash and took a long drag. Aristotle and his girlfriend crushed their cigarettes almost together. Beggar crossed his arms on his chest and said, “You’re so pigheaded.” The three of them were looking at me. Beggar held up his right forefinger. “Look at this,” he said. I looked at it. “How many are there?”
“Well, one,” I said.
“Keep looking at my finger and tell me how many Beggars you see.”
I looked a little. I could see a finger and behind it two blurry, vague Beggars. “Two,” I said. “But hazy and blurry.”
“Now look at me and tell me how many fingers you see.”
The two blurry vague Beggars joined each other and the finger instead split in two. “Two,” I said.
Beggar withdrew his hand and lit up and threw the match on the table and crossed his arms. The three of them were staring at me. I tapped the inch-long ash off my cigarette, crushed it in the ashtray and got up.
“All right,” I said. “I’m pigheaded and stupid, I’m a moron. I am what I am. Thanks for the money. I’ll give it back on time.”
“You are only pigheaded,” Beggar said.
“Only a pigheaded stupid moron,” Aristotle said.
I didn’t say anything else. I went out. It took the smoke a long time to get out of my mask.
The next day I was looking for Queen with a book under my arm. Two lf Lizard’s friends were sitting on a bench in the shade of a sycamore playing the guitar for some seven, eight other guys. I started for the classes when someone tapped on my shoulder. It was Einstein. “Hi. How are you?” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “By the way what’s new with you?”
“Beggar and others are going to talk to the Prof tomorrow. Are you going?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Don’t worry. We sort it out. By the way, haven’t you seen Queen around?”
“This is for her, isn’t it?” he asked taking a look at the book in my hand.
“Yes. You’ve seen her?”
He hadn’t seen her. I looked for her. Nobody had seen her. At last I went to the person I should have gone to first.
Olive was solving problems in an empty class with three other girls. She was drawing diagrams and writing formulas on the board. I said hello and went in.
“Haven’t you seen Queen today?” I asked.
“Yes. Why?” she asked.
“Where is she?”
“She was solving problems with us right here. She went to get some coffees. That’s her bag over there.”
She was right. Queen’s orange backpack was on a chair next to other bags.
“Why nobody knows of her then?” I asked.
“Because she changed her mask. Didn’t you know that?” Olive answered.
“No. Why should her change her mask?”
With a shrug, she took the duster and started erasing the board. “Why don’t you sit down, she’ll be back soon,” Olive said.
I went to one of the chairs to sit. “What’s her mask like?” I asked.
Olive fanned the chalk dust in the air with her hand. “A ridiculous mask with a long nose and an ear to ear smirk. Sit down, you’ll see for yourself.”
Olive took the paper from the table and started to write the next problem with pink chalk. I set the book on the chair, next to Queen’s bag. Out the window the wind was blowing in the row of poplars. The sky was blue, very blue.
“This book is for Queen” I said. “I just put it here, by her bag.”
“Won’t you stay?” Olive asked. “She’ll be back in no time.” She pulled a tissue from her pocket, slipped it under her mask and rubbed her eye.
“No,” I said. “I got to go to class. I’ll be late.”
With this, I went out.
Alireza writes from Tehran, Iran, where he teaches English, and translates literature in Persian, and writes children’s stories.