There it was. In the middle of the sidewalk. Blocking my path. A black mask. A cubreboca, a mouth cover to protect someone from germs, COVID, death, and worse. Discarded. Abandoned. Lost. Had it fallen from a pocket or purse? Had it been tossed away with anger and frustration? Had it slipped from an ear where it had dangled like a drying Victoria’s Secret bra from a shower head?
I stopped, studying it in its creased, crushed condition, an imprinted dusty footprint causing obvious pain. A wave of pity washed over me. I bent over to pick it up, to save it, to give it new life.
As I reached for it, the mask spoke. “Don’t you touch me!” it ordered.
I retracted my hand. “What?” I sprung upright.
“You don’t know me. You don’t know where I’ve been. And I don’t know if you’ve washed your hands recently. I don’t smell any sanitizing gel.” I stared at the trampled cloth, my mouth agape. I had never been lectured to by a mask before.
“I wash my hands all the time,” I defended. “And who are you to ques—”
“Mark. I’m Mark, the mask.” He paused and looked at my hand. “Carrying your mask in your hand isn’t going to protect you.” He eyed it. His eyebrow arched. “Why does your mask have a marijuana leaf on it? You a pothead?”
I looked around to see if anyone was watching, listening, witnessing this exchange. No one was. I bolted down the block.
I could hear Mark, the mask, yelling in my direction, “Put your damn mask on.” I did. It wasn’t so much because of health concerns or safety, but because Mark was freaking me out. “Damn mask” echoed in my ears.
As I started to cross the street, a turquoise Ford Edsel drove by, running over a plain white surgical mask in the street. A tire tread now covered the mask, partially hiding the logo of nearby Kildare-Welby Medical Center. The mask groaned. I stared at it. Our eyes locked. “Sir,” he whispered with a rasp, “can you call Dr. Ben Casey at KWMC and tell him he dropped me when he was lighting a cigarette? And then call an ambulance.”
I nodded and moved out of the street. As I stepped onto the sidewalk and reached for my cell, I looked back. The mask was gone.
I pivoted around and began to run. But another black mask, this one with a skeletal Catrina face on it, smacked me in the forehead. It was hanging from a spindly, dry, dead tree branch. “What are you doing there?” I asked with surprise.
“Waiting for my ride,” he said in Spanish.
“Oh,” I said, as if I understood the language or the answer, and moved on.
On the next block, a pastel pink cubreboca winked at me from the sidewalk’s edge, by the curb. “Help me,” she pleaded. “I’m absolutely filthy. I need a bath.” She undulated seductively in the breeze.
“I’m not touching you. I don’t know you. I don’t know where you’ve been,” I said having learned my lesson from Mark, the mask. I looked at her more closely. “You are filthy. What is that black stuff on you?”
“Mascara. That damn bitch used me as a mouth covering during the day and a sleeping mask at night.”
Skepticism covered my face. “And you want me to take you home. No. I’m not doing that.”
She glared at me. “I’m not a whore, you know. I just need a bath and want someone to love m—”
I dashed away. But within a few steps I tripped over a well-worn, faded floral- patterned mask. “Be careful, young man,” she said. “Can’t you see how old I am?”
“I’m sorry.” I studied her. She had a lot of wrinkles. “How old are you?”
“I’m a veteran of the 2009 H1N1 epidemic.”
I looked surprised. “Well, you look terrific, ma’am,” I lied, trying to show some respect.
“Why thank you, young man. But you can move on. I’m sure you have better things to do than talk to an old mask.” She smiled as if our interaction had been the highlight of her day.
I smiled back, nodded at her, and continued on my way toward my neighbor Miriam Maskovitz’s new business, a spa, where I was going to receive a facial, my first ever. I needed it because my skin was reddened and irritated from months of masks rubbing against it. As I neared the spa, a U.S. flag-patterned mask blew across the sidewalk, stopping at the wall next to the spa door.
“Spare change, mister?” he asked.
“Spare change? Why?”
“I’m trying to get home.”
“Home? Where’s home?”
“Damascus, Oregon,” he answered with yearning in his voice.
I shook my head. “I’m not giving you any spare change. You’re a damn ma—”
Ignoring my refusal, the mask asked,” Did you go to Woodstock in 1969?”
My brows furrowed. “Woodstock? Yes. I was there. Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re having an acid flashback right now.”
Panicked, I spun toward the door. As I opened it, its signage morphed from “Chutz-Spa” to “Cubrebocas R Us.” I entered.
“Hi!” Miriam greeted me. Racks of masks, cubrebocas in all colors and patterns, waved at me from the wall behind her.
“Flashback? Yes. I think so.”
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