“Excuse me, sir, does your store carry lizard masks? I’ve seen Superhero costumes, suits of armor, even dead presidents, but I can’t find any lizard masks. My office is having a costume party, and I really need a mask to make my outfit work.”
Standing behind the register, Gene Berman racked his brain as he considered the customer’s request. Thinking about his merchandise, Gene weighed the truth of the man’s explanation.
A lizard mask? For an office party? In July?
Unknown to the shopper, Gene Berman had seen every sexual proclivity in the book. Every fetish, no matter how bizarre, had found it’s way into his costume shop. Customers liked to believe they were the first con artists to invent a ruse. Business parties. Charity balls. Volunteering at an orphanage.
When deviants used sick and dying children, that was Gene’s favorite.
How people didn’t see through their own transparencies was baffling, how sweaty palms and taught pants made them obvious. Why they lied when the whole world wore costumes, why they lied Gene didn’t know.
“Lizard masks, well let me think. Closer to Halloween we carry a variety of animal masks, but during summer we tend to recycle our inventory. Let’s go check the Murder Wall. I think I might have something there.”
Leaving the safety of the counter, Gene wandered past clown noses and fake mustaches, past all the last minute, half-off crap peddled to bratty children. Through rows of princess costumes and spaceman suits Gene led the customer.
Fillmore’s Costume Emporium had served Kansas City for sixty years, but as much as fashion evolved, the repertoire of the costume shop remained the same. Aisles 1-3 were stocked with kids’ costumes and a dwindling section dedicated to the movie Frozen. Aisles 4-6 contained celebrity masks, costume accessories, and smoking jackets.
During slow parts of the year, when college kids needed a bowler for a Roaring Twenties kegger, an ass insert for a “Babies got Back” blowout, it was between those rows where they dug.
Past the costume aisles, on the far side of the store, stood the ever-popular Murder Wall. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers hung from metal hooks, their menacing gazes made docile by unfilled, drooping latex.
Gene stopped as he examined the Murder Wall, scanning row to row. When he spotted it, tucked behind a frightening Hell Raiser, he reached down and grabbed the disguise.
“Here you go sir, this is the closest thing we have. Think this will fit the bill?”
Grabbing the mask, the customer evaluated the soft rubber. He turned the mask in his hands, slowly, deliberately, rocking back and forth from toe to heel. The man’s calf-high tube socks spilled over the sole of his sandals.
“Wasn’t this a character in some movie?” the customer asked.
Gene was surprised the man couldn’t place the film.
“That is an official Jar Jar Binks mask, a character from Star Wars. I’m afraid it’s the closest thing we have. If you want I can order a different lizard, but I don’t know if we’ll have it in time for your party.”
Balanced on his tiptoes, the man seemed taken off guard by the mention of the office party. Gene had him caught in his lie, but the customer continued on.
“Why do you have a Star Wars mask on the Murder Wall? I mean, if it was Darth Vader I’d understand, but shouldn’t this be with the other movie characters?”
Gene stifled his laugh. It had been his idea to put the mask on the Murder Wall. His statement to the world went mostly unseen, but still he relished the barb.
“Well, sir, we save this wall for the most heinous villains. If you ever get the chance to see the Phantom Menace, you’ll see why we keep this one here.”
Gene smiled, letting the customer in on his joke, but the man seemed lost in space. Unable to find another mask, however, he told Gene that Jar Jar would work just fine.
After ringing in the customer and saying farewell, Gene was left alone. On a Tuesday evening, with over three months until Halloween, it was normal to be slow.
Fortunately, in a room full of faces, company was always around.
Gene Berman had run Fillmore’s Costume Emporium for fifteen years, fifteen years since he’d purchased the store from Mr. Drake Fillmore himself. When Gene first bought the shop, he envisioned the costume store as a stepping-stone. Gene became a business owner at the ripe age of twenty-five, but although he loved his job, he had originally purchased the store for different reasons.
A secret he guarded alone, a career on Broadway was once Gene’s true ambition. Years before he’d studied in Chicago. After that, Gene even spent one summer as a set decorator in New York. The only problem was, New York felt too large for Gene, too exotic for his palate.
That was why Gene bought the Emporium. He hadn’t dreamed of owning a costume shop, but contracts secured at local playhouses kept him within reach of his passion. The Emporium kept his hopes alive, covered up, but underneath still there.
Taking Jar Jar as an omen, Gene started shutting down. After flipping the closed sign and locking the door he made his way to the register. Besides Jar Jar, Gene’s day was relegated to an old lady buying costume jewelry, a gay couple arguing over who should be Starsky and who should be Hutch, and a young, homeless woman who had browsed for nearly half-an-hour before asking if she could wash her hair in the bathroom sink.
Gene had allowed the courtesy, and after the woman finished, he’d given her ten dollars. Between the utilities and the property tax, the salary he was supposed to receive, Gene’s day was a loss. But he didn’t worry. Worrying never did a thing.
Debating whether to vacuum, Gene heard the sound of the front door. Only one other person had a set of keys to the Emporium. Gene hadn’t expected a visit. The door closed as Meg let herself in.
“Excuse me, sir?” asked Meg. “Do you have any baby costumes? It’s not for me, of course, but if you have any adult sized diapers that’d be swell.”
Gene chuckled as Meg stared in full sincerity. Still wearing her Starbucks apron stinking of roasted beans, Meg’s pudgy face, soft and doughy, glowed beet red from the summer heat. Meg’s hands rested on her hips, and although Gene could tell she tried hiding it, the walk over had left her short of breath.
“Adult Baby Costumes,” answered Gene, “We keep those next to the biker gear, right behind the ass-less chaps.”
Meg relinquished her poker face. Her laugh boomed, bordering confrontational. It filled the space of the store. Gene had heard Meg’s chuckle so many times that the laugh had become endearing…well, almost.
“I didn’t think I’d see you tonight,” said Gene. “Thought you were closing up.”
Meg shrugged in indifference as she told Gene how she’d left one of the other baristas in charge. As assistant manager it was Meg’s duty to close on weeknights, but more often than not she called her days early.
“So excuse me,” she sassed, “But didn’t I see the closed sign hanging out front? Sounds to me like the pot calling the kettle black. Besides, we had this one lady, and believe me, if you saw her, you would’ve left early as well.”
Meg launched into a story about soymilk lattes, about jerk customers and judgmental baristas. It was a story Gene had heard.
Still, Gene nodded at all the right times, even mustering a laugh as Meg let an unanswerable question hang, but he was focused on shutting down. There was a new episode of Survivor on television that night, and Gene knew that if he could get done fast enough, he’d be able to make it home in time.
Windexing the checkout counter, Gene watched Meg wander through the aisles. Fluorescent lighting highlighted her curves; flabs that threatened to push through her cheap black shirt. It wasn’t like Gene was judging. His curly hair, bundled like Ramen noodles, had grayed years ago. His paunch had grown as his frame reduced. Meg had seen these changes. Meg had seen them and stayed.
For ten years Meg Pollard had visited Gene’s shop. Throughout that time they’d developed a close friendship. Nothing more had come from it. Both Gene and Meg were single, but neither one had had the courage to push things further.
From across the store Gene saw Meg pick up a princess hat, it’s pink top rising into a cylindrical cone. Meg slipped the hat on her head, and turning to courtesy, assumed her role.
“Good evening fair sir. I am a noble woman and I’ve become dreadfully lost. Might you know any good knights to accompany me home?”
Reaching into a bin, Meg grabbed a gold and grey wand dangling sparkly tassels, waving it through the air in girlish circles. She stood waiting, a come hither glare on her face, but Gene wasn’t in the mood. Something about the lizard mask, about his day, kept him from joining in.
“I’m sorry m’lady but I’m afraid there are no knights here tonight. Maybe if you come back tomorrow Lancelot will be waiting.”
Meg made a pouty face as she snapped her wand in disappointment. Putting the princess hat back, she left Gene to close as she skipped throughout the costumes.
After cleaning the counter and vacuuming the entryway, Gene was ready to call it. Grabbing his deposit, he began making his way back towards his cluttered office.
It had been some time since Gene last saw Meg, somewhere by the garment wall as she jabbed at tie-dye colored prints with a plastic sword. Gene never felt scared inside his shop, but knowing that somewhere out there, most likely in disguise, was another person?
“Meg, you better not scare me,” he warned. “I’m not in the mood. I promise that we can dress up tomorrow, but if you try something…”
Gene let the threat trail off. His nasally voice betrayed any chance he had of sounding tough, but as he hurried back to the office, Meg didn’t appear.
Reaching the Murder Wall and finding no Meg, Gene set his moneybag on a half-empty shelf of Iron Man masks. Passing through Incredible Hulk hands and Afro Wigs, he began working his way back across the shop. Had Meg left because of his refusal to join her make believe? Had she been so upset? Gene was halfway across the store when a soft sob, issued from behind the racks of disco era clothing, stopped him in his track.
“Meg, where are you? I didn’t mean to snap. I was just trying to close up.”
Gene tiptoed around the clothing rack as he finally found Meg, her back supporting, thick soled shoes sticking out from where she plopped across the floor.
Tears were evident by the shine on Meg’s cheeks. Gene had seen Meg cry before, but new to their arrangement was the baby doll gripped between hands. When Gene stopped, Meg wiped her face as she tried pulling herself together.
“I’m sorry Gene, I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I guess I’ve been feeling lonely lately, and when I saw this doll, it all just kind of hit me.”
Gene had little experience with intimacy. The requirements of soothing another person, of being there when all they needed was a shoulder, when it came to those skills Gene was as unqualified as he was unsure. As was the case, he tripped over his words.
“Oh, Meg. Don’t be hard on yourself. You’ve got so much going.”
The words felt wrong leaving Gene’s mouth, but once said he couldn’t take them back. Meg’s face showed how wrong they’d been, but it her was response that cut deepest of all.
“Gene, I’m thirty-six years old. I’ve never had a real boyfriend, and ten years of coming here has left me nowhere. If I died tomorrow no one would care. There’s not one person in the whole world who would notice.”
A fresh sea of tears washed down Meg’s face as her hands dropped into her lap. The baby doll, an accessory Gene rarely sold, rolled off her legs and landed on the floor.
“What are we doing?” she asked. “Do you ever wonder what it’s all about? If pouring coffee and making fun of weirdo’s is as much as we have coming, I don’t know how much more I can take.”
Gene slid the doll aside and sat down next to Meg. He could feel her sobs as her shoulders rubbed against his own, but he didn’t put his arm around her.
“No one plans on where they end up,” counseled Gene, “But when we get there, all we can do is make the most of what we find.”
Gene patted Meg’s thigh, feeling her warm flesh through her black jeans. There was a pull between them, a magnetism that stayed Gene’s palm. Stronger than the pull was the lifetime of inaction. Gene removed his hand before things got weird, and as he did, Meg sighed in agreement.
“Oh Gene, I guess you’re right. It just gets hard doing it all alone.”
Trying out empathy, Gene promised Meg that as long as they were friends, she would never be alone. Meg smiled when she made Gene promise. Gene crossed his heart and hoped to die.
Helping Meg to her feet, Gene nudged the doll under the rack. Meg was coming round, but Gene had an idea to help her forget her troubles for good.
“Hey, I’ve got some old costumes I just took out of storage in my office. What do you say we try them out?”
Meg looked as if she still had something to say, something she was unwilling to relinquish. Only when Gene nodded towards the office, her idea quickly faded.
“Oh Gene, your right. But you have to wear the knight’s costume. It’s not every day I get to be a princess. I’ve spent enough time being me.”
Gene felt happy to oblige, and within an hour, Meg had all but forgotten why she’d become upset. Frankenstein, the Flying Nun, and Scooby Doo helped cover up her worries, because at Fillmore’s Costume Emporium, it was always possible to become someone else.
Tomorrow Meg and Gene would return to normal. Meg would make coffee and wipe tables and Gene would pass another day dreaming over Broadway. But inside the Emporium, surrounded by people’s fantasies, that night Gene and Meg would become something more.
Pretending kept them going, but to where, neither one would say.