A Father's Mask
By Dan Moreau
Followed by Q&A
You are riding in a busload of people from Harare to the provinces. Your armpits are coated with sweat and red dust. You are sitting right above the wheel well so your knees are up around your shoulders. You push up on the windowsill as hard as you can, but to no avail.
The woman next to you sees you struggling with the window. She taps the glass a couple of times with her fist, then pulls it open with ease.
“Thanks,” you say.
She smiles triumphantly and sits back down. Her skin has the dull hue of burnished brass. She is wearing a green and yellow polka-dot wrap. Her cheekbones are high and prominent so that her face forms a triangle. Your mother always told you to beware of women with high cheekbones.
As the bus pulls away from the depot, away from the porters, the beggars and the hawkers, away from the shouting and the confusion, you try to settle in and relax. You haven’t slept since Dakar where you changed planes. Your flight was delayed because the pilot was late. You sat for hours on the blistering runway, cracks in the tarmac where weeds grew. When the pilot finally did show, he looked like he had just emerged from a three-day drunk. His eyes, yellow and bloodshot; his tie loose around his neck; his cap cocked at an angle on his head. You gazed around the cabin in the hopes of seeing your worry and concern reflected in the faces of your fellow passengers. But no one betrayed the slightest inkling of consternation. For this was Africa, every journey a small miracle.
The bus climbs onto the main highway out of the capitol, trailing a huge cloud of orange dust. The wheels rumble beneath your seat. It feels like you are sitting on top of a jackhammer. Now you know why the ticket vendor smiled so broadly when he took your money. Next time, on the return trip, you will ask for a seat near the front. Slowly, you are learning.
Before you left your mother gave you a shoebox of old letters and faded Polaroids. This is your inheritance. Paper, pictures and ink.
“Is that your father?” the woman says.
You nod. You are holding one of the Polaroids in your lap, studying your father’s face like a map for clues.
“He’s very handsome.”
In it, he is twenty-four or twenty-five, not much older than you are now. He is crouching on the ground, as if this was the only position that would fit his six-foot-four frame inside the four borders of the picture. His mouth is frozen into a half grin, the antecedent to a smile not seen to its conclusion.
Your seatmate shuffles through the other pictures. She smiles. “Is this you?”
You squint at the picture she’s holding up at you. It is the only picture of you and your father together, taken during one of his rare visits. You are dressed up as He-Man for Halloween, muscles painted onto your skinny arms. Your father is standing beside you, his hand on top of your head, which barely reaches his waist.
“You were a very cute boy,” she says.
Were. Past tense. Not cute anymore.
“Where is your mother?”
“My mother? She lives in San Diego.”
“No. I mean, where are the pictures of your mother?”
This has never occurred to you before, that of all the pictures you carry around, none are of your mother. You put the pictures back in their box, which you stow securely in your backpack at your feet.
You remember that when you were five your father took you to see 101 Dalmatians. It was your mother’s idea, so the two of you, virtual strangers, could get to know each other better. After your father bought the tickets, you asked him for popcorn. You never forgot his response, which haunts you to this day. Don’t be greedy, he said. Now, whenever you pile your plate with too much food, whenever you take another bite of food even though you’re not hungry, you hear your father’s disapproving voice. Don’t be greedy.
“Your father sounds like my father. He sounds like an African,” the woman says with a laugh.
The African savannah, the Africa of a picture book, a palette of green, gold and cerulean, flits by your window. You take a picture first of the landscape, then by holding your outstretched arm outside the window, of the side of the bus.
Remy, the woman beside you, (that’s her name, Remy) offers to take your picture. “Smile!” she says.
Cute, you think. But not cute anymore.
The bus is leaving. Remy waves at you from the window. On the bus, you promised to write each other, but as soon as you exchanged addresses it felt false. You know you will never write, nor will she. Still, you appreciate the gesture.
You shoulder your backpack and turn away from the main road toward the village. The first thing you see is a café. Not really a café—though you call it one in your head—it would be more aptly described as a shack with a tin corrugated roof, a few plastic chairs and some oilcloth covered tables. A crate of empty Coca-Cola bottles sits in the corner. Attempts to spruce up the place—a calendar of kittens on the wall, a broken clock and a vase of plastic flowers—only lend it a more depressing and defeated air.
You sit at one of the tables and swat flies off the oilcloth. You order a Coke. It comes in a bottle with a bent straw. It’s warm and flat. Flipping through the pages of your notebook, you ask the waiter, an expressionless man in a long-tailed shirt who moves about with a sloth-like torpor, if he knows Kitu. He nods. He will take you to where Kitu lives.
Kitu lives in a straw-thatched hut on the edge of the village. The packed dirt by the hut’s entrance has been recently swept. The waiter tells you to stay here while he goes inside. You stand in the fading sunlight, counting the number of surrounding dwellings. Numbers give you comfort, impose some order on the place. You count fifteen huts. Then you hear voices, a shuffling of feet.
A man of indeterminate age comes out. He could be forty or seventy, depending on the kind of life he has led. His teeth are small and yellow. His kinky salt and pepper hair is cropped close to his scalp. He smiles.
Inside, there are a table and two chairs. Also, a stuffed pallet for sleeping, a stove and a few scattered books. The waiter leaves, but not before you drop a few shillings into his open palm. He thanks you. Kitu fills two shot glasses with clear liquid from an unlabelled bottle. You try not to gag as the moonshine scalds your throat and stomach. It tastes like Drano. Seeing your reaction, Kitu grins.
You put the shoebox on the table and take out the pictures. Kitu looks through them, placing each one at the back of the stack. He says:
“I received your letter. I didn’t think you’d come, but I’m glad you did. It would’ve made your father proud. Your mother”—he shakes his head—“she never liked it here.
“When she was pregnant with you,” he continues, “your father wanted you to be born here, at the local hospital. If it was good enough for the Africans, then it was good enough for his wife and unborn son. Your father was always saying things like that, making sweeping statements. Your mother didn’t see it that way. Africa scared her. She was afraid of dying in the hospital, of losing you during childbirth. She went back to America with you in her belly. Your father stayed.”
Kitu pauses. In spite of your protests, he pours you and himself another shot. You don’t think your constitution will withstand another one. When Kitu realizes you won’t touch the stuff, he downs his and your shot both. His eyes begin to glaze over and his lips to flub together. His speech becomes slurred.
“We didn’t think your father would stay long after that, with a wife and son in the U.S. But he did. The only times he ever left were to visit you, but he always came back. He always kept his promise to the village. In that sense, he was a man of his word. He did a lot of good things for the village. Started a day school and an irrigation project so we could compete with the Dutch. Some people thought he was a troublemaker, thought he was secretly in cahoots with Dutch farmers.
“After him, the Peace Corps sent others, but none of them ever measured up to your father. Some of your father’s successors were quite comical, in fact. One man never left his hut, for fear of contracting malaria. Another tried to introduce a sport among our youth that involved flinging a ball into a goal from a pouch attached at the end of a wooden stick. He spent months in his hut carving these sticks and fashioning rawhide pouches that would cradle the ball. He even made a ball out of a cow’s gall bladder. But the sport never caught on. He tried instructing the youth in the fundamentals of the game, but after a few minutes they would lose interest and start kicking around the gall bladder ball. We still have the strange sticks. Some people use them to scatter bird nests out of their huts, others to pick fruit off trees. So they are not completely useless.”
Kitu notices the disinterest in your eyes. “Well, it is getting late. We should go.” He stands up and you follow him out of the hut.
* * *
The sun is dipping below the horizon. Along it, pockets of warm air are vacillating, shimmering like fish scales. Wisps of smoke are pluming up from the tops of huts. Children are playing soccer in their bare feet with a ball worn down to its stitching. Dust rises up from the field, the goal posts marked by a pair of flip-flops. You try to picture them playing lacrosse, chasing after each other with wooden sticks. But something about that picture is wrong, flawed like the dimensions of a child’s drawing: people as tall as houses, long straight lines of green grass, a yellow sun, serrated at the edges. Kitu walks ahead of you, his head up, shoulders straight back.
The grave, at the edge of the village, is marked by a rectangle of bricks and a pair of whittled branches tied together to form a cross. There is no gravestone, name or dates. Kitu stands flanked at your side.
“Your father loved you more than anything. That’s all he would talk about. When he died, it was a sad day for all of us. Everyone in the village attended his funeral, even those who didn’t like him. It was especially sad for me. We were like brothers. Whenever I was in his hut, if he noticed me staring at something, a book, a pen or a shirt of his, he’d say, ‘Go ahead. Take it. I don’t need it anymore.’ I knew he was lying about his not needing it anymore. The thing was usually brand new. But he wouldn’t let me leave unless I took the bloody thing. That was your father. Take your time. I will see you back at the hut.”
Alone at your father’s grave, you have a thousand questions but no easy answers. Despite the letters and the pictures, the man is unknowable. Even from talking to your mother you get no clear sense of him. A month after he died, a package arrived for you in the mail. Inside it, carefully wrapped in bundles of newspaper, was a mask carved out of aged dark wood. And this note written across a single line:
DEAR SON, THINKING OF YOU. DAD
You ran your fingers along the contours of the mask. The lips were bulbous, cartoonish almost, the face narrow and elongated, the mouth shaped into a gaping O. The postmark was more than a month old. When you brought the mask up to your face, you could smell the deep ripe pungent earth of Africa. You could see your father’s village. You could see him being dragged from his hut in the middle of the night. You could see the flashes of gunfire in the distance. You could hear the deafening silence that ensued as the murderers rode off on their motor scooters in the dark. Then your mother came home, saw you with the mask on and said, Ben, take that awful thing off your face!
The earth has swallowed up the sun whole now. You pick your way back to the village under a blanket of darkness riveted with stars. The night is complete and utter. It is the African night you have read about in stories, a night in which men morph into animals and commit savage acts, a night in which the shaman dances around the camp fire, flames licking at his heels. Inside his hut, Kitu is nodding off at the table by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. His shadow jumps on the wall behind him. His eyelids are twittering, revealing the yellow whiteness of his orbs. He is dreaming. The bottle of moonshine on the table is uncapped. You reach for the lid and screw it back on. You drape a blanket over Kitu’s hunched shoulders and step outside. You are already thinking about tomorrow. You will rise with the sun. You will give what little money you have to Kitu. You will ride in the bus back to the capital. You will call your mother from the hotel and you will say, Mom, I’m coming home.
Dan Moreau's fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Redivider, Descant, The Lifted Brow, and Slice Magazine. He has been a finalist for the Micro Award, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. He lives and teaches in Chicago.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: I wrote this story three years ago when I was going through a second person kick. Lorrie Moore gets blamed for a lot of the second person stories that turn up in workshop, but I think it can be extremely liberating to use it every once in a while.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Lake Tahoe, a close second to Big Sur. Why? Because I still haven't
found a way to describe how blue the water is.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: Mac all the way.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I bang my head against the wall until the neighbors start complaining.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: To this day, I don't feel comfortable with the label "writer." It's
always sounded a tad pretentious to me. Whether you're a writer or
not, you still have to earn a living. I make mine very poorly by