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Michael Czyzniejewski

Finding My Werewolf Mask in the
Hide-a-Bed, July 4th, 1994

Of course I had to wear it to the barbecue. You don’t run into something like that and not take it as an omen. Savannah’s family didn’t care much for me anyway, and since the feeling was mutual, acting like a jackass would be more fun than an M-80 in the potato salad. There’d be lots of kids scrambling about, cousins and nieces and nephews and shit, and if I was going to top last year’s display, getting drunk wasn’t going to cut it by itself. Savannah would be pissed at me for a week or two, maybe longer, but things between us hadn’t been going so hot, not since my tryst with the stylist from her shop. I looked at the werewolf mask as a good thing. Wearing it to her family’s big shindig could do us some good, start a dialogue. Really, when I thought about how we’d been getting along, things could only get better.

I didn’t wear the mask until I got to her folks’. Savannah never would have gotten in the car with me, even if she saw it on the back seat. Plus, I had to drive, and those things aren’t really made with peripheral vision in mind. I jocked the mask, stashing it when I snuck out for a smoke, later driving off as if nothing was up. On the way, Savannah warned me about drinking too much, told me we were on our last rope, how one more incident would do it. I didn’t know which incident she was referring to, last year’s Fourth adventure or the stylist with the little ass, but I figured either would have done it. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing the mask was under my seat, and when Savannah asked me what was so funny, I told her about something I’d seen on the TV. That was plenty easy for her to believe.

Savannah’s old man, for a rich prick lawyer, knew how to throw a bash. Some guys prided themselves on their outdoor cooking skills, wearing the apron and turning the meat with the big tongs, but not Jerry Lee Henderson. The day before, he had cooks come in and set up these steel drums cut into smokers. One had chicken, one had steaks, one had ribs. If that wasn’t enough to make me salivate, about a thousand ears of corn sat stewing in this giant barrel of butter. A guy he knew from the Army was setting up a fireworks display, just for us, probably bigger than what the city had planned. A band played oldies, and was doing a pretty good job with "Runaround Sue." There was a canopy. Chairs sat in rows, padded in red, white, and blue. There was booze, two kegs of Heineken, one of Miller Lite. And wine—four different colors, poured by a dude in a white tuxedo jacket. When I was a kid, I was lucky to steal a brick of firecrackers from the Woolworth’s. Savannah had certainly seen the opposite side of the tracks. These people needed some fun they couldn’t buy in a store, or order around like dogs.

I couldn’t put the mask on, not right away. This was the Fourth of July, Tallahassee, Florida, and you didn’t walk around with a furry rubber mask on your face. The weather on the radio said it would hit 98, but in the swamp, that meant like 120. Wolf time would wait for two things: for it to get dark, and for me to put one on. I could chill out in the mean time, work on the latter, talk with the guy in the tux jacket, sip some wine, pump some beers. Savannah would be off socializing with the women, and the men, they knew better than to fraternize with me. I’d said some things the previous year, what I thought about NAFTA and the good Lord Jesus Christ, and from what Savannah had been telling me, most of the men, including Jerry Lee, thought maybe she was slumming.

I got away without talking to anyone for a few hours, just some hello, how are yous in the food line, an excuse me when I camped in front of the bathroom door. Some lady I’d never seen asked about Savannah’s and my wedding plans. Since the stylist, I don’t think our plans involved a wedding, but to be honest, probably not before, either. Later on, other women I didn’t know propped the same question. Mixing wine with the beer might have made me paranoid, but I had the feeling everyone was giving me the evil eye, that they knew my secret, knew what would happen at nightfall. But for the most part, I was able to blend in, just another guest at the party, a friendly face in a ball cap and T-shirt, probably the guy who set up the canopy and chairs, maybe one of the neighbor’s friends from school.

As soon as the fireworks started, it was plenty dark enough, and when I tried to get out of one of the padded folding chairs, I fell face-first into a cooler of ice. It was time to sneak to the car.

Upon putting on the mask, I remembered how uncomfortable the damned thing was. The previous Halloween, I’d gone as the Grim Reaper, just a black cape and a dull sickle from the shed. The year before that, the werewolf. I wore a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and the mask. Savannah wanted to rip up a cheap wig, glue some hair to the backs of my hands, but I didn’t care enough about Halloween to start attaching shit to my skin. The mask was good. I was a werewolf, everybody would figure me out. It wasn’t like her friends were going to look at me with my bare people hands—the mask covering my face—and wonder what the fuck I was supposed to be. Savannah called me a half-assed werewolf, but she’d called me worse, and when I told her Tinkerbell was a rotten whore, it was time to go to the party. This was our happy era, too, before things really started getting ugly, before we meant the things we said.

When I got back to the fireworks show in the mask, nobody noticed. Not one guest, not even the kids. Everyone was looking up in the sky, watching the colored sparks in the backdrop, rockets flying above the trees and past the moon, which was only half-full. I thought about how cool it would have been if the whole thing were there, full, me with my mask. Over 100 people attended the barbecue, and as I stood behind them, I started wondering how anybody gets to know 100 people, let alone wants them at their house on a holiday. Then I realized it. Most of these people were Jerry Lee’s clients, all tax-evaders and DUI-dodgers and other crooks. Maybe I had more in common with these people than I gave them credit for.

After about ten minutes and five grand worth of fireworks, I got another beer and wandered off. There was a stream running behind the Henderson property, a piss patch, really, a leak in a pipe the old man had renamed Henderson Creek. The house: Henderson Commons. The street leading in: Henderson Parkway. That was the kind of man Jerry Lee was, had to own everything, dip it in his name and let it dry, even bodies of fucking water. This had always led me to believe that Savannah and I would never last, that he’d never let it happen. Either he’d kick off, or he’d see me gone. If either happened, I couldn’t say that I’d have been all that sad, but until then, I was going to have my fun.

Full of doe snot and fish shit, at least the Creek was isolated. I took off my shoes and stuck my toes in the water to cool down. As soon as the fireworks fizzled out, my plan was to emerge from the treeline, stumble toward the kegs, maybe even put my head back and howl. People would be saying their good-byes and taking their doggie bags, and I’d give them something to think about on the drive home. They’d reconsider their plans the next year maybe. At the very least, it would scare the piss out of the kids.

As I tried to take the mask off, which took some real pulling, I heard a voice tell me to leave it on. "It’s sexy," the voice said, coming from behind me. Since the mask wasn’t coming off anyway, I played along. Unfamiliar, the voice was alluring, a female, and not Savannah. I turned to see who was there, who was with me, but I’d fucked up the eye hole alignment trying to peel the thing from my head. I couldn’t see dick. The voice got closer to me, kept saying how she like my teeth, asking if they were sharp enough to draw blood.

"Only one way to find out," I said, but with my nose pressed flat by the latex, I sounded like Goofy, Mickey’s big dog pal.

I could feel the grass moving under me as the girl—her voice said she was young—approached. Before touching the mask, she walked a lap around me, asking me why I wasn’t watching the fireworks with the rest of the crowd.

"Canines don’t like loud noises," I said. Not only did my voice sound stupid, but I was taking the whole werewolf thing too far. If this woman would’ve run screaming, left me to suffocate inside an $18 Halloween mask, I would have deserved nothing less.

Instead, I felt pressure against the mask, something inside the mold of the mouth. The girl was sticking her hand inside, feeling the teeth. She ran one finger across the upper bridge, then moved down to the bottom and did the same. Her other hand found its way against my chest, pressed flat, worked its way down my V-neck and over my heart. She pressed her palm hard against me and moved the other hand around the face, to the back of my neck. She pulled me to her and kissed me. She kissed the fucking werewolf mask, anybody who would give a damn staring up at the sky back at the house. I’d had my share of ladies in the past, but this kind of thing didn’t happen to me very often. Savannah would die if she found out, but with how shitty everything else had been going, I was due. Most of the time, the dog bites you, but once in a while, you bite the dog.

Things elevated from there in good speed, as the girl, and her hand, made their way south. She kissed my chest where her hand had been, underneath my shirt, rubbing at my stomach and squeezing at my ribs. Soon she fumbled with the drawstrings on my running shorts. My breathing got deep, the mask choking me to death. With a good, hard pull, I was able to remove it from my head, my fingernails slashing hunks of flesh out of my neck in the process. The air, as hot and thick as it was, felt like a refrigerator. I took a deep, cool breath. Never again would I complain about going to a Henderson family party, I thought to myself, and looked down to meet my new best friend.

Crouched like a catcher behind the plate was Charlotte, Savannah’s little sister, 15 the last time I checked, 16 if I was lucky, 14 just as easy. She didn’t perform like someone so young, but still, I stumbled backward and pulled my shorts back up, tripping over the werewolf mask and falling on my ass.

"Charlotte, it’s Cyrus, Savannah’s boyfriend."

Charlotte stood up and offered me her hand, helped me to my feet. She looked different than the last time I’d seen her. Her hair was dyed black and cropped short, she had a lot of eyeliner on, and her left ear was pierced about seven times. Any way you dressed her, she was still jailbait, and Cyrus didn’t play that.

"I know," she said. "I thought you knew, too."

The cool air was feeling less cool, and the booze swirling in my gut was making a play for my throat. Charlotte wore a flannel shirt unbuttoned to a black bra, black-and-white striped tights under a miniskirt, with green combat boots up to her knees. I hadn’t seen her since the last Christmas Eve, and the only thing I remember was her mother bitching about the double piercing in her right ear. In hindsight, not a good strategy on Mom Henderson’s part. This girl used to play volleyball and run for student council. Now she looked like MTV after midnight. Once, I’d sold her some pot, laced it with hash for the extra bite. Things had obviously elevated from there. I was one squeal away from a statutory rape case, and Jerry Lee knew every judge, DA, and crooked pig in town. Putting me away was several birds with one stone, a true gift from his god.

But selling me out did not seem to be Charlotte’s intention. Instead, she declared the following: "I wouldn’t say anything if I were you. Who do you think they’ll believe?" She followed this with, "Sucks about Kurt Cobain, huh?" Then she walked away, toward the house. Every few seconds, her form would light up with the sky, a picture flash for every explosion, making me wonder how well we’d been seen from the house, what the fireworks revealed to the rest of the party.

I stayed by the creek for another half hour, waited for most of the cars to pull away, for the real canopy and chair guy to come and strike the set. I dipped my toes in the drink, as planned, and sat on a willow root, sweating my dick off and needing a beer. As soon as the coast calmed down, I put my shoes back on, but not my socks, and set forth. Either I’d run into Savannah screaming at me for getting lost, or Savannah’s father and his gun. Half of me wanted Jerry Lee and his coon rifle. I couldn’t stand Savannah’s bitching, but more than that, I was sick of the whole goddamned thing, her family, the Hide-a-Bed, my life. I’d squandered everything up to that point, missed some real opportunities, and in general, been a fuck. If my time was up, if I was going to take one in the heart, I couldn’t complain. At that point, it bothered me more that I’d ripped my shirt somehow, probably on a branch, right down the middle of my back.

I walked toward the voices, the entire lawn lit by tiki torches, barely sober enough to determine which cluster of lights was the house, which was the stars. I heard someone say my name once, again, then a third time, then it stopped. When I got closer, I could make out Savannah next to her father, mother, and a large, male figure that could have been anybody, probably the local sheriff, maybe some client with a violent past. Nobody was talking, but they were all facing me, watching my gait, hoping I’d trip on a divot and break my neck. I walked with deliberation, ready to face whatever they had in store. I clenched the werewolf mask in my hand, thought about pulling it on, but was afraid it’d get stuck again. I should have left it by the stream, but was glad I didn’t. It was mine.

Across town, where the back yards weren’t called grounds and the houses didn’t have names, a pathetic, crappy rocket trailed pink and white across the sky. The whole thing lasted about two seconds. I couldn’t help but think that this one rocket, all two second’s worth, was the highlight of some poor family’s holiday, how they’d spent a week’s grocery money on it, that the kids’d been waiting for two weeks to blow it off. Within a minute, it would hit them that life was full of disappointments like that rocket, that they’d shot their wad and it was no great shakes. Whatever had been going on in their lives, they were hoping this rocket would make it better, that all of their problems would burn away in a flash of color and a loud pop. For their sakes, I hoped they would realize how stupid they’d been, how nothing you have to wait on ever makes your life better--it just means you’ve spent your life wanting something else. Everyone figures out, sooner or later, that you should just blow the rocket off as soon as you get it, that you can always get another rocket, and even if you don’t, you’ll live. Things never really change because of a special day, because of some pretty light up in the sky.

Michael Czyzniejewski was born and raised in Chicago. He currently teaches at Bowling Green State University, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief of Mid-American Review. His stories have recently appeared in Northwest Review, Witness, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and American Literary Review.

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