Flash Fiction by Peter Cherches
All of a sudden I realized I was out without a mask. Damn. I often forget to put one on, but I almost always catch myself before I leave the building, and I immediately go back upstairs to remedy the situation. But this time I was many blocks away from home. I felt very self-conscious. I’m not carrying my weight in the social contract, I thought. People were looking at me askance. People give me all sorts of looks all the time, but askance not so often. Well, now I was getting askance up the wazoo. I felt like a pariah.
“Pariah!” I heard the mob shout. “Blasphemer of the social contract!” I heard one man in tattered rags say as he paused from self-mortification to make his contempt known to me.
The mob carried torches. They were faceless. They had heads, heads of all colors, with hair atop, but no faces, just smooth, blank skin. But then I noticed that when they screamed at me a little hole where the mouth should be would open up. “Enemy of the people!” they screamed through their little holes. Wait, who were they to scream? None of them were wearing masks.
The maskless, faceless mob surrounded me, taunting me with their torches, coming ever closer. They’re planning to incinerate me, I thought, horrified.
And I woke up with my heart pounding through my chest, breathing with difficulty. Then I realized I was wearing a surgical mask over my nose and mouth. I remembered: I had crashed after a long walk and forgotten to take it off.
I took the mask off. I’ll have to throw it away now, I realized, when I noticed the charred edges.
The day the victor was called, the streets of my neighborhood were filled with people cheering, honking horns, clanging pots and pans, cowbells, raised arms, fists, V signs, waving at honking cars, waving at each other, hoisting babies, hoisting signs, jubilant, exuberant. Every kind of mask was on display, blue surgical, white N95, bandanas, tubes, cloth masks of every color and pattern. The dancing in the streets was restrained, but everybody seemed to have a bit of a jig in their step.
Conspicuous by its absence, alas, was hugging.
I don’t usually pick up calls from unfamiliar numbers, I let them go to voice mail, but I was expecting a call back from Unemployment to discuss a problem with my claim, so I answered. “Hello?”
I was taken aback by the form of address. “Dr. Cherches?”
“Well,” I said, “technically I’m Dr. Cherches, but I never use the title. My doctorate is in American Studies.”
“Oh,” the man said, “I assumed you were a psychiatrist, or a psychologist or something.”
“Why would you assume that?”
“The nature of your research.”
“But my scholarly research was about lectures in the 19th century.”
“No, I mean your recent research.”
“My recent research?”
“Yes, the research you discuss in your article titled “Mask-Wearing and the Crisis of Self-Identity,” in The International Journal of Identity Studies.”
“I wrote no such article.”
“Oh, I assumed it was you,” the man said. “The bio said, ‘Dr. Cherches makes his home in Brooklyn, New York,’ and you’re the only Peter Cherches I could find in Brooklyn, New York.”
“As far as I know I’m the only Peter Cherches in Brooklyn,” I said. “The International Journal of Identity Studies, you say?”
“I’ve never heard of it. Which is not to say that questions of identity don’t interest me.”
“Well,” the man said, “I guess there’s been some kind of mix-up.”
“I suppose,” I said. “When did the article come out?”
“It’s not out yet. It’s in the issue for next spring. I was sent a PDF to review in my journal, Studies in Identity Studies. I found your thesis and conclusions very interesting, but I have a few questions.”
“It’s not my thesis and conclusions,” I said.
“Oh,” the man said. “I thought you were putting me on about not being the author.”
“Why would I put you on?”
“Well,” he said, “everything I’ve read about you concurs that you’re the most unreliable of narrators.”
“I suppose I used to be,” I said. “But wearing a mask in public for the past eight months has made me rethink my narrative gambits.”
“That’s exactly the part of the article I wanted to ask you about,” he said. Once he told me that I decided to play along, and we had a very pleasant and engaging chat about my article. He did most of the talking and I chimed in with the occasional “Yes,” or “Not really,” as fit my fancy of the moment.
Dr. Cherches. You know, the title is starting to grow on me after all.
My doorbell rang. “Who is it?” I asked.
I recognized the voice. It was the polar bear from down the hall. I put a mask on and opened the door. Damn, he wasn’t wearing a mask. I was about to tell him to put a mask on if he wanted to speak to me, but then I realized he just had one of those surgical masks on backwards, so the white side was showing.
I breathed a sigh of relief and fogged up my glasses.
“So, what can I do for you?” I asked.
“Do you have any ice?” he asked. “I’m all out.”
“I’m afraid not. I hardly ever use ice cubes. I used to have a manual defrost freezer, and then I always had ice cubes, but when I replaced it with a self-defrosting one the ice in the trays just disappears over time, poof, and now I have two empty trays in the freezer.”
“Tell me about it,” the polar bear said. “Progress is a bitch.”
Called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly, Peter Cherches is a writer, singer and lyricist. Over the past 40 years, his work has appeared in scores of magazines, anthologies and websites, including Transatlantic Review, Harper’s, Bomb, North American Review, Semiotext(e), and Poetry 180. Poet Billy Collins wrote, “To Gödel, Escher, and Bach we might consider adding Peter Cherches.” Whistler’s Mother’s Son is his most recent collection from Pelekinesis.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.