Descant - February 01, 1983
20 DESCANT (Texas Christian University), Vol. 27 (Fa1l-Winter 1982-83) Steven Dimeo WINNER OF the $100 1983 FRANK O'CONNOR AWARD
Barry Menashe kept his costume a secret right up to the night of his masquerade party.
He was always doing something like that. His parties weren't just parÂ¬ties; they were events. Not in the Great Gatsby way because Barry, like the rest of us in our rather old-fashioned hometown of Eland Meadows, wasn't rich so much as he was comfortable. But flamboyance and mystery his parties always had those. I suppose most people went for the generous booze - Barry had everyone mix their own - and those lavish hor d’oeurves that his wife Sally served up.
Nobody took the time to understand that Barry had made these parÂ¬ties something of an art form in themselves: he truly meant them to be imaginative escapes from the disappointments of our daily jobs, temÂ¬porary worlds in which we could be reasonably free and happy with other people and feel that we really amounted to something after all. Fantasy had to figure large in our lives somewhere to keep us sane. I think Barry considered himself the self-appointed curator who refused to leave buried those childhood tendencies toward flights of fancy. The truth was Barry had always been, first and foremost, an artist, and his talents weren't exactly vital to the drafting department of the Eland Meadows City Hall.
In keeping with the originality of his spring scavenger hunt and the search for "buried treasure" on the grounds at their summer patio get-together, this was not to be your ordinary masquerade party. Everyone, he insisted had to come as some fantasy figure - someone they could never be in reality. No fair donning worn carpenter overalls or moth-eaten military or nursing uniforms from closets or attics We had to come as somebody we had never been but might like to be - comic book superheroes, legendary or mythical personages, cookie monsters, and the like.
Melanie and I weren't too inventive, I'm afraid. Neither of us wanted to take the time and money to make complicated costumes. So, dressed up in my black "funeral suit," as Melanie called it I slipped on one of those excruciatingly hot rubber full-head devil masks, while Melanie wore her white wedding dress and safety-pinned on two glitter-laden pieces of cardboard for wings, which, of course, hung askew. Though everybody else's get-ups seemed better made, in the company of the inevitable Darth Vader. Tweetie Bird, Batman, Julius Caesar and the
Great Pumpkin, we didn't feel too out of place.
No other masquerade anyway compared to Barry's. The first to arrive, Melanie and I were speechless when Barry greeted us at the French doors on the portico of his house. "Perfect!" he laughed
at our combination and stepped back to let us through. I could smell the gin on his breath. As usual, he had sampled some of the liquor before the party officially began. But it wasn't really his breath that bothered us; it was that "outfit." Barry wore absolutely nothing but his Burt Lancaster smile. I coughed Melanie surprised me by actually blushing. Although men are loath to admit it, the first thing we do in locker rooms is glance down as unobtrusively as possible to see how others measure up. This time I tried to force myself to look away. Nonchalance did not come easy. Things only got worse when the other guests started arriving. I saw the startled stares, caught the surreptitious pointing, heard the low whisperings The others remained huddled in small cliques, gravitating more towards Sally, who was dressed in a dirndl. None of this, however, stopped Barry from circulating like a good host, slapping some of the men on the back heartily. greeting the women with a warm peck on the cheek, or arching back in raucous laughter at the exÂ¬changes. After pouring myself a stiff bourbon on the rocks, my sweat-drenched devil head already crumpled underneath my arm, I went up to him. Barry upended his glass, the ice cubes tumbling against his mustache, smacked his lips as lie set it down for another shot, then struck his stomach with the flat of both hands He was thin but muscular, in exÂ¬cellent shape for his age, weighing actually less than he did on graduating high school. "Ahh!" he said. "I feel so damned powerful!" He did a kind of jogging-in-place jig. His genitals bounced and swayed. I looked around, swallowing hard, and leaned close to his ear. "What, if I might ask," I said, emboldened by the alcohol, "did you come as?" He tucked his chin "Can't you tell?" Posing as Adam seemed much too mundane for someone like Barry. "The emperor from 'The Emperor's New Clothes'?" I offered. "Not bad," he said, "though a bit too literal, I'd say." He stepped back. sipped from the new drink, and eyed me impishly from under his wiry eyebrows. "I'm the ultimate fantasy figure." "This is all a put-on isn't it?" I said uncomfortably. trying on the smile of the savant. I figured be was leading up to some other surprise. A "Candid Camera" gimmick with his new video camera to spice up the party? "In a way, the ultimate put-on." he answered. I sighed. "You know how sometimes we tend to mentally undress people?" He sniffed with delight. "The problem with that is we all look pretty much the same underneath. I thought I'd give everybody a chance to dress me as whatever they like: I'm whatever you think I am!"Descant 22
Was he still toying with me -- or could he be flat-assed serious?' "Then again," lie added. his eyes alive with the candlelight, "you know how indecisive I can be. The best solution seemed to be to come as I always am!" A slow prickle began at the back of my neck. He'd finally done it, I thought Right off the deep end. Barry inhaled deeply, giving me that toothy grin before pretending to teir off imaginary clothes with one hand. "Off, off, you lendingsl" he chuckled. A quotation, I imagine. He'd been an art teacher once and continued an interest in the liberal arts, but he had previously kept much of that to himself since none of his work shared his preferences. "Don't worry, Norm. I'm not mad. Just free!" He sat on the arm of the family room sofa, letting one leg dangle. The woman sitting near the edge looked up wide-eyed at him and tried to fidget some distance between her and him, but she was wedged in by a stocky man who had his hand on her thigh. Barry nodded at his wife, who had thus far ignored him. "I tried to get her to dress up in my fashion, but no, the Wicked Witch of the West had to come as Snow White.” Sally was smiling and shaking her head coquettishly. Because of her slight overbite, her smiles looked more like a barracuda baring its teeth. I wasn't exactly astounded that she hadn't gone along with Barry. Though she liked to go braless and wear dresses with thigh-high slit~, she was still tight-lipped and difficult to draw out in social situations. Definitely not the sort to try anything too new. Barry had always been far snore open. I flushed to think of the new meaning he bad lent that Wi)rd. "Sometimes," I tried to philosophize while painfully clearing my throat, "we have to stand alone, I guess." I was thinking of my own wife. Barry guffawed. "A couple of drinks, Norm, and you think you're a regular Nietzsche." I gazed at the dregs of my drink. "The problem is, Barry," I said, weighing my words, "we're a social species." I looked around at the crowd, then, with a slight nod, indicated his "costume." "Your guests are just a little squeamish about "Too much comfort is a dangerous thing," Barry said. "We came out of the caves because they were cold, my friend. I’m a survivor, too." We had known each other since junior high. In all this time, he had certainÂ¬ly had his share of ups and downs from Isis bouts with unemployment through his first divorce. I presume that's what he alluded to. "Aren't you right now even the slightest bit-" I grappled for a word and finally decided on his own. "-cold?" Barry slapped his leg as he threw his head back. "Me, cold? Sally there's the one who has to wear clothes to bed, not me! I've always had a high metabolism, Norm, you know that." It was true: Barry was the type who could eat almost anything and never gain weight, even now at middle age, and he had always been the first to turn on the air condiÂ¬tioning during the mildest heat wave. "My problem's never been me feeling cold," he said. I left it at that. What else could I say? It was his house, his party. The more the booze flowed. the more his guests accepted his nakedness by forgetting about it. Leave it to Barry to make sure they didn't completely. At midnight - what was supposed to be the unmasking for most of us - he climbed atop the dining room table where Sally had set out the canapés and fondue. Then, arms outstretched toward the ceiling, feet astride the punch bowl, he bellowed out, "Our revels now are endedl" That didn't really seem like him either. He had always wanted these parties to last as long as possible. But then he was pretty much out of it by then, too. All in all, whatever we might have thought, no one could deny it had been another memorable evening. After a rather awkward start, we sighed, Barry bad done it again. Except for one thing: his revels didn't end. I knew something was wrong when l noticed him more than once whistling as he 'worked at his drafting table. And at five o'clock, sometimes a few minutes before, he rushed for home faster than I'd ever seen him. We hadn't stopped to talk much privately since the Halloween party, so I decided one day in mid-November to drop by his house after work and ask him out fos' a drink. When I rang the doorbell, no one answered. His Z-car was still parkÂ¬ed in the driveway. I walked around to Isis fenced back yard. He was raking up dead maple leaves, Nothing unusual about that. Except, of course, he was naked again I shivered and, glancing nervously about, pulled the collar of my coat up as I approached him. I thought I saw the curtains to a window on the second floor of one of his neighbors swish shut, but it might have been reflections of the clouds on the glass. As casually as I couhi, I said. "flow about I treat you to a drink to warm you up?" Barry leaned the bamboo rake against the tree trunk, brushed his hands together, and beamed at me. "I low about I treat you to one right here at home?" I was too embarrassed to argue. I followed him inside to the hearth where a small fire was crackling. Sally didn't seem to be anywhere around. I took the bourbon with both hands and turned my backside to the flames. Barry dropped into his Berkline recliner and leaned back, crossing his legs. Again, I had to look away. I was hoping no one had seen me come inÂ¬side with him like this. After all, this was Eland Meadows.Descant 24
"Is--' I took a long gulp. "Is everything all right between you and Sally?" 1 finally blurted. Barry circled his gold, lead-crystal-knobbed stirrer against the ice cubes in his glass. "Peachy-keen," he said with his self-mocking smile. "She's got her catalogues - and I've got my own kind." lie had often joked about her habit of idly paging through mail-order catalogues whenever one of his friends stopped by. l didn't know what kind of catalogues of his own he meant. I took another oversized gulp and breathed in. "Then why in hell aren't you wearing any clothes?" I all but shouted. The smile lapsed to a smirk. "Because," he said, "I prefer not to." He swept an arm around the paneled living room livened with Rousseau and Gauguin prints. “Things are in the saddle, my friend, and ride mankind. Here I've accumulated lots of things with my life - that wall-TV, this B & 0 stereo, a combination microwave oven, an automatic ice-maker - and the funny thing is it was never things I really wanted!" I had an inkling of what he was getting at. The one "thing" the two of us had wanted most as we were growing up was to get out of Eland Meadows altogether. I never had left. Barry had, but returned relucÂ¬tantly because he hadn't managed to make it anywhere else. I'd outgrown such dreams, I guess and thought Barry had too. "Now," he continued, "it's these very things that hold me hack. Every time I come home any more, this is the only way left I can really begin to be me. Besides," he snuffled, "I like running around here bare-assed naked. You ought to give it a try yourself!" I couldn't really argue with this kind of reasoning even if I didn't agree with him. home wasn't exactly a man's castle these days - I could certainly vouch for that - but at least it was home. However nut ty it might seem to anyone from outside, he should be able to do whatever he damn well pleased in the privacy of his own home. lie asked me to stay for dinner but I declined. As lie started to pat out a hamburger patty for himself and I turned to go, he said, "Do you like that Cuisinart?" I shrugged. "It's okay," I said of the yellow machine. "Take it," he said. "It's yours. hesitantly I said, "Melanie might go for it. How much do you want?" "Not a thing," he quipped. how had I gotten myself into this? "Sally won't like it." I warned but took the machine anyway so I could beat a hasty retreat, That, too, I guess, was only the beginning. Barry was still in the thick of his Santa Claus giveaway program when Sally moved out. True to the unimaginativeness of her character, she immediately took up with her hairdresser. By then the neighbors were going into action. We had had our first snowfall in two years, a light dusting really, but Barry liked to keep his walkways clean. He was out skimming off theDimeo 25
snow from the sidewalk and driveway - naked, of course - when the neighbors' svelte, long-haired, dark-eyed 17-year-old daughter stepped outside their garage and gawked for the longest time, "It was almost like she wanted to join me," Barry explained at work, "though I hadn't even so much as suggested she take her clothes off, But I was rather flattered at her attention. I'm afraid it showed " And he raised his hands. palms upward, boyishly. They had threatened to complain to the police for-mally the next time he subjected the family to such a display. It wasn't a week later when I had to bail him out of the city jail. "Indecent exposurel" he groused to me on our way home. "Imagine - and on my own property! All I was doing was going out to get my mail." By this time the mayor himself was a little red-faced over the whole episode. With the annual fight for serial levies growing more and more difficult each year, he and the council weren't too eager to invite any more criticism than they needed. Barry was fired, "Don't worry about me," he said, patting my arm. "I'm a survivor, remember?" But it was right after that when a state trooper arrested him. Barry had driven from his house to a posh restaurant and trotted in happily starkers. Home was one thing: public places were something else. After the hearing, I went down to visit him at Lyon's State Hospital located in a remote region east of Salem near the rim of the Willamette Valley. It was the policy of this institution to have what they called open grounds" residents were allowed to stroll freely anywhere on the property. No fences or barbed wires, The wilderness beyond was fence enough. Most probably didn't much care for the world outside the well-Â¬sculpted grounds anyway. In the lobby stood a large Christmas tree which the inmates had decorated themselves with cut-outs and popcorn strands. A pudgy old lady in a d~ll calico dress smoked a thin cigar in front of the TV which was playing back an old "I Dream of Jeannie" episode. A cherubic nurse directed me to his room. There was a foil-wrapped package on the bed. The tag read, "Best Wishes, Norm." I looked around. Barry had already decorated the pale green walls with a few oil paintings of gods and goddesses flying about in naked splendor across the starry sweep of space. I shook my head and smiled, While I waited for him to come back, I decided to open up the gift. Inside was a plastic Santa mask. I scratched my head at that one. When I lifted it out of the box, two slips of paper fluttered to the bedspread. On one had been scrawled this message: Society is a masked ball, where every one hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding. - Emerson 26 Descant
The other read, I made my song a coat Covered with embroideries Out of old mythologies From heel to throat- But the fools caught it, Wore it in the world's eyes As though they'd wrought it. Song, let them take it, For there's more enterprise hi walking naked - "A Coat." W. B. Yeats Neither note made much sense. I put them back in the box with the mask, then waited some more. He never showed himself. Officials found his clothes strewn like conÂ¬fetti over the grass and bushes in back, and bare footprints running off into the woods. But not even the police dogs were able to pick up his scent again beyond the stream. During the search a full-fledged snowstorm hit. The next night it dropped to 20 degrees. Everyone figured he died somewhere of exposure. The search was abandoned. But they didn't know Barry the way I had. Wasn't he, after all, a surÂ¬vivor? Sometimes now I'll pause at my desk and daydream out the window at the downtown section of Eland Meadows, pen at the side of my mouth, half-expecting to catch a glimpse of him strutting naked down Main Street, smiling up at me with that Burt Lancaster smile. What I wonder about most isn't that I'll lever see him again like that, but rather who'll be there walking naked right beside him.