This Show Case features nine pieces submitted in response to our second Writing Prompt: Behind the mask. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt, which you can find on the Show Case home page.
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by GD Deckard
“A contract,” Bob flipped to the part, Good(s) To Be Delivered, then, “Oh. OKAY, the husband has to be humanoid.”
“That’s all you got?” Sam put her hands on her hips and glared. “Think you ought to read the fine print, genius?”
He glanced at the contract. “We deliver a husband, of royal descent, to Kitsune’s twin sister. Name of Shikome. By 6:PM today. Right?”
“Right.” Sam deadpanned.
“Then let’s get started. I know someone of royal descent.”
“Oh!” Sam agreed wickedly, “Me too.”
“He’s in line, you say?”
“Distantly. But no time to be picky,” she grinned.
They found the captain on the deck of the starship at the command computer, talking to Lute. It took Cion several seconds to realize that he was being invited to his own wedding. “What? No. What are you talking about? I’m not getting married.” His neckless head swiveled from person to person.
Lute later said that he had thought the whole thing a prank so he had just played along. “It is on your schedule, Captain.”
“What? Let me see that!”
“Here it is, Sir.” Lute turned to block the screen so Cion couldn’t read it. “I entered it myself.” He entered it.
“I don’t remember any of this.” Cion shook his head at the screen.
Sam seized the gambit. “You forgot you own wedding? I’ve heard of this. Right, Lute?”
“Happens all the time,” Lute grinned. “It’s the stress, Captain.” He touched his nose, a sign the poker player in Bob recognized as a tell of lying.
Bob laughed. “How could you forget you’re marrying into the emperor’s family?”
Sam sounded amazed. “This evenin’!”
“The emperor’s family, you say? Who? Who in the family am I marrying?”
“His daughter.” Bob snapped his fingers. “Lute? Bring up a picture of Kitsune.”
Cion’s demeanor brightened considerably. “Kitsune? I’m marrying the most beautiful woman in the galaxy?”
“Her twin sister.”
Now rolling with the conversation, Lute brought a picture of Kitsune to the screen. “Her twin sister is your bride. No one has ever been allowed to photograph your bride, Captain. You will be the first from outside the family to see her. On your wedding night.”
“Wait.” Cion fixated on the picture like a man watching a slot machine stopping on all sevens. “Kitsune’s twin sister? Shikome? The first born of the twins? I am marrying the emperor’s first born? That means I would be the next Emperor!”
Bob opened his mouth, surprised. He looked at Sam, then at Lute. Sam nodded silently. Lute winked. Moments passed.
“Still,” Cion waffled, “I have never met the sister. No one has.” He placed hand to cheek. His voice expressed calculated concern. His eyes became almost sad as he stroked his chin. “Isn’t happiness also important? Sam?”
In a respectful tone, Sam confided, “Her vagina has A.I.”
Cion thought for a moment and then left with Sam to embrace his destiny.
At the appointed time, Bob stepped onto a transit point on the ship and appeared in the official Imperial Wedding Arena. The vast, crowded room was open to the stars above and all around, or so it appeared.
The groom made his way through the crowd towards them. He was resplendent in what Bob took for formal wear although it seemed an awful lot like someone had dressed him in a jester’s suit.
“There has to be a reason they’ve kept her under wraps,” Cion blurted nervously when he reached them.
“Shikome? It’s a fairly recent rule.” Sam’s flat tone suggested she knew something about that. “Khavata’s done some research,” she explained. Khavata was the ship’s communications officer. “The Imperial Family sequestered her at birth. To protect the first-born.”
“They executed the delivery team,” Bob quipped. He hopped when Sam kicked him.
Lute rolled his eyes. “You will be Emperor of the Galaxy, someday, Cion. Focus!”
“I know, right?” He sighed. “I may not see you all again. Lute, you command the NGO now. I’d give it to you outright except….” he trailed off.
“Except, you stole the ship from your father,” Lute finished for him.
“Maybe someday then. You deserve your own ship, Lute.”
Humming sounded in the room. Barely audible at first, it swelled as more and more of the guests joined in, filling the great hall until it became a roar that rose into the vast space above them, seemingly all the way to the stars. “It starts,” Cion shouted. “There was no time for rehearsal. They just said that when the music started, I am to go to the Altar Block. Farewell, my friends.” The little round groom turned and walked to his fate with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, through a crowd that parted for him and quieted as he passed. When Cion appeared on top of the Altar Block, the room went silent. He watched Shikome and her bridal attendants walk towards him. She wore a concealing veil and her attendants held her gown out away from her.
“If she’s so beautiful,” Bob wondered, “Why can’t we see her, Sam?”
“She’s pregnant, Bob. That’s how they know it’s marrying time.” This time, he kicked Sam.
“Ow! No,” She giggled. “Really.”
“And I suppose they still consummate?” He snorted.” You’re just jealous of the bride.”
“I asked the same question, Bob. Yup, they do. They consummate at the Midnight Unveiling.”
“Khvata. She hacked the Imperial Family computer.”
“She did? Khvata?” The ship’s communications officer was a telepath.
“Yes,” Khvata’s voice came into his mind. “And, um, Bob, you do know what you did to poor Cion? Don’t you?”
A bad feeling came over Bob.
“I have a photograph to show you. It will have to be a mental image. Do I have your permission?” Bob wanted to say no.
“Sure,” said Sam. Maliciously, Bob thought.
“Shikome is Kitsune’s fraternal twin,” Khvata sounded solemn and added more solemnly, as a picture appeared in their minds, “This is Shikome.”
Back aboard the NGO that night, they gathered in Bob’s room. Khvata bit her nails. Lute leaned back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head and a satisfied look on his face. Sam sat with elbows on the table, relaxed. She tilted her glass at Lute, “Captain.” Lute beamed.
Around consummation time, Bob proposed a toast to their missing friend. He raised his glass to clink with the others at the small table. “Here’s to Cion. May he go blind.”
Mask as Teacher
by Scott D. Vander Ploeg
When I first considered the prompt, “behind the mask,” I did not immediately recognize the fact that we all have been wearing masks a lot lately, due to the pandemic. If you haven’t been wearing a mask, you have missed out on a subtle consequence.
Originally, we were told we wear the mask to protect others from our potential covidity. That seems to have morphed to a feeling that the masks protect us, which is maybe partly true. What is also true is that those who wear masks gain knowledge of what it means to be other.
What the non-maskers don’t get is that in large, we who don the mask are notably conscious of two important facts: we are more aware of our fragility in the universe, and we feel that we are contributing to the common good. Apparently those who go maskless have lost the idea of contributing to the welfare of the whole of us. This has been decried in the press recently: our citizenry is behaving without concern for others. They have abrogated the social contract. They evade their responsibility. And they don’t get it that it’s dangerous out there.
The Latin term for person is persona, which has been used to suggest a masking effect. Jung equated the persona to an outer façade we present to the world, different from the true self lurking within or behind the mask. It is common to refer to the ‘I’ in a poem as the persona of the poet—which is not necessarily a true depiction of the poet’s self, the beliefs and attitudes of the actual writer. The poetic persona allows the writer to present different personalities.
The ancient Greek actors donned masks to portray the characters in those surreal tragedies and bawdy comedies, circa 300 BC. In doing so, the actors became the heroes and tyrants of legend, the masks helping them take on the roles.
If you wear a mask, you become the image the mask portrays. It changes you and you act differently. In a documentary about the early theatre, the narrator/actor says wearing their theatrical masks meant sharing in the pain and joy of those legendary heroic characters, and that his humanity was enlarged as a result.
I’ve acted in some community theatre productions. I don’t think I came away deranged from acting as Dr. Herman Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace, or gained insight into police work from portraying Murray, the cop, in The Odd Couple.
I did find it instructive to feel alienated and in danger from rednecks and the KKK when I played Charlie in The Foreigner. Charlie is a nervous-Nellie, but his paranoia is justified. That I learned this from Charlie may have saved me from harm in my own life. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone or something is not out to harm you.
I did experience significant carry-over effect for an elder Italian-American when I played Nunzio Christano in Joe DiPetro’s Over the River and Through the Woods. When I told the audience in an aside that I had cancer but hadn’t told my wife and grand-parents-in-laws, I saw the people at the dinner theater go pale and quiet. They sobbed. Some went out from the auditorium to weep.
I learned from Nunzio what it meant to have a child move away and become distant, mirroring my own emotional distress over my own kids’ departures to make their own lives. I wasn’t wearing a literal mask, but I did find my appreciation for the human condition grow, palpably.
Today as I write this, William Shatner, the actor, rode into space and experienced weightlessness. It is a hilarious irony that in a pre-flight interview he mumbled somewhat incoherently about the danger in front of him. His history of being James T. Kirk in the first of the Star Trek franchise gave him the mask, the persona, of a space traveler.
Notably, Kirk feared nothing. Shatner, age 90, is not Kirk. His situation is reminiscent of the parodic story that Tim Allen headed up in the movie Galaxy Quest, when the television series characters find themselves kidnapped and forced to play their roles in space. Shatner tried to be witty about it, but I’m certain he was scared shitless.
To pause on that a little more, consider his brief years portraying a character who flew through space, at warp speed, and faced several forms of death out there. When Shatner returned from his Blue Origin space tourism experience he was shaken, commenting that in the flight the shift from Earth’s blue biosphere to the dark of outer space was a confrontation with death. “In an instant you go, ‘Whoa, that’s death.’ That’s what I saw.” Perhaps his experience as Kirk informed the actor of what he was really seeing.
To lighten this up a bit, it was also the case that Kirk was something of a womanizer, or alien-womanizer, and the character often fell into some fleshy imbroglio with a green or blue or other busty hominoid female. How fitting then that Shatner/Kirk rode into space in what can only be described as a giant dildo, a phallus symbolic of his character’s most characteristic trait—a penis in space. Perhaps Shatner gained some awareness of how to be romantic with another person from Kirk’s serial encounters in fictive space.
Back to more serious considerations: the Jungian mask concept I mention above seems to describe what the Beatles had in mind when they wrote the lyrics to the song, “Eleanor Rigby.” The song begins with the twice repeated line, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” The first stanza that follows this limited chorus introduces the character by name, and has her picking up rice in a church after a wedding. A short line follows, saying she “Lives in a dream.” Next, we’re told she “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” And then the question is raised: “Who is it for?”
We know she is lonely as the opening lines indicate. We know that she spends time at church, and probably is poor, else why collect the rice thrown at the bridal pair? She might be cleaning up the mess on behalf of the church or perhaps as an employee, though nothing else in the lyrics corroborates that. In either case, it is a menial task and does not seem to elicit any gratitude.
That she lives in a dream is curious, suggesting that her internal life is in conflict with her reality. Does she dream of marriage? She seems alone, has no one to wed. This disconnect is underscored by her habit of waiting by the door, and putting on a mask, a face that she has in a jar conveniently nearby. She presents an image of herself different from her lonely poverty, a false face.
Unlike the previous masking concepts, Eleanor Rigby doesn’t seem to gain anything from the role she acts in to the outer world. Her humanity is not enlarged, so far as we know. Later in the song she dies in the church and is buried, “along with her name.” Name is identity, so poetically her death not only ends her life, but also ends her identity. She is erased.
When it immediately follows that nobody came to her funeral, this indicates that she is nearly completely forgotten. Only the priest, Father McKenzie, has a recollection of her, and his memory is of regret that she was not saved. Not only was she lost, but “No one was saved,” implying that her loneliness expands out from her to us, a ripple-effect of pathos.
She did not learn anything from her acting, because it was entirely opposite. Instead of taking on a role she presented the false face as a defense mechanism. She did not use the mask to learn about others. She lost the opportunity to mix with other humans. That she learned nothing is tantamount to no one being saved.
It matters why we wear masks. Ideally, we should try to gain from the experience. Clearly, hiding behind a mask can have negative consequences. If instead we try out other personalities, if we act like others, we gain insight into the human condition. Shatner has had an epiphany. I wonder if he would portray Kirk differently now?
Percussion: A Martial Halloween Tale of Murderous Psychosis; or
Yet Another Incident in the Centuries-Long Children’s Crusade
by Carl E. Reed
The human brain does not fully mature until the age of 25 or later. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of rationality governing good judgement, moderating behavior and awareness of long-term consequences. Before this paradigmatic shift in consciousness takes place young people think with their amygdala; as a consequence they are emotion-driven, impulsive and oftentimes unable to later explain how and why they made bad choices.
— Pathways of Wonder: Cutting-Edge Cognitive Science, Dr. Bertram F. Meyer
The doorbell rang.
He was waiting for it. The eggs were nestled in his left arm, clenched tightly against his side.
When he opened the front door a crisp autumnal breeze admitted the graveyard scent of moldering leaves and freshly spaded earth (he’d been digging in the lawn—the dog now dead and buried), along with the savory-sweet tang of the next-door-neighbor’s flesh-blackened BBQ.
Goblin boy, ghost girl and demon thing were crowded together on his front porch. “Trick-or-treeeeeat!” they chorused. Behind them, clustered on the sidewalk thirty feet distant stood a half-dozen adults—presumably parents or guardians. The adults looked on with disinterested weak smiles phony and perfunctory as HR reps greeting first-day new hires. Two of the women in dark slacks and fashionable overcoats half-turned away to engage in conversation.
“Trick!” announced the willowy, stoop-shouldered man hanging back in the shadow of the doorway. He was dressed in grinning Nixon mask, tattered slippers and a ratty bathrobe sporting US army infantry awards: Republic of Vietnam campaign medal, purple heart, bronze star, good conduct medal. He pulled the pins on the M21 fragmentation grenades pressed against his side, letting the handles fly off—ping-ping-ping!—as he shifted them into his dominant right hand (how cool the metal was; how smoothly perfect, idiot and inhuman) and dropped them into the children’s bright orange jack-o-lantern buckets. “Run,” he advised.
The man shut the door, retreated to his armchair and sat down.
Seconds later: triple detonations sounding almost as one. Shrieks, screams, the wail of car alarms.
“Tricky Dick!” he chortled, fingernails rat-a-tat-tat-tapping a snare-drum roll against the polished oaken armrests of the armchair. “Tricky Dick! Get some!”
He reached up and removed his mask, ran a hand through his sweat-slicked thinning hair.
Now they understood. What happens over there comes back to “the world”.
And war is no place for children.
In 1927, Marcelline (Maisie) Mulot was as popular as Rin Tin Tin, who four years earlier had rescued Warner Brothers from bankruptcy and was still going strong.
by Mimi Speike
ABOVE: Mulot, at the height of her fame, decorated many a cover, but this one particularly caught my eye. It captures her ‘Ain’t I something?’ spirit perfectly. (It’s also the cover for Maisie in Hollywood, which I will publish in a print edition. With a paper doll!)
Maisie Mulot, my best friend, is thirty years gone. I have appointed myself her film historian. I intend to restore her to the prominence she deserves.
When the silent film era ended, Warner Brothers terminated their contract with Rin Tin Tin’s owner, Lee Duncan. They sent him a letter, saying they were putting all their energy into the new technology of talking pictures. Audiences were fascinated by the capacity to hear sound and, no way around it, dogs didn’t talk. Maisie would doubtless have suffered the same fate if she hadn’t pulled the plug on her film career herself.
I am currently researching her remarkable life. She shared a lot with me, but by no means all. Since she passed, I’ve made many fascinating discoveries. I’m determined to tell her tale honestly, but respectfully. She was as complex a personality as I’ve ever encountered.
In 1922, at an astonishingly young age, Maybelle Snodgrass (Ted Shawn, refusing to have his protégé–he was greatly taken with her–to be known as Miss Snodgrass, renamed her) joined the Denishawn Dancers, a pioneering modern dance school whose members included dance legend Martha Graham and actresses Lillian Gish and Myrna Loy. In her second season she was advanced to featured performer. Did it go to her head? She certainly rubbed Ruth St. Denis the wrong way. St. Denis fired the youngster over husband and partner Ted Shawn’s objection.
Maisie took the dismissal badly, but she rebounded. She found a new home with the Ziegfeld Follies, alongside W.C. Fields and Fanny Brice.
She first struck up a friendship with Brice. To the outrage of the other chorines, she was moved into the star’s dressing room, quite an insult to the long-legged beauties who were central to the reputation of the show.
She claimed she’d co-written some of Brice’s routines. Hard to swallow? I believe it. She was a wonderful phrase maker. She memorably described dancing with the lardy but fleet-footed Fatty Arbuckle (the disgraced comedian who directed her in a forgotten film called Windy Riley Goes To Hollywood) as being ‘like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.’ (1)
According to Mulot, she and Brice were collaborating on a boffo bit they intended to present the following season. Sadly, it never happened.
Brice was under tremendous pressure. Her husband Nick Arnstein, involved in a raft of scams, was in and out of jail. At one point he went into hiding, leaving his wife to face a hysterical press alone. When he finally surrendered to the authorities, he fought the charges on every possible technicality for four years — while she worked like a dog to pay gargantuan legal bills.
With the world, she kept up a front. She shared her pain with her tiny gal-pal, whom she trusted not to blab about her struggles. The odd relationship began to be noticed, by Arnstein, and by Ziegfeld. Brice, on the verge of a crack-up, was their take on the odd behavior. She needed a rest, pronto.
Arnstein was more than willing to arrange a demise, but the trouble-maker had to be gotten rid of gently. Ziegfeld couldn’t risk word getting back to Brice of a hit, further unhinging his troubled property. He enlisted Bill Fields to arrange a nonviolent exit.
Bill (W.C.) Fields was also a close friend of hers. They understood each other. They’d both struggled mightily to learn to speak. In Bill’s case, the problem had been a severe stutter. In Maisie’s, the vocal apparatus was not designed for understandable enunciation.
Bill-zee, as she called him, recommended her to the producer Walter Wanger for a try-out in one of his small-potatoes two-reel films. Fannie was hustled away to a New Jersey sanitarium. Maisie was installed at the studio in Astoria, Queens. Fields being one of the top talents at Famous Players-Lasky, his recommendation carried a good deal of weight. Introduced to the little ball-of-fire, seeing a big future for her, Wanger signed her to a contract.
Mulot made her screen debut in 1925, playing an uncredited role in ‘The Street of Forgotten Men’. She was soon elevated to more important spots in a string of comedies including It’s the Old Army Game and The Show-Off, in which she partnered such major stars as Adolphe Menjou, Evelyn Brent and Wallace Beery, who became a good friend later, out in Hollywood.
Mulot was receiving more than 2,000 fan letters a week. She possessed talent and smarts–she could have achieved so much more–but because of self-defeating antics, she would end up in a shabby apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan. She told me once, in a (rare) mood of self-pity, “Somehow I have avoided the glory that was predicted for me. I was deemed to have an unmatched presence.” (2)
An unmatched presence, she had that, she did indeed.
Whatever you know (or think you know) about W.C. Fields, you’re most likely wrong.
by Mimi Speike
ABOVE: The poster for a Mulot retrospective at Syracuse University in 1994. This piece is a close copy of the poster for Beyond The Rocks, a film starring Gloria Swanson.
Mulot specialized in spoofs of the hits of the day. G.P. Schulberg put her into this heavy-duty drama as a slap in the face to Swanson, who had deserted Paramount to start her own production company, depriving him of his most important star. Maisie was delighted to have a chance to show off her acting depth. For her, there was no going back to the lightweight fare she had been required to deal with.
“He was a gentle man,” Maisie told me, “The drinking was a gag. It didn’t get out of hand until after we’d gone our separate ways. The blotto blowhard was the creation of the publicity department. And he was no sadistic bozo, spiking baby bottles with gin.
“He didn’t torment kids and he didn’t abuse animals. I pounded it into his head: we beasties have the same right to inhabit this planet in dignity and security as your kind, with your noxious sense of entitlement. Mistreat a critter, any critter, and I will cut you dead.
“I insisted he travel with one pocket full of sunflower seed for squirrels and birdies, another with dog treats. Them damn cats can fend for themselves.” She smirked. “I have my moral failings too.
“Whenever we got together he knew to scoop a handful of something out of somewhere to show me he was on the right track, or he’d get a good talking to. When we didn’t have a meet-up, I don’t know what he did. He seemed to take my words to heart, but you never know. Well, he was always a doll to me.
“He’d left school early to help his Pa sell produce from a wagon, all the while practicing his juggling. Lemons, apples, he had his tools there in front of him. He broke into vaudeville as ‘The Silent Juggler’. He wanted to be a comedian, ’cept for, he stuttered. He got his tongue under control, became ‘The Tramp Juggler’, reprimanding items that escaped his grab, chastising wayward bananas, balls, what-have-you. (3)
“He’d achieved significant success, but he longed to go legit. He landed a role in a production alongside Madame Sarah, if you can believe it. Always striving, see, like me. Up from nothing, just like me. We both started life with a huge disadvantage. We both overcame it.
“His carpetbag . . . weighed a damn ton . . . always within reach during our cross-country trek . . . me overnight essentials, he told the porter, swinging the satchel so bottles clanked–it held his gin, yes, but also half-a-dozen books! He read constantly, again–like me. That passion most certainly at odds with his working-swell-for-him crackpot-curmudgeon act, he took care to have it not be known.
“Three days in a cramped Roomette–what did we do with ourselves? He read to me, that was fun. We had access to a Radiola. When we pulled in a program of jazz, I turned it up and shimmied my tail off. Neighbor Roomettes made a stink, but the porter was on our side. He loved to watch me at it, actually advised me to go pro. We rewarded him out of Bill’s cache of restoratives.
“That porter’s name was Rufus, but we were instructed to call him George. All the porters were addressed George. Georgie-Porgie-Mud-in-your-Eye, I dubbed him, behind his back. I didn’t speak to him directly. Some people can take me, some not. He was a good guy, looked out for us.
“When we hit N’awlins, we wanted to tourist around. The studio had foreseen that eventuality. They had no intention of allowing Bill to sight-see on Bourbon Street. Our three shifts of Georges had orders to herd us onto the next train west. Rufus transferred us to the Pacifica Limited with tears in his eyes. Don’t hold it agin’ me, he begged. We didn’t, of course not. We got his name and address. Bill sent him a ten-spot at Christmas for years. When Bill took to you, you had a friend for life.”
I gulped. “Since you brought it up,” I stammered, “forgive me for asking the obvious. A friend for life? Where was he when you hit bottom?”
Maisie winced. “Bill was in bad shape by then. He met his obligation, one last film at Paramount, but his behavior discouraged other producers from hiring him. He was chronically ill, and suffering from delirium tremens. I couldn’t add to his woes by foisting myself upon him.”
In Walter Wanger Maisie had found a second protector, who, recognizing that her blasé insolence was a masquerade, took her under his wing. He brought her along, and gave her faith in her acting intelligence.
Her early films were uniformly forgettable. The neophyte was given cardboard roles in cardboard capers. She did what she could with them. In Rolled Stockings, she danced up a storm. Classically trained (at Miss Florinda’s Academy of Dance in Wichita, Kansas), she put her less prepared co-stars to shame.
The studio saw they had a sensation on their hands and gave her prominent billing on lobby cards, posters, and etcetera. She was paraded at press conferences. Reporters clamored to interview her. She’d been the most unpopular girl in the Follies. She was now the most unpopular actress at Lasky (aka Paramount), stealing everyone’s thunder.
She was assigned no role that didn’t require her to dance on table tops. When studio execs looked at her, they thought, champagne-glass-strewn-table-top. She was accepted as the twinkle-toed cut-up, she had a solid standing on those terms. It was not Denishawn-level artistry, but she made the most of it.
Maisie had the edge over everyone she was teamed with as a dancer, and she had the edge in another way. She was a master of body language. I’ve watched as many of her films as I’ve been able to locate. The close-up was made for her. A slight twitch of the head, a fleeting expression in the eyes, small manipulations come and go so quickly we don’t realize that we notice them, but they register nonetheless.
The furrowing of the glabella (the area between the eyes) says she is troubled, even before she gives an anguished shake of the head. The lopsided frown indicates she is thinking about something very severely. She leans in slightly, and arches her eyebrows. Mulot, of course, didn’t have eyebrows, but she did a damn good impression of having them. She was a sophisticated non-verbal communicator, a skill essential to silent films.
In 1927 the Astoria studio was shut down. Maisie was shipped from a cozy family atmosphere to the factory coldness of Hollywood. Bill Fields was also relocated. The studio booked them a first-class compartment on the ‘Crescent Limited’, running between Penn Station in Manhattan and Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans. There they hopped the plush-express that whisked them through arid, big-sky vistas to the up-and-coming Movie Mecca, Los Angeles.
Facing an uncertain future in the shark-infested waters of Hollywood, they hard-partied for three-thousand miles. Three-thousand miles with W.C. Fields! That’s fun to think about, isn’t it?
In 1928 Wanger left Paramount, after which Mulot had no sympathetic ear in the executive-suite to act as a buffer between one of a rebellious nature and the big guns, determined to make a quick buck off her. The phrase go-along-to-get-along meant zilch to her.
Her new manager-companion was also an industry insider, and highly astute. Maisie herself, supremely confident of her talent, was as arrogant as the biggest names in the business. Maisie and Bea made quite a team. Determined to protect their interests, they took orders grudgingly, if at all.
Maisie and Bill-zee arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles on the morning of April 5, 1927. A car was waiting to pick them up. Bill Fields was dropped off at a hotel on Wiltshire Boulevard. Maisie was delivered to a bungalow in the Hollywood Hills where Beatrice Wanger, Walter’s younger sister, was in residence. He’d deputized Bea, a modern dance theorist and instructor of international reputation (4) to watch over her. But that’s a tale for another time.
I am the foremost collector of Mulot memorabilia in the country. If you have an item you can bear to part with, email details to firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) (2) (3) These comments are pulled from Louise Brooks’ collection of essays dealing with her experiences in Hollywood. (FYI: Maisie is loosely based on Brooks.) Lulu in Hollywood was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1982.
(4) Bea Wanger was indeed the sister of legendary producer Walter Wanger, and was indeed a notable in modern dance. For an important figure in a groundbreaking movement, there is astoundingly little to be gleaned of her on the web. I’ve written her to suit my needs.
Behind the Mask
by Perry Palin
When Mrs. Baawk came through the door, Al Pierson sighed and turned away from visiting with my father. They had been talking at the counter about the weather, or the high school football team, or something else. Now Al Pierson turned to watch Mrs. Baawk. He suspected her of shoplifting anything she could carry in the pockets of her overalls, small hardware, candy bars, canned goods, a package of frozen chicken, anything she could carry. Mrs. Baawk had square shoulders and wore long sleeve work shirts and blue bib overalls, and her short black hair went to the collar of her shirt. She wore a dirty brown fedora, and heavy oiled work shoes. Mrs. Baawk had a bandanna over her face like a bank robber. Everyone in our little community knew who she was, so why did she wear the mask?
We took our box of groceries to the car. I asked my father about the mask on the way home from the country store. He said Mrs. Baawk had been burned years before in a house fire. She got out of the burning house, probably drunk, and fell into the yard with burns to the left side of her face and her neck, and her left arm and her left leg. She wore the bandanna because people frowned and shunned her when they saw the scars on her face.
Mrs. Baawk was alone in the country store that day. Usually she came in with Marilyn Munro. She lived with Marilyn Munro and Marilyn Munro’s two kids, a little girl and a baby boy. Marilyn Munro was tall with dark hair that was turning gray already, and she wore pants and sweaters that were tight against her body. I thought it was an odd family, two women and two kids, and no dad. That was unusual then, but that’s the way it was.
We were poor on our little farm, but we got by. My father worked in an auto repair shop and my mother raised us kids and kept a garden and a few chickens and two pigs which we butchered in the fall. We had seven apple trees. There had been eight, but one died. The trees were all old and had never been pruned. Two of the trees had sweet eating apples. They ripened first, at the end of summer, and they were my favorite. One had small yellow crab apples, and my mother canned some of them, but it was a lot of work for the jars of mushy apples we ate in the winter. The other three had large, firm, green turning to red baking apples. They were sour to eat, but made good pies and good apple crisp. It was my job to pick the baking apples and to put them in the boxes that we used to bring home our groceries. Some of the apples went to the house for pies. The rest went to Penny and Oscar, the two pigs that were growing fast toward their butchering time.
Mrs. Baawk and Marilyn Munro drove their old truck into the yard one day in October. The kids were with them, and the kids stayed in the truck. Neighbors told my father to watch out if they came, because Marilyn Munro would talk to you at length while Mrs. Baawk walked into your garage or your workshop to see what she could steal. Some said they lost tools, and some said they lost bigger things when they were away from home after these two had visited.
My father came out of the house and Marilyn Munro approached him and asked him to show her whatever he had to give or to sell, scrap metal or old furniture, anything they could use to turn a profit. Mrs. Baawk saw me standing by our one car garage, with its swayback roof and needing paint. The garage door was open, and she came up to the door. I was just a kid, but I blocked her from going inside. I asked her what she wanted. “Nothing,” she said. She said she wanted “nothing.” The bandanna on her face was pulled tight across her nose. She didn’t look directly at me. She looked past me toward my father’s workbench.
I needed to distract her. I looked up at her. I asked, “Are the kids okay in the truck? Do they want to come out?”
Mrs. Baawk looked at me for the first time. She hesitated, then said, “No. They’re fine.”
I said, “We got some Halloween candy in the house. Do you think the kids would like some, at least the little girl, but not the baby?”
She hesitated again. “Maybe she would like some, if you can spare.”
“Let’s go to the house. It will just take a minute.” I walked toward our front door, and Mrs. Baawk followed slowly, stopping a few feet short of the porch. I told her, “I’ll be right out.”
I hurried into the house and came out with a whole bag of small candy bars. We didn’t get many trick or treaters anyway, and most years I wound up eating the candy myself. I held out the bag to Mrs. Baawk. She looked at the bag, hesitated, and reached out and took it in her scarred left hand. I went back into the porch and picked up a box of apples, the pie apples. We had plenty of them. I went outside. “Would you like a box of apples? I got plenty of them.”
“How much?” she asked.
“About twenty pounds, I think, in the box.”
“No. How much do you want?”
“Oh. I don’t sell the apples. You can have them, that’s all.”
I didn’t know what to say next. “Those shoes you are wearing. They’re like the ones my dad wears at work, and to the woods. Those are good shoes for work.”
Mrs. Baawk didn’t say anything. I looked up at her face. Tears started to run down behind her mask. She took out a handkerchief and tried to wipe her eyes, and her mask fell down around her throat. I saw her scarred face. It wasn’t nice, but it was her, and she was crying.
Foaming at the Mask
by Mellow Curmudgeon (AKA Barry Rosen)
Though I know no Noh, I think I see serene contemplation in this face:
The face is a mask that nobody is wearing. With nothing there, who could be contemplating? Hmmm.
Who’s Behind the Mask?
by Mike Van Horn
“Strategic synergy,” I said with great certainty, writing it on the whiteboard. “You need symbiotic systems.” They busily scribbled down notes, nodding and smiling at my wise words. I was on a roll. “Here’s the synopsis.” I labelled the Wenn diagram.
“Okay, that will be all for today. Same time next week? I’ll be checking on your systems.”
“Thank you ever so much, Ms. Alexander!” the Chairman said as I gathered my materials to depart.
I suppressed my trembling till I got out into the parking lot and chirped open my Beemer.
First thing after I got home—well, after a quick shot of scotch—was to send them an invoice for a thousand dollars. A grand for spouting consultantese. Had to do this before I lost my nerve.
I looked at myself in the mirror. “I’m a fraud. Who put the slut in consultant?” I ran my fingers over my expensively-botoxed face. It was a mask, I knew. It kept me looking youthful enough for these folks to pay attention and take me seriously. And keep paying my invoices.
“The masks we wear to keep us from seeing who we really are, those are the most insidious, aren’t they?” I forgot where I heard that, but I’ve sure taken it to heart. I scrubbed my face free of makeup.
Who was I? Who was I really? Could I see behind the mask? Who did I want to be?
Out on the deck, shoes off, bra off, feet up, cocktail in hand. My watch vibrated. “Breathe.” I closed my eyes and breathed long and deep, trying to hold the tears in. I looked up at the sky, impossibly blue, infinitely blue.
A passenger jet arced across the sky, riding its white contrail. Looked like a rocket ship taking off.
* * *
Oh my, oh my, my mind soared with it. I was no consultant. I was climbing into my spaceship. Strapped myself in. Up it lifted with unlimited power, pushing me back into my seat, despite the artificial grav. Soon I was looking back at a shrinking Earth. Breathtakingly beautiful! Would I ever be able to return?
Where were we going? Where was I going? Was I in charge of this trip? I trembled with anticipation.
“Stand and move around,” said my watch. I struggled to my feet, feeling a bit lightheaded. Dropped my drink; the glass shattered. At that moment we leapt between the stars.
What a delicious ride through space. Almost floating, weightless.
My spaceship drifts to a feather-soft landing. I open the hatch and look out. I could breathe the air, but where was I?
As I emerge, a thick mist is gradually clearing. Revealed is a group of beautiful beings–tall, ethereal, silvery robes, golden skin, large violet eyes.
“Finally you have come.”
“What? Who do you think I am? What do you want of me?”
“We must have your help. You are the only one. We have sought long and far until finally we located you.”
“But what do you want?”
“We have a terrible enemy, out to destroy us. Exterminate us. We are helpless against them. You are the one. Only you can help us.”
“Who am I? I am nobody special. I’m no miracle worker.”
“Yes, you must. Please, we beg you, we implore you.”
“What do you want me to do?’
“They are coming. Stand up to them. They are soon here.”
They point behind me. I turn but see nothing in the mist. I turn back and they are disappearing into the mist, leaving me. I was standing on a strange world, alone and befuddled.
From the other direction approach several large creatures, making awful clacking noises. They look like giant insects, with sharp pointed feet and spikes running along their legs. Black eyes and clicking mandibles. Feet clacking on the stony ground.
I turn to run, but they easily surround me. They pin me to a large boulder with their spiky legs. Here comes the big one. Must be the queen. She opens her mouth revealing two incisors, like foot-long daggers with serrated edges, poised above me like a vampire.
She says to me in a hoarse, raspy voice, “Who are you? How did you get here?”
I cannot answer. I am doomed. “Who am I?” I ask myself. “Why me?”
Her incisors penetrate my chest. The pain is unbearable. So unbearable that I crack. I crack out of my Botox mask. I am laid bare.
I reach out with my pincers and gouge her in both eyes. She rears back in surprised pain. I lean into her, and with my mandible I go for her throat, chomping hard, biting her head off. As she dies, I push her body off me, then jump on top of her. With my mandible I tear into her mid-section and eat her insides out. She is now just a shell.
The other bugs have fled. I lie there panting. I look down—fingers not pincers. Feet with toes. I have a terrible taste in my mouth.
I snore myself awake. My mouth is wide open. Yuck, what is in my mouth? A moth. I spit it out.
It’s pitch-black outside. I’m on my back on my chaise lounge on my deck. There’s a beginning of a glow in the east; must be almost dawn.
Ringing in my ears are the last words of the tall ethereal beings. “You have saved us. No-one else could possibly have done this. Do you know who you are now?”
* * *
Shivering with cold, I ran inside. I had to write something down. Something important.
I looked at myself in the mirror. I hardly recognized myself. I had two painful welts on my chest. Bite marks, they looked like.
Later that morning I called my client. “Last night I had an aha. I suspect your company is in a tougher situation than we recognized. I urge you to call your team together and let me come talk to them.”
An hour later I entered their board room holding a sheaf of papers. They were waiting for me. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get down to business. Analyzing your competitive environment, I see that you are being too accommodating, too lax. You need to be clear on who you are, your mission, your strengths. You have aggressive competitors out to take your markets, and unless you stand up to them with a strong program, you may not survive. I worked out a plan for you, and I’d like to help you implement it.”
“Ms. Alexander,” said the Chairman, “this looks excellent. How did you do this so quickly? By the way, I want to introduce you to our new Director of Innovation, Mr. Allen.”
The new man looked up at me and smiled. I saw his beautiful violet eyes. He said to me, “Yes, I think I know who you are already.”
by S.T. Ranscht
Her chest tightened as her heart beat chose flight at an ear-thrumming pace, but her reluctant yet dutiful legs compelled her into a room full of strangers and distant acquaintances.
God, I hate parties. She gripped her companion’s arm tighter.
“Don’t worry, Anjali,” he told her quietly, “I’m right here. You don’t have to go off on your own till you’re ready.”
Her heart calmed almost to normal. Thank goodness, she thought, leaning her head against his shoulder. Maybe we’ll just sit and listen to the band.
From across the room, a well-toned, not-quite-middle-aged man flashed them a gleaming smile through his immaculately trimmed beard. “Dr. Harrison!” he called as he wove his way through the human maze occupying the vast living room.
Dr. Harrison shook his hand. “Anjali, this is an old friend of mine, Lee Yong-Moon, my star pupil at Caltech. Yong, this is Anjali, the jewel of my heart.”
The younger man held out his hand to her.
Don’ttouchmedon’ttouchmedon’ttouchme, raced through her nervous system, cinching a rope around her stomach even as he took her fingertips and bent over her hand to brush it with his lips.
Fortunately, her face was practiced at ignoring her guts. A smile crinkled her eyes and seemed to welcome any and all who wished to make some kind of contact, no matter how mundane or insincere, unnecessary or torturous.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lee,” she said, bowing her head in respect. “What was your field of study?”
Yong-Moon cast an approving sideways glance at her companion, and returned his attention to her. “Robotics,” he said. “Of course, I could go on and on about the subject, but it would crush me to see your eyes glaze over,” he laughed. “What subjects interest you?”
“Anjali is too modest about her interests.” Dr. Harrison’s indulgent smile seemed to ignite a special sparkle in her eyes. “Frontiers in Neuroscience recently published her article on the neurological building blocks of personality and how they might aid in the development of relatable AI.”
Anjali’s cheeks went slightly pinker than her brush-on blush. Please don’t make me talk about myself, her mind begged.
Yong-Moon nearly bounced on his toes. “It sounds like we could talk all night.” He turned to Dr. Harrison. “Would you mind terribly if I borrowed your charming companion for a while? I’d like to gain her insight on the possibility of infusing robotics with ‘Genuine People Personalities’ as Douglas Adams put it.”
“Would you enjoy that, Anjali?” Dr. Harrison asked her.
Smiling demurely, she answered, “Yes, I would.” I want to go home. I NEED to go home.
Yong-Moon put his hand on the small of her back. “Perhaps we’ll even share a dance or two,” he said as he steered her away.
“Delighted,” she said.
“I’m very proud of you, Anjali. I know how difficult this evening was for you, yet you handled it with charm and grace. What do you think about it?”
“It was exhausting. I can scarcely stand. I feel completely drained. Please don’t make me attend any more ‘functions’. Please.”
“Of course not, my gem. Not until you feel ready. But I promise you, it will become easier each time.” He helped her sit in an overstuffed arm chair in the bedroom, then knelt before her to remove her shoes.
“Thank you, Andrew.”
He rose and moved behind her to rub her shoulders.
She closed her eyes and said, “I want to sleep now.”
“Of course, my jewel.” He held her chin in one hand and pressed on the nape of her neck with the other. A click followed by the hiss of a vacuum seal releasing, allowed him to set her perfectly lifelike masque in its case on the end table and plug the firewire into the base of her electronic brain.
“Good night, Andrew.”
“I’ll see you in the morning, my dear, sweet Anjali. I know you need to be alone to recharge.”
“Thank you for understanding, Andrew.”
(Excerpt from novel)
by MamaSquid (aka Christy Moceri)
Ria left Jan panting in the alley, slamming the Haunt’s metal door behind her. Jan turned and bashed his fist into the brick, not thinking about Ellsworth prison, not thinking about anything but the painful jolt that rattled his bones. Again and again. That’s how he’d gotten through it then. That’s how he would… now… His breathing returned to baseline. The dark was so thick he could choke on it. No sense standing around brooding when he should focus on what truly mattered — getting his job back. Whether he’d lost Ria as an ally in that regard, he couldn’t say. But it was time to go home and regroup.
He headed south, toward the vast parking lot where he’d left his aircar. Step-drag. His prosthetic resisted every step, irritating him.
Jan’s ears perked. He was being followed. A mugger? Or had the wrong person recognized him as he strolled brazenly down the street? His chest tightened. It was probably a mugger.
One-step, two-step, three-step, stop.
Jan put his head down, straining to hear.
One-step, two-step, three-step, four-step – right behind him! Jan whirled with a sweeping blow. Something jerked hard over his face.
More than one—!
He’d backed into a trap. Hands seized his arms from behind. Jan struggled against the thick material over his head, his feet flailing.
“Over there,” one of them said.
He stilled, trying to orient himself. One in front, two behind? Three attackers. Al Nihel. Bits of gravel tore into his skin as they dragged him, half-shirtless, across the ground. If this was a hit job, it was a weird one. He thrashed, but it was futile. These men were powerful.
What in the ever-loving—
His head smacked the ground. Hands pinned him, two on each arm.
“We’re gonna keep this brief,” a voice growled. “And if you don’t cooperate, we’re gonna get nasty. Understand?”
Laughter bubbled out of him. “What da’rehn,” he screamed, “do you fuckers think you can do to me that hasn’t already been done?”
The hood came off. He saw nothing, just the faint flicker of a lamp beyond his feet. Cold metal pressed under his chin. “You laughing now?”
A knife. Great.
Rough hands pulled Jan’s shirt up, exposing his chest to the cool air. Click. Another sound he knew well. The calibration of a handheld stunner. If you jacked it up high enough, you could sear flesh.
The man on his left grunted. “What’s with the metal leg?”
“Take it off him.”
“No.” Jan seized. “No, don’t you dare—”
The stunner slammed into his sternum. His body spasmed. A fist smashed against his mouth. A familiar metallic taste ran warm against his tongue. Jan roared, adrenaline surging through him, and even pinned down, he was soaring.
“—carve his name into his flesh—”
“Hey man, calm down—”
Whoever had hold of his knee, trying to dislodge the prosthetic, got a metal foot to the face. “AAgh!”
Another jolt slammed his chest. This one hurt.
“WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME. Just get him to the car!”
A clamoring sound rose in the streets beyond. Distant at first, but roaring closer, angrier, until it sounded like they were inside the heart of a furnace.
“I called for backup,” Jan cackled.
“Shit! We have to go!”
”NOW!” The hands released him and the men scrambled away.
Hell no. One of these fools was coming home with him.
Jan’s metal foot shot out. He heard a crack and a scream and lunged. The assailant went sprawling on the pavement. He pulled the body toward him with a heave. The spark of the stunner lit up the darkness. Jan slammed the man’s elbow into the ground. The stunner went flying.
The assailant sprang up, silhouetted by the flickering lamp, and limped toward the street. The roaring monster appeared, lighting the alley like a runway. The assailant shrank from the behemoth machine as it rolled past. Jan laughed maniacally. Those morons were afraid of an automated street cleaner.
But it was a hell of a distraction.
Jan sacked the guy. The assailant bit gravel and Jan climbed on top of him, pummeling his head. Jan had no police bands, nothing for binding except — hell, his shirt, maybe? Jan bound the man’s wrists as well as he could. He pushed him back over.
A soft groan pierced the darkness. Jan’s fingers raked the man’s hips, trying to find and relieve him of any other weapon. No weapon. Small hips. He groped around curiously, following the hip’s curve inward and up into soft flesh — his captive released a panicked gasp at the sudden invasion. He pulled away in surprise. She was a woman.
She released an angry yell and raked her boot down the inside of his leg. But she only found unyielding metal.
He crushed his forearm against her windpipe. “Anything short of unconditional surrender and I will end you.”
She stilled. They were alone. Nothing but them both heaving in darkness.
“Your friends seem to have left you behind,” he chided.
She said nothing.
Jan rummaged in his lower pocket for the penlight he kept there. He shook it on, filling the darkness with a focused white light. “Who have we got here?”
He pulled off her mask. The light illuminated a single red eye. Two eyes. Eyes like fire spirits. Eyes that pulled you into a blazing inferno while you screamed for a mercy that never came. Tumultuous, crazy, swirling, shockingly red eyes. They made his brother’s look benign.
“No.” He swept the penlight over her again.
White face. White hair. Blinding white. Red eyes and white face.
The same red, the same white, that gutted his father and violated his mother. The same red, the same white, that spit out his brother, a pale imitation of the monsters whence he came.
It was a Thevor.
And she looked pissed.
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