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The Stories Behind the Masks

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Competition Entry: Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, 2000

"I see a man in your future." 

A smile crossed the young woman’s face. Skeptical at first, her apprehension easily dissolved as soon as she heard her desires would be met. 

Madam Francessa was accomplished at asking the right questions, reading expressions, and predicting what the tourists wanted to hear. This eager lover had been an easy read.

“Really? When? What does he look like?” Her rapid-fire questions proved the fortune teller had been right. 

“I can only say that he will appear when you least expect him, my dear. Keep your heart open.”

“I will, and thank you!” The young woman exited the shop with an extra swing of her hips. 

The masked man hiding behind the curtain smiled, having listened to the exchange. Then he followed the lovely woman in the purple dress out the door. 

Hanging back at an unnoticeable distance, he followed her for the next hour. She entered Royal Masks and purchased a mask. He then purchased the same color and style, except his covered the entire left side of his face. 

Once outside, he switched his masks, and in those few moments, a bystander caught a glimpse of his face. Her reaction was a reminder of the necessity of his mask. Wanting to distance himself from the stranger's stares, he rushed to catch up with the woman in purple. Upon reaching her, he leaned against a wall, enjoying watching the lively sway of her hips as she listened to the music pulsing on Bourbon Street. After a while, more people crowded around her, and she became unsettled and quickened her footsteps, attempting to escape those bumping shoulders with her. Difficult as it was, he kept up with her, waiting to see where she'd finally land. 

The growing chaos on Bourbon Street had rattled her nerves, so Serafina walked into the old brick-and-mortar with a wooden sign titled "Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar" hanging near the door. 

"Great minds think alike, I see." 

She turned to see a man wearing the same style of a gold mask as her, outlined in purple sequins with matching feathers as the headpiece. The only difference was hers stopped below her eyes, and his mask extended toward his jaw, covering the left side of his face. She giggled. "Well, this isn't nearly as embarrassing as a woman showing up in the same dress." 

"Well, I'm glad I decided against my dress then." 

She laughed, examining his muscled pecs and biceps, stretching the stitches on his button-down shirt. "I'm not sure you have the body to pull off this dress." 

He eyed her dress, a festive Mardi Gras purple fabric clinging to her petite curves and dropping dangerously low in the front. 

"You're right. I think you wear this dress better than anyone." Then, he flashed her a broad smile, lowering his tone to barely above a whisper. "You're stunning." 

"Thank you." She wished her mask covered her blushing cheeks. 

He extended his hand, "I'm Mark, by the way." 

She accepted his hand, and their touch lingered longer than a casual handshake.

"I'm Serafina." 

"Serafina. A beautiful name suited to a beautiful lady." 

"Are you dodging the street party too?" she asked.

"I am. My age might be showing, but I do not love the pounding percussion and squealing bead beggars as much as I used to." 

She nodded her head, smiling. "I feel the same way." 

"Maybe we're kindred Spirits?" A flirtatious tone clung to his words.

"Hmmm. Remains to be seen, you buy me a Sazarac, and we'll find out." 

Mark ordered two drinks and then suggested they sit in a cozy nook by the fireplace. 

Once seated, he asked, "So, how does a beautiful woman like yourself wind up alone at Mardi Gras?" 

She gathered her courage, then confessed, "A not-so-long story. I work in IT and thought the world might end in 2000, but my marriage crashed and burned instead." Taking a large swig of her drink, she added, "The divorce I hadn't prepared for." 

"I'm so sorry." His heart sunk, seeing the hurt in her beautiful blue eyes, and he covered her hand with his.

"We had planned this trip." Her voice cracked with emotion, and she looked away. "I decided to come anyway, showing myself he hadn't broken me." 

He gently reached over to turn her chin, forcing eye contact again. "And I'm so glad you did." 

She wiped a tear from her eye, then reached for her mask. "Now that you know I'm not as together as I look, shall we remove our masks?" 

He reached up and gently stayed her hand. "Let's leave them on and keep a bit of mystery, shall we?" 

She glanced around at the ambiance. Dimly lit candles adorned the tables, low-lighting the bar and casting shadows on the stone floors. The exposed, weathered brick walls remained barren.

“Yes, keeping some mystery seems to fit in with our surroundings.” 

Mark proved reluctant to share the details of his life, but Serafina didn't mind because his unwavering interest in her life was the thread needed to restitch her broken heart. His attentions gave her hope that there would be men after her ex-husband. 

When they finished their Sazaracs, Mark ordered a purple voodoo daiquiri with two straws and they cuddled closer together with noses bumping while they sipped their drink. He longed to kiss her but forced himself to wait for the right moment. His timing was very important. So, he remained content to hold her hand, rub the flesh exposed in the low-cut back of her dress, and run his fingers through her shoulder-length blonde hair.

An inconspicuous piano player entertained them with soft music — a stark contrast to the pulsating beats found outside its humble doors — while Serafina returned affections of her own. She softly raked her nails up and down his thigh and lay her head on his shoulder while they listened to the music. 

As was Mark’s life, those types of interactions were never everlasting. As the clock ticked toward midnight, he realized he was like Cinderella, and his magical night had to end, casting him back into reality. He wouldn't be able to see Serafina again. 

He turned toward her, caressing her cheek with the back of his hand. "Sweet Serafina, believe me when I tell you that you are worthy of love and will find it. Now, will you close your eyes, please?"

Noticing his more serious tone, she became concerned. "Why?" 

"Just oblige me." He flashed the smile she'd grown addicted to over the last few hours. "And no peeking." 

Trusting him, she closed her eyes. 

He leaned in to kiss her lips. One taste fueled another and another until both were breathless. With her eyes still closed, he fled the bar. 

Once home, Mark walked into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror. He inhaled a deep breath, then slowly exhaled while removing his mask as if it would help ease the pain. 

It didn’t. 

The grotesque reflection in the mirror still rattled him, especially after wearing his mask. Mardi Gras was always a respite from his hideous reality. Let him live life as a different person… at least for a while. 

Mardi Gras, 2006

Robert had lost everything in Katrina. Not one thing had survived the devastating flood of his home, and like many, the last six months had killed his spirit. The entire life he'd built — washed away within a few days. 

Then, on February 28, 2006, the Krewe of Zulu physically and emotionally elevated him above his despair when they named him an honorary float rider for his bravery during the hurricane. The members greeted him at sunrise with a grass skirt and soaring, feathered headdress to wear on the float. After dressing, his face was covered in their customary black paint with the signature white-painted eye, paying homage to the fierce Zulu people of southern Africa. 

Maybe his costumed outside would help reenergize his insides. Looking in a mirror, he was unrecognizable. Perfect. He'd relish becoming someone else, even for a few hours. 

Glancing at the streets littered with green, purple, and gold plastic, he predicted that someday the weight of the beads would sink the city, but until then, a swarm of people still poured into New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. The abrupt change from the hurricane had been crippling, so the constant of Mardi Gras brought back a sense of normalcy. 

As the float carried him along St. Charles Avenue, his face finally remembered how to smile. The vitality of the parade watchers proved uplifting. So full of life. Hope. Scanning their faces, he couldn't tell who had lost it all or escaped Katrina’s wrath. It seemed joy at Mardi Gras was as contagious as the flu, and people refused to let the culture of New Orleans be swept away by the storms. 

His chest puffing with pride, he knew then that his city would always prevail. Rebuild. Learn. He'd always call it home, whether living in a FEMA trailer or otherwise. 

From his perch above the street, the perpetually inebriated Mardi Gras crowd surprised him. Instead of pushing and shoving people surrounding the floats, some moved aside and made way for others. And while tossing the highly coveted hand-painted coconuts to the waving hands of revelers, they yelled, "Thank you!" instead of "Gimme!" In those moments, the cracks in his heart started to mend. 

Mardi Gras, 2023

Billy turned up his shoe to see what he'd stepped in. The sound of retching from a bent-over man a few steps ahead gave him his answer, and he wrinkled his nose.  

After walking another block, he gave up on finding clean places to step and puttered ahead, crunching green, purple, and gold beads and slipping on spilled booze, all while cringing at picturing Momma's wrath when she saw what had become of his church shoes. 

Billy wore his nicest brown trousers, Daddy's suit coat, and the mask Momma had made for him. She made his mask out of black cloth, and it tied behind his head. To most, it looked more like a mask for the Lone Ranger than Mardi Gras. And Momma didn't fool Billy — he knew its purpose. She didn't want to risk anyone they knew recognizing him. According to her, the Devil didn't go down to Georgia but to Mardi Gras. 

He wondered what kind of people lurked behind those fanciful masks worn by people bumping into him and hoopin' and hollerin' around him. Had Momma been right to want to keep him from Bourbon Street? 

Moreover, he wondered where he'd play his music. Musicians had already squished into every nook and cranny on both sides of the street. He finally came upon an unoccupied crevice and wedged himself in it. 

Gathering his courage, Billy stood nice and tall and blew his horn, starting with his favorite song he'd made up. His tone had sounded rich in the quiet of the bayou but couldn't compete with the other music blaring from every corner along with the noisy partygoers. He inhaled a deep breath and tried again with no better results. 

Amplified music from brass bands, percussion, and clubs drown him out. No one even looked his way. Except… 

A lady wearing at least fifty strands of plastic beads wobbled toward him. His heart jumped, thinking maybe she was about to hand him a tip. Instead, she raised her top. 

Oh my goodness! After an initial peek, he clenched his eyes shut for a few moments, then peeked, and seeing she'd moved on, he abruptly fled his cubbyhole. 

With his chin dragging the ground, Billy kept walking, not stopping until he was free of the crowds. 

He found an empty bench under a lamppost and plopped down, frowning and pressing the finger buttons on his trumpet.   

A gravelly voice spoke from behind him. "Boy, that trumpet needs your mouth to go with your fingers."

He turned his head to see a man sharing his skin color, dressed in a dark suit with a regal sheen, holding his trumpet by his side. 

"I don't feel like playing anymore," Billy grumbled, looking down at his trumpet.

The man moved around to face Billy, peering at him through his red and black papier-mache eye mask matching his bow tie. "Well, why not? Tonight is the best night of the year to play."

"Nobody listened to me. Not one person could even hear me." 

"Where were you?" 

"Bourbon Street." 

A different voice boomed from behind him, chuckling. "Well, what do you expect? It's Mardi Gras. Nobody gets all the attention on Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras." 

"I was wondering when you'd show up, Joe." The first man nodded to the second heavier-set man and then looked at Billy. "I'm Louis, and this here's Joe, or King, as some call him."

Billy looked from face to face, noticing the second man, Joe, carried a trumpet too. He was dressed in a faded black suit with a simple black tie, reminding him of pictures of his grandfather. 

"I'm Billy. I guess I expected something different. It's my first time here, and I had to beg Momma to let me come." He lifted his trumpet. "I just wanted some people to hear me play. I'm used to playing for gators." 

King gestured to Louie and himself and chuckled again. "Well, we're people. Play something for us. And unlike them gators, we won't bite you if we don't like what you play." 

Despite their encouragement, Billy was hesitant but decided he couldn't pass up a chance to play for someone in New Orleans. Gathering his nerves, he took a deep breath and then played his horn.

When he finished, both men clapped. "Nice beats, my boy. Maybe try it again with a faster tempo," Joe encouraged, flashing a wide grin. 

Billy played his song again, upping the tempo. 

King boomed, "That's it! Your rhythm's got my toes a-tappin' now,'' while twisting his right ankle from front to the right, tapping the cobblestone.

Louie looked at Joe, smiling. "And this cat's got some pretty good lip slurs." 

Billy's face lit up. "Really? You liked it? It's jazz, you know." 

Both men laughed, and Louis said, "We know a thing or two about Jazz, don't we, Papa Joe?" 

“Boy, some music touches your ears,” King leaned in, poking Billy in the chest with his crooked finger, “but jazz… it touches your soul.”

Billy smiled, his confidence growing. "Wanna hear some more?" 

"Now this cat's talkin'. Stand up, close your eyes… feel the music in your heart. Have fun with it." Louis patted his heart through his black jacket. "Leave the world behind and love them notes."

Billy stood, closed his eyes, and played with a passion he'd never felt. Thoughts of the bayou left his mind. He forgot about his disappointment on Bourbon Street. And felt the vibrations from his music… maybe for the first time.

When he finished, Louie beamed, "Now, that's the way to play! Feeling better, Billy?" 

"Sure am, just wished I'd made some tips." 

"Now I'll tell you the truth about money. Making money ain’t nothing exciting to me. You might be able to buy a little better booze than the wino on the corner. But you get sick just like the next cat, and when you die, you’re just as graveyard dead as he is," said Louis.

King rubbed elbows with Louis, roaring laughter rolling up from his big belly. "Don't we know that's the truth." 

"Hey, where'd you get your mask? I've never seen one like that before," asked Louie.

"Momma made it. I think she didn't want anyone to recognize me." 

Louie chuckled. "Masks are perfect for cats like me and Joe who don't wanna be recognized either." 

King fussed, straightening his rigid purple and gold eye mask with a crown attached. "Yours looks more comfortable than mine, Billy."

Billy smiled, liking his mask a bit more, then looking at their trumpets, he had an idea. "Hey, why don't y'all play something?" 

King winked at Louie. "How about some 'Canal Street Blues'?" 

He counted them, and they blew Billy's ears off with their jazzy tune. The beat had him tapping his feet and gave him a twitch in his hip. Before he knew it, his hips swung back and forth with the melody.   

The three played their trumpets, humming along with the notes and letting the good times roll. They succeeded in drowning out the distant music permeating the air as their trumpets filled the night with their own style of jazz. 

Time flies when you’re having fun, and time ran away from Billy. He panicked when he finally took a break to glance at his watch. "Oh, shoot, I have to be getting home. Promised Momma I'd leave at midnight."

"That means It’s time for us to get back where we belong too," said Louis.

All of the sudden, King pulled an object from the bell of his horn and handed it to Billy. "Here's a little something for you to play around with. It's called a mute." 

Billy handled the mute, beaming with excitement. "Thanks! And thank you for listening to me play. I sure hope I can be like you both someday." 

King pulled him into a bear hug, and Louis slapped his back, saying, "Now, I didn't ever wanna be anyone but me, and don't you ever wanna be anyone but you!" 

Nodding, Billy said goodbye before turning to walk away. After a few steps, he turned just in time to see Louis and King dissolve into flecks of gold, hands still holding their trumpets. 

Written by WriterGirl
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