This is a true story.
Last weekend my old college roommate stopped by for a visit. He had aged considerably (grayer, balder, fatter, noticeably thicker glasses) but after thirty years, who hadn’t? My wife Betty and I had just finished dinner and were settling in to watch the one weekly TV show she is passionate about, when he arrived completely out of the blue. The set was turned off and I sent Betty into the kitchen to reheat the leftovers. From the look she gave me I knew there’d be hell to pay later, but I never have any friends over and George (that’s his name) was one of my oldest.
While Betty reheated the meatloaf, George and I stayed in the living room by the fire. I opened a bottle of wine and watched him drink nearly all of it. He wasn’t too keen on conversation, nor for the plate of hot food Betty set before him, but instead spent most of his time agitatedly pacing. He seemed particularly interested in our floor to ceiling bookshelves displaying the arcane volumes of folklore and bric-a-brac we had collected during our travels; mine especially, when I was young.
“Where’s that old Mexican mask you used to have, Jim?”
“Oh right, the mask. I don’t know what ever happened to that.”
“What?” George turned to me, his face ashen. “Well, it’s gotta be here, right? Old Jim doesn’t throw anything away, right Betty?”
Betty stood on the threshold between the kitchen and living room with folded arms. “That’s right,” she said. “Is something wrong, George? You seem upset.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” my pale and now profusely sweating friend insisted. “I’d just really like to take a look at that mask, that’s all. I remember when Jim brought that thing back from Mexico. Remember, old man, you told me all about it.”
I did remember suddenly, although God knows I hadn’t thought about it in over twenty years. “I got it at the occult market in Mexico City: the Mercado de Sonora.”
“That’s it!” George exploded from across the room. “I never forgot that thing. Where is it, Jim?…Maybe?” He moved into the narrow hallway where we keep more shelves stacked with odds and ends. Betty followed him.
“I remember now,” she said, stopping him before he opened our bedroom door. “We moved it to the storage unit years ago.”
It wasn’t a lie. That’s where it was, along with many of my beloved items that didn’t make it past Betty’s decorator’s eye.
George brushed past her and returned to the living room. “Hey, old man, up for a drive?”
“What?” Came Betty’s voice from the hall. “It’s supposed to snow tonight?”
“Where’s your storage unit, old man?” George, said, ignoring her incredulity. “Whataya say we go get that mask, huh?”
“It’s a thirty-minute drive, George. Look, have some more wine.”
George drank down the full glass I handed him in one gulp. “What’s the name of the place, Jim?”
I didn’t remember.
“Out-of -Sight Storage,” Betty’s flat voice called from the bedroom.
“You up for it, old man?”
“I’m not driving out there now.”
George’s eyes darted around the room. He was sweating so hard steam was forming on his glasses. Then quick as lightning he was out the door and running to his car. I followed him. The promise of snow was being realized in light clouds of flurries spiraling in the frigid air.
“George, come back inside. You don’t look so good. Why don’t you stay the night. We’ll go over there tomorrow and look for that mask.”
“I can’t wait, Jim!”
I had no idea what was going on in his head, but I knew him well enough to know there was no stopping him. I pulled the key ring from my pocket and removed the storage locker key and handed it to him. Attached to its face was a sticker with the storage unit’s address.
George’s face lit up. “I knew I could count on you.” He jumped in his car, and I watched his red taillights disappear into the snowy night.
When I returned to the house, Betty was drinking the last of the wine in the chair by the fire, her feet curled up under her.
“What the hell was that all about?” I asked her.
“I don’t know, but I hope he hauls all that junk out of there.”
* * *
A few days later we received word from his wife that George had died in a car accident. Betty and I were both distraught, overcome with sudden guilt. When I apologized to his wife for allowing him to drive away from our house on Sunday night when he had been drinking and the weather was so bad, she told me I was mistaken. George’s car had careened off a country road and hit a tree near their town, nearly one hundred miles from our home, on Sunday morning. We assumed she was confused in her grief and didn’t push the issue, but instead expressed how deeply sorry we were.
The following day, the landlord of the storage unit called saying something about a suspected robbery. Betty and I went out there and found the door to our unit ajar, and all the things we had neatly stored there now in piles on the floor and spilling out into the concrete hallway. Some items were broken, some appeared to be torn apart in a wild frenzy.
In the midst of this confusion, Betty slapped the side of her head, and said, “That mask isn’t here. Remember I threw it out because it terrified the kids? I put it out on the curb, and someone just took it. Remember you got so mad about that?”
I did remember. Just as I remember telling George over thirty years ago what the old witch at the Mercado I bought it from had told me: El que lleva la máscara nunca morirá. He who wears the mask will never die.