Masks: A Multicultural Short Story
The Italian man with the dented nose, whose real name was Darren Belcher, stood at the counter of Sadie’s African Art in Mobile, Alabama, holding a 400-year-old Songhai Empire mask in one hand and an Italian-American dictionary in the other, but he didn’t have an Italian bone in his body.
Nevertheless, Darren said, “Buon giorno, signorina,” to Sadie, the store’s owner and only employee. She seemed as charmed as they all had been over the years by his false accent. Darren wore his best charcoal Pronto Uomo suit, black silk tie, and black Ferragamo oxfords. If he had had a carnation in his lapel, Darren could have been in all three Godfather movies and several episodes of The Sopranos.
Sadie, whose skin was almost as dark as Darren’s shoes, smiled broadly. “Hello,” she said. "How may I help you?"
Pure, Darren thought. This one is pure. There’s something pure about her eyes. She will definitely be a challenge. He smiled. “Mi chiamo Dominic D’Nunzio,” he said with a slight bow. “L’inglese non lo parlo troppo bene.”
Darren liked it when women were confused. His last conquest, Trina—or was it Tina?—the proprietor of a shop on Dauphine Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter , had told him his voice was “hot buttered grits smothered with Texas Pete.” Trina had been just as hot and buttery later that evening. Darren liked them spicy, and Sadie certainly looked spicy in her tight blue jeans and tighter golden T-shirt.
Dominic patted his chest twice with the mask. “I Dominic.”
Sadie nodded. “I’m Sadie.”
Darren smiled. “Sadie.”
Darren’s scam was simple, as most successful scams were. He flirted shamelessly as he bartered with shop owners who rarely knew the true value of their goods, and he sold his “steals” at ridiculously inflated costs to equally clueless buyers in New York, the Hamptons, and the Capes—wherever liberal, rich white people lived. He’d pay as little as he could for masks, spears, walking sticks, bolts of cloth, or figurines, and then he’d sell them for hundreds and even thousands of times more than they were worth.
Sadie’s shop was bursting with masks and artifacts from Nigeria’s Yoruba and Dogon; Mali’s Bambara; the Ivory Coast’s Senufo, Baule, and Dan; Gabon’s Fang; Zaire’s Kongo, Kuba, Luba, and Lega. Her masks from the Songhai, Kongo, and Kanem dynasties were at least 400 years old and maybe older.
“Um, Sadie, quanto costo?” He held out the mask. “Vorrei questo. Quando costo?”
“You want to know how much it costs?” she asked.
Sadie had a sweet voice, a voice honey would be jealous of, and Darren smiled broadly. He nodded repeatedly. “Cost. Yes. What cost is?”
“Nine,” Sadie said.
I could buy everything in this store for a thousand bucks and make a hundred grand or more, he thought. I love Alabama. He backed away from the counter to barter. “Nine?” He looked at the mask. “Is too much!” he said in his best broken English. “Vuole patate fritte?”
“Dominic, I don’t know what you mean,” Sadie said.
Of course, you don’t, Darren thought. I just asked if you liked fried potatoes. He smiled. “Um, questa sera diamo un rice vimento. Deve rimanere a letto, ecco la medicina.” He nodded his head. “Ecco la medicina.”
“Um, I really don’t know how we can …” She frowned. “I wish I understood you better.”
Oh, but you will later tonight, Darren thought. I just told you we’re having a party and that you must stay in bed because I have the medicine and will provide that medicine all night long.
He looked again at the mask, a mask he knew he could sell for ten thousand dollars or more with a single phone call. He shook his head. “Is too much. Nine ... too much.”
“Well,” Sadie said, “I might come down a little.”
He whipped open the Italian-American dictionary. “Dirty,” he said.
“Thirty?” Sadie said. “It’s not worth thirty.”
He set the mask on the counter and acted as if he were riffling the pages of the dictionary. “No, um, dirty.” He blew some dusk off the mask. “Dirty.”
She took the mask from him. “It’s just a bit dusty.” She squatted and reached under the counter, withdrawing a silken cloth. “It will clean up fine.” She rubbed the mask to a shine. “I can go as low as eight, but I’m losing money here. That’s my final offer.”
Darren shook his head to keep himself from laughing. Eight dollars for an actual piece of the Songhai Empire. He sighed. “Eight … is okay.”
“Eight,” Sadie said. “Plus tax.”
Darren withdrew his wallet and handed her his check card. “Eight.”
Sadie swiped the card and hit several buttons. She turned from the counter and began wrapping the mask in some delicate crepe paper.
I like this view very much, Darren said. Sadie is as sculpted as some of these carved statues are. I may buy one tomorrow to remind me of our night together.
Sadie carefully put the mask in a dark brown mud cloth bag and brought the bag to the counter. A receipt spit out of the credit card reader. She tore it off and another receipt rose. She tore that one off and flattened it on the counter, holding the top part of it down with her thumb.
Darren signed “Dominic D’Nunzio” at the bottom of the receipt. “Is bella.”
Sadie squinted as she put the signed receipt into the cash register, slipping his copy into the bag. “What’s bella?” She placed the bag in Darren’s free hand.
“You, um, bella,” Darren whispered. “Um, bella, beautiful, yes?”
Sadie smiled. “Are you saying that I’m beautiful?”
Easy pickings, Darren thought. “Yes. Sadie bella. We, um, we go eat?”
Sadie laughed. “I’m not hungry, Dominic, but thanks for the offer.”
Not so easy pickings, Darren thought. “Is, um, how you say, lonely here.”
Sadie laughed again. “I don’t think you’ll be lonely for very long.” She smiled. “Your receipt is in the bag. Have a nice day.”
Darren sighed. “But we have wine, bella Sadie.”
Sadie shook her head. “I don’t think wine goes with … potato fritters, was it?”
Darren blinked. “Che?” No way she knows Italian! he thought. Not way down here in Mobile, Alabama!
Sadie stared him down, leaning heavily on the counter. “I have my own nice bed, and I am in perfect health. I don’t need any of your medicine tonight.”
“Che?” Darren said again. She must have read the same travel book I did! Darren thought.
“I minored in Italian at the University of Alabama, and I speak it better than you ever will,” Sadie said. “Goodbye, Dominic, or whatever your name is.”
Defeated but undaunted, Darren left Sadie’s African Art. You win some, you lose some, he thought. But at least I will make a great deal of money later tonight. He reached into the bag and took out the receipt.
He nearly dropped the bag when he looked at the number on the receipt.
Darren Belcher had just paid $8,320 for an African mask.
What the … He sighed. She said eight, and I agreed to eight—plus tax. He nodded. She got me. He flapped the receipt in the air. And she could have taken me for thirty. I wonder why she didn’t. She could have.
Despite his major loss, Darren laughed. He returned to the window of Sadie’s African Art. He waved his hands until Sadie looked his way, and then he bowed deeply.
Sadie nodded her head once, a sly smile on her lips.
As Darren wandered back to his hotel, he thought, I just got taken by a woman who had a better mask than my own. He smiled. I think I’m in love.