Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Masks: Stores from a Pandemic
by Peter Cherches
Bamboo Dart Press
$7.99, 48 pages, ISBN: 978-1947240391, March 2022
Peter Cherches is widely recognized as one of the innovators of short-short fiction. Billy Collins has praised his work. His new collection of sixteen flash fictions justifies this reputation. Set in New York City, the epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic when it first came to the United States in 2020, these stories all involve masks – cloth masks, surgical masks, N95s, KN95s, you name it; wearing them on the subway, at the grocery, in the post office, outdoors, standing in line, at home. Some of the stories involve dreams, others are based on encounters with acquaintances not necessarily recognizable behind the face-shield.
“On the Subway” is about the protagonist’s first subway ride since the pandemic began, when cautious people were mindful of social-distancing and the spread of the virus. “I’d been working from home in March, in April I was furloughed, and in July I was permanently laid off.” He has to go retrieve his personal effects before they are trashed. This involves a subway ride, the subway “a nest of unknowns” that could trigger anxiety attacks. He witnesses the various scofflaws, a guy with a mask over his mouth but not his nose, riders without masks, etc. And then suddenly the random “entertainers,” knowing a captive audience when they see one, start to act out, and the anxiety starts to kick in. Only, the protagonist, prepared for the worst, is surprised by what occurs next.
And this is the beauty of Cherches’ stories, and the flash fiction genre in general, the Pop! of the flashbulb with an unexpected ending. Call them “denouement,” or call them “punchlines,” they’re the element that gives so much satisfaction to these little gems.
The first story, for instance, “Back to School,” involves a dream of being in school again, and the mask is the source of the dream-anxiety. It’s “the great pandemic of 1965,” a dream flashback to the protagonist’s childhood, and one of the children, Scot the Snot, is maskless in the backrow. When the teacher, Miss Valentine, asks him where his mask is, he tearfully confesses he’s snotted all over it., which doesn’t excuse him, of course, but then another kid, Johnny Involtini, defiantly discards his mask. He’s one of the tough guys, “both of whose parents voted for Goldwater.” All hell is about to break loose, but then the narrator wakes from his dream – with a runny nose. Similarly, “At the Post Office,” “One of the Family,” “A Chip Off the Old Block” and others blaze with unanticipated but clarifying endings.
“At the Post Office” is hilarious for its spot-on depiction of the unbending, officious rules of the government bureaucracy, shuffling from line to line, ignored by personnel. “There were markers on the floor, decals of shoes, spaced at 6-foot intervals. It reminded me of those diagrams for dance instruction.” The ending is only too fitting when after waiting minutes on end for the clerk to do her job, the mistake in the grand process becomes all too clear, and completely in character. “One of the Family” ends with the dog owner, out walking her Jack Russell, a mask over the poor animal’s snout – about which it is obviously not very pleased – sniffing the protagonist’s butt.
“A Statement” considers the political uses of masks. True, their primary function is to stop the spread of the virus, but they can also be used to make a joke, a statement, a philosophical observation. The protagonist has chosen a face-covering with the iconic photograph of the devastated young woman kneeling beside the body of the slain student at Kent State in 1970, shot down by National Guardsmen. It’s not clear what the narrator’s point is in choosing that particular mask, but the trouble is, nobody seems to notice or care, until some buskers interrupt their performance and improvise, bursting out into Neil Young’s famous protest song. Four dead in O-hi-o. Four dead in O-hi-o…
“Forgetful” is another anxiety dream story, the uncomfortable dream scenario being out in public and “All of a sudden I realized I was out without a mask.” The protagonist tells us, “I felt very self-conscious. I’m not carrying my weight in the social contract, I thought.” The anxiety is always unbearable in these dreams, a variation on discovering you’re naked at work, though nobody’s noticed yet. It’s the anxiety many of us felt – and still feel – in public situations vis-a-vis masking.
While rooted in the very realistic fact of masks, the trope that binds this collection together, their public health benefits and the etiquette of wearing them that sprang up, the need to clarify the rules, etc., several of the stories, such as “At the Supermarket” and “A Chip Off the Old Block” contain surreal elements – a walking, scheming skin growth, like something out of Gogol, or a ten-year-old doppelganger by the Progresso soup grocery display. In “Research” the publisher of a scholarly journal called Studies in Identity Studies calls out of the blue (“I don’t usually pick up calls from unfamiliar numbers, I let them go to voice mail, but I was expecting a call from Unemployment to discuss a problem with my claim”) to interview “Dr. Cherches” about his article, “Mask-Wearing and the Crisis of Self-Identity”; only, the protagonist has written no such article! But it’s an intriguing topic, and he goes along. This story, too, ends with an observation that causes a snicker.
Masks: Stories from a Pandemic is a satisfying read that takes a reader’s mind, however briefly, away from his or her anxieties. Pop!
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.