Simon was in a bad mood.
He was perched on an old leather stool beside the glass cabinet at the back of the shop, reading a week-old USA Today that a tourist had left on the counter that morning.
Why would a cruise ship tourist be carrying around such an outdated newspaper while on land, and why would they leave it in the shop as if the shop was a rubbish bin? Well, in some ways it was a rubbish bin, with the kind of products they brazenly had on display at Simple Simon’s Authentique Antiques. But that was by the by.
The world outside the island seemed to be going crazy. Simon avoided news because it was usually distressing and incomprehensible. He would rather light a twizzler and watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta than read about the American election and other catastrophes, like melting ice caps, wars, and droughts.
He couldn’t avoid all unpleasantness. His mother, for example, was currently in the hospital with some kind of ovarian cyst, which had to be removed. Simon knew very little about cysts, and even less about ovaries, but he was concerned. His mother hated the hospital and did nothing but complain. She desperately needed a twizzler, probably more so than Simon.
Simon could see the steam rising from the smokestack of the only remaining ship in the harbour. It was scheduled to depart again in about two hours. Once it did, he would take his mother a pineapple. She loved pineapples.
The bell on the top of the shop door jangled, and Simon could see, since there was a deliberately clear line of sight from the back counter to the front entrance, two people wander inside. She had a small guide book of some kind in her hands. He wore a bum pouch. The last trickle of the last Carnival ship, so Simon’s last chance to score big on this Thursday morning.
He took a wooden mask from the display case and started to slowly polish it with his handkerchief and a bit of spit.
“Hey,” said the woman, “Parlay voo san glaze?”
Inexplicably, the woman seemed to think French was spoken on the island. Inexplicably too, Simon responded with a broad Australian accent.
“Hello mate, I reckon I speak English as well as the next bloke!”
“Oooh, are you English?” she asked.
Simon’s mother had carefully instructed him, since as far back as he could remember, that the tourists and customers in the shop were to be treated with courtesy and respect. Well, she wasn’t around. She had faulty ovaries. Simon was in charge.
“No darlin, I’m an escapee from Oz,” said Simon. He carefully placed a soft felt cloth over the mask.
The woman and man exchanged glances. Truly this was a foreign English. People really were backward sometimes.
“Whad’ya have there?” asked the man, nodding at the mask under the felt cloth.
“Nothing, mate, nothing you would be interested in.” Simon got to his feet. “But let me show you these pretty ceramic tiles over here…” and he started to lead him towards the wall behind the postcard rack, where scenes from the island were colourfully painted on tile by craftspeople in China.
“I’m not interested in tile,” said the man.
“Gilbert collects artifacts,” said the woman.
“Artifacts, eh?” said Simon. “I dunno…” He returned to the counter, but didn’t lift the cloth. “Did Polly send you here?”
“Polly, yes! From the boat!” said the woman.
Simon carefully removed the cloth and stowed it under the counter. He opened a drawer and took out a tiny vial of linseed oil. He tipped the bottle onto his handkerchief and carefully polished small area near the white onyx eyes, where a sliver of stained teak had come away, revealing the new wood beneath. The oil would disguise this flaw, for awhile.
“This was just brought in, “ said Simon in a hushed tone.
“What is it?” the woman asked. “I mean, besides a mask.”
“This is the only actual Masque du Saint Chemise that I have ever laid eyes on,” said Simon. “It is a native piece, probably crafted circa 1642, when Christian missionaries first arrived to the island.”
The man reached his hand as if to touch it, and Simon gently pulled it away. “It was first a fertility symbol, but in time, because of some remarkable stories, it became famous for something else. Can you guess what it brings now?”
“Good luck?” asked the woman.
“Pre-SAUCE-ly!” said Simon. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a small typewritten sheet from a short stack of similar papers.
Masque du Sainte [sic] Chemise, the heading read, typed out on the authentically antique Remington typewriter in the back room. The letters were charmingly irregular in spacing and ink saturation.
Found Feb 15, 20—
Near arch. site Volcano rd
Ref Digest 14, 16, 22 Vols 3-6
Oral, picto. history
Auth. [illegible signature]
“That a price tag?” asked the man.
There was indeed a number scribbled with a blue ballpoint pen on a small adhesive label just below the chin of the mask: US1400.
Simon carefully peeled off the label and pitched it into the trash can. “Can’t rightly put a value on a piece like this,” he said.
“I’ll give you 200 for it,” said the man. “US dollars, cash.”
Simon sighed. He got the felt cloth from under the counter and delicately covered the face of the mask again. “I have other artifacts,” he said helpfully. Can you see the musket ball in the cabinet here? Also some maps reclaimed when the—“
“Let me see it again,” said the man.
Simon stared at the man for a moment, then peeled back the cloth. The oil had given the wood a rich, warm patina. The onyx eyes glimmered. He smiled a little, admiring his own workmanship.
The man and woman retreated to the ceramic tile corner for a private discussion. Simon again replaced the felt cloth, then returned to the week-old USA today, turning the page to look for the crossword.
Ten minutes later, Simon recounted the money, and put Polly’s cut into a white business envelope. After the ship sailed, he disappeared into the back room and brought out another teak and white onyx mask, carefully placing it behind glass in the display cabinet.
He felt a little better. He would use the newspaper for kindling in the coal stove. He would watch it burn, remembering the woman’s response about Simon’s comment on the USA Today headlines. “No,” she had said. “The world is not going crazy. It is finally turning around.” Simon covered the mask in bubble wrap and laid it in a cardboard box that was just a bit too small. He said nonthing.
Mama would be proud.