My father wears a chicken mask every day. My father has always been weird. But now, with the mask, everyone knows it.
The mask is yellow with feathers and it’s lifelike, sort of a chicken hood that covers his eyes and nose and chin, the back of his head, his salt hair. He walks around like a full-grown chicken man, from the neck up.
Alone, even though he’s wearing the mask, I love my father with the full fist of my heart. Across from the dinner table, when the blinds are drawn so the neighbors know not to check on us, we are perfect. We are like fathers and daughters in TV shows, plus the chicken mask, minus my mother.
Everywhere else, he shames me. In the malls, I am red, embarrassed. His voice is rubber-feather-muffled and he slips smoothie straws into a wide dark mouth slit to taste the orange banana strawberry.
“Ehn eedt aeh neh sirt,” my father says.
“You do need a new shirt.”
My chicken-father’s shirt has a gaping hole over his heart. It looks as if moths have feasted there. When my mother was alive, he would not have gone on like this. Now, he has let the cold come in through that fabric door for five months.
“Alright, what color do you want?” I ask the mask.
I think: Thank god. It’s about time.
I take my father’s elbow and steer him toward a department store. His eyeholes are not very wide and he has trouble finding certain things. His driving is terrifying, since he’s become a chickenman. I want to wear six seatbelts now, but there is only one.
Alone, the shirt was passable. With the mask, he takes on the appearance of a lunatic mutant.
People stare, everywhere. I am only 17 years old. I do not know what to do. So I ask for sympathy with my smile, lying with my eyes, explaining silently, “He is blind, he is insane, take pity.”
In the store, no one comes to help us. It is the head that scares off department store sales clerks, waitresses, gas station attendants. Jehovah’s witnesses practically run from our front porch. The Jehovah’s witnesses never left easily before. With the mask, they flee.
My chickenfather and I exist in a new state of isolation with his mask. We are untouchable.
“Eu kneh eh wh ente t wll bnd.”
“You always want the twill blend.”
My father wears twill blend collared shirts like skin, permanent. He wears size XL, that is what the tags say. I pick up the navy blue and press it into his hands.
“Welcome,” I say.
I steer my father to the front of the store, the fluorescent lights blaring down on his feathers, making them a horror-yellow that scalds my eyes.
The cashier stares at my father as if he is the cover of a new issue of News of the World, as if he is BatBoy come to life. I lie with my eyes and exchange green paper for navy blue twill.
In the car, my father adjusts his rubber mask and sighs. He puts the car into gear, concentrating hard on the road, his pupils centered in the pinpricks.
I have concerns about his breathing in all of that rubber, about whether he is slowly suffocating. I worry about him.
He sleeps in the mask and some nights I wake up in a hot sweat with fear. I stumble down dark hallways, open bedroom doors, pet the yellow feathers softly, with a kind of relief that can only come after panic.
My father turns on the radio, and a melancholy song with acoustic guitars joins us. He sings along, in his rubber mouth language, tapping the steering wheel with his long, old fingers.
“Toiiiiyyyyyy ehm net hngeyyyyy banymorrrrrrr.”
I laugh, shove him on his shoulder.
“Knock it off, Dad. You sound like shit!”
He laughs and ruffles my hair, making the car swerve a little.
My father straightens the car and it hits me that I’m sitting where my mother would sit, if she were here, if there was no chickenmask.
A sweet sorrow thickens in my chest, building and rising to tears, which gather in my eyes but do not fall.
Sunlight comes through all windows.
My father the chickenman is still singing.
I do not remember my mother so much as force myself to forget her.
Where she existed, I have created a nothingness, bleaching her scent, her smile, her hands from my mind. My mother is a blank whiteboard.
My father does the opposite.
After dinner, two days later, after we eat poorly made tacos or macaroni and cheese, my father wears the chicken mask and sits on the couch, in his underwear. There is a space heater at his feet. I hate when he does this. But I sit on the recliner, my homework in my lap, and I don’t have the heart to tell him.
He puts the same cassette into the VCR, every time: A video of my mother in her wedding dress, with feathered hair, laughing with lacquered lips.
“Ha har lehkes cun chold,” my father says.
Her hair looks like spun gold.
I imagine there are tears under the mask.
“I know, Dad,” I say.
I want to hug him, but the bareness of his chest, the thickness of the hair, keeps me paralyzed. I look at the chickenface with sympathy, understanding, none of the things I feel when we are in the malls, grocery stores or fast food restaurants.
“Eht ehs lehke eiving whethot ahl lehmbs.”
It is like living without all limbs.
I do not like to be alone in the mornings, so after I am dressed, I go into my father’s room.
Usually, he reads the paper in bed, ink spread across the bedspread she chose.
This morning, the shower is running. My father does not shower with the mask on. The mask is on the bed, deflated, the pinpricks staring eyelessly up at the ceiling. Without my father, the chickenmask is limp, a new sort of pathetic.
Steam curls out from under the bathroom door. I hear my father shut off the water, and it stops.
Without thinking, I grab the mask and jam it into my purse. I run down the steps, heart pounding after me.
On the bus, I slip my hand into the purse and touch the feathers.
In homeroom, I sit the mask on my lap, looking down for similarities between the features of my father and the features of the chicken.
In science class, I ignore a lesson about the stars and hold the mask.
“Liz,” Mr. Fitzsimmons asks, stars behind him. “How many light years are stars away from the earth?”
I shrug, shake my head, say with my eyes “Not now.” He remembers and lets me slide by like something made of jello. He repeats the question to another girl named Gretchen VonDeesebrooke. Her mother is alive, I know that.
I slide my hand into the mask. The rubber is smooth, cool. I slip two fingers through the eyeholes and wiggle them.
Before art class, I go to the bathroom. It is empty and if it was full, it would not matter. Ever since my mother died, I don’t meet anyone’s eyes. I let my friends shed away after they stood before the casket with their parents.
The tile in the bathroom is grimy green, the stall doors warped peach metal.
In the mirror, I take inventory: Green eyes, brown hair, pudged nose, thin, scrawny lips. My mother is across my face. It has been three months. She will never leave my face, in features or pain.
Then I think of my father, where he is on my face. I slide my hand into my purse and wrap my fingers around the feathers. The mask is light in my hand as I pull it out. I stare at the dejected rubber and say, to no one, “Sqwack!”
Mirror-me moves her arms. She slides the chickenmask over my face and we both stare at the transformation.
“Thes ehs nehding lehke ah taugt.”
This is nothing like I thought.
In art class, everyone stares. Under the rubber, there are the features of me, my father and my dead mother. My breath bounces hot off the inside of the chicken. It smells sweet-sour, like the chocolate milk from the lunchroom gone warm.
The art teacher talks about the the time after the Renaissance, says men burned great paintings. I feel the weight of the feathers on my skull and the skin of my cheekbones.
The girl sitting next to me taps my shoulder.
“You look like a fucking maniac,” she says in a whisper. She has a streak of blue in her hair and a nose stud.
“Teancs, ou tewe, frehak.”
Thanks, you too, freak.
She does not understand me and shakes her head, facing the front of the room again, lip frozen in a disgust snarl.
It is liberating, the mask. I am not the girl with the dead mother. I am the girl with the chicken mask on.
In the halls, everyone points and laughs. They think I am joking. I feel like my father, as if we are some kind of team, the three of us. Me, my father, the chickenmask.
In study hall, the boys call me “Chickengirl” and throw wads of paper at my back. I smile behind the wall of rubber and feather. I have never been happier.
“Liz,” the teacher says. I roll my eyes in the mask. I can do that now. Openly, but secret. “Your father is here to see you. Go to the office.”
I nod and the mask nods too. I gather my notebook and purse. I walk to the office in controlled steps, not nervous like I would be without the mask.
Through the glass door, I see my father sitting in the office lobby. I only know it is him because of the navy blue twill. His face is covered by a paper bag with eye and mouth holes cut out.
I step into the office and my father jumps out of his seat.
“Liz,” he says, and I can understand him, not like when he was wearing the chicken mask. “Liz, thank god you have it. I’ve been tearing the house apart. I pulled up the carpet looking. I was about to pry up the floorboards.”
“Uah, ehts fehne. Ehv ahed eht.”
Oh, it’s fine, I’ve had it.
“Why did you take it from me?”
“Eha dhednt whent yeha teh cehp wehring eht.”
I didn’t want you to keep wearing it.
“Well, I want to wear it. I need to wear it. You can’t take something like that without asking. It’s just fucking rude.”
My father’s curse stings my skin. He usually speaks cleanly, churchpure, words like pews.
“Fehne, ehts juahst whented teh kneh whey euw lahvet it. Eh lehke eht twwu. Dehnt bhe mahht.”
Fine, I just wanted to know why you loved it. Don’t be mad.
“So... you like it?”
I nod and the chickenmask moves with me, the pinpricks sliding up and down, my paperbag father going in and out of sight.
“Eht fehls lehke ehm nejhune, lehke ehm freah.”
It feels like I’m no one, like I’m free.
“It feels like it felt before, huh? That’s what I always thought.”
I nod again, this time thinking of the orchids at my mother’s funeral, this time thinking of the way the men carried her body in wood.
“It’s like no one can get in there to bother you.”
I nod, this time more vigorously, the rubber bouncing hard.
“I know, kiddo.”
My father lets out a sigh, and this time it is muffled by brown paper, and sits down on the chair again. I sit next to him, tasting hot rubber breath.
“We can take turns,” he says. “Until we can get another mask. You wear the paperbag tomorrow. That seems fair.”
“Of course,” my father says.
There is a hole in his khakis, over the right knee.
I can see his eyes through the holes in the paperbag, blue, old, less sad.
Then the pinholes move and I can only see the wall, but I know that he is still there, in a mask, still like me.