Books are like mile-markers in my history. I departed for Navy bootcamp reading Dante’s Inferno (“Abandon hope, all who enter here”–coincidence?). I discovered Lovecraft at the base library in Naples, Italy. Hemingway’s short stories in one volume bridged me back to civilian life after eight years of wearing the crackerjacks. And during my first and only October as a headset-wearing message-relayer with National Communications, I was in the middle of The Phantom of the Opera.
In those days, I loved office Halloween parties. Really. I’d dress up as every historical pirate, Black Sam Bellamy, Edward Teach with the cannon fuses twisted in his beard, Bart Roberts with the gold cross around his neck. I had more pirate costumes hanging in my closet than regular clothes.
And this party went well at first: people laughed, glasses clinked, music pounded from the boombox on the refreshment table.
Then a cape-wearing, plastic-fanged Bela Lugosi look-alike wrinkled up his nose and said: “There’s that smell.”
“What smell?” I asked through my fake beard.
But I knew what he was talking about. The call center had always had this odor about it, just strong enough to be noticeable. Some employees thought it was mildewed carpet, or maybe that something had died under the building.
One of the team leads, dressed as Scarlett O’Hara with a red dress and long black wig, ambled up to us, fanning herself with a Japanese fan. “I think it’s Elbert.”
Now Elbert was a man. That much, we knew. And it was all anyone could know by looking at him. He kept strictly to himself, always wearing sunglasses big enough to cover half his face, and a red knit cap pulled over his head. Once, when I stood beside him at the men’s room sink, I saw every visible inch of his face plastered with flesh-tone makeup. He was also the only one who wore long sleeves and gloves regardless of the temperature, and the gloves covered even his fingertips. That had to make typing difficult, especially if you’re doing it over and over for call after call, taking messages. His voice never got too loud, barely a murmur, as if he wanted to hide that, too.
I never knew much of his history except that, supposedly, he’d worked for the government on some kind of “chemical project.” I don’t need to tell you the name of it, because by now you’ve heard of it. Everyone has.
Operator-assisted text messaging was waning by this time, and the place had more cubicles than operators. Elbert always sat in a deserted area, with empty cubicles all around him. I walked past him sometimes, and he always cringed and huddled up like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. I’d never actually spoken to him, and I got the idea that if I tried, he’d bolt.
But now I, and Scarlett, and Bela, stiffened as the smell grew stronger. And a voice that had hardly ever risen above a whisper now crowed, “Hi everybody!”
And for no particular reason, something from The Phantom of the Opera sprang to mind.
It was a scene I’d read just that day. A costume ball like tonight, attended by the phantom. Every other time of the year he has to hide his deformity, the noseless death’s-head face that once got him a carnival job as “the living corpse.” But at a Halloween bash, with everyone in costume, he can come as he is, the one time he can emerge from his shell. Everyone would think his face was just a particularly grody mask…
People stopped talking. The place fell silent. Eyes opened wide. Scarlett dropped her fan, and her gloved hand flew to her mouth.
Slowly I turned around, knowing he’d left his sunglasses back wherever he lived, and pulled the cap off his head, and wiped away the makeup, and…
And almost smashed the door down flying out of there. And never went back.
That did it for me as far as Halloween parties. It would be days before I even got my appetite back. Never again!
But it made no difference, of course. You know that. This was in the beginning.
Before long, the Elberts of the world…would be coming to all of us.