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The Permanence of Masks Christopher Origer On the boundary ofyour town it stands, a palisade ofconscientious signs bolted to posts or nailed to trees. Maybe you've read such messages of tolerance and hope elsewhere, in big cities and smaU towns across the country : The City ofBrotherly Love. The Good Neighbor City. Maybe you remember skimming the messages on roadside signs that are attributed to faceless individuals: "A Good Place to Live" says no one in particular. Such signs possess a direct, simple-hearted appeal that welcomes the weary travelerjust arriving at the front gates. Sometimes the sponsors can be found on the sign—the local chamber ofcommerce, the local churches, the fraternal organizations with their lions, closed circles, and other symbols suggesting unity. Judging by appearances, most of these signs are maintained. Like an epigraph , the message they present is an imphcit promise, suggesting what one may hope to find within. Or not. It is over twenty-five years ago, whüe I am living in North Carolina; I am far from the boundaries ofa town I must pass through. It's Aprü and the sky is probably briUiant. The day is fuU of promise: I am thinking of home, my thoughts unclouded, heading north on leave from the Marines. I have been driving west on Route 70 from Newbern for too long. Memory seems to suspend time, making aU these drives long and tedious. Once I hit bare country, I become luUed by the steady tick oftires along the flat, plain landscape of tobacco fields. On either side of the road, etched against the horizon , is the lumpiness of orange earth that has just been plowed or planted, or perhaps there is already the broad green leaf oftobacco plants—memory is clever in the way it veils the truth, and I seem to recall several trips along this same route during those years. I know from a map spread out on the 137 138Fourth Genre front seat I am somewhere near the junction I wül take to head into Virginia, then through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and eventuaUy New York. Somewhere near Selma, perhaps. I am eager to make good time on the trip; I want to be home before midnight. Since the last town, I've been looking for some landmark that wiU tell me exactly where I am. A shape ahead looms out of the fields and, as I continue driving, I recognize the rectangular silhouettes of signs. As I get closer I see it is just one sign, an enormous biUboard,jutting out straight from the field surrounding it. In the years that wül eventuaUy bury this moment, I wül forget the name of the town I was in before I arrived here; I wiU forgot the month—I say April, but it could also be May. The tobacco in broad leaf seems to make it later in the year, an impossibility I wiU even forget which car I am driving. The red Cougar that broke down one day a few weeks after the handshake warranty expired? The jeep that stranded me in that inexpUcably sudden Pennsylvania blizzard? In this way, memory masquerades as reUable witness, producing shiny things I swear are there, yet when I go to grasp these strands of evidence, he vanishes, and with him, any traces ofproof. His expert testimony , as I caU upon it, has suddenly gone out to the aUey for a smoke, not apologizing for his sudden lapses, his predictable absences. There are gaps to the story, yet I can never forget the main details of the sign, nor the feeling it produces in my gut. Imagine three white horses reared back on their hind legs. The horses face south. A rider firmly on each saddle, grasping the reins. Each rider wearing a costume—but remember, this is spring and many months have passed since HaUoween. There is a pointed white hood, which conceals each face, leaving a sUt for the eyes only Each wears a loose gown of white fabric . Perhaps there is a red cross on each costume—I cannot be sure. Ifthere is, it is not the kind ofcross that signals relieffrom suffering. Looking...


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pp. 137-143
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