THE YELLOW FACEMASK
by Tasha Coryell
She hadn’t been planning to rob the bank. Her face was cold.
Or maybe she had been planning to rob the bank and her face was cold. Sometimes bank robbers feel a chill in their cheeks just like any ordinary person.
The facemask was yellow. She couldn’t remember buying it or recall why she had chosen that color. There were a lot of yellow things in her closet: cardigans and dresses, a nightgown that bordered on an ugly green. She supposed at one time she must’ve enjoyed the color. Said things like, “Yellow is cheerful.”
On that day, however, yellow did not make her feel cheerful and instead made her feel like the top part of a banana, the knob that is peeled down to reveal the gushy insides.
It was one of those winter days that was so cold the car door was frozen shut and Elise, with her small body and yellow knob head, was unable to open the door and had to return inside to get her husband who was still wearing his pajamas pants to come outside and open it for her.
“You’re starting to turn into the chair, all brown and leather,” she said to him.
“The chair leads a good life,” he replied and looked up at her. “You look like a bank robber in that thing.”
He had to put on his Gore-Tex jacket and boots just to go outside.
“Sure is cold out there,” he said. “Are you sure you want to go out now?”
The streets were icy. The weather had warmed and then frozen again covering everything in a slippery transparent sheen. Elise used to be afraid of car accidents, of a broken skull, back, fender, but in the past couple of years had found herself developing a fearlessness that other people, her doctor and children included, labeled as forgetfulness. Whatever she was going to be, she was not going to be one of those women that clutched at the steering wheel with both hands.
She kept the facemask on in the grocery store. She found it comforting, the extra layer of yellow skin. No one knew that it was her underneath that mask and she was happy, for once, to be the person who was unrecognizable the way so many people had since become unrecognizable to her. Her body was shapeless underneath the puffy winter coat. Even her hands were covered by her two-fingered extra-duty winter mittens that she normally wore just to shovel snow. The cold masks a lot of things. Her face was just one thing buried that day.
The grocery store workers said hello to her the way they always did. They asked her how she was doing, if she was finding everything she needed. She said nothing. She suddenly understood why there were women in some countries who covered their faces every day.
She paid for her groceries with cash. She didn’t like to use a credit card and she saw the way that people glared at her as she fumbled with her checkbook. Always fumbling in a way that made her doctors suggest some kind of dreaded degenerative disease. She had left her reusable grocery bags in the car because she always left her reusable grocery bags in the car. She wanted to be good to the environment, but like everything else she wanted to be good to she found herself lacking. She accepted the plastic bags and killed the earth a little more.
The bank was two blocks down from the grocery store. The bank parking lot made Elise nervous. There was one occasion, an occasion she tried not to think about, when she had accidentally backed up into another car and dented its paneling. Her car was unscathed, though, so she got back in and drove home. She spent the rest of the day crying and cleaning the house and waiting for the police to come get her. They never did. No one ever found out it was her. Since then she had always parked on the street, nervous they would figure out that she was the one who did it, nervous that she would suffer a repeat performance.
As Elise walked into the bank she saw her reflection in the glass, a yellow bulb head enlarged in its mirroring, puffy coat that doubled her body in size. She giggled. She did look like a bank robber. The thought was so absurd. No one would ever expect her, a mother, a wife, a house owner, to rob a bank.
She giggled further as she scrawled a note on the deposit slip, “Give me money,” in her looping cursive. She realized that she had inadvertently carried in her reusable grocery bags. Always armed with things at the wrong time.
There was no line. She walked up to the teller. She had seen her before, a young black girl. She wore a heavy sweater over a button-up shirt. She had a nametag that said “Jessica.”
Elise passed her the note. She couldn’t stop laughing. She couldn’t wait to tell her husband about her joke when she got home.
Jessica, instead of issuing her normal instructions to run the debit card through the machine, had unlocked the cash register in front of her. It was then that Elise realized that Jessica actually thought she was a bank robber. She thought about correcting the mistake, but Jessica was already neatly stacking piles of bills. That’s what Elise remembered about Jessica. She remembered the nice way that Jessica stacked money and handed it over with a smile. It made it feel like a present rather than a withdrawal from one’s own account.
Jessica was not smiling that day. Elise knew what it was like to feel fearful of another person and thus she understood the look on Jessica’s face, though Elise had only previously experienced that look from the inside. Elise had been afraid on the street, in bars, at the airport, in her home. Elise had been afraid everywhere a person could be afraid. To be on the other side, to make a person afraid, was something entirely different.
There had been previous times that Elise had felt powerful inside of her body. The men she had been with before her husband. The time she ran a community 5K. But she had never held a gun, never used her body as a weapon. No one had ever treated her as a threat before. No one had ever shoved money into reusable grocery bags at her behest, treated her as though she were something to be fearful of, something that could penetrate the skin. She realized that her two-fingered mittens resembled a gun. She almost clarified that they were only her hands, delicate with rings circling several fingers, but by then Jessica had handed her the bag.
Elise took the bag and ran. Elise did not know how to run. Elise ran very slowly. Surely they would catch her. Surely they would shoot her down, putting holes in her yellow fabric skin. This would just be another occasion where she had failed. She made it to her car and sped home. She could hear sirens behind her, but they weren’t chasing her. She pulled into the driveway and went inside. She decided to make cookies.
“These are the best cookies I’ve ever made,” she exclaimed to her husband.
“You always make good cookies,” he said.
Elise had never been filled with such love.
The second time she robbed a bank it was a purposeful act. It was summer. Her husband’s skin, covered only by worn boxers with holes where his legs met, stuck to the leather of his chair.
She was cleaning out the hall closet. Summer cleaning. They had so many things she never remembered acquiring. Plaid scarf. Rain boots too small for anyone who lived in the house. Seven umbrellas. Elise never remembered to bring an umbrella with her when it was raining and would purchase another when she was out and vow to become a better umbrella user.
She had a cardboard banker’s box in which she was collecting these unused items. Banker’s boxes didn’t really have anything to do with banking. They were about taxes like anything else.
There was the coat Elise’s husband wore only once a year when they went out and bought a Christmas tree from the YMCA Christmas tree sale. A coat she had bought her daughter that her daughter never wore. Elise’s daughter had always valued saving feelings over saving money, though in the long run she had not saved anything at all.
Elisa put on the coat. It was too small for her, the middle buttons unable to button around her breasts. Breasts: another thing on the list of things that Elise once cherished that she now wished to put in a banker’s box and donate to Goodwill.
The coat was corduroy. Elise had thought it cute. It was on sale. The trick of sales was that they convinced people to buy things they didn’t really need under the guise of a lower price. Elise was very susceptible to such ploys. Her hall closet was evidence as such. Eight different hats. Seven gloves without their partners. A canister of tennis balls without any tennis balls inside of it. A swim suit. A spider carcass.
The top no longer fit on the banker’s box. Elise kept the coat on. She did not believe in giving something new away. She had her husband carry the box out to the car.
“Put some pants on,” she said. It embarrassed her when her husband went out like that. Pants were made to cover thighs like his.
“It’s too hot,” he replied.
He was no longer good at lifting things and had to pick the box up and set it down several times before making it to the car. Elise told herself not to be so critical. She was no longer good at the things that she used to be good at either. Sewing. Cheerfulness. Paying bills on time.
The air conditioner no longer worked in the car. It would cost too much to fix, so Elise rolled down the windows and turned up the fan.
“My own personal sauna,” she said.
The yellow facemask was sitting on top of the pile of stuff. In a different box in a different closet Elise had a picture of a very old boyfriend. She had remained in contact with this man for several years after she married her husband and once had sent him a picture that she had taken of herself in her underwear. She had to take the film to a different city to be developed. She never showed her husband the pictures or told him about the ex-boyfriend and eventually they lost contact. Elise supposed it was possible that he was dead. The facemask was like a lover who could resurface at any moment. Something that had many possibilities or perhaps none at all.
Elise had never shown her husband the money. Based on his behavior for the entirety of their marriage, this was how she understood money was to be handled.
Elise did not know how to get the cash from underneath her bed into her bank account. It was not as though she could go into the bank and ask for it to be deposited. She bought petty things. Ice cream cones, a new hand lotion. Even if she could deposit it she did not know what she would buy. She idly considered a boat though there were no lakes nearby, though her body was not spry enough for boating.
Elise did not like going into Goodwill. Because the store was both the name of corporation and an adjective, she was certain that this dislike implied a badness of self. The store made her itch though she touched no products once inside. Many of the women browsing the crowded racks of clothing were around her own age and like her were wearing clothing that didn’t fit, and she suspected this was why she didn’t like it. Something too close to her own skin.
Elise dropped the banker’s box on the counter. The yellow facemask stared up at her.
“I think I’m going to keep this, actually,” she said, pulling it out of the box. The eyeholes looked at her reproachfully, aware that she had almost let it go.
She was thanked for her donation. Elise made some joke about the ever-replenishing nature of her hall closet.
She put the mask on in the car. It nearly suffocated her in the summer heat. She realized how improperly dressed she was: an old pair of jeans that she wore for cleaning, a jacket that didn’t fit, and the yellow facemask.
She then drove to the bank and told everyone to put their hands in the air. They all obliged. She never felt so powerful.
Elise, in those small moments she allowed herself to remember her past robbery, had masturbated to the thought, her own fingers like the gun in the air, her own fingers like the gun inside of herself. She had not expected to do it again, but she also did not know how she would never do it again and thus it was unsurprising to find herself that way, facemask covering her skin.
The difference between wearing a facemask in the summer and wearing a facemask in the winter was that in the winter people assumed the wearer of the facemask wanted to protect themselves from the cold and in the summer everyone assumed the wearer of the facemask was robbing a bank. Neither of these assumptions was wrong. Elise was wearing a facemask and she was robbing a bank.
Jessica wasn’t working. Elise hoped that Jessica had found a better job somewhere else. She had been an exceptionally good teller. This time there was a young man shoveling bills into a bag. A banker’s bag. He was a very handsome young man, but he didn’t handle the bills with the same crispness that Jessica did.
Elise had injured her hip in March while shoveling the sidewalk during a late winter storm. Women her age were not supposed to shovel sidewalks, or so the doctor said.
“How else will I have my requisite hip injury?” she asked and then laughed at her own joke. The doctor didn’t laugh. The doctor told her it was best not to have any hip injuries at all.
In order to run she had to put her all of her weight on her right leg and then swing her left leg around in front of it. This action did not look like running at all. This action looked more like some kind of dance with a bag full of money, which actually describes many types of dancing.
She tripped on the curb that led in into the parking lot and lay on the ground for several minutes before she was able to lift herself again.
She could hear the sirens approaching. This was familiar. The way they had approached when she fell and broke her hip. That time her daughter had threatened suicide. When her husband had a heart attack that turned out to be a panic attack. When her son had fallen off the jungle gym and broken his arm.
It was possible that she could be caught. She could not imagine a way for herself to escape. She imagined having the yellow facemask stripped from her head to reveal the self below. Have her little body shoved against the sidewalk, handcuffs around her wrists.
Elise pulled herself up. The police cars had still not arrived. Elise was not one to believe in miracles, though this was not the only implausible thing that had happened in her life. The bag was heavy. Paper was always heavier than she expected in to be. Elise made it to the car. She threw the bag in the passenger seat of the car.
“Be calm,” paramedics always said. The least comforting of phrases.
“Be calm,” Elise murmured to herself as she got in the driver’s seat. She drove away like someone who was not making a getaway. She drove away like she was just running errands. She saw a flash of police lights in her review mirror stopped in front of the bank. They did not chase after her. They did not suspect her little car or her little body peering over the dashboard. It was like they couldn’t see her at all. She was both visible and invisible inside of the facemask.
Elise was hungry. She wanted some pancakes. She took off the facemask. Hot air blew at her from the vents. It felt nice after the cold of the bank.
“Trying to stop the gold from melting,” she joked. She checked her reflection in the rearview mirror to make sure her lipstick wasn’t smudged. It wasn’t, but it had started to fill in the cracks in her skin.
She drove to the diner and parked her car. She was still wearing her daughter’s jacket. She supposed it was her jacket now as she had worn it more than her daughter ever had. She went inside and sat in one of the plastic booths. She was glad for the warmth from the too-short sleeves. Elise never understood why they made restaurants so cold. Who wanted to be cold while they were eating?
“I want a tall stack,” she said to the waiter.
“With chocolate chips,” she added as he walked away.
She smothered the cakes in maple-syrup-colored corn syrup. She cut through each of the layers, spearing all three pancakes at once. The bites barely fit in her mouth. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so ravenous for something so sweet.
She left the server a pile of crumpled bills on the table, she left with crumpled bills spilling out of her pocket. She had chocolate smeared across her lips. People excused such blemishes on the face at her age.
Tasha Coryell is an MFA Candidate at the University of Alabama, where she is working on a novel about murderous sorority girls. Her work has been featured in [PANK], The Collagist, and Word Riot, among other journals. You can find Tasha tweeting under @tashaaaaaaa and more work from her at tashacoryell.com.