My mask has been earning me a lot of compliments during the pandemic. Everyone from the mailman to the cashier at the pizzeria has had something good to say about the red silk scarf wrapped around my face. The clerk at the liquor store tells me that the combination of the scarlet mask with my ever-present black fedora makes me look like a hipster Batman supervillain.
I wasn’t thinking of the DC Extended Universe when I picked this scarf to be my protection from the coronavirus. I had ordered a box of more conventional masks but the shipping date was so far in the future that I thought I might have to save them for the next health crisis. I had several woolen winter scarves but didn’t feel like itching my way through the lockdown. This silk scarf offered the promise of scratch-free excursions. Plus it would be the first time I got to use the thing since buying it in Thailand a decade ago.
The red scarf was purchased at a floating market during near Bangkok. The concept of a floating marking conjures images of a remote outpost, but the one I visited was approximately as exotic as Disney World. Tourists were hustled into tiny boats and rowed along a canal festooned with banners advertising snake farms and strip clubs.
I was taken from one sampan to the next, where rows of pricey souvenirs were laid out before us: straw hats, wooden elephants and ceramic frogs. If you wanted to make a purchase, the saleswoman—they were all women—would type a price onto a calculator and then you were expected to type a counter offer.
I was not entirely comfortable bargaining with impoverished workers in a poor country, but when one saleswoman caught me eyeing the silk scarves piled on her boat, she would not let me go. She picked up a red scarf and typed a price for me to consider.
Although the cost wasn’t exorbitantly high, I had no idea what I would do with the scarf. I liked to dress with a little bit of flash, but I wasn’t a dandy from Victorian England who kept a florid handkerchief dangling from his pocket. An overpriced designer T-shirt was more my style. I tried to offer my thanks and wave off the saleswoman but she was insistent. She extended the calculator towards me and gestured for me to type my price.
While I wasn’t exactly entering James Bond territory, I figured I shouldn’t deprive myself of the adventure of bargaining for an item in a foreign market. So I took the calculator and typed in an amount that I thought was reasonable. The woman apparently did not agree. She shrieked at me in a manner that would seem appropriate if I had pulled out a gun and was trying to drag her behind the maze of wooden stalls that extended along the banks of the canal.
I would have gladly given her the contents of my wallet—in fact I’d have given her the wallet itself—if she would just stop screaming. I half-expected armed security guards to come rushing at me from every direction, prepared to club me into submission before they dragged me off to jail. As it was, no one even looked up from their stalls.
The saleswoman typed a new price and I immediately agreed to it. I couldn’t imagine what sound she would make if I disappointed her again. When she handed me the scarf, instead of offering the customary bow, she shook her head and pouted, making sure to convey to me her dissatisfaction that she had to make a deal with such a chintzy customer.
I had no way of knowing if the saleswoman was genuinely displeased or if she would have a good laugh at my expense that night. I could picture her telling her family how she had tricked a particularly gullible farang into paying twenty times the going rate for a piece of crap that would fall apart as soon as he unpacked it from his luggage back home.
As it turned out, the scarf has maintained its integrity for a decade, remaining folded in a drawer until it became the perfect accessory for pandemic cosplay. I step out of the liquor store looking like a would-be comic book supervillain, equipped with more than enough gin and bourbon to help me get started on a life of crime. Obviously nothing is scarier than what’s driving us to wear masks in the first place, but no one in the entire country has any idea of what I’ve been capable of ever since I first spotted this red silk scarf all those years ago.
How I can make people scream.
Craig Fishbane is author of the short fiction collection, “On the Proper Role of Desire.” His work has also appeared in New World Writing, The MacGuffin, Hobart, the New York Quarterly, Lunch Ticket and The Nervous Breakdown.