A friend of mine involved in the local community theater suggested PolkaDotz Costumes and Party Favors to me, when I mentioned my little plan for the charity event. I had been planning to drop by the nearest Party City for some cheap and easy supply and frankly, that’s what I expected of the store she sent me to, as well. To my surprise, PolkaDotz wasn’t nearly the corner party store I expected.
The storefront was reminiscent of an antique’s shop: heavy, weathered wooden furniture dominated the display windows, occupied by opulently dressed mannequins in distant, nonchalant poses. An odd curtain of fabric and hanging theater paraphernalia—black rubber Halloween bats, lacy strips of dusty white fabric, even various brands of old toy model airplanes—draped down over the rear of the displays, giving only a small glimpse of the dimly lit, crowded floor within. Huddled clothing racks featuring all manner of costumes stood beyond, waiting patiently, quietly.
When I stepped in the door, a hysterical cartoon shriek made me jump out of my skin. Looking down, I saw I had stepped on one of those Halloween prank door mats, with a green-faced Looney-Tunes-esque witch in a black hat laughing up at my momentary shock. When I looked up again to behold the older lady smiling at me from behind the counter, for just a second I was sure the caricature at my feet had jumped up into reality to greet me with a crooked smile.
Perhaps that wasn’t fair—the woman didn’t look like a warty old witch. She was just… eccentric. The kind of eccentric you can see with the naked eye, an older woman with her short hair done in straight, wispy spikes, the color of deep, dark rubies highlighted with hot fuchsia. Though her face was lined with age her puppy-brown eyes sparkled with humor and excitement. She wore a black dress lined at the collar and cuffs with some kind of bird’s feather, and a big fluffy boa in white and silver around her shoulders.
I realized, suddenly, why my theater friend had recommended the place.
“Hello!” the lady greeted me, bright with enthusiasm. “Haven’t seen you in here before!”
“No, I’m new,” I said. “A friend suggested I come by to look for a costume.”
I took a moment to look around myself, flanked on either side by mismatched clothing racks, some of them sporting the current crop of brightly colored name-brand Halloween Costumes—their plastic hanging pouches in no particular organization—and some sporting period costumes in no packaging at all, also in no particular order. Many sections had them mixed together, a detailed 19th Century Confederate soldier’s uniform hanging right beside a bright red Little Ladybug affair in nylon and foam rubber, for your seven-year-old to wear to her school’s costume parade.
Along the winding walls through the misshapen shop, there were whole collections of strange prop paraphernalia: cheap party pranks like fake dog poo and a fly stuck in an ice cube, garlic gum and itching powder; fake plastic gladiator chests, celebrity bums and Playboy bunny tits; hats, hats, hats. The whole shop smelled of their unique, nostalgically familiar scent, mingled with the drifting fingers of rosy, exotic incense in tins on the shelf. There were fake weapons along the back wall practically hidden under a wave of feathery boas like the one the shopkeeper wore, and an old antique mirror propped up in a corner behind makeshift changing closets. Around the counter itself—which was in the very center of the room—there were display cases filled with aged-looking pins and hatpins, earrings and bracelets, next to spasmodically flashing party favors for ravers and club-goers. Right beside the woman’s cash register was a stand of bright, electric hairsprays and costume makeup.
“Wow,” I said, a tiny bit agog. “You’re… very well-stocked.”
She chuckled and leaned on the counter with a nod. “What’s the costume for?”
“A charity event,” I said. “Very high profile… lots of well-to-do beneficiaries…”
I threw a glance at a cowgirl costume with fake hands attached to seem as though they were groping the wearer’s naked breasts. “So, not that.”
Again, she laughed, and came out from behind her cash register, guiding me over to a section of mismatched paraphernalia. I have no idea what possessed her to choose that section since there seemed to be no way of knowing what went where, but she quickly began pulling hangers off the rack and putting aside possible outfits.
“Little Bo Peep?” she asked, pulling out one of the period dresses with dusky blue satin over a fluffy, lacy crinoline. “A little bit sexy in a baby-doll sort of way? I can give you a wig for bouncing golden curls to go with it!”
“No, thanks,” I muttered, self-consciously bringing a hand up to fiddle with the ends of my natural dishwater-blonde hair.
“Catwoman?” she asked, pulling out two costumes, one reminiscent of the old 60’s TV show and one that was little more than leather belting and slashed rubber pants.
“No,” I said right away, pushing aside the part of me that gleefully remembered thinking of Andrew as Bruce Wayne. Catwoman was really not for me.
“Fancy Southern Belle? Pirate Wench? Fresh-faced geisha girl?”
I shook my head at each costume she produced, slowly becoming less and less enthused at my plan to surprise Andrew. Finally, as she pulled out on last-ditch effort to win me over—a Savage Cavewoman two-piece—I shrugged my shoulders and sighed, giving up.
“I don’t see anything here that will work,” I said glumly. “But thank you.”
She gave me a sad smile. “Really, sweetie?”
“Really,” I said.
Her face fell, and she shrugged, turning away from me to shuffle the cavewoman loincloth back into the menagerie. While she did, I idly perused the stands closest to me, thinking perhaps it had been silly of me anyway. I’d find some reasonable suitable costume to meet the theme of the party—there was a pretty decent Wicked Witch of the West costume in the Party City insert in yesterday’s mail—and do my job keeping Andrew’s social calendar straight and managing his contacts list as he networked, hobnobbed and canoodled.
As my mind wandered lazily along those lines, my hand slipped across a smooth layer of satin. It was cool and slithery under my fingertips, iridescent and rich, noble red. Curious, I pulled the article of clothing from its rack and looked it over.
It was some sort of whimsical clown design, I thought at first. The satin red I had run my hands over was part of a mantle, short, petal-like sections covering the shoulders and neckline, with two longer, flowing tails falling halfway down the back. At the ends of these tails were two round golden bells tied on with long, thin, satiny black ribbon. The top of the outfit was a pattern of the same noble red flanked by long lengths of ebony black; two rows of small gold stars paraded down the front in smart lines following the seams of the changing colors.
It wasn’t a clown’s outfit, I realized then: it was a harlequin’s outfit. Although it was much sexier than any harlequin I’d ever seen—instead of a single one-piece design repeating chessboard squares of bright colors all the way down to the ankles, the bodice of the costume fit like a long-sleeved leotard, leaving the legs covered instead by the sheer, billowing material of Turkish harem pants, the kind belly dancers sometimes wore. Red gloves and ankle boots came hanging in a little plastic sleeve attached to the hanger; so did an elaborate red hood that framed the face in a heart shape, with two drooping extensions like small ram’s horns coiling back over the ears. Another round bell was attached at the end of each of these.
As I held it in my hands, I realized this costume was perfect—half jester, half dancer, it was a flirty and uniquely mysterious possibility. It would absolutely wow my unsuspecting crush… and maybe a few other gala attendees, as well.
There was just one thing missing.
I looked up, glancing again at the mismatched paraphernalia along the walls, the pranks and the hats and the boas. I knew that this lady would have the exact thing I was looking for now: there was not a doubt in my mind it would be here.
And then I saw them, dangling above the feathers and fluff of the boas, glittering and winking in the strangely antique light.
Masks. Bright, colorful, sequined and be-ribboned, devilishly smiling theater masks.