by P. S. Ehrlich
The St. Mintred Medical Center squats, grim and grimy, atop
Widdershins Hill, which once commanded a fine view of St.
Mintred Bay and now overlooks a host of intervening
smokestacks. There are bowers and enclaves of well-preserved
Victorian architecture to be found nearby, but Widdershins
Hill is mostly inhabited by crazy-vagrants, and a security
escort is recommended after visiting hours.
SMMC (pronounced SMECK, as in “You do that and I give you
sotch a smeck!”) was perhaps the last place on earth where
Skeeter Kitefly ever expected to wind up. Working, that is.
And especially not now, ten years after she’d started high
school and slit open her first worm and renounced all desire
for a nursing career.
Yet here she was: soothing no brows, feeling no pulses, but
filing filing filing and filling in on phones. Greeting the
general patient public, many of whom were unwashed. One
approaching Skeeter on her very first morning to ask if he
could mooch a thumbtack, wanting it to dig bits of broken
light bulb out from under his fingernails. (What? no, li’l
lady, he wouldn’t druther go to ER; he’d just accompanied an
ex-buddy there after a street altercation, and wouldn’t be
troubling Skeeter a-tall if not for this dire thumbtack need
and all the bulletin boards being glassed over.)
So there were occasional happenstances to zip shut
Skeeter’s yawning-open boredom, her overfill of hospital
paperwork and grossly-disfigured restrooms (yuggh) and whether
“PT” stood today for patient or payment or physical therapy or
Phineas Taylor Barnum.
And SMECK wasn’t all bad: its cafeteria food was
surprisingly digestible, its younger male employees’s butts
were generally commendable, and most everyone had the sort of
gallows good humor that people share after floods and
There’s no place like home.
(Which this was, and this wasn’t.)
Skeeter had no clear memory of how she’d got here from
Istanbul, other than changing planes in Frankfurt, where
everyone sounded like they were having a fit. Feeling wholly
disoriented at the Pan Am terminal in New York—wholly
disoccidented, too—tired poor huddled yearning-to-be-free; but
with no particular reason to go back where she’d started
What then to do? where then to go? given that she’d been
running away from home since the age of twenty-one?
It was then that Skeeter’d felt… a prompting… from the
wings, as it were. A silent stage whisper like a tug at her
ankle—hasty glance downward, but there was no Gotham airport
pervert there. Only her new tattoo. Double-Vee-Vee: a W
indeed. Passport not to Alice’s Wonderland but back, she
guessed, to Widdershins Hill.
Where the powerful pungent public kept needing
SMECK encouraged its clerical staff to wear dressy-up
clothes, but didn’t pay entry-level nearly enough to buy new;
so Skeeter had to make the petite rounds of thrift stores and
garage sales, always on the lookout for an Everything You Can
Stuff in a Sack for Five Dollars bonanza. The outfits she
found were kind of mid-Seventies, but hey! Skeeter had no
problem with the pre-preppie look. No more Dressing for
Success for her. And to accessorize, what better than her
resurrected collection of Mork-from-Ork lapel pins? Little
plastic ice cream cones and question marks and Betty Boops,
enlivening the stodge of these Annie Hall-type vests. For
extra measure she added a big red ASAP sticker to her photo ID
nametag: ASAP standing for “Ah, Such a Picture” on good
mornings, and “[what] a sap” on bad.
A sappy-bad morning it was, too, when Skeeter first spotted
RoBynne O’Ring making with the sash and shay.
Down and up SMECK’s narrow corridors went the Radiology
courier’s pushcart, delivering sharp-edged X-rays in slick
flippant envelopes. No less sharp of edge or flip of pants was
the courier, an elongated girl with Modigliani eyes in a
Modigliani face atop a body very much to match: as though
Seated Nude or Reclining Nude had gotten off her divan,
stepped out of frame, dyed her hair fuchsia, combed and
moussed it cockatoo-style, put on scoopneck spandex and a
leather mini, and joined The Go-Go’s.
“She got the beat!”
Sash and shay; stiletto-heeled to boot. RoBynne O’Ring
didn’t make delivery rounds, she bopped them, and mock-bopped
at that. Watch her mockbop along to her own internal
polyrhythm, putting on a dozen daily goggleshows, giving the
vast bulk of onlookers no more than a sly-eyed glance askance.
Or, at most, some “cool yer tool” remark in her mail-order
accent (a rully bitchen blend of Flatbush and The Valley).
Treating the rest of SMECK like so many two-way-mirror
surveillants of her extensive exclusive changing room, with
RoBynne knowing all about them and giving not a hootly
Grown men grew Pavlovian in her presence. Licensed
physicians’s tongues lolled.
The hospital brass ahem’d a lot but did little to make
RoBynne mend her ways or means, not even when she took to
taking half-hour breaks with the guys in the mailroom.
And JEEZ thought Skeeter. This was Bad Girl panache on an
She admired it from afar those first few sappy days, dying
all the while for the bimbo-from-another-cosmos costumery.
DayGlo crinoline and jingle-bell anklets! Studded wristbands
and black lace mitts! De-sleeved raincoat a size too snug,
with sequins across the back spelling out A*l*i*e*n
And the earbobs! O the earbobs! Tiny twin chainsaws or
bourbon bottles or Christmas presents or ostrich plumes (one
orange, one green) or knife-and-fork (encrusted with strands
of fake spaghetti) or Hershey’s kisses (genuine chocolate,
intended to melt) or elegant intertwined Hoodah/Thawtit?
Not Skeeter Kitefly, obviously, in her Mary Hartman Mary
That so COOwull a dresser as RoBynne O’Ring should think
her dowdy by nature—or, worse yet, not think her anything at
all but look right through her lack of New Wave wardrobe,
askant-oblivious to Skeeter’s goddam-obvious kindred
spirithood—well, it was sickmaking and intolerable. Just what
you’d expect for relying on happenstance rather than your own
So one afternoon Skeeter marked time behind the clinic
counter, filing phoning greeting being powerfully reminded,
and trying to act premeditative for once in her helter-skelter
life. At least until RoBynne brought her cart around for its
final pickup of the day.
Then, instead of handing over X-rays with some lame Gosh!
you sure wear neat clothes! trial balloon, Skeeter flung
forethought to the four winds with a yes-you-can-can aerobic
kick, depositing her leg kerplonk on the countertop and
causing a pair of Modigliani brows to shoot skywards, as well
they might at the sudden sight of five little piggies
“HAS THIS HAPPENED TO YOU?” Skeeter demanded.
She produced her gunnysack-sized poke and popped it open
under RoBynne’s narrow nose.
“Ew!” went RoBynne. “Uhhhh… am I supposed to take a sniff
or a peek or what here?”
“LOOK,” she was directed.
“Awright already… oh m’Gahd. It’s fulla shoes.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well okay—there’s like five shoes in here. Only two of ‘em
“Exactly,” Skeeter sighed. Restoring her leg to the floor
with a martyred heave, she unleashed a shaggy-doggy shoe story
about how much she disliked wearing heels (“I’m proud to be
short”) but felt obliged to do so as far as the clinic
timeclock, after which she’d kick them off and pad around in
No-Nonsense hosiery, grinning at all the younger male
employees’s commendable butts.
The first time her discarded footwear had gone missing,
Skeeter’d thought she was being taught a cruel dresscode
lesson; but now she suspected they were getting swiped by a
foot fetishist. “And the worst of it is, the son of a bitch
only takes one at a time! Has it happened to you yet? I mean
you wear such Byzantine boots and things, and hey! since the
subject is your clothes and stuff, I was wondering where and
when and how you get them all—”
RoBynne O’Ring, after a moment of bogglement, burst into
laughter; and her two-way-mirror came tumbling down.
“Okay, now try this—’n’ this, ‘n’ this—not that! That’d
make y’look like a melvin!”
Where and when and how to shop for a nouvelle image: to
begin with, you aVOIDed the malls—hanging out there was for
like high school sophomores, y’know, soooo immature. No,
Skeeter’d done the right thing by hitting on thrift stores,
and some of the stuff she’d bagged there might be salvageable;
but RoBynne knew lots wickeder places. C’mon—
Down at the waterfront, for instance, at Liquid Skyjack or
SyntheSizes, you could pick up a pair of T-strap slingbacks
that’d look megawicked with white cotton anklets—worn over
fishnet stockings, of course. At Turbo’s Heads & Tails
(where performance hair stylists did blindfold mohawks) you
could buy cut-rate jewelry for any part of the body you cared
to encircle or pierce. Navels Ahoy! had a complete trousseau
for the bare midriff, including special belly-button liner and
shadow. And at Wretched Wrefuse you could find the dress
Skeeter was wearing today, made of
chopped-up-and-stitched-together Izod alligator tops.
Wherever they went, RoBynne would check out her protégée
through those hoodah/thawtit X-ray eyes and suggest ever more
radical enhancements. If Skeeter hesitated, RoBynne would lead
by example or rather by ensemble: today’s being a tuxedo
T-shirt, cummerbund, and plaid skirt that might have been
primly kneelength had its hem not been clipped to the opposite
hip in order to display RoBynne’s striped tights (and see how
many agitated middle-aged women might take her aside to hiss,
“Honey! You stuck your skirt in your pantyhose!!”).
(Half a dozen at last count, excluding the guys in the
Here came the behavioral scientist herself to announce,
“It’s five, let’s drive”— toting a boombox the size of a
hydrofoil, covered with stickers and decals and chains.
“Thank God already,” said Skeeter. “I could kill for a
“And a drink.”
“And a bite to eat. I’m starving.”
“So you say—”
“So you see—”
“So sue me!”
“I am soooo SHUwure,” RoBynne summed up. “Then maybe the
arcade, till the clubs open?”
“Are you SHUwure you wanna take me on at Ms. Pac-Man again?
I’m gonna wipe you out!”
“Yer so full of it, Skeeter! Aay, y’wanna do yer hair
before we go?”
“Oog! In this place?”
“Unless y’think we’re going to like some masquerade party,
with you as a beige chick or something—ow! Careful! I’m
carrying a rully fine sound system here!”
Makeover moment in a grossly-disfigured restroom. Boy
howdy! Let those with eyes that can see catch a double peepful
of Skeeter Kitefly working a glop of industrial-strength
dippity-doo into her coif. Result: modern dancin’ hair!
“Gimme yer brush,” said Ms. O’Ring. “Pull it up, like this…
bring it to a point… give it a little twist—there! That looks
Attach a cigarette to your lower lip; offer another to
RoBynne the notorious bummergirl. (“Aay! I supply the foggin’
lighter, don’t I?”)
Trade wicked-twitching looks in the smoggy mirror: Who Can
We Freak Out? Let’s go see! Exit then with an a capella:
And Obgyn was her name-oh—
calculated to make the stoutest pacemaker skip a beat.
“My last run I had this rush order, right?” said RoBynne.
“From the Eye Clinic? They had this stupid fogger show up
who’d shot himself in the eyeball with a bow ‘n’ arrow—”
“Yuggh! Talk about your shish kebab—”
“—he didn’t still have the arrow sticking outta his socket,
see, that was like last week? ‘N’ he’d already been admitted
and discharged and now he was back for a post-op—”
“—at least! And those dorks, y’know, they’re always in a
tear-ass hurry, it’s ‘STAT PT HERE’ and ‘STAT PT THERE’ all
day long, enough to make y’barf out loud—”
“Gag you out the window—”
“—bag you out the door! So when William Foggin’ Tell pops
in, they freak and send their order over like this:
STAT STAT NOW NOW POT HERE!!!
like they were advertising Panama Red eyedrops or
“Hee hee! POT HERE? Why didn’t you come get me? I bet they
had free samples!”
“It’s good, they say, y’know, for the glaucoma—”
“Hey! I get glaucoma lots of times—”
Outdoors then, respectively a-cackle and a-snigger.
Hot muggish summer evening. Foggin’, in fact: the air thick
with refinery fumes, factory scents from industrial plants.
You could look down the Hill from SMECK’s front steps and see
not-so-distant steel mills belching fire. Beyond them, on the
horizon, were hints of the spires of the city of Elsew.
Dodge around graffitified plywood barriers. Step over pools
of best-not-ask on the sidewalk. Enter the parking lot and
look for your new used car, your ’58 DeSoto Firesweep, the
pride of your latter-day life—and find it looking like it’d
been steeped in a vat of Pepto-Bismol.
“Oh m’Gahd,” went RoBynne.
An immense relief, considering how much trouble you’d gone
to in the first place to find an automobile this exact shade
of pink, and thus worth naming Floyd.
“I toTALly love this car!” RoBynne slavered, clambering in.
“Y’ever wanna sell it y’gotta lemme know!”
“Sell it! I just bought it. Cost me four hundred big ones,
though it’s easily worth five. Of course it does tend to stall
going uphill,” said Skeeter, backing up and taking off: “Good
thing we’re heading straight down!—”
And from the top of Widdershins they suited deed to word,
va-va-vamoosing with a rush and a roar as the wind raced up to
meet them, to twirl Floyd round like some dizzifying cyclone
carousel, blowing RoBynne’s cockatoo-crest to fuchsia flinders
as she cranked her boombox higher and higher (“This is soooo
foggin’ breakneck!”) till out screamed The Police, preaching
synchronicity with an AHHHH-ahhhh-ohhhh,
You could always depend on Sting to suit the mood of the
It has been argued that when you get onto one of the
freeway bridges spanning the Dee, you have a fifty percent
chance of ending up right back where you started. But Skeeter
made it across that night, guided by RoBynne O’Ring in Floyd
the DeSoto; and following sushi at Sumi’s and an evening at
the arcade, they went on to sample the local alien-lover’s
Elsew after dark: a Krypton Metropolis.
“A rully big like bright-lights city,” one that dim
Demortuis couldn’t hold a candle to. Even Athens and Istanbul
seemed like jumping-off places by comparison, when you were
driving a ’58 Firesweep through the Bad Part of an Urban
Here you are at a liquor store, giddy with suspense when
RoBynne wants to boost a fifth of Old Overcoat; and here is
RoBynne getting you into a breakers club, the BoogaBloo Angel,
where the floor’s full of inner-city kids spinning on their
backs and necks and heads. RoBynne’s still a teenager and you
can easily pass for one, be taken for one, treading water in
the Fountain of Youth; and here you are dancing with boyhunks
five, six, seven years younger than yourself, Pall Mall
a-dangle from your lipgloss as you chaindrink Manhattans,
cackling so loud in one midswallow that a maraschino cherry
comes up nearly through your nose—buttoncute! And here you are
outdoors again, surrounded by neon and freon and shivaree
bewitchery, plunging into the vibrant hub of the hive while at
the same time living on the edge; and you can feel…
…you can feel…
…the merry-go-round starting up again. Freeing itself from
the ground, revolving as it hovers in luminous midair; so
you’d better hold on tight while it spins and soars and sings
a song of sixth sense, a pocketful of rye—ashes! ashes! we all