Once upon a New Year’s Eve-y, while you polished shoes... what? “With sleeve-y?” —“on TV?”—“believe me?”—no.
Bleak December, anyway.
Skeeter’s stock of footgear consisted of one pair slippersocks, one pair boots, two pair dressy-up shoes (one light, one dark) and one pair exhausted Adidases coming apart at the seams. Leaky sneakers! The very thing you’d want for trudging through the winter streets. Bright new laces on them, though.
Nearly new, anyway.
Here we are on Corbel Terrace, on the top floor front of the Mark Twain, one of several rooming houses like old wrecked steamboats that overlook Corbel Square. (Which, thanks to the slant of Corbel Road, was actually a parallelogram. Coming home late at night from the Four Deuces, you could estimate just how many you’d had by how much the Square seemed to straighten out.)
Skeeter, flannel-jammied, was staying put tonight, having turned down all party invitations. (“All”—a couple, and both from near dowels.) The ceiling stain she’d dubbed “Santa’s Little Mistake” had been spreading for a week now, and Skeeter wanted to be on hand for the final breakthrough in order to position her dripcatchers.
So here it was New Year’s Eve: ten years after the one in Tearytown, and this time no Stonehenge Twin to keep her company. (Darn.) No wackyweed either, which left more of a void. (Double darn.) No confetti, no balloons, no noisemakers or funny hats, no lava lamp, no champagne. But there was a bottle of Two Fingers Gold within reach, still half full. Or half empty—“One Finger Go.” Should we go ahead, then, and finish it off? Considering that after paying the rent we’ll have a whole eight dollars to last us till next payday?
Let’s let the outside world decide. Check on the Square, see what shape it is by now: if it’s still square, we drink on. Rhomboid, we rhumba. Circular, we hit the sack.
The front window showed her only darkness and, against it, her own indistinct self. There I am—I think. Therefore, I...
Somebody in one of the old storybooks had gone so far in such circumstances as to pal around with her own reflection. Not looking-glass Alice, but Anne Frank or Annie Oakley or Orphan Annie or one of that gang. So was this one here (that one there) supposed to be Skeeter’s kindred spirit? Blurred chin in blurred hand, chewing on a phantom fingernail?
If so, she sure had a precious little face.
And never the twain shall meet.
Well anyhoo, there wasn’t any Square out there right now. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet to see, but a helluva lotta gloom of night. So long then, Precious Littleface; the rest of us gotta turn back to our crowded shabby rented room. (Make that our crowded shabby “lodging,” as in stick-in-my-throat.) At least our dressy-ups are properly polished for once, even if they have no place to go.
Whereupon Skeeter’s heart gave a great gomez-pugsley LURCH as a shadow leaped out of nowhere and onto the bed. Settled itself down, stared obliquely at her, and began licking its foreleg with a long pink mousey tongue.
Yep—time to put away the tequila.
Among Skeeter’s New Year’s resolutions, expressed in several forms, was “Less liquor.” Or, as one variant phrased it: “Spend less on liquor” (leaving her free to still have drinks bought for her). Make an honest effort, anyway, to keep out of the Four Deuces and the Siamese Tavern and Ditto’s Lounge, all the haunts up and down Corbel Road. Otherwise she’d have precious little face left before long, getting it all raddled and callous. And before you knew it she’d be forty, fat and feeble-minded, turning tricks at some Ramada Inn.
They call me Ramada Rose
The one all the near dowels chose...
There was her liver to think about, too. Another bunch of resolutions promoted general upkeep—exercise, better diet, using Lemon Pledge and so on. Not to mention keeping up with people: Skeeter had an especially hard time doing that. And yet till now she’d always presumed this was because people weren’t able to keep up with her. Their mail certainly couldn’t, what with her moving so often this past couple of years. And when it did arrive, she half expected some old unanswered letter from Missy Trace to be among it.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
All those gone or going from her life; all the various very best friends she’d lost track of somehow along the way. Skeeter forever showing up late for classes and appointments and rendezvouseses, neglecting to notify or signify... especially to signify. Seldom did she write anyone so much as a note, relying instead on Ma Bell and greeting cards—from the Belated rack, too often. This Christmas Sadie and Desi had sent her a Ziggy address book; listed in it so far were a dozen or so phone numbers, but nary an address. Not even her own.
Nor that of her mother in Marble Orchard, bored silly and fidgeting around The House With All the Porches like some frustrated poltergeist, while ARnold went Now Carrie, now Carrie...
Nor that of her father Gower, who’d never gotten closer to outer space than DisneyWorld, and was still down south someplace (the last Skeeter’d heard) raising gamecocks for export to the Philippines.
And “Chicago” was all she wrote for Uncle Buddy-Buzz, who’d been sickly all fall with flu-like symptoms, and Lordy you knew what that implied nowadays.
“But never mind, darling, we’re still onstage,” he’d coughed at Skeeter last week, calling to wish her a Merry Noël. “I think it’s nothing more nor less than green-apple indigestion—just deserts, I suppose, after all my eating ‘not wisely but too well’—except that you can never eat too well, of course... You remember when you were little (cough) excuse me, and came to town (cough cough cough) and—oh, this is apropos—we got caught in the tear gas, and you said This is what you call ‘being alive’—remember? Well (hawwwwggkh— hem!) just keep in mind, darling, that into each life some slush must seep.”
And that which we fail to keep in mind tends to seep right out again. (Where’d this fresh shot of tequila come from?) Out of sight, out of mind, slipping out of memories, away from consciousness; being lost to oblivion like a blown-out candle or burned-out sparkler.
Dammit! Enough with the slushy punch-and-judy doubletalk. (Lick the salt, throw back the shot, bite the lime.) Take a good long look at your own short self, as though from somebody else’s point of view.
See Kelly Rebecca as she must have been originally envisioned, conceived on a vast Amazonian scale, with proportionate appetites and capacities: a great big amazing colossal girl!
See her the child of scrunchdown by Jolly Dame Nature, abridged and condensed into a little ole bitty Skeeter-type doll: the compact version that could get high on an Eskimo pie, for awhile. (Lick, toss back, bite.)
Skeeter the Vital, Skeeter the Intensely Alive, Skeeter With Bells On—no, make that Castanets, clacking the ever-loving blue-eyed night away: everybody seguidilla! Skeeter the Insistent that she’ll dance rings around the world at the age of ninety-four, so nyaah to you, Carmen! and nyaah to all you Svenny near dowels! and an amazing colossal NYAAH to Pamela Pillsbury for calling her “Mosquito Mouth,” as if Skeeter were the sort to whine around crowded shabby rooms, starved for contact and impact and the stinging taste of blood (lick toss bite) and even if you did get a little dumbfounded now and then, a little deepseated, a little engorged for per-pe-tu-i-ty, your mainspring permanently all wound UP—
...why you could be happy as a loon.
But things last forever only in retrospect.
Real Life was more of a recessional.
(Well, that had to be the cactus juice talking.)
And to cope with that, to come to grips with it, joie de goddam vivre seemed hardly enough—or the wrong kind of joie—or not really joie at all but a rackety auto-da-fé, as your vivre stalled out and you tried to eject without much in the way of a parachute or safety net and therefore landed with a fracturing CRACK! as God took one final flash-in-the-pants picture of you at The End.
And this was very soppy-sad and heartrending, like something out of Hans Christian Andersen: steadfast tin soldiers flung into ovens, barefoot match girls left out to freeze in the snow. Just what you might expect from a Sven-boy’s storybook. Any wonder that it makes you want to drink like a fish?
Carry moonshine home in a dish?
Gargle like you’re Lillian Gish?
Or would you rather be a pig—
A sooey cider, in fact.
(Oh that’s clever. Artfully antic. Lick toss bite—oops, outta lime. Yuggh.)
So what if she wasn’t as tall as other people, or as on-time as other people, or distinctive and significant like other people. So what if she didn’t pack parachutes or safety nets or attention spans like everybody else in the wide bright world. So maybe she did get bored and restless, pudgy despite being so petite and that was probably due to all the lime and salt and per-pe-tu-i-ty she couldn’t hold as well as other people, since she lacked the capacity of other people—because she didn’t have their precious little mincy-pincy dainty-baby bitch-of-the-world-type Otherwisdom.
Well, she had a message for all those Otherwiseguys.
Sophie Tucker’d said it first, Bette Midler’d said it best. Skeeter Kitefly echoed them both in the here and now: THEY CAN KISS MY TATTOOED TUCHIS AND PLANT A TREE FOR ISRAEL!
Makes no diff to me.
And to prove it she crawled into bed, curled up in a ball and let the diff come pouring out, partly into her pillowcase but mostly onto Mao, who heaved an audible sigh.
Tears. Weird tears. Forcing their way back inside her eyelids. Must be a dream.
She managed, after several eons, to winch one eye open—and have it squarely spat into by the ceiling’s leakthrough loophole.
Bull’s eye for Santa’s Little Mistake.
Bullsomething, anyway, as light from the left-on overhead came pouring down and through her eyeball, to sear and scald her unblinkable brain with a YAAAAA yah-yah-yah-yah-yah—
“Hangover” was such a mild word, too. Like nothing more amiss than, say, your shirttail sticking out. Nothing to suggest this sort of Clockwork Orange-style eye-opener, these spasmodic rivulets of throbbing molten OOG. The third degree: Chinese Communism followed by Chinese water torture and then a peppery Szechwan fire drill.
Still and all: if it hurts this much, we must still be alive.
And that which doesn’t kill us, makes us live longer. Or sing stronger. Or something.
(Get a grip now. And not the flu nor a suitcase either.)
Over the course of January 1st she got her eye closed and wiped; herself off the bed (attagirl) and Mao off the bed, which was more difficult (attacat). Handling herself very carefully throughout, carefully as a newborn babe—as the forgotten invisible one she’d borne at La Pad and who, come to think of it, would be ten years old today. And probably up to no good.
She put a bucket on the bed to catch the ploops, and a bromo in her stomach to quell the OOG. Moved gingerly into the tiny kitchen, fixing herself a cup of Swiss Miss, adding the habitual jigger for clarity’s sake, filling Mao’s food bowl to keep him momentarily out from underfoot. Returning then to the front room, to the front window, where Precious Littleface had been replaced by a fat black crow on the windowsill. (No omen: simply one of the neighbors. Corbel Square was a regular rookery.)
The crow turned to glance at Skeeter through the glass. Sized up her situation, Swiss Miss and all; and took off into the morning mist without so much as a caw.
Somewhere the sun is shining, so honey don’t you cry.
Then again: why keep waiting for your ship to come in, when you can go meet it halfway?
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Copyright © 2001-03 by P. S. Ehrlich
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