portion of the artwork for Mindela Ruby's fiction

Funhouse Face
Mindela Ruby

My neighbor pierces the dead of night with bawling, and I’m all, What the hell’s her problem? She’s never made this kind of racket before. I try returning to dreamland, head buried under the bolster. No go.

When I take a squirt, the cracked toilet seat bites my sore behind. Our building supe never fixes shit—that’s worth crying about. I swat myself with tissue and flop back down on the sofa. The next-door pity party won’t quit.

“Can’t you shut your piehole?” I kick the hide-a-bed backrest and notice my boots are on. I swing them to the floor and plug a Toxic Reasons cassette in the boom box, to drown out the whinnying sobs next door.

Stomping to track one, all I can think about is how the world’s devolved into a loserfied suckhole of road rage, air rage, work rage, school rage that anyone with sense should cry about. The whole country’s in a pet about the towel-heads in the Middle East. I dive over the armrest, sprawl on my belly, and assess my beat-down condition. On top of my battered face and butt, I’m close to starving. I get back up to raid the fridge.

A week-old chunk of burrito, a slimy godknowswhat in plastic wrap, and cream cheese dotted with mold are all I find. There—a down-in-the-dumps groan between the songs “War Hero” and “Riot Squad.” Poor lady.

Poor me, gotting to hear her. You’d think, with the walls soggy and thick after the century’s rainiest winter, that noise wouldn’t bleed from the next apartment.

Watching mildew collect along the baseboards is pretty much all I’ve accomplished in recent weeks. I cram smelly socks and shirts into my laundry duffel. I should take out the trash, lay hands on some food, be constructive. At the very least, get a lungful of fresh air.

Not stick around here going loco.

Outside, with my shades on, it’s dark-and-a-half. I pat the wallet in my pocket and head to the supermarket, open 24/7.

Steering my cart through glowing aisles, I get blitzed by detergent and sourdough smells. The few other shoppers avoid me, with my black and blue face and lax hygiene. I’m so hungry groceries jump into my basket.

Waiting at the only open check-out behind someone else’s grub, I laugh at the mondo amounts humans convert to sewage and cellulite. Farms, mills, dairies, bakeries, teamsters, and shelf-stockers hard at work so Jane Q. Publics like me can stuff our gills. I lay my items on the moving belt: fried chicken patties, aspirins, sherbet, Pepe Lopez tequila, and some garden fresh zucchinis, for when the “poke the pudding” urge strikes.

The Gumby-looking cash register clerk squeezes each purchase he scans. “Health food diet?” he says.

“Unhand my zucchinis, nimrod. And gimmie a pack of GPCs.”

The total minus food stamps is $21.20. I swipe my credit card, holding my breath. When the transaction gets OK’ed, I exhale. Account’s not closed yet.

On the trek home, my boots splash through a puddle. Treacherous unlit Oaktown streets.

As I juggle keys and heavy bags outside my apartment door, a wail rips through the hall. Someone should call 9-1-1 for that woman. I slam my way in, pull the Pepe Lopez from the sack and bite off the cap seal. The first swallow sears my gut, then warmth hums through me. I remove my shades, pop chicken patties in the toaster oven, down a palmful of aspirins.

The bathroom bulb burns out when I flip the switch. I flick water on my face and strip off my clothes. My gut hangs. But I slap myself in the booty and say to the dark mirror, “You’re all right.” Some self-respect’s left in this manhandled bod.

The heating chicken smells greasy and gamy, like Gordon at The Graduate bar a few days past. Details of our drunken brush start coming back to me. Like how he stuck his tongue in my mouth outside the bar and made me feel gooey inside and out. Like how the whisky at his place smelled like anemia iron supplements. Loose as fishnet, I threw my punk-ass at him. The chump delivered what I wanted—and then some.

Shivering like Christmas tinsel as memories parade my brain, I grab a t-shirt off the towel rack and pull it on, a color-screened reggae rag my ma pressed on me last time I visited her and her chicken-choker husband. The shirt barely covers my promised land.

I slap music in the boom box and skip around the floor ’til a screechier screech than even PJ Harvey can produce halts my choreography. Could some emergency be brewing at the neighbor’s? In my own hacienda, I can’t lark around or sleep.

I dump the semi-warm chicken onto a plate, track down some quarters, and flee to the hall. Plate in hand, I boot my duffel bag toward the basement laundry room and stop to listen at cry-baby’s door.

Only silence inside her apartment now. Is she about to croak while I keep a coin-op washer company? Someone ought to do something. Just my luck, to be the one standing here.

My knock goes unanswered. “Hello?” I call. A garbled sound reaches me. “You OK?” I call, turning the doorknob. Fool woman’s place is unlocked, inviting trouble. I abandon my laundry and slowly venture in.

Nightlights fan weak yellow light around her apartment. Arms low to keep my privates private, I inventory her motel-plain dresser and TV on its metal stand. My neighbor lies in bed, under a floor lamp. Five months have passed since I moved in and got my first and only glance at her. It’s been downhill for us both. Her Lizard Woman face droops like melted wax, the skin thick as callous. It shines as if shellacked—a funhouse face that probably isn’t any fun.

“I’m from next door,” I say, torn between stepping closer and moving back, repelled. “Are you hungry?” I hold out the plate. The chicken’s oily mist swirls through the Lysol-smelling apartment. I myself was famished ’til coming in here.

Her eyes, which look trapped under a mask, wheel from the plate to me. “Hello, Dickinson,” her weird voice crackles, like she’s a radio broadcasting almost beyond transmitter range. We’ve never introduced ourselves. She must have seen my name taped to the mailbox in the lobby.

“Hey you,” I say. Knobs of crazy-bone line her neck. The same small cactus shapes wind around her wrists. I look away. Not a picture’s tacked up anywhere, as opposed to my walls, plastered with band posters salvaged from music store trash bins. The shrub outside the window rises like a bear on its hind legs. Turning back, I notice dark, raw sores across the knuckles that grip the sheet. On the upside, my neighbor’s hair is copper-clean, her blouse ironed. She’s better groomed than I’ve been in years. “Aren’t you styling,” I say.

The pillow floofs as she lies back with a rictus smile. A squeaky laugh escapes her lips. She thinks I’m funny? Tré cool. “The county nurse came by yesterday and spruced me up,” she says.

That voice—like she’s trapped in a suitcase. She gazes up at a cracked, brown ceiling that’s just like mine.

“Have some fried chicken,” I say.

“Can’t swallow it.” Her ulcerous fingers gesture at the meat on the plate then lift to her mouth in a mime of eating. “You go on,” she says.

“Maybe later.” I’d actually like to chuck this battered carrion out the window. I scratch my matted hair and say, “What’s with your skin?”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing. Sorry. My eyes are tired.”

“Hush. I’m kidding. It’s scleroderma. Reared up in the last thirteen months. With other related abnormalities.”

“Why?” I say.

“Progressive Systemic Sclerosis. The experts call the disorder PSS, sweetheart."

No one’s called me sweetheart for, gee, ever. Too bad she’s got to see these shiners under my eyes. “Is that why you were crying?” I say.

Her hazel eyes pierce me like pushpins. Shaking her head, she removes a Walkman headset I only now notice. “I was singing.”

“It sounded—” I don’t press the issue. Her sobbing is her business.

She crosses her wrists over her sunken chest. I wonder what other growths and sores hide under her blouse. My unspotted boobs lift half out of my t-shirt’s stretched neckline with each breath I take.

“Were you singing?” she says, gnomish ears peeking from her hair.

“That was a cassette. Want some aspirins? There’s fresh ones in my apartment.”

“No, thanks.” Her elbow points at the partition. “My meds are all in there.”

“Meds?” Curious, I park my plate on the dresser top and enter the kitchenette, palms battening my shirt over the junk in my trunk.

Our appliances are clones, except hers are scrubbed shiny. There’s no boot dent on her fridge, and it’s stocked with yogurt and juice. I snitch a bottle of apple cider but reconsider and replace it unopened.

Amber and white containers prescribed to Sada Pollard sit on the counter. I read a label as I stump back to her bed with seven drug vials in my spread hands. “How’d you like some Penicillamine, Mrs. Pollard?”

Her fingertips brush her rawhide cheek. “Doesn’t help.”

“How’s about Cimetidine?” I read the small print: “‘300 milligrams daily for reflux esophagitis.’ Or Procardia? Or Tetracycline—I’ve heard of this.”

“I’ll take Tetracycline.”

I sink cross-legged to the floor and drop the stash into my lap except for one container I shake a red capsule out of.

She leans to survey the cache between my legs. “And one from the white bottle,” she says.

“Methrotrexate?”

“Please.”

Mixed at the bottom of the container are two makes of pills. “White caplet or yellow cylinder?” I ask.

“I don’t remember.” She pulls her fingers toward her face and seems about to weep.

“Don’t go blubbery on me,” I say. “Take both, to be sure.”

“You take one. I’ll take the other.”

Like that makes sense, but to amuse her I toss one of the yellows down my throat. Laughing, I extract a white caplet for her. “This way we prove which works better,” I say.

“Or kills quicker,” she says.

I rock forward on my butt-cheeks and place the two little bullets in her hand. “Want water?”

“No.” She painfully gums both medicines down. “I should be doing great in no time.”

I corral the remedies in my hands, heft to my feet, and line the containers along her headboard. “You like rainbow sherbet? There’s some in my freezer.” Not waiting for a reply, I scram to the hall and bang through my door.

I drop to the sofa, relieved to be out of there. Just ’cause I shot off my mouth about sherbet doesn’t mean I’m on the hook to bring it. Nothing I do can undo that woman’s plague. I militantly don’t budge.

But boredom sets in. I get up and look for something to do. My mail’s already picked through. On top of the pile, the Mastercard envelope is stuffed with computer billing and surcharging. Next to the glassine address window “FINAL NOTICE” is printed in red. Since getting fired from my bulk-mail McJob I’m ass out of dough. State assistance just covers my rent. Hooch, smokes, Trojans don’t come cheap. Up The Wazoo, the band I manage, better rake in some commissions soon, or I’ll go bust.

Collecting dirty cups off the floor beautifies the place. I play air drums while waiting for warm water at the sink. Plink-tadda-tadda-boom! With the faucet clanking and water cascading, I’m not sure whether or not I hear a howl next door.

I plug the drain. No one hears me advertising my plenty of reasons to bitch. All I want is to do a little dance and make a little love. Not take a lot of crap from meat-brains. I squirt Joy on the bobbing cups and think: As long as it doesn’t kill me, why not make whoopee?

The hitch is, I barely get off anymore, no matter how much raunch gets factored in. Running a soapy cup under the water, I reminisce about my cute years, when getting it on felt like turning inside out in warm butterscotch.

Plenty of slap-nuts still catch my eye. The wall I’m up against is them not digging this less cute, plumper me. So I set my sights low. Easy sell, hard knocks, in-out, bim-bam, no strings, if I’m willing, and sometimes I am. Anyone’s funner than pleasuring myself with squash.

I dry my hands on my shirt and stop to listen for distress calls. Sada Pollard’s luck is worse than mine. Would it put me out to go act nice? Common decency. A little company for us both. It’s not like I’m busy.

I rake the sherbet out of the freezer and peel back the lid. I plunge two fingers into the muscleless, cold swirl of dessert and am about to lift out a snack-sized gob then change my mind. This sherbet should look appetizing. I smooth out the dints my fingers left, re-lid the tub, grab a spoon, and go smear Erase under my black-and-blue eyes. I find my coat and wrap myself in phony leopard.

The laundry in the hall trips me. The cylinder of sherbet almost slips from my hands. When I open Sada’s door the smell of left-behind fried chicken greets me.

I approach the bed where my neighbor sits, hair scattered over her pillow. Like some deformity poster lady. “Sorry,” I say.

“What for?”

“Taking so long. Leaving that gross chicken behind.”

“Come here.” She pats the bed.

I hang back. “I’m not clean.”

“You should see yourself. The picture of vitality.”

“Are you blind? Someone should put me out of my misery.”

“Then we’re in the same club. Sit.” Her cupped hand extends toward me then nestles against her midsection.

I perch on the edge of her mattress. My coat sleeve’s soiled with dried food of some sort. My wrist is solid pudge. “I used to be loads prettier,” I say.

“It’s going around.” Her head sinks into the wadded pillow, but she turns twinkling eyes my way. “Tell me,” she says, “have you got a boyfriend?”

Of all questions, when I’m sitting on a Gordon-abused heinie. “I’ve had a slew.” I shuck off the sherbet lid and dip in the spoon. “Ready for some yum?” I turn the spoon to her lips and run orange goo over them. The cool sweetness draws a cluck from her throat that could be enjoyment. “You look awful nice,” I say.

“The clothes look nice. The body looks awful.”

I offer the spoon again, and after she swallows I touch a bony knob halfway up her neck. “You’ve got a built-in necklace,” I say. “My friend’s boyfriend gave her a bracelet.”

“Got a favorite young man of your own?” Sada says.

“Yep. A young man by the name of Stoney.” I offer more sherbet.

She turns her head from the spoon. “What’s he like?”

“He’s a music honcho who produces live shows. He’s missing a few fingers from a motorcycle wipeout. No one’s perfect, eh? Though he’s darn close. Guy loves the hell out of me.”

“Does he take you out?”

“All the time.” Comments that started true have veered into fantasy to please her. It’s no skin off my back to manufacture a tiny emotional lift. Saying these little white lies about Stoney out loud might make them more likely to come true. I lift the spoon to her mouth. She lets a tiny sherbet pellet slide across her tongue. “Good, huh?” I say.

“The Methrotrexate’s starting to work,” she says. “You’re an angel.”

No real food for days and now feeding sherbet to this freakish stranger … I suddenly feel silly. “My pill made me better, too.”

“Isn’t that something,” she says. Her feet wiggle. Odds are more malformations lurk in those black socks.

I thumb a dab of green melt off Sada’s chin. Not wanting to wipe the goop on her sheets or my coat, I swipe it across my bare wrist. It’s gluey, like cum, flattening my little wrist hairs. I tongue it away and taste sweet artificial lime and salty real sweat.

“We’re something,” I say, not even knowing what I mean.

She lies back, going old-eyed and slump-shouldered. Her stamina for swallowing sherbet, hearing kissy-kissy Stoney Chavez bullshit, and getting acquainted with her neighbor fades fast. “Who cares what we are?” she says.

“I do.” The half-gallon tube of defrosting sherbet flexes in my hand.

“No.”

“Yes.” I press a wet hand to her leathery, pocked cheek, as if branding my handprint onto her.

Her fingers fumble at mine. “Me too, then, sweetheart,” she says.

Sweetheart. That slays me. “Excellent, Mrs. Pollard,” I say. When I take my hand away a magenta flush tassles up her face.

“Call me Sada,” she says. Her gold eyes gleam. She looks like a wood icon catching fire.




Mindela Ruby’s Comments

This story is Chapter 2 in a novel about an indomitable punk riot girl hooked on risky “sexcapades.” In “Funhouse Face,” we witness the first blush of affinity between two wildly different women, Dickinson Park, a.k.a. “Boop,” and her peculiar apartment-house neighbor. The piece was inspired by my interest in the chance encounter—which can turn out to be a self-sabotaging scapegrace’s first shaky step toward reclaiming the better part of herself.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 33 | Summer 2011