Copyright © 1997 Maggie Estep.
All rights reserved.
Lungs and Company
Directly downstairs from me lives Lonette, a woman with the lung power of Pavarotti. Every day, I hear her shouting at her kids, "You stupid idiots, get in the motherfucking house and shut up." The kids in turn call each other motherfucker in higher octaves. The seven-year-old calls the two-year-old motherfucker and the two-year-old runs down the hallway naked, smeared in dirt and yelling, "Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker," in his soprano squeak.
A while back, after Jim the Painter but before the two loves that have brought me to you bleating and yelping, I had a boyfriend named Edgar. Edgar always said white people didn't say motherfucker right. White people, Edgar said, said "Motherrfuck-er" in a way that conveyed nothing but pure whiteness. He tried to teach me to say it right. I don't. I can't. I'm white.
Lonette, the lady downstairs, says it right and says it loud. So do her kids. Theirs is not a subtle familial love. But it is love.
When the mailman comes, Lonette sashays into the hall to watch him distribute the mail. She wears a large T-shirt that partially covers the way her fake designer jeans define each cheek of her ass. I hear her fifty-cent flip-flops whip the hallway floor as she goes to glare at the mailman. She doesn't trust him. I don't either. In fact, I like to think of the mailman as a vicious cyborg. He will kill us all if we're not careful.
The mailman has tiny rust-colored eyes and a doughy undefined face flecked with large freckles. He has a robotic way of flipping letters into each of the twenty-four slots for the twenty-four apartments in our building. He does not respond to my saying hello. He does not respond to anyone saying hello. When Lonette's kids say, "Hi, motherfuckin' mailman," he just looks right through them.
When I haven't had enough sleep, which is most of the time, I start to see the mailman as a product of the kind of government experiment we like to pretend doesn't exist. The mailman is a cantankerous cyborg and my taxes are paying for him.
Lonette doesn't pay taxes. She's on welfare and she gives blow jobs for ten dollars. This I know because she has sung it in a fevered contralto to her two-year-old son, Ralphie: "Motherfucker, I'm out there sucking dick for ten dollars and you gotta go and make noise when I come home? What the fuck is wrong with you, Ralphie? Shut up and get in the house."
Once in a while, Lonette gets a letter from a guy who lives in Montreal and this, I discovered, is what keeps her going. She cornered me by the mailbox one day. "Girl," she said, "did you get any of my mail in your box? I'm looking for my letter. I know that motherfuckin' mailman put it in the wrong box. Girl, look and see if you didn't get it." I hadn't. In my box were just the usual bills and threats. There are plenty of these right now. My current job is as a part-time receptionist at a dungeon. I take orders from a formidable dominatrix named Belle. I am not sufficiently versed in sadism to become an actual dominatrix but have enough of a fondness for it to answer a dungeon's phones.
The guy in Montreal is the father of at least one of Lonette's kids. I heard her telling this to Daisy, the stripper who lives upstairs. Lonette and Daisy frequently have voluble heart-to-hearts while standing in the stairwell a few feet away from my own door. Daisy and Lonette are my personal soap opera.
One day, Daisy told Lonette she was thinking about leaving New York. "I'm gettin' sick of this shithole, you know? I pay a fucking thousand dollars to live in cockroach soup, you know?"
"You pay a thousand dollars?" Lonette said.
"Yeah, a fucking thousand dollars, and the other night I'm making tomato soup and I go to stir it and there's fucking not one but THREE roaches in my soup."
"Girl, you're stupid, you paying too much rent. Last person lived in your apartment paid like seventy-five dollars or something. Old white guy. Had him a rabbit. Guy was a mothahfucken freak. But he didn't pay no thousand dollars."
"Yeah, well, what am I gonna do? You wanna tell me that? I mean this shit's better than Florida, you know?"
"I ain't been to Florida, but shit, they got sunshine there, right?"
"Yeah, sunshine. That doesn't do me any good. Gimme skin cancer. Make my fucking face fall off. Florida sucked. The only place to dance was this bar called Rudy's Booty. Nobody with teeth went in that place. I'd be dancing my fucking FACE off for these ninety-year-old guys that just grinned gums at me. No fun, right? Then I come up here but it's unreal, there's all these nineteen-year-olds with tits that stand up and say hello, and like I can't compete with that, so then I end up dancing out in fucking QUEENS and shit, like I get stuck with the day shift in QUEENS. I mean, what kind of shit is that?"
"Yeah, I hear you," Lonette said then, "but that ain't as bad as me. I'm in love with a guy that's got no ass and he lives in Montreal He's my son Ralphie's daddy," she said.
This was as much of the exchange as I heard because then Lonette invited Daisy to come in and smoke a joint. I heard the metronomic clicking of Daisy's fuck-me pumps as she teetered into Lonette's hovel.
I am not, as I may have conveyed, a complete eavesdropping loner. I do have friends. I do have a lover: The Reader. This moniker because, the second time we slept together, right after we had had rigorous and delicious sex, I grabbed a book I was reading, showed it to The Reader, and asked, "Have you read this?" At which he flapped his beautiful blue eyes and said, "How would you feel if I told you I never read?" Not terribly surprised, I thought. But what I said was, "Oh, that's okay. I guess a lot of people don't read." When I relayed this to my closest friend, Jane, she said, "Ah, well, now we know what to call him. He is The Reader."
The Reader is physically beautiful but emotionally stunted, which is about all I can handle at this juncture. He is twenty-five and he is from a small town in Washington. His mother works in a candy store and, once a month, sends The Reader packages of candy. The Reader is a drummer. I am a bass player. I am a terrible bass player. In spite of this, I was briefly in a band that made money. It was a fluke, though. The Reader is a good drummer. All the same, he earns most of his living working as a busboy. The Reader is my lover. He is not really a friend. I have friends for that.
This might be a good moment to confess that I have literary ambitions. I write fuck books. Sort of high-minded porn. Occasionally, I even write poetry. About my neighbors. "The Decline of Eye Guy" is one I am currently at working on. Eye Guy is the speed freak in the apartment directly next door to me. He lives with his girlfriend. Although her eyes don't bulge the way Eye Guy's do, for facility's sake, I call her Eye Girl. Eye Girl is very moody. She is always zooted up on some really foul combination of uppers and downers and Rollerblading. Her bouts of Rollerblading seem to coincide with fights with Eye Guy. I hear them scream at each other, and next thing, Eye Girl is on Rollerblades and making her way down the stairs. Eye Girl is friends with Lonette and Daisy. On good days, she sticks her head out the door of her and Eye Guy's apartment and screams: "LONETTE, GET YOUR UGLY ASS UP HERE AND GIVE ME FIVE DOLLARS, MY CHECK FROM MY MOTHER DIDN'T COME."
On bad days, she walks downstairs, bangs on Lonette's door, and says, "You fucking junkie cunt, open the fucking door right now."
I am not sure why Lonette, a welfare mother, gives Eye Girl, a trashy twentyish white girl, money. I don't think I want to understand that particular economy.
* * *
One day, the Cyborg Mailman did in fact put Lonette's letter from Montreal into the wrong box. The Cyborg Mailman put the letter from Montreal into the Heavy Metal Guitarist Upstairs's box.
I heard the very polite Japanese fashion students from upstairs standing in the stairwell telling it to Daisy the Stripper.
"Yes," the Japanese students were saying, "the man who play White Zombie over and over, that man he was very drunk and he defecate in hallway."
"Oh God, that's REALLY gross," Daisy said.
"Yes, and then he set fire to couch and firemen come and lady from downstairs came up to see what commotion was and see a letter for her is in apartment of Heavy Metal Guitarist and there is shit on letter."
"Oh my God. He SHIT on one of her precious letters from Montreal?" Daisy's voice rose an octave.
"Yes," the students said in unison. They are a boy and a girl and they often talk at the same time, as if they were the same person. As if they were Japanese Siamese Twin Fashion Students.
At this point I went out into the hall, said hello to Daisy, and nodded at the Japanese Siamese Twins. They nodded back in unison.
"You heard about how Mikey shit in the hall and set his couch on fire?" Daisy asked me then.
"Yeah, well, I just overheard you talking about it. That guy's nuts, nuts man.
The Japanese Siamese Twins giggled.
"Oh, Mikey's not nuts, he's just drunk. I used to date him," Daisy said then.
"You did?" The twins and I in unison.
"Yeah, for two weeks. We were like sort of in love, but then he went on a bender and got like this HEAD WOUND from passing out at the Bronx Zoo because he gets drunk and he likes to go look at pandas and then he got too drunk and fell over and like crashed into some lady's wheelchair and hurt his head and then he broke up with me." She said it like it happens every day. Every day a guy drunkenly swoons for pandas and every day a guy gets a head wound and breaks up with a stripper who danced for toothless men in the Everglades.
Just as Daisy was nonchalantly relaying this detail of her lurid love life, Lonette emerged from her apartment. She was dragging two-year-old Ralphie by the arm. "Motherfucker, you're coming to the store with me," she was saying. Then she noticed all of us standing there and, at that very moment, the Cyborg Mailman came in and all hell broke loose.
The Cyborg Mailman saw us all standing there, but still he ignored us.
Lonette drew herself up to her full height and said, "MOTHERFUCKER, YOU PUT MY MOTHERFUCKIN' LETTER IN FUCKIN' DRUNK MIKEY'S BOX AND HE FUCKIN' SHIT ON MY LETTER."
The mailman didn't say anything. He began to open up the mailboxes but he was shaken. You could see it. His eyes darted nervously.
"MOTHERFUCKER," Lonette wailed, "I'M TALKING TO YOU. LOOK AT ME WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU."
"Please don't raise your voice at me," the mailman said then.
"DON'T RAISE MY VOICE? WHAT ABOUT DON'T PUT MY LETTER IN THE WRONG BOX, WHAT ABOUT THAT?"
"Listen, lady, I'm sorry, I'm only human."
"No you're not," Lonette said then, "you're like a fuckin' robot, and shit, you're like the terminator of mailmen. Used to be we had us a nice mailman, now we got you, fuckin' T2, man."
I couldn't believe it. Lonette also thought the mailman was a cyborg. I was not alone. She, too, wanted to shake that mailman, drive some heart into his circuitry, make him see how putting the letter from Montreal into Mikey the Heavy Metal Guitarist's box had almost ruined everything, how that letter was what the Lady Downstairs needed, that letter made it all worthwhile, a multitude of dicks to suck and a bunch of kids to yell "motherfucker" at.
And then the Cyborg Mailman melted. First, his hands began to shake uncontrollably, then he actually DROPPED a huge stack of mail. It went fanning out all over the floor as all of us stood dumb-foundedly witnessing the cracking of the cyborg facade. And then he started to cry. His puffy white features mushed together like malevolent cookie dough and tears came out of his rust-colored eyes.
Then he doubled over and wailed out, "I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY."
We were all shocked. Not one of us said a word. It was so uncharacteristic that we didn't have a clue as to what our lines should be.
And then the mailman just turned around and walked back down the greasy hall and out the door. He just left. He left the mailbag and everything. The mailman just walked out of the building.
We never found out what was wrong with him. We talked about it. Everyone did. Daisy and Lonette and the Japanese Siamese Twins and even Mikey the fecally fixated Heavy Metal Guitarist. We all wondered what went wrong. You always hear about mailmen going nuts. Postal psychopaths are perfectly commonplace. But now it had happened to us.
We never saw the Cyborg Mailman again. We have a new mailperson. A woman named Lucy. She is short, Puerto Rican, and loves to talk. She and Lonette talk about the Guy From Canada and how he has no ass. One day the Heavy Metal Guitarist asked Lucy what had happened to the old mailman but Lucy didn't know.
Last week, I came in and saw that Daisy had cornered Lucy the Mailwoman and was pouring her heart out to her: "Yeah, so then I was naked in front of these toothless guys in the Everglades, and they were like grinning GUMS at me and like..." she trailed on as Lucy the Mailwoman nodded sympathetically and continued to stick the mail in the slots. Maybe I should confide my heartaches to Lucy the Mailwoman. But I'm not like that. I'd rather tell them to you.
Charlie, my father, was a vagabond horse trainer. As a kid, he hopped freights and hitchiked across the U.S. He took up with a rodeo, worked as a mechanic, then was drafted into Korea where he jumped out of airplanes. One day, on a routine mission, a sergeant miscalculated. My father was told to jump at the wrong time. He landed in a truck bed in a parking lot and fractured most of his body. He spent several months hospitalized in Korea. He lay prone in a full body cast, being fed nutrients and morphine through an IV. After a few months, he was discharged, and, still in the cast, put on a plane home. They neglected to detox him and a few hours into the journey the opiates started spitting out of his system in whirling spasms of pain. By the time the plane landed stateside, my father felt more physical pain than he thought a human body would endure.
He never forgave the ubiquitous "Them" for this neglect and, from that moment on, veered as far away from governing bodies as possible. This somehow led him to horse training. He had been working as a mechanic and was called to fix farm trucks on a rich guy's estate. The guy's daughter, a whispy sixteen-year-old with an upturned nose, was riding a horse near the garage. The girl was having trouble. Charlie, who'd mastered breaking horses in his rodeo days, saw the girl struggling and volunteered his help. This led to a job training the rich guy's horses. Which eventually led to Charlie's meeting Francine, my mother.
Francine had just finished high school where she'd graduated valedictorian. She was good-looking and composed. And she was a budding martyred saint of the work ethic. She shoveled shit at the rich guy's barn in exchange for riding some of his horses. Charlie chased Francine, and, although Charlie was wild and funny-looking, my composed mother fell for him hard. They were married and I arrived eight months later. Now Francine worked double time, taking care of me and helping Charlie shovel horse shit, train horses, and maintain the stable.
Working for rich people was hard on Charlie. Although he opposed institutions and most forms of government, he did have a had a sort of socialist streak: Wealth rubbed him the wrong way. He'd tolerate his various employers as long as he could and then one day we'd move. This caused a strain between Charlie and Francine and I could feel their relationship decaying fragmenting with each passing month. By the time I was four, they barely spoke to one another and I started running away from home. I wasn't very good at it and never got far but the urge to run was strong.
We moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Canada, then, when I was six, to Upstate New York. We lived in a little apartment above the stables. I was in first grade but hung around with a girl named Mimi who was eleven and lived in a sprawling house across the street. I don't remember all that much about Mimi except that she had curly hair and I wanted her life. I also appreciated the fact that she and her family seemed to tolerate me and let me spend a lot of time in their house, eating their food and watching their big TV.
By this time, Francine and Charlie were sort of distant figures in my life. They were always working while I wandered around outside or imposed myself on strangers. At school, I'd taken to beating up boys I had crushes on. And stealing girls' lunch money. This I did just for the thrill. I didn't have any use for their nickels. But I took them.
One day, Francine said we were moving and Charlie wasn't coming with us. I was surprised but went along with it. We moved into her friend Harriet's apartment. Harriet was a dog breeder and was away on the dog show circuit. Her apartment was a hideous kitsch dog inferno: doggy-patterned rugs, bath towels, and plates and, everywhere, large posters, engravings, and paintings of poodles, who were apparently Harriet's breed of choice. I was sitting in the living room one day, under a gilt-framed poodle painting, when Francine told me she was going to Mexico to get a divorce from Charlie. I shrugged at this news, not exactly sure what it would mean. Would we continue to live in Doggy Inferno? And if not, where would we go? What would Charlie do? Did he care?
These questions were answered two weeks later when Francine told me to pack, we were moving. We went to her new boyfriend's house. His name was Henry. He was tall, bald, and spoke in a deep, flat monotone. He was a microbiologist and certainly looked the part. Small glasses, a thick ginger beard, and eyes that appeared to have difficulty focusing upon the banality of mortals.
Francine and I settled into Henry's house, which was a quaint mock log cabin affair. I slept in the living room and, at Henry's insistence, began wearing my previously moppish hair in two tidy pigtails.
I saw my father infrequently. When Francine did drop me off to spend a day with him, he would pick me up in his arms, loosen my pigtails, then take me to feed on ice cream, candy, and other snacks. By the time Francine fetched me at the end of the day, I had dreadlocks and was covered in multicolored food stains .
One day, Francine and Henry sat me down and said: "Zoe, we are moving to France."
"We are? Why?"
"I've been offered a job there," Henry said. "France is in Europe, it is very cultured. You will like it there."
"Ah," I said. A few days later, Henry and Francine dropped me off at Charlie's house. I was to say my good-byes. I was going to France. I did not like the idea of France. But I thought Francine would be upset if I tried to stay with Charlie, so I said good-bye to Charlie, who showered me with bracelets and horse pictures and held me tight for one uncharacteristic moment. A few days later, I left for France with Francine and Henry.
We moved to Versailles, a suburb of Paris and, of course, home to Louis XIV's ostentatious palace. We had a big white house with a rose garden. It was almost as big as my friend Mimi's house had been. I should have been happy but there were some problems. One was that Francine and Henry decided it was best that I go to a French school. They figured I'd just learn French by osmosis.
I did learn the language quickly but didn't let on to my teachers because the things they wanted us to do were tedious. I feigned complete idiocy in class and chased boys during recess. I had one girlfriend, Frederique, who was at my side at all times. As I chased and beat the boys up, Frederique stood by watching and smirking and grinning her approval. Frederique had lovely parents who let me spend a fair amount of time visiting their apartment. There, I was in heaven. We could watch TV and listen to the radio, things Henry and Francine forbade.
Soon Henry's Regime of Terror began. I was browbeaten for bad grades, humiliated for poor posture, and endlessly chided for what they called my surly disposition. I was not only assigned an endless array of horrible household chores--straightening the fringe on the rugs, polishing the dinner table, dusting the attic--but was forbidden to leave the house other than to go to school. For recreation, Henry one day installed a bookshelf full of voluminous tomes, in French. Proust, Moliere, even Rimbaud, but only Camus stole my heart. I fell in love with L'Etranger and made it through most of La Peste. This served to make me even surlier. I stared for hours at Camus's author photos and cultivated a brooding look.
My brooding, accompanied by an exaggerated slouching walk, caused Henry to one day hand me a tutu and tell me I was going to ballet school. His withering eyes sparkled as he hurled the word ballet at me.
And so, the next day, I skulked off to ballet school. I arrived a few minutes late and snarling. The teacher told me to find a space for myself at the barre. I then stood, one hand on the barre, a besotted ballerina before me, another behind me, and plie'ed. After a half hour of this buffoonery, I actually found myself enjoying it. A Chopin adagio was playing, and I had broken a sweat and felt slightly adrenalized.
Soon, to Henry and Francine's surprise, I was the star ballet pupil. I twirled and twonked and pirouetted my face off. Eventually, I talked Frederique into joining up. We went to ballet each day after school, then, as soon as we were done, skulked around and smoked cigarettes.
When I was eleven, Francine got pregnant and, for some reason, we moved from the big house to a small apartment. This didn't make any sense that I could figure, especially when my twin half brothers, Julian and James, were born. I liked Julian and James immensely. For one thing, they diverted Henry and Francine's attention from whatever ostensibly bad stuff I was up to, and for another thing, Julian and James were cute and very well-mannered babies. And, thanks to their many infant needs, I was soon able to be out of the house for long stretches of time without Henry noticing.
Our apartment was right near the grounds of the Chateau of Versailles, and so, when I wasn't at ballet class, I was wandering around the endless gardens. My friend, Frederique, sometimes accompanied me, but mostly I wandered on my own, the better to take in the blossomings and whisperings of the ornately landscaped place.
I continued on at Catholic school, beating up boys I liked and getting in trouble with the nuns. One day, when a boy named Jean Baptiste and I were caught in a bathroom feeling each other's hairless genitals, I got sent to the head nun's office. Her name was Soeur De France. She was a thin, bony thing with orange skin and hair. "Zoheee," she said raspingly, "tu es salle" She spat out the word salle, and her shit-smelling breath wafted around me, making me think of the putrescent stink of Jesus' decomposed corpse.
After forcing me to admit that I was indeed a filthy little troll, Soeur De France smiled and seemed to be on the verge of dismissing me. Then she said, "Zoh-eee, don't you find my name, De France, to be beautiful?"
I couldn't believe it. A nun blowing her own horn. What about effacement of self, what about humility? I said that no, De France was really not a remarkable name. This was the straw that busted old De France's back. She put me in the retard class then. It was me, the little American freak, and some mongoloids and paraplegics and a Portuguese girl with elephantiasis. We were not so much learning-disabled as just plain odd in the eyes of the head num.
We sat around doing Catholic Art Therapy. One day, the town's TV news team came to do a special on us retards and how, for all our learning disabilities, we were making progress and would become upstanding French citizens after all. As a demonstration of our accomplishments, they shot several seconds of me, painting. I was making an abstract portrait of two nuns having lesbian sex--something Frederique and I had halfheartedly forayed into. The painting looked rather pretty with swirls of pink and black that the TV crew interpreted as floral, not sexual. When I went home, I snuck into the living room where the TV sat, mostly unused. I was not allowed to watch it and so had to covertly catch the news program. And, sure enough, there it was, me and my painting of dyke nuns, on national French TV. Maybe this was where I got the notion to indirectly make money off of sex. I had painted nuns going at it and there I was on TV. It was a slow but natural evolution to my present-day occupation as fuck book writer and receptionist to dominatrixes.