An excerpt from Josie the Girl by Joanna Ruocco
I remember the day I first needed a baby. It was like I was starving and my uterus was packed full of dumpling wrappers. All the men who walked by had cocks stuffed with pork and green onions. What to do? I ended up in a cocktail lounge pawing at the wrong guy’s pants.
That’s Drycleaner Eddie, someone said. Excuse me those are Drycleaner Eddie’s bespoke flat-front wool trousers. Foul cunt! Have you no couth?
I got hauled up by the arms and dropped outside on the curb in the rain. I hunched there, blinking stain lifter spray from my eyes. The valet kids raced in limos around and around the block at top speed, pelting me from the open windows with hard, glassy mints. Gutter water slapped my face with the rhythm of waves. It was always something like that, for years. I’d aim high and there was nothing but gangsters and queers, valet kids and female bodyguards. I’d aim low and there was nothing but diabetics and truck drivers in kidney belts and compression underwear.
I once waited in a short skirt, my hands on the wall, my legs on either side of the toilet in a bus station bathroom stall, but the bomb dogs started barking and everyone ran above ground. Security showed up to give the all-clear and the guard who poked his head in the john said Hello! He tiptoed over and patted and swabbed me. Good, good, he said, and unzipped and stuck it straight in my ass. Once, I straddled a bum on a bench. He got hard then nodded out. I had to drag him into the middle of the street so a car would stop and take him down to St. Anne’s. Did a car stop? I don’t know. I went on. I had a mission. I needed a baby, Josie or Jim, I didn’t care which.
Late at night, alone, on the roof of my walk-up, I’d eat with my hands from a paper bucket looking at the city lights, the blue glass towers of financial services lit up across the river, the orange sodium bulbs twinkling on the bridges, and everywhere square after square of shifting headlights and taillights, like how I imagined current in a circuit board, the city a million components connected by traffic, sending me some kind of signal about my baby I couldn’t process. The signal made me crazy! It made me work jalapeno poppers up to my cervix and inch them out again with muscles I didn’t know existed. How could a jalapeno popper help me? It couldn’t. But night after night, it was the only thing there.
Before the day I started needing a baby, I lived different. I lived okay. Not great. I was ugly. I was lonely. I was bad at science and math and money and human relations and report-writing and merit and fitness. I exuded naturally the piss-puddle smell of a cringing, small dog and treated it aggressively with rose-scented talc. By noon, the talc made hideous cakes in my pits, like used urinal pucks in every way— the pink ones—that exact look and scent. Really, I could almost sell them, but I was ashamed and anyway gangsters controlled the flow of tampons, condoms, and urinal pucks in and out of the public bathrooms and most office buildings. I wasn’t about to challenge the gangsters! Why should I? I had no goals. No ambitions. The way I saw it: you could put warm shit and sugar in a pastry bag, but what did you have? Chocolate frosting? You didn’t. You had a bag of warm shit.
In my apartment, the bathtub was in the kitchen/living room and the toilet was in the bedroom closet. Besides the kitchen/living room and the bedroom, there was the little platform of the fire escape, the apartment annex where I stored my pornographic novels in a blue plastic bin on which I wrote SHOES in black marker. My shoes, of course, were all on a shoetree by the toilet in the closet: stability sneakers, work clogs, and nude pumps which made even sausage legs seem bendy-sexy and longish, almost like fashion doll legs, or at least they seemed like that when I looked in the cheap full-length mirror, turning slow circles in the kitchen with my skirt hiked to the crotch of my sheer support hose. I didn’t need a baby back then. I could still get excited by thoughts about fucking, right there on the floor, my bendy fashion doll legs gripped by each ankle, pushed up and back by a huge-donged, malevolent robot programmed solely to fuck. The robot wasn’t a he or a she but an it with a dong that did a vibrating piston-type thing in my cunt. My feet in nude pumps were over my head, my legs making rubbery clicking noises as they bent by degrees further and further, as my knees hyperextended in the lewdest possible manner, my groans with a sheep-bleating quality from the dong-induced vibrations moving out from my core. These thoughts certainly got me excited! Nothing in my pornographic novels even came close.
My landlady, Mrs. Eisel, lived beneath me, and even though I did not in real life shake the plaster from her ceiling getting fucked by a robot, or otherwise disturb her in any way, she wanted me out so she could move in her best friend, a female bodyguard named Mel. Mel had short red hair and a big-eyed, thin-lipped, bearded-dragon kind of face. She was too old to work any longer as a female bodyguard, but she still had tremendous thighs and biceps and dressed monochromatically in high collar jumpsuits. She kept in shape giving Mrs. Eisel vigorous massages, and colonics, and the rest of the time the two of them spent out in the city shopping for costume jewelry. Mrs. Eisel paid for the jewelry and Mel pulled the cart. They were very in love. I was reading between the lines, I suppose, never having witnessed any of this, the massages, the colonics, the shopping, but their expressions when I passed them as they sat sharing egg salad from a pale blue mixing bowl on the bench outside the building gave the whole game away.
Mrs. Eisel was the sort of landlady who had a cunt like a cobwebby prune forgotten in the back of a drawer. I found a prune like that once, in the back of a drawer, and it had gotten quite hard—no goo—texture between a pit and a piece of chewed leather. When a cunt gets to that stage, the only treatment is sex, preferably mouth sex with a lizardy stud such as Mel, but Mrs. Eisel, it was obvious, had an axe to grind against sex. She wanted my apartment for Mel so she could drill a hole for waterlines through my floor and into my tub and use gravity to maximize pressure for water flow in and out of her colon, and so Mel wouldn’t have to take the bus home at the end of the night, all the way downtown to her rented bunk in the athletic complex. If Mel got my apartment, she and Mrs. Eisel would share the same building, sparing Mrs. Eisel the pain of separation and also the vision of Mel participating boisterously in locker room orgies, for which the athletic complex was notorious, but they would NOT have to share the same bed. The same bed was totally off limits, putting, as it would, Mrs. Eisel at a high risk for sex. My apartment for Mel was the perfect solution, except that I lived in my apartment, tenancy protected by the municipal code.
Mrs. Eisel did not have the serenity to accept my permanent residency in her building. She was disgustingly fleshless and short, so she couldn’t loom, or flex her arms with idle menace while picking her teeth with the pin of a crystal lovebirds brooch like Mel, but she was quick and uncoordinated and lay in wait for me on the stairs, then attacked from a higher step, darting and diving like one of those berserking swallows from the Highway 3 overpass. She didn’t have the strength or endurance to kill me, so she tried to evict me on lease violations, mostly for pets.
What’s this? she would say. What’s this?
She would poke and poke, then switch tactics and use her poking fingers as pincers. She plucked at my sweater, shot past me down the stairs, and teetered back to her apartment. Her apartment was laid out like my apartment, but her apartment was crammed with about ten thousand little white boxes of costume jewelry, and ten thousand egg cartons, and also medical-looking equipment I associated with colon hydrotherapy, and stacks of magazines, and Mel reading a magazine on a molded plastic rocking armchair (fuchsia), and also, spilling out the top and bottom of rubber-banded manila folders, five hundred sandwich bags each with one hair inside, and on the outside, a piece of masking tape on which she’d written my name and the date.
I’m assembling my case, she would say. She had almost enough hairs to assemble a whole pet. But I didn’t keep any pets. My sweaters were just covered in hairs! That was the way it had been my whole life. Pet hair was the number one thing I attracted. It was something to do with dry skin and the build up of electrical charges? Mrs. Eisel had no case! All the pet hair in the city, brushed or scratched or pulled off the pets and scattered to the winds, collected on my sweaters and also on my overcoat, which was made of camel hair to begin with and expensive and well-cut so it looked excellent with the added pet hair, artisanal, like made-on-a-lap-loom-in-a-nomad-encampment. The universe brought me that coat. I found it on the railing of the pedestrian walkway on the Bialystoker Bridge, the nude pumps beside it, hooked by the heels on the chainlink. Every now and then, I was lucky like that. Right time, right place. With some things, that is. With the coat, yes, but with men, no.
With men, it didn’t matter where I was, or when. Men never saw me. If I stood in any line, for check cashing, for chicken, men got in front of me without seeming to notice. The hardened sluts in remediation with Mrs. Hudnut—they saw me. They gave me lots of attention. They stuck their gum on my chair and filled the brew basket in my teapot with roach gel. Twice I went into violent emesis from roach- gel-infused tea, but I couldn’t scream between heaves, You hardened sluts! Your lives are worth two bug shits and a booger! You can’t even read! I couldn’t charge out of the classroom and never come back. As a teacher’s aide, I cashed a check every two weeks for $45 dollars more than half of my rent. I couldn’t quit, or lose my cool and get fired. There were no other jobs, not for me. I failed the city exams for mail carrier, stenographer, transcriber, and prison guard. I was trapped, I knew, for all time, Monday through Friday, in Mrs. Hudnut’s remedial classroom at Juliette Bunting High School.
Joanna Ruocco has published several books, including Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, which won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, and most recently, Dan (Dorothy, a publishing project). Ruocco also works pseudonymously as Alessandra Shahbaz (Ghazal in the Moonlight, Midnight Flame), and Toni Jones (No Secrets in Spandex), and Joanna Lowell (Dark Season). She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
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