The emaciated dye-job victim in a cheap fake-leather outfit looked exhausted. Her skin was blanched by anemia or timid albinism. Heavy makeup around her pale-gray eyes accentuated the condition. She stared at the supermarket cash register conveyor belt as it rolled.
Women are supposed to be more efficient register-monkeys than men. The Neo Euro chick who rang up my generic tomatoes, no-logo UHT milk, bargain-brand yogurt and sawdust-vaseline breakfast biscuits held grimly to a flyblown punk look. Canned fashions never look right on Neo Euro girls, so the spectral pleather-clad alien at the next merchandise checkout line probably wasn’t Neo Euro.
Her male cash-register waitperson attempted a lame-o pick-up line. Plucked eyebrow Neo Euro guys feel gay unless they broadcast their Rocco Siffredi-ness.
Maybe she didn’t understand Italian.
He didn’t have time to attempt seduction with organ-grinder English or kak-vass-zavot, baby? Her shopping list would’ve fit on a defunct commie country’s postage stamp. Vodka and deodorant slid by, registered, clunked into the stainless steel consumer-merchandise holding pen. She refused the offer of a shopping bag for an additional 6 Neo Euro-cents. She put the vibrator-shaped applicator in her pocket, grabbed the bottle by the neck.
She didn’t smash me with it when I approached and asked if I could walk her home. Maybe she didn’t understand German. Don’t know why I thought she might.
I didn’t offer to carry her booze-bottle. Didn’t want her to think my plan was to steal it.
On the way out of the insanely-lit supermarket, we walked past lost-looking old folks in peasantry drag taking advantage of the free unnatural warmth.
Heat was included with the rent in New York, as was hot water. Felt like warmth and personal hygiene were free.
The generic neighborhood was identifiable only by former European country street names. Maybe she caught the irony of winding up on Soviet Union Street. Maybe she didn’t understand the luxury concept of irony. Poorly engineered spike heels hobbled her wiggle along the crumbling sidewalk.
Vodka was a big problem in the former USSR. Desperate dictators launched USA-style prohibition, restrictive rationing, scorched-earth surtaxes. Drunks learned to deal with artificially induced booze shortages fast, turned home-brew beer into instant vodka with a dash of mosquito repellent. They slathered shoe polish on rye bread for delirious pseudo-LSD trips and bloody diarrhea. I asked if she mixed generic deodorant and zero-logo vodka for a narcotic effect.
Vodka was to drink, she said. Deodorant was for stink. I asked if she was a prostitute. She nodded and said I was one too, as if I didn’t know.
“Look, I got food in my backpack,” I said. “Let me make you dinner. Nothing fancy. No-Logo spaghetti, but it tastes OK.”
She wasn’t sure she had a spaghetti pot. She’d rented a room in a pad from people she barely knew, hadn’t inspected the kitchen cabinets upon moving in. But she didn’t say no.
Cheap Neo Euro architecture guarantees maximum winter cold. Human being warehouse-silo contractors seem to be mobbed up with gas-heater factories, and the natural gas and oil bizzes. But it was warm in her place. Former-Soviet flat-mates filched heat from somewhere.
She took off her thin leather jacket, released a preliminary hint of the alcoholic reek that usually radiates from old ladies who drink gin because the boozy grapevine suggests juniper juice makes one stink less. Faint as a bottle of evil perfume waved slowly under the nose with the cap still on.
Tired sexy clothes, pit-hair like straw, she sat on a rickety garbage-recovered chair and let me get to work. No chopping block. No spaghetti pot. No can-opener, but that was no problem because generic tomato-pulp cans got pop-top tabs. Dull little knife couldn’t peel an apple. Dumb luck that bargain brand tuna cans are packed with enough human consumption-grade olive oil to do the sauce-lube trick. She pulled a cig from her ugly purse, no bargain-brand cigarette pack in between, bumped me aside and lit up at the stovetop gas burner. Close as she ever got to cooking.
Someone else was in the pad. The phantom presence manifested a different tobacco smell, muffled burps, sighs, wheezes. TV noise oozed through thin walls. Human breezes moved dusty scorch-marked curtains. Behind them, dirty windows faced a cement courtyard crowded with junked motor-scooter parts, corroded metal garbage bins. A live cat prowled across the scene, evicted or escaped from an eerily similar modern desolation pad. An invisible dead cat looked smug and sardonic under a fogged plastic sheet.
“Where you from?”
She had to think. Wasn’t used to direct questions. More accustomed to evasive action when direct questions were asked. Where you from what’re you doing here where’s your entry visa and residence permit? But immigration fuzz don’t offer free spaghetti. She was from a dirty unpronounceable war-torn town in Kosovo. She was polite enough to repeat her name, but I couldn’t imitate the sounds. She didn’t ask who I was or where I was from or what I was doing. She thought she knew what I wanted. In other words, same as everyone. But she was wrong. Unless the shower worked. I had my doubts, and zero excess money for hookers.
Money’s been a problem since the dirty magazine biz tanked.
Being dirty is no longer a viable commercial asset. I used to make a living describing situations similar to the one destiny devised to slam me and this oddly sexy alien together. Here’s the Neo Euro generic frozen pizza, lady.
She liked bargain chocolate, didn’t think it amiss to glom dessert before the starch course. She was missing molars. Ashtray and premature death-breath breezed through her pouty pale lips.
Dinner was payment enough for what she had to offer. We hit the shower first, my request. Practically had to demonstrate proper use of bargain brand soap and dental floss. We toweled off and tongue-wrestled in the steamy cheap neon-bulb mist.
“Get the deodorant you bought. Bring the vodka too.”
Hot water jacks alcohol buzz. We hit the shower again. Put her through the rinse cycle twice. Wasn’t enough, but vodka removed any trace of pseudo-civilized fastidiousness.
Generic vodka stings but does the trick. Maybe I took a swig of deodorant after I re-slathered her armpits. The stuff foamed like shampoo. I remembered the cheapo razors among my recent supermarket purchases. I still shaved, occasionally. So I left her standing under hot water and tromped to the kitchen. Hoped she wouldn’t drown.
Bumped into another blowzy babe in the hallway. She smelled like she was from Bukovina, or Bucharest, Burkina Faso, Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Bophuthatswana. Human flotsam status cuts through and across geo-political boundaries. She walked around in the dark due to inflated electric bills. Or else she was so stoned low-watt neon hurt her eyes. She flinched when she lurched into a stranger. Whispered she did not care to join us in the shower. It’s possible she didn’t understand the slurred question or the drunken orgy concept.
I returned to the bathroom.
She was looking at herself in the veiled sink mirror. Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I alive? Clouded mirrors don’t reflect answers to such easy questions. The tile floor was slippery, potentially dangerous. The cold outside the bathroom window wanted in and was making headway. She came back into the shower unquestioningly. I shaved her pits with deodorant foam. She shaved her legs to max out on the free razor.
Mouldy towels, unmade stale bed. The window in her room had a rolling metal shutter stuck in the down position for complete blackout on a probable raccoon’s nest. She kept up her zombie act until I spoke. Can’t remember what I said, but it was probably along the lines of turn over, move down a bit. Normal phrases from everyday human intercourse in a language not her own Balkan blither or former-Soviet folderol volapuk nadsat.
Humping drunks who mutter words she didn’t understand must’ve been an overly familiar unpleasant situation.
She didn’t freak in the usual manner, didn’t scream, lash out or use the nearly empty bottle as a bludgeon that shatters and slices. She unleashed skunk self-defense tactics, an inbred reverse-pheromone bio-weapon. I was hit with germ warfare, atavistic plague memories encoded on survivor DNA. I went limp, rolled lifelessly away, fast.
She lit a cig-remnant stashed between the lumpy mattress and the floor. Lime-green Bic lighter flashed a room filled with empty bottles. She held fire like Lady Liberty, scrounge-searched for a phallic deodorant applicator, rolled it under her neo-depilated arms. Vodka bottles and deodorant bottles in disorderly row after row, crowded in the corners, covered the dirty floor and ugly furniture. Two bottles a day keeps the undertaker away.
But not forever.
Who undertakes the removal of deceased illegal immigrant clandestine stowaways? Unaccounted corpses stuffed in weighted logo-stamped supermarket bag shrouds, dumped in the river. Garbage-dump fires, distorted reflections of pyres by the Ganges half a Third World away, illuminate unattended non-ritual funerals. Only the soiled river complains, to deaf disembodied imaginary ears. Unidentified stiffs float for a few hours, but are never shipped back to Romania, Albania, Ukrainia, put the thought out of Yourbrainia. Ravening mutts get fat on the heels of dead dictators.
I bounced like a flesh pinball into the mildewed bathroom, pulled on my pooled rags fast. Money was missing from my pants, but the thieving bitch in the hall had left the documents and house keys. No point stealing keys unless there are instant burglary possibilities, and the address printed on my expired driver’s license is half a world away.
Published July 2015