by Mindela Ruby
Thanks to my pygmy bladder, I wake before sunrise and stumble to the bathroom where, under sixty fresh watts of a light bulb bummed off my neighbor, a sluggish, inch-long cockroach hunkers in the sink.
“Vamoose!” I tell it and sit to do my business. Instead of pushing the toilet handle, I mind Ma’s water conservation byword: Flush down the brown/ Let the yellow mellow. The reassurance of sour piss – the piddling extent of my family legacy. I pull up my shot-elastic briefs.
The stink that irked me as a pre-teen was the loose wino turd in Ma’s undies. Hippie Bob, her precious husband, never changed her dooked BVDs or helped lift her off the floor. He’d step over her prostrated body and say he’s the only one in the family with self-respect. According to him, we were trashy losers who ought to kiss his ass.
Kick his ass is what we should have done. I flush and look at the cockroach. It hasn’t moved and doesn’t skedaddle when I tap his shell. Aren’t these pesks supposed to be indestructible? This one’s a limp-antenna goner. I flip his pellet body over, not on purpose, into some basin muck. Stuck in mire – familiar feeling. This roach deserves a proper burial. Least I can do for a fellow inhabitant of earth.
Beneath the purple sky outdoors, alley cats screech a fucky-fighty duet as I kneel in the plant bed near the lobby door. Waterlogged and missing a leg, the insect waits on a square of toilet paper on the sidewalk. I dig a grave with a teaspoon I’ve brought out. Goosebumps smear down my bare legs as I sing a line of a song by The Damned:
Yet we shall both survive…
Or “shall” we survive? I wonder. A car slants out of the dark and comes alongside the curb. Oakland Police have a knack for showing up unwanted.
Daryl Prettyman, a night patrolman who booked me on a Drunk and Disorderly last year, opens his window. His ears ride so low they’re on his neck, not his head.
“Everything alright, ma’am?” his drab soldier voice says over the dogged thrum of his motor.
I scratch my behind. This chauvinist let the lunkhead I was carousing with off the hook last year and arrested just me.
“What’re you up to?” he says.
“Burying a dead pet.”
“At this hour?” he says, as if the sanctioned pet burial portion of night has passed. He glances around for a beloved feline or gerbil and doesn’t notice the deceased waiting on the sidewalk to take its dirtnap. “You have permission to place remains in this yard?”
“Yes, sir,” I lie, feeling jurisdictional eyes considering me. I spade a thorny berry shoot with the spoon.
Prettyman’s arm drapes down the cruiser door.
“How ‘bout you stop that?”
“Who’s it bothering?” I lick my knuckles and taste blood. “Bacon-brain.”
The car door opens, and out steps “Oakland’s finest” in full regalia. As if my current fate wasn’t demoralizing enough to begin with.
“Now, see,” he says, fingering his puppety ear, “it bothers me when a citizen disses the police force.”
“Sorry.” I wriggle into a squat, ligaments burning.
Pretty Badge peers around for a critter or incriminating evidence to bust me for.
“It’s my job to keep my beat safe.”
“What’s everyone’s fixation on staying safe?” I mutter. My bestest friend, who called me out on some recent nasty sexcapades, is a big safety advocate. She believes I’m endangering myself. I can’t say she’s wrong for wanting no part in it. Oh, how I miss her company, though.
“You better go indoors,” the cop says.
Above the East Bay hills, first dawn gleams, the color of just-forged steel, as if this new day might hammer itself out less tarnished than previous ones.
When I stab a chokehold of dandelion, the spoon handle buckles into candy cane shape.
“You ever see that TV magician that bent spoons with the power of his mind?” I say.
“Don’t think I have.”
“My step-dad, the expert spirit-crusher, claimed it was a trick.”
Pretty’s face holds its official blank expression.
“No magic here.” I fling the spoon away. It gyres through the air, strikes the police car fender and plonks to the asphalt.
“Step forward, ma’am,” the officer says.
I know from experience that stern-voiced cops expect to be obeyed. But no giddy-up’s in me. My knees are stiff as padlocks. I’m rooted to the ground.
“That was accidental,” I say.
His hand twitches near his gun belt.
“You’ve been instructed to stand.”
Though Daryl probably won’t shoot, he might be gunning to put hurt on me, more than I’m prepared to bear. I limp out of the flower bed, arms POW high. The surrender pose excites me. But my right foot’s pins and needles, frozen like a clubfoot. I have to stomp feeling back into it.
“Miss?” Pretty says.
Wagging my boot victoriously, I notice a paper scrap wedged in its cleats.
“My bug!” I pluck out the shred and turn it over in my hands. Search and rescue’s hopeless. The cucaracha is a smear at best, and I’m woe-is-mea-culpa crushed, too. The small things in life are what break us.
My arms flail like let-loose water hoses. Pretty vises me in a body lock. I hang half naked in his police custody arms, cursing, “Fucker! Ass-wipe!”
His service revolver is holstered inches from my face. I’ve never touched a real-life pistol. Soon as I do, he tackles me to the pavement, locks my wrists into metal cuffs, frisks me from the waist up, and, before the thrill of that wears off, hoists me by the sweater with excessive force into the backseat of his car.
Thick wire mesh separates the front seat from the back. The Gestapo dispatches a radio report I decipher only “10-50” out of. I rub my snotty palms on the plastic seat cover, look out the window and wonder if my sick neighbor is watching me get in trouble out here. I hope she’s sleeping and missing all this.
“Five-O,” I say, “What you got on me?”
He re-clips the mike to its mount and twists around. “Say what?”
“Ma’am, what’s your beef?”
“You wrecked my attempt at a good deed!”
“What’s your name?”
“Born Under a Dark Star Park. MacArthur Park.”
He turns and starts the car.
Eventually I’ll have to tell him my full name, Dickinson Park. “Did someone from my building call the cops?” I say. “Or was you showing up my crummy luck? I wasn’t trying anything funny with the weapon.”
The cop turns again with a searching glance I feel the need to explain away.
“It’s just that my whole groove’s gone bust in one swell foop.”
“Fell swoop?” he says.
“Not even that fast. My life’s been going steadily downhill for months.”
“Happens to the best of us.”
There’s this about cops: you can bare your heart, and they sit you out and protect and serve. With my undies clumped in my butt crack, the plastic seat’s perforations are scratching my exposed buns.
“Getting busted doesn’t help, you know.”
The police radio fuzzes on and fizzles off. “Simmer down,” he says.
The sash of sunrise widens. I sigh.
“Got a right to know what you’re charging me with.”
“Misdemeanor lewd exposure.”
I rub my knees together. He thinks this is lewd?
“Animal carcass violation,” he mumbles. “Another possibility.”
I bat tears off my cheek and think of more lyrics from “Wait for the Blackout”:
“Probably transfer you from the stationhouse to the psych facility in San Leandro,” the cop says.
“John George? Please, no. I’d rather cool my heels in the slammer than go the heebie-jeebie bin again.”
“A clinician should evaluate you. You could be a danger to yourself.”
Not this old story again.
“I’m no psycho! Swear on my mother’s grave.”
He smiles, not knowing Ma’s still alive and kicking.
“Alright, then,” he says.
I smile back. There might be a way out of getting arrested.
“You know how cops put the moves on girls sometimes?”
“No, I do not.”
“Sure, you do. It’s common knowledge that copsicles use the badge and their vested authority to get girls to do them.” I lean on the screen and blow on Pretty’s neck. “Some girls are up for a little copophilia if it keeps ‘em out of trouble.”
“I stopped listening five minutes ago,” he says, shoving his gear-shifter. My building drops from sight.
“Rear entrance, some playful spanky-spank,” I say. “You can get it here, Daryl baby.”
He brakes so hard my forehead bonks the screen.
“Keep it zipped,” he says.
I slide back on the seat and snort down more snot as we drive past the boarded-shut grocery I used to buy Doritos and cigarettes at, before Mom and Pop got deported. “You’re on duty; I get it,” I say. “Rules and regs, respecting my rights. I was just foolin’ with ya. Onward to the clink.”
My cuffed hands pull my sweater over my thighs.
“Can I get a blanket at the station? And this time can you not call my parents? Don’t want my ma paying for bail or my step-dad blow-harding advice. I’d rather freezate at Boy George than take more wrong-rub from him.”
We pass renovated buildings a century old, full of nice clean men, outside my shady little orbit. No cockroaches, no disappointment.
“If you change your mind, pull over here.” I point to a massive stucco house with white shutters, circa 1930. “’Cause you’re the man. And I’m just a half-naked skank with bound hands and a juicy –”
“Shut that filthy mouth!” He stops the car, throws off his seatbelt, throws his door open, throws my door open, and throws me to the curb. He unlocks my nippers and throws them down near me.
“I thought you were carting me to the loony farm?” I say.
“Don’t want to deal with you.”
I rub my wrists. “What if I wanna deal with you?”
He slams my door shut. I crawl to his shoes.
“Drag me half-undressed blocks from home and abandon me? Police brutality!” I grab his legs to pull myself up, one hand accidentally slithering over his wiener.
He pulls his gun. This time I’m not so sure he won’t shoot.
“Easy,” I say, backing away. It’s one thing to act smutty, another to get capped for it. I flap my arms like a moth. “See? I’m flying home, like you said.”
He gets in his car and is off to harass other small fry in the ‘hood, leaving me across the street from the wall I smashed my toe on three weeks ago, when my ex-friend Bridgit got mad about my fiendish sex antics and dumped me off without a toodle-ooh. I hear a garbage truck clanging down the block.
On this side of the street is a strip of grass all springy green from the recent rains. I lie down and let dew penetrate my sweater. At the sidewalk’s edge my fingers hook onto something hard and cold. I pull it toward my face.
Handcuffs. The discombobulated po-po forgot that he threw them down. I flip to my stomach and inhale the brawny sweetness of the ground through the unlatched loop of one handcuff ring.
“Too bright out here,” I say through the bracelet, thinking of “Wait for the Blackout.” I hum a few notes and lay my head down. Under this grass live relatives of my cockroach: worms, earwigs, millipedes.
“Can’t even get myself arrested,” I tell them, conspiratorially.
But there’s no indication they hear.
MINDELA RUBY has been a nanny, motel maid, tutor and punk radio deejay. She currently works as a community college professor. Some of her recent fiction has appeared in Boundoff, The Medulla Review, Emprise Review, The Binnacle and Literary Mama.