The evening sky—hot, curdled, yellow—sat heavy on the balconies of 522 Wishart. A few people lingered in deck chairs with drinks, some with cigarettes, some with joints. Angela was one of those. She would have to go in soon, though, because the sounds from Hell family, one floor below, were making her prickle with rage. First, the small girl, perhaps four or five, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, can I have more ice-cream? Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” the incessant whine. Then the presumed father—“shut the fuck up, Ape” (short for April?). Then a pitch perfect response from the mother—“stop fucking swearing at her!” and this would rise to a crescendo, with the kid finally running out onto the balcony, screaming, and the two parents inside screaming at each other. Angela could see the little “Ape” now, a bird’s eye view, her fat ice-cream painted hands clutching the metal rails, and her pigtails quivering as she howled.
Angela wanted to phone somebody. Who? Social services? What’s the crime? Emotional abuse? Yes! That’s real. She had suffered it too. Would this April grow up to be like her, one of the walking wounded? Probably. In the meantime, she went into her apartment and phoned the superintendent of the building for the fourth time this week. Left another voicemail. Could she get this Hell family evicted? They had been disturbing her since they moved in six weeks ago.
Ape seemed a little bit like her as a child, she surmised. The product of a fucked-up couple. Okay, if your parents don’t even like each other, find every opportunity to criticize and wail on each other—why do they stay together? To torture their offspring? Angela’s first memories were a fuzzy collage: She watches from a playpen in a corner of the kitchen as her parents scream at each other, their red faces just inches apart. Or another one—she is in her crib watching her father fuck her mother roughly, her mother pummels his chest, trying to buck him off her as he thrusts into her over and over, the puckered scars on his lean white buttocks flexing in ghastly rhythm.
On her father’s tenth Halloween, somebody thought it would be funny to light the string of Big Tom Thumbs hanging out of his ass pocket. Hilarious. A few skin grafts later, her Dad’s left butt cheek looked eerily like a deformed face, the rough scar pattern resembling eyes, nose, and mouth. And when, from between the crib slats, she watched her parents fuck, which was, unfortunately, too often, that butt-face looked like it was leering at her, mouthing obscenities.
Jesus, thought Angela, I have to stop this nonsense. Going back to those memories always spelled trouble. And this little Ape was uncovering all kinds of crappy dregs from the past.
Some days had passed, and then the unthinkable happened. The couple from Hell invited Angela for dinner. There was a knock on the door that evening—it was Friday. Angela got up from the couch where she was parked for the evening with Nurse Jackie on the flat-screen, one joint, and a 142 gram bag of New York Cheddar chips, her end-of-the-week treat. Angela was the kind of person who precisely doled out her medicine: ten cigs a day went into the silver cigarette case, boxed wine (she alternated white and red) measured each evening, marijuana divided over the month, small bags of chips purchased by the case from Costco and stored in the linen closet.
“Hi, I’m Edie, below you, 304?” The fat thirtyish woman stood before her in all her slovenly glory. The hair, purple dye washed out to a silver violet at the straw tips, was piled up in a thick and greasy coil on top of her head. Her arms were thick and dimpled, popping out of her tight tank top and glistening with sweat. Edie had a dark shadow above her upper lip. The purple hair, the incipient moustache, distracted Angie from looking into the guarded eyes.
“Hi Edie. Angela” she stuck out her hand, but then realized it was covered with the oily salt from the chips she had been munching when the knock came. She wiped her hands on the back of her jean shorts and tried again. Edie’s hand was clammy and reticent in hers.
“Hey sorry to bother you, but Hen and me wanted you to come for dinner tomorrow, if you’re free that is. Just burgers on the barbie. You might have seen—we got a little barbecue this week.
“No, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t usually look at your balcony.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean to say you were spying. Except somebody’s been calling the Super about the noise, and I wondered if it was you. Peace offering,” she laughed nervously, pulling at her cotton batik skirt. The elasticized waist bunched under her gut: a stripe of striated white flesh between the skirt and tight tank. A rhinestone stud protruded from the cavernous navel. Angela felt herself contract in revulsion. Could she actually smell the rotten-cheese odour of an infected piercing, or was it her imagination?
“Oh, sorry, but the noise was driving me crazy. No hard feelings, I hope. Sure, I can come to dinner. Can I bring anything?”
“Oh just yourself. We’ll have plenty of everything.”
“Hen – is that your husband?”
“We’re not married, but yeah, Hen is short for Hendrix. His parents named him after Jimi Hendrix. Can you believe it? Like they had a death wish for him or something.”
No rejoinder came to mind, so Angela smiled unconvincingly and started to shut the door. She was anxious to get back to the solitary pleasures of the evening, and this Edie was starting to irritate her. “What time?” she asked just as the door eclipsed Edie’s face.
“Let’s say six?”
“See you,” said Angela to the last sliver of cheek before the door clicked shut.
Saturday at six, Angela stood in front of 304 with a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bouquet of cut-price flowers wrapped in cellophane grasped in the other. She leaned over and knocked on the door with her head, then smiled at her cleverness.
Angela heard Edie yelling from within. “Ape, get the door.”
The door opened slowly, and the little girl stood stolidly before her, holding the doorknob and a grape Mr. Freezie in the other hand, a purple stain around her lips. She wore, like her mother had yesterday, an elasticized skirt and tight tank. And like Mum, her fat bulged from between them. The only difference was that her fat was young and unblemished. No piercings around the navel, yet.
Saying not a word, Ape looked at Angela and then started sucking on the Freezie. “What are you doing, Ape? Aren’t you inviting her in?” yelled Edie again from the kitchen.
Ape stepped back to indicate Angela should come in, but she stayed mute, making sucking noises and slamming the door loudly. That was another irritation for Angela. The slamming door from underneath her, at all hours.
She laid the beer and flowers down on a chair near the door. “Hey,” she said, sotto voice to Ape. “Don’t slam the door, Ape. Shut it gently, like this.” She opened the door again and demonstrated a soft close for the little girl who stood as if dumbstruck, betraying not a shred of comprehension as she watched this adult talk to her quietly.
Edie came out of the kitchen with a plastic plate piled with frozen hamburger patties and hotdogs. “I see you’ve met Ape,” she smiled. “C’mon in.” Angela picked up the beer and flowers from the chair and held them out to her hostess. “Oh great! Thank you!”
Hen came back from getting beer – now there were 24 plus the six Angie had brought. The three of them sat on the small balcony drinking beer, crowded together in plastic deck chairs, while Hen cooked the food on the little grill and Ape played in the living room with a couple of Barbies. She was eating dry Fruit Loops from a plastic container, occasionally smashing one onto Barbie’s unresponsive lips. Heaps of cereal dust decorated the grimy carpet like tiny insect mounds in pastel colours.
At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”
“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y. “Her real name’s Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase from a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic. “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”
Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”
“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling. She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind—the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.
Angela looked at the girl through the open balcony door. Now she was messing around with a hot dog, breaking it into pieces before she popped each piece between lips still stained purple from the freezie.
Angie stayed just as long as would be considered polite, then escaped back to her apartment. Later that evening when she heard some muted yelling, she took a Zoplicone to block everything out.
A few days later, Edie was at the door again. It was Wednesday evening. “Angela, hey I hate to do this, but I have to go do a night shift at work—they just called me in—and Hen isn’t home. He’ll be home soon though. Can you watch Ape for just half an hour, an hour at the most?”
Angela froze. Seriously? She is seriously asking me to babysit? Angela had just poured a glass of wine and was one-third of the way into an Ian Rankin novel.
“Don’t you have a regular babysitter?”
“Yeah, but that was at the old apartment, miles away. I need to find some teenager in the neighbourhood. But in the meantime, do me a favour?” She raised her eyebrows and shoulders in an inquiring leer. Apparently she had washed her hair and was now wearing it loose, showing bleached roots above the purple tresses.
“Okay, just this once, though,” Angie said. Oh, well, she could just read the novel one floor below. Ape was practically comatose, anyways. Edie went off to her night shift at Mac’s Convenience Store, leaving her cel number and Hen’s too. “Help yourself to anything,” she said. “There’s beer.”
Angela sat gingerly on the couch, placing a thermos containing her ration of white wine on the scratched coffee table and her novel beside her on the cushion. She looked at Ape, sunk into an armchair watching an episode of “My Little Pony” and slowly licking an ice-cream cone with her grey tongue. Her bare legs stuck straight out in front of her, nicked and cut, her toenails painted hot pink. She wore only cotton underpants and a Dora the Explorer pajama top. She hadn’t acknowledged Angela’s presence.
After the episode ended and Ape had crunched the last of the cone, she licked her fingers and announced, “Another one.”
Angela looked up from her book. “Another what?”
Ape continued staring at the screen, watching the animated figures from a cereal commercial strut, fly and, yell. “Another ice cream cone.”
“No,” said Angela in a low firm voice.
“What?” said Ape, finally looking toward this intruder.
“You heard me. No,” replied Angela once more, making eye contact with the girl.
Ape, as if bewitched, looked slack jawed at her neighbour. Rather than asking again, she hauled her small plump body out of the deep armchair and started walking to the kitchen.
Angela unfolded her legs, got up, switched off the television, and followed.
She watched the girl pull a kitchen chair up to the fridge, climb onto it, and yank the freezer door open. As Ape put her hands in to get the big five-litre tub of fudge ripple, Angela came up behind her, grabbed the little paws, pulled them away, and shut the freezer door with a slam.
“You don’t want to turn into an ice-cream cone, do you?” she said in a censorious voice, lifting the heavy, squirming kid off the chair and onto the floor.
Ape beat at Angie’s legs, yelling “ice-cream, ice-cream, ice-cream!”
“That doesn’t work with me. You’re done with the ice-cream. You look like you’re turning into an ice-cream cone, you little fatty.” Angela grappled to control the octopus limbs thrashing out every which way.
She hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Ape, who was trying to drag the chair once more to the fridge. Angela struggled with the child, finally hauling her out of the kitchen into the living room. She found herself in the weird position of wrestling this flailing sixty-pound body, trying to pin a strange girl onto a filthy carpet.
Finally, in a moment of revelation, Angela threw up her hands. “Jesus Mary Joseph, have your fucking ice-cream, then! You’re going to turn into a big fat fudge ripple monster cone!” Angela rapidly pulled herself off the kid, returning to her book, her wine, and the couch, while Ape, bawling, staggered into the kitchen where she negotiated the chair, the freezer door, the pail of ice-cream, the scoop, and the cone, with lots of banging. Throughout the process, she keened the anguished cry of the persecuted, a rhythmic, almost mechanical wail.
When Hen arrived about an hour later, his daughter was slowly munching to the bottom of her fourth cone, occasionally pausing for a long, shuddering breath, expelling the remnants of her crying jag. Her Dora p.j. top was streaked with melted fudge ripple, her hands sticky, her eyelids fluttering down, down.
“Wow,” he said, “Ape is in her cups tonight. Am I supposed to pay you for babysitting?” he asked Angela, who had not moved from the couch for 60 minutes.
“No of course not. What are neighbours for?”
Pitch black deep in the night, Angela was woken by a siren, growing louder, louder, then it seemed to be shrieking right in front of the building. After a time, she fell back into the blue funnel of drugged sleep. She had doubled her Zoplicone intake since Hell family moved in.
The next morning she was in the bathroom with the hair drier going when she heard a loud rapping on the door. Through the peephole she saw Edie in her pajamas, looking distressed.
She opened the door. “What’s up?”
Edie started in a low controlled voice, filled with venom. “What did you tell my daughter last night, you warped fuck? Told her she would turn into an ice-cream cone? What kind of mean fuck are you?” Edie pushed her mascara-streaked face into the doorway in a threatening gesture.
Angela noticed the strong smell of sweat and the fetor of decaying teeth, and she started to back away. Mute, impassive, she started to slowly push the door shut, preventing Edie from advancing.
“Did you hear the siren last night, you bitch? That was your doing. You gave her a fucking nightmare. She woke up grabbing her stomach and wouldn’t stop screaming so we had to call 9-1-1. She thought she was turning into an ice-cream cone, for fuck’s sake. Where do you get off telling her that shit?” She was yelling now, and 402 had opened his door to see what was going on.
Angela closed the door on Edie’s raging face and locked it. She went back to finish styling her hair. Serves the Apeshit right. The greedy little shit. And her moron parents. Some people! Letting their kids run the show.
That night she took another Zoplicone. Although she had been careful in dosing her New York Cheddar chips, her pot, her wine, and her cigarettes, the sleeping medication was harder to control. The desire to plunge into that deep blue-black hole was powerful. She dreamed. An old memory had surfaced. She was turning into a bottle of chocolate milk, just as her father had predicted. “You drink so much of this stuff, you’re going to turn into a bottle of it,” he would tell her often, fixing her another one. Hershey’s black syrup swirling into the white. Her chosen elixir. In the dream, Angie’s legs were transforming into cold glass, her head became a big rubber teat and inside, she felt the chilly swish of brown milk coursing through the tomb of her body. She woke with a start, mid-yell, her heart pounding.
At 7 a.m. Angie called in sick. She made a pot of strong coffee and took a cup to the balcony, where she sat in her lounge chair, wrapped in a fleece blanket, and lit her Friday night joint 12 hours early. As she watched the trees bucking in the strong wind, she wrapped the fleece more tightly around her shoulders. Then she cried. She cried for Mariah, for Angela, for April, for Apeshit, for Ape, for all the girls turning into cones and bottles, for all the lost little girls.