The Lady from Shang-Shang: Kilmanjaro, Chapter One

Each and every morning Estelle poured olive oil over the top of her head, leaned forward and allowed it to drip down off her bangs. As soon as the oil formed a good sized puddle on the rest room floor, she dragged a pinky down the middle of it all, uncovered one eye and examined herself in the booger-smeared bathroom mirror.

She whispered, “Well that’s fittingly self-deprecating, don’t you think Estelle?” Straight away she replied, “No, it’s not. That greasy black waterfall is only half self-deprecating.”

Estelle let her hair fall back in place and remained silent, not asking the obvious follow up question: 'If my black waterfall is only half self-deprecating, then what about the other half?'

When she emerged from the rest room after her very first olive oiling, Lester leered at her and sputtered, “You look like the Lady from Shang Shang or something, Estelle.”

“Guess that means you’d be trapped in a hall of mirrors, doesn’t it, Lester?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about, Estelle.”

“I know you don’t, Lester.”

Estelle knew a few things Lester didn't. For one, her olive oiled bangs covered two galaxy shaped clusters of maroon freckles on either cheek that Lester never paid much mind. Because of these distinctive marks, an old hag living two houses down from Estelle's childhood home called her “the little witch” and spat betel juice onto the ground whenever the girl walked past her front porch on the way to school. The woman became obsessed with Estelle's freckles, in fact, and each morning took to waiting by her mailbox in order to follow the child to and from school and shake a knarled finger in her direction, crossing and recrossing herself, sputtering curse after curse after curse. A devout Pentecostal, the woman felt bound to the task: Any form of display was an abomination, and in Estelle's case, those freckle clusters glowed a less-than-God-like orange, a pigmentation, clearly, from hell.

“Something’s not right with the child. She carries the sign," the crone announced to members of her congregation. After that, one might have thought an agitated pack of coyotes had been turned loose inside the little church. Many took to the ground, writhing on their backs as if being electrocuted, speaking in voices seldom heard since ancient astronauts roamed the Earth.

By age seven, Estelle had decided to live the life of a rebel on top of what was already naturally ‘not right’ about her. 

Living the life of a rebel signified different things to different people, of course. For Estelle, it meant wielding a teaspoon of magic every now and then, whenever it struck her fancy.

As it happened, the old lady was killed by a dump truck which, for no apparent reason, careened up onto the sidewalk. The hag had been in a particularly foul mood that day, hurling vehement curses and punctuating them with her dark blood flecked spittle. More significantly, Estelle's art teacher, Ms. Pledgefeather, had shown her class how to make collage for the first time. Estelle had been beside herself with that realm of possibility and on her way home, had been in no mood for the old woman’s rants, brown-staining an otherwise wonderful day with unfounded negativity. She slammed her front door, rushed upstairs and commenced snipping pictures out of magazines, knowing right away she had discovered a hidden garden within herself.

The hag planted herself in front of the girl’s house and insisted on pointing her knobby cudgel upward toward Estelle's bedroom window, continuing her wet invective. Estelle yanked the blind down at the exact instant a truck jumped the curb and pinned the woman against the sturdy black tarred telephone pole in front of the house. He severed legs released onto the sidewalk making a dull percussion heard by Mrs. Stillsbury next door were likened the sound to a butcher's delivery of ham hocks onto the back porch: Thump, thump.

Despite the woman being divided in half, the truck's engine had managed to cauterize all major blood vessels allowing her time to raise a knarled finger one final time and point in the direction of Estelle, now peeking out from behind the blind, head filled with a myriad of ideas for both cut and paste as well as photo manipulation techniques.

The day Estelle found the red horned rims sitting on the bar top was what some people might call a game changer. She continued to apply the olive oil to her bangs but stopped her whispering inquiry. The red horned rims had cinched the look: Self-deprecation had been gobbled up by its opposite: The astute fashion statement. Whoever left the glasses on the bar top that night and where that person might have acquired horned rims that exquisite was anybody’s guess; there’d been too much of the usual yelling and screaming, beer mugs shattering and so forth to narrow down who that person might have been. The bottom line was, for Estelle, the red horned rims were a gift from some anonymous drunken angel who had swooped down from Heaven on a rope, like Tarzan, King of the Apes, and placed the specs by the Schlitz tap for her to find.

She’d been mopping up a puddle of urine at the base of a bar stool when she spotted the glasses and right away recognized their potential. She threw a crumbled napkin over the top like a secret agent at Checkpoint Charlie, sliver of microfilm embedded in her rear molar. Certainly, the last thing she wanted to do was call that asshole Lester's attention to her find. He’d have 'confiscated' the glasses on the spot.

Lester had been counting money, straightening crumbled one dollar bills out on the side of his dented and rusty cash register, like he always did that time of day. Estelle slipped the prize into her apron pocket and made a bee-line for the rest room, twirling once half way there. She'd seen Sissy Spacek twirl in Coal Miner’s Daughter so any time she felt that rare semblance of hope, she twirled.

She’d been mopping up a puddle of urine at the base of a bar stool when she spotted the glasses and right away recognized their potential. She threw a crumbled napkin over them like some secret agent at Checkpoint Charlie, sliver of microfilm embedded in a rear molar. Certainly, the last thing Estelle wanted to do at this point was call Lester's attention to the find. He would have 'confiscated' the glasses on the spot.

Stepping inside the silver fish ridden rest room and locking the flimsy door behind her, she right away clamped the glasses over her heavily olive-oil laden hair. They stuck fast: Red against black. Perfect. She uncovered an eye and peered closely at her reflection in the cracked mirror between the smudges of grimy fingerprints. The whole experience was not unlike a visit to the Louvre itself; as if she'd flown all the way to Paris, France, was met at the airport by the dead General Charles De Gaulle, only to have him plant a warm welcoming smacker on both her cheeks while bequeathing the Légion d'Honneur.

What a find, those red horned rims had been! They turned out to be more than a little something for her to clutch, a sturdy branch growing out the side of that sheer cliff face to which she'd been clinging all these years, ever since Lester had swiped her wand. The horned rims represented not just small case hope but Hope with a capital H. And Hope with a capital H was exactly what Estelle needed to stow in her apron pocket as opposed to small case hope; for example, the small case hope that baby Jesus will be waiting for you at the pearly gates and hand over a triple scoop ice cream cone.

Estelle needed those glasses along with the Hope with a capital H they brought to her because of what Lester had done. She couldn’t leave the bar for one. Her wand and its magic had been dictated the terms. Although she didn’t care so much about that, the real tragedy was being unable to express herself, to show anybody who mattered what she looked like in those new horn rims, how they contrasted perfectly against her trademark waterfall of oily black hair. Although if you pressed Estelle, she would admit there were the regulars, the piss-in-your-pants sterno-drinkers staggering in and out of Lester's bar every evening. But they wouldn’t have cared if she showed up in a burlap sack with undies on her head.

Estelle wanted to make her fashion statement at the mall, not inside some dingy old beer hall squat down on the deserted outskirts of a factory town. Going to the mall with her glasses was ALL she wanted to do, that, and collage. Her needs were modest.

Lester didn't let her. He could have, conceivably, as he was in possession of the wand. The magic would have technically allowed him to, according to ancient rules and all that. Lester didn't because, as Estelle put it, always in a whisper: 

“Lester was one big Asshole, an Asshole with a capital A.”

Year after year Estelle had stayed within the confines of the shabby bar, the wand hidden somewhere inside. She lived there twenty-four seven and slept upstairs in the crawl space, dreaming of her mall days, when she'd been free to wander the stores, levels one, two and three, visit the craft shop, taking both up and down escalators while wearing the mod styles of the time; not those billowing brown and black one-piece shit-ass ankle length smocks Lester brought back from the Salvation Army store.

Estelle was forced to keep her deep dark secrets locked up and played the good church mouse whenever Lester was skulking around. Estelle was biding her time. Lester was in for a surprise, and a big one at that, not one of those clapping your hands together goody goose egg types of surprises either.

In her frustration, Estelle imagined herself pulling out her hair follicles one by one, neurotically, as they termed it in Lester’s Encyclopedia of Mental Illness, just about her favorite book of all time, although she’d never admit that to him. Even though she imagined pulling her hair out, Estelle would never actually yank a single follicle; only real hair pulling nuts did that, not the intensely frustrated and imaginative people of her ilk. In Lester's book hair pulling madness was called Trichotillomania. Estelle loved ten-dollar words like Trichotillomania and murmured them whenever Lester was out of earshot, sometimes in a tiny high-pitched voice. She'd every now and then murmur a ten-dollar word and at the same time fire off an imaginary pistol, pointing an index finger at Lester's head, flexing her thumb back and forth, and making the "Pih-chew, pih-chew" sound.

What Estelle did accomplish was to remain proactive. She used the spine of Lester's book to scrape at the mortar between the bricks of her prison cell, scraping day after day, week after week, digging deeper in order to form an escape tunnel in her head, the book's spine equivalent of a toothbrush or teaspoon back in the day when prisons were places you could escape from in that way, that is, if you were patient. Her digging with the book's spine, of course, was metaphoric. Estelle only had metaphors to dig with, no real teaspoons or toothbrushes. She would have dug with a bobby pin if she could have. The sad reality was Estelle couldn’t dig out of her prison in reality without coming back into possession of the wand that Leseter hid.

Lester hid it and hid it good. Estelle had to make the most of living with Lester in his dead-end toilet bowl of a bar.

"Fuck that shit-ass Lester," she'd whisper, grip her lids and roll up her eyes so only the whites showed. She couldn't see the effect in the dingy bathroom mirror but flipped them up anyway, imagining someone looking at her when she did.

Estelle would have to remain an apparition to her fans. Even if she had somehow managed to get outside the bar and make her way over to the mall, they wouldn't have been able to see her anyway. She needed her wand, in order to be seen. In those glorious mall days, she carried it with her at all times. The magic contained within brought with it fans who’d say things like, "tres cool" or “boss.” She’d swing her little purse around and smack her gum. Now her only fans were the drunks at Lester's Place. She felt herself to be merely an apparition to them, an apparition in the throes of their deliria. She essentially didn't exist.

'Possibly they share some kind of collective tremens,' she conjectured in front of the heavily marred mirror, biting her fingernails. Yet being an apparition within someone else’s delirium might not be all that bad of a thing. In fact, she’d turned inward during the years she’d been holed up in the bar and if anything found she didn’t need the mall any longer, all that adulation. She began to take the art of her collage making more seriously, that inner place she went to in order to make them all the while comforted to know that Lester had it coming and had it coming good.