She calls herself Rat Girl, but she looks like a little Swiss doll. Now in the Chapel, she is singing round-eyed over our heads and serpentine-ing her head in the shape of infinity as she always does. Her arms are sinewy, pounding at her guitar; bracketing small breasts in a tiny pink t-shirt.
Now she is reading from her book, about that time when she was hit by a car. How afterward she saw her reflection in a Good Samaritan’s mirrored sunglasses. How she saw her own blazing eyes in a bloody mass of meat. Then she puts the book away and the sound of her singing tears the air between us again.
All four of us are standing at the side of the sanctuary-turned-performance space. It’s me, Trinidad, Blaze, and Michael. All of us are old fans. Because of Rat Girl’s wiseacre patter, the intimacy of her lyrics, and her frankness in interviews, people feel they know her well. She is small and bright-eyed and has suffered many hardships, so thousands of people over the land would like to take care of her. I myself am a middle-aged married woman who wishes to lick her biceps, strum her neck tendons. “Get in line, Mama Cat,” I imagine her saying in that cactus dirt rasp.
Michael brings more drinks, and Rat Girl sings about the notion of spurning. What am I spurning by scribbling notes on the backs of business cards during this performance in this room its shipbottom ceiling illumined by purple light? Why push Rat Girl away by snapping a blurry photo with my cell phone? On my third glass of vodka, dulling her potency? She is too strong for me. The details of her life too dark.
Rat Girl’s husband has recently left her, I know. She has endured dissociative disorder, the kidnapping of one of her children by his father, the suicide of her best friend. She tours constantly, like any brilliant artist without a record contract. Her lyrics are crystalline. Members of the audience shut their eyes, overcome.
What happens after you realize the members of your support group are dead? Rat Girl asks us near the end of the show. Do you keep yearning for them, or do you dig in where you are? Her eyes are still bright. She makes these questions sound wry rather than tragic. Maybe that is why she is so beloved.
The show is over. Thank you very much, Rat Girl says, and while it does not sound earnest, she is a 100% earnest woman and the real deal. She reads a little more from the book she wrote, this time about a bus ride that turned into a crime scene when she was “a hundred years pregnant.” She swears to all of us it’s a pretty funny book, and that she doesn’t die in the end. Then she adds that she hopes she isn’t spoiling it.
After the concert, we walk with Blaze and Michael to 16th street BART. The iron Day of the Dead tree grates have all been installed on steel and glass Valencia Street. But Mission looks exactly the same to me as when I lived in this neighborhood years ago.
Perhaps inspired by Rat Girl, Michael tells a story about almost losing his arm. It seems that earlier this month, he contracted some kind of flesh-eating bacteria, which led to a terrible infection. We are passing that liquor store that sells cards and dice. It is on the corner, and if you were to walk straight forward through the door, you would ram into a pillar. Then the Roxie Theatre, then Esta Noche, that drag bar where Michael’s friend used to perform as Diana Ross.
The night is crisp. Trinidad crooks his arm, and I take it. The red brick 16th and Mission Plaza are lined with sleeping people. Blaze and Michael are laughing their asses off about the flesh-eating bacteria, so we laugh, too. Inside, we laugh and laugh, avoiding looking at our middle-aged selves in the white-lit subway car. Across San Francisco, under the Bay, and back to our warm apartments and humming appliances and fitfully dozing pets who come alive at the sound of our keys in the lock.
Rat Girl originally appeared in Sou’wester Review, Spring 2019
Patricia Q. Bidar hails from San Pedro, California, with family roots in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. She is an alum of the U.C. Davis Graduate Writing Program and also holds a BA in Filmmaking. Patricia’s work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. When she is not writing fiction, Patricia reads, enjoys nature, and ghostwrites for nonprofit organizations. She lives with her DJ husband and unusual dog in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her at https://patriciaqbidar.com or on Twitter (@patriciabidar).
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