Friday, November 10, 2006

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Okay, folks. Here it is. It's a long one--you might want a cup of coffee. Or two. At the outset of this snippet, we're at Fred's funeral. Things should be clear from there. If not, please let me know.

Again, I welcome all comments, especially constructive criticism I can put to use in rewrite.

As the great Carrie Wilson Link says, Love (period).

Half the school and every student I ever taught must be here. Ruth fidgeted in her seat and resettled her purse in the chair next to her. Marsha Evans, her morning walking partner and comrade in the battle against shrinking fine arts budgets, stepped into view and Ruth rose to greet her.

“Thank you for coming, Marsha. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Of course. Want me to sit with you?”

“No,” Ruth blurted. “No. . .thanks. This seat is for. . .I’m saving this seat. . .Phoebe’ll probably be here any minute,” Ruth answered.

Marsha smiled, and pulled out a tissue to wipe her eyes. “Of course,” she said again and walked to the back of the room where she joined the dozen or so others standing against the wall.

During the service, Ruth felt Phoebe’s absence more keenly even than Fred’s. Fred’s death filled her with sadness, but the fullness of it had not yet hit her. Her daughter, her only child, who should be beside her at this moment and was not—it was she who drew the blood from her mother’s heart. Lying in bed the night before, her stomach a Celtic knot and her skin a raw rope burn, Ruth pleaded with God to let Phoebe come to the funeral.

You won’t listen to me now any more than You ever did, but please, please, please. I don’t know if You’re even there, but please let her come home. Please, please bring her home. I’ll do anything you ask— anything she asks. Please. Please. Please.

Ruth was arranging lilacs in a clear glass pitcher when Phoebe and Dell walked into the kitchen together, holding hands and whispering. Phoebe dropped Dell’s hand, stepped forward, and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news, Mom.”

“Let’s start with the good,” Ruth said as she danced over to the radio. Her bare feet slapped the linoleum in time to the Dixie Chicks' "Ready to Run." Natalie Main's soaring voice disappeared, mid-Run, but Ruth finished her trill before she turned back to the kids.

Phoebe pushed her hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath. “Dell and I are getting married.”

Ruth sighed and tried to catch Phoebe’s eye. “Okay, honey, that’s not exactly a surprise. You’ve been wearing the ring since Christmas.”

Phoebe’s eyes rested on the floor in front of her. “The 9th of June.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. That’s two weeks away.”

“We know.”

Ruth gasped. “You’re pregnant?” She thought Phoebe nodded but couldn’t tell for sure. Her hair was draped down over her face, hiding her eyes and her expression. Ruth glanced at Dell, who was absorbed in tracing a hole in his jeans with his fingers.

“You’re can’t get married. You’re barely 18.?”

“I’m 8 months older than you were when you and Dad got married.”

“That was a different time. We had jobs and we’d been saving money forever. How do you two think you’re going to get by?” Ruth demanded. “You better have a plan, cause we’re not paying your bills.”

“Never thought you would.” Dell looked straight into Ruth’s eyes. “We never thought you would.”

“What does that mean?”

Dell started to answer, but Phoebe talked over him. “It means you’ve never cared enough about me to give me what I need.”

“Never cared about you? Never given you what you needed? Who worked every weekend of her life to put braces on your teeth? Who made sure you had decent clothes and went to every damned game you cheered for? Tell me that, will you?” Ruth wiped the sweat off her forehead and pulled her t-shirt away from her neck, fanning herself with it.

“You did, Mom. But that wasn’t what I needed.”

“What did you ever need that I didn’t break my neck to give you?”

Phoebe looked down again, concentrating on her hands as she twisted the ring, a three-quarter carat, marquis-cut diamond. Not just a diamond, an emblem. A talisman. Concrete evidence that she was loved. I needed you to save me, to stand up to him, to take my side, not just try to keep peace when he went nuts. I needed you to love me best.

“To get away from Dad. But you. . . .” Phoebe’s voice trailed off as Ruth shouted over her.

“And getting pregnant at 18, ruining your life, is the way to do it?”

“Maybe not, but you let him get away with whatever he wanted and we’re all paying the price.” Dell again, serving up his opinion.

“So this is my fault? I didn’t leave her father so you had no choice but to get her pregnant and trash all her dreams? How. . .”

This time Phoebe shouted Ruth down. “Choices? You’re talking about choices? You let him gamble away all your money, drink til he couldn’t stand up, embarrass me in front of my friends. He puked in the car, and you cleaned it up. He passed out on the porch, and you dragged him in the house. He pretended to shoot himself, and you patched the fucking roof.

“You should have left him a long time ago, before I was even born.”

“Has your life been so bad you wish you’d never been born?” Ruth wrapped her arms around her waist, arms crossed in the middle, and leaned forward to catch her breath.

“You’ll never know how many times I wish that, Mom." Phoebe paused, meaning to stop there, but the words, the truth she thought so often but had never dared speak, somehow poured out of her. " Some people aren’t cut out to be parents, and maybe Dad’s one of them.”

Ruth jerked up straight. Her right arm uncurled itself from around her waist and flew up behind her head. In one swift motion, her hand whistled down, and the smack of her palm against Phoebe’s cheek echoed through the kitchen. The force of the blow knocked Phoebe sideways and into the corner of the cabinets. She shrieked involuntarily when her face hit the hinges, the squeal of a puppy whose tail has been stepped on or a mouse caught but not killed by a trap.

When she turned to face Ruth again, Phoebe’s eyes were dark with disbelief. Her left eye was also darkened by a small bruise that promised a splendid black eye. “Good answer, Mom. Good goddamn answer. He ruins everything and you hit me."

Dell stepped between the women and said, “Get your stuff, Phee. We're outta here.”

“She’s not going anywhere except her room,” Ruth shouted. “And no music in there, either, young lady.”

“Seriously? You think you’re going to ground me from my stereo? I’m 18 years old. I’m gonna have a baby, for Christ’s sake.” Phoebe stomped off to her room, dragging Dell by the hand.

While Ruth paced back and forth in the kitchen, Phoebe yanked open the hall closet and pulled two suitcases from the top shelf. She stuffed a few pairs of sandals, tennis shoes, and all her party shoes—except the silvery sandals from Homecoming—into the big black one. Next, she upended her underwear drawer over the suitcase, showering the shoes with bras and panties. Her sock and t-shirt drawers got the same treatment before being tossed in the corner. Phoebe paused to wipe her eyes and her nose on her sleeve, then unzipped the smaller suitcase and dumped whole piles of jeans and sweatshirts into it. She pulled her cheerleading uniform off its padded hanger and stuffed it on top. Finally, she tried to close the suitcase.

Dell, who had been staring out the window, suddenly focused on the scene in front of him. Taking in Phoebe’s struggle with the overstuffed suitcase, he said, “No frickin’ way, Phee.”

“Help me.”

Phoebe sat on top of the suitcase while Dell pulled on the zipper, but no matter how many times she stuffed sweatshirt arms and jeans legs back inside, another popped out as soon as she pulled her hand out.

“Lose something. Let’s go.” Dell, who desperately wanted to be gone before Fred showed up, was getting antsy.

Phoebe slid down to her knees in front of the suitcase, opened the lid, and pulled out the first thing she came to: her Rosemont High School cheerleading uniform. Dropping onto her heels, she ran her hands over the shamrock on the sweater, fingered all her pins, then sank her face into its folds. She could smell bonfires and sweat and autumn winds mingled with Clinique Happy and Abercrombie cologne. Cradling the sweater against her face, she slowly rocked back and forth a few times. Suddenly, she threw the sweater aside and stood up decisively. “Zip it.”

Phoebe dragged the small suitcase toward the door. Pausing beside her bed, she picked up the blue-and-white quilt her mom had hand made for her 16th birthday and wrapped herself in it. From behind her, Dell muscled the big black suitcase forward. Nodding toward her and the quilt, he asked, “Taking that?”

“Nah.” Phoebe replied. She shrugged and let the quilt slide off her shoulders and fall to the floor. Dell stepped over it on his way out of the room. When Ruth found the quilt in the floor later, she would tell Marsha that Phoebe had cast it aside like a wet towel from one of her friends’ pool parties.

Phoebe and Dell made their way, one after the other, down the hall. The suitcases bumped along awkwardly beside them, leaving dirty marks on the baby blue walls. When they finally reached the kitchen, Ruth was still pacing. She whirled to face Phoebe and said, “If you leave, don’t ever come back. You won’t be welcome.”

Phoebe’s face tightened like an “after” photo in a plastic surgeon's office. She spit out two words as she and Dell brushed past her mother: “No problem.”

The storm door banged closed behind them. Ruth felt the vibrations all the way to the collagen rods inside the bones of her feet. She pushed the door open again. “Don’t do this,” she called into the darkness. “Trust me, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

Through the quiet night, Ruth could hear footsteps moving quickly down the gravel drive, then two car doors opening and slamming closed. From behind the house, the wind whistled through the trees and an owl hooted. Ruth ran outside and, with no particular goal in mind, paused at the edge of the rose garden. Dell’s car started and the red taillights flashed against the blue trunk; something inside Ruth broke wide open. She bent down, snatched two good-sized rocks from the garden border, and heaved them, one after the other, toward the souped-up Grand Am.

Ruth hurled those rocks with the force of her pain and frustration, disillusionment and loss. Go on. Get out of here. Just go. Later, when she replayed the scene her head over and over like a tape loop run amok, she was never sure whether she had spoken those words aloud or thought them so loudly they echoed through the night.

The sound of the rocks bouncing off Dell’s trunk made Ruth smile savagely. Take that, you little snot. Acting on pure adrenalin, she bent down and grabbed another rock. This one was lodged in the dirt, and its sharp edges cut her hands as she wiggled it loose. When the rock was finally free, Ruth straightened and threw it toward the car with all her might. She didn’t hear anything and was disappointed that it missed.

The owl hooted again, sending shivers down Ruth’s spine. She wrapped her arms around her waist and tried to calm down.

Phoebe wiped blood out of her eyes and stared at her hands above her face. She couldn't see the blood in the dark, but she could feel it coursing down her face and into her hair, her heartbeat pushing the river downstream. The warmth, the smell, the taste of it frightened and confused her. I'm bleeding. What the hell happened? So much blood. So much blood. Phoebe tried to sit up but darkness closed in on her again. She fought it off, certain she would die if she didn't get help soon. Jesus, I'm going to bleed to death if someone doesn't see me.She tried to yell, but it came out as more of a squeak. Clearing her throat, she tried again, this time yelling for her very life.

“Help me.” Silence. “I’m bleeding.” Phoebe's voice floated across the driveway, weak and thready.

Ruth dropped her arms and stood paralyzed, straight and tall as a debutante practicing with a book on her head, trying to comprehend what had happened. That's Phoebe. But she's in the car. Isn't she? She has to be in the car. . . .

The yard light blinked on. “What’sh goin on ou’ there?” Fred yelled from the kitchen door. He had come in through the basement to shower before coming up into the house, his way of defending himself from complaints about the stale, smoky smell he brought home from a long afternoon at the Pale Moon.

Ruth looked toward the Grand Am. The glare of the yard light revealed Phoebe lying on the ground in front of the car, blood gushing from her forehead and dripping down her face. She tried to sit up, but collapsed again. Ruth saw the driver’s door fly open and, a moment later, saw Dell gather Phoebe in his arms. “We gotta get outta here. She’s gone fuckin’ crazy.”

Dell dumped Phoebe onto the passenger’s seat, then flew around to the driver’s side and jumped in. The slam of his door jarred Ruth loose, and she ran toward the car. By the time she got there, Dell was pulling away. Ruth ran along beside the Grand Am for a few steps, trying to grab the door handle to wrench it open. Without shoes, she couldn’t keep up on the gravel drive. When she finally stopped running, she slumped to the ground, screaming, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I'm so sorry,” over and over and over.

Fred, born 13 days late and always much more than a dollar short, came to stand beside Ruth. “Wha’ the hell’sh goin on?” he asked. “Where’sh Phoeb goin’?”

“Get out of the way.” Ruth pushed past him and hurried into the house for her shoes and keys.

“A man’sh got a right to know what’sh goin on in hish own home. Don’ he?”

Ruth ignored him and reached for her keys, which usually hung from a hook beside the door. They weren’t there. She searched her purse and the kitchen countertops, but the keys were nowhere to be found. Precious minutes later, she recognized their weight in the pocket of her jeans, and slapped her forehead.

She clambered into the Honda and streaked down the road toward town, sobbing and shuddering and pounding the steering wheel. Phoebe’s name rang in her head with each sob. As she approached the stoplight just before the turn to the Urgent Care clinic, Ruth’s eyes caught the flash of red lights in her review mirror. Cursing under her breath, she jerked the Honda to the curb and braked, hard.

Joe Harper, Dell’s cousin who’d been a county deputy since Phoebe and Dell were in diapers, sauntered up to the door. He stood there patting his belly and rocking on his heels while Ruth put the window down. She thrust her license through the opening, but Joe waved her off.

“No need for that, Ruth. We’re not going to get official here. I just wanted to tell you that if you show up at the hospital or Dell’s house, I'm going to have to arrest you.”

“Arrest me? What the hell are you talking about?”

“About Assault and Battery. About serious jail time.”

“Are you kidding? I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

“You might not ‘a meant to, but you did. She’s got a gash that’s going to take a hell of a lot of stitches to close and maybe even a concussion. The only thing she wants is for you to leave her alone, and right now, I’d say that’s a damn good idea.”

Reluctantly, Ruth swung the Honda around and slowly drove toward her house. Joe followed for several miles. When he finally turned off, Ruth doubled back to town along side roads. When she got within half a mile of the clinic, she parked the Honda and walked furtively along the empty sidewalks, staying out of the streetlights and away from lighted storefronts. In front of the Pizza Hut, she plopped herself on the ground under a lilac bush. From there, she could see the entrance to Urgent Care as well as Dell’s Grand Am in the parking lot.

Ruth pulled down a branch laden with blossoms and twisted one back and forth until it broke off in her hands. When she’d plucked all the buds from one bunch, she broke off another and slowly shredded it as well. By the time Dell led Phoebe out the clinic’s doors, her forehead heavily bandaged and her eyes blacked, Ruth’s lap was filled with twigs and the dirt beneath her legs littered with tiny purple flowers.

Ruth watched the Grand Am's taillights disappear again, this time toward Dell's house. She wanted to scream and cry and smash things but was afraid she'd someone would hear or see her. Instead, she sat there, numb and silent, wondering what to do, where to go.

At sunrise the next morning, Ruth took the ax to the lilac bush outside her bedroom window. She hacked its carcass into manageable hunks and drug them back behind the shed, leaving the old path covered with shredded leaves and tiny, withering blossoms. No matter how many times Ruth blew her nose, their fragrance lingered in her nostrils, long after the cold spring winds scattered their petals across the countryside.


Anonymous said...

Your eye for detail and ability to create a visual picture is amazing here. The cheerleader uniform and the quilt are especially nice touches.

I know this was a hard write for you, and I'm enormously proud that you attempted it. I think you know more about Phoebee's sense of betrayal than you're telling us.

All your characters can have even more of yourself in them. Even Fred. Especially Fred.

Amber said...

I tried to leave this before, but I had a computer problem. :(

Anyway, Jerri, this is just so heart-breaking. Oh! I can FEEL the regret of Ruth in my chest... So much i can say about this, but I would be going on and on. It is very good. Nice work!


holly said...

Fantastic dialogue, spoken and internal both. I can so feel for ever yone of these characters.

keep it coming ...

Carrie Wilson Link said...

I love period it! I love period you! I love period your spirit!

Michelle O'Neil said...

I thought the twists and turns in this were really compelling. Loved Pheobe and Ruth.

Great writing.

(I would nix the Bart Simpson painted the picture of the hit well enough without it).

jennifer said...

Great work, Jerri! A lot of words, well written! Again, great work!

Suzy said...

WOW. You put us right there, especially the part where Ruth smacks Pheobe and Pheobe's answer is,“Good answer, Mom. Good goddamn answer. He ruins everything and you hit me." Perfect! Just perfect. Unfortunately that's the way it usually plays out.