Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sunday LOTO: Ruth

This snippet will come about mid-way into tthe revelations of Ruth's life, probably about halfway into the book. WARNING: For you ACOA--this one might be a tough read. Please skip it if you think it might rub salt into old wounds.

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The metal storm door slammed behind Fred, the glass rattling in its frame. Phoebe whirled on her mother.

“Shit, Mom. Not tonight. Don’t let him start tonight.” Phoebe’s wails echoed through the dingy little kitchen.

“Shhh. Everything will be all right. Don’t carry on so,” Ruth murmured. Surely Fred won’t pull any of his tricks tonight.

It was Homecoming of Phoebe’s senior year. A cheerleader all four years of high school, captain of the squad this year, and steady girlfriend of the captain of the football team, Phoebe hoped—almost expected—to be crowned Homecoming Queen later that night. Fred knew about it and surely remembered. After all, they’d fought about spending the money for her dress enough.

“Couldn’t he let me have fun just this once? Just one fucking time?”

“Phoebe! That’s enough. If you can’t talk nice, be quiet,” said Ruth. “I mean it now. That’s enough from you.”

“Me? That’s enough from me?” Phoebe was near hysteria. “What about him? When will it be enough from him? Isn’t enough that he’s ruined every good thing that ever happened to me? Does he have to mess this up, too? And what about you? When will it be enough for you? When will you stop letting him walk all over you? You make me sick, Mom.”

Ruth went to the door and peered out the window. She thought about turning on the yard light but didn’t want Fred to know how worried she was. He usually escalated his dramas when he knew he had his audience hooked. Better not throw any more gas on the fire.

Ruth sighed deeply. Phoebe was supposed to be at a pre-game bonfire in an hour, and Ruth still needed to hem her dress for the dance.

“Guess you won’t want sickening old me to hem your dress. Taking care of that yourself, are you?” Ruth knew she shouldn’t push Phoebe any more, but she'd had about all she could take for one day.

“You know I can’t do it myself. You’ve got to do it, Mom. Please. I’m sorry I said that. I just hate what he does to you.” Phoebe sounded desperate.

“I know. I know. Put the dress on and get in here. I’ve got to get it pinned up,” she said. “Bring the pincushion when you come.”

Phoebe ran to her room to collect the beautiful gown. Ruth had been holding back a dollar or two from the grocery fund each week since the middle of summer, saving to help Phoebe buy the perfect dress. Between that money, the money Fred had begrudgingly handed over, and what Phoebe had saved from her job at the A&W, they had just enough. Barely enough, but they’d pulled it off. Ruth felt a little guilty hoarding money for a party dress when they had bills to pay, but she convinced herself it was okay just this once and stashed the dollars in her desk at work. No use taking the chance Fred would find the money and “invest” it in beer and pull tabs down at the VFW.

Phoebe danced into the room, pirouetting and sashaying like a ballroom dancer. A handful of shimmering coral fabric in each hand, she held dress off the floor as she swayed, protecting it from the beer Fred had spilled on his way out the door. Ruth felt tears well in her eyes—tears of pride and joy and relief that Phoebe was going to get this one night, would have at least one happy memory from her teenage years.

The dress could have been made for Phoebe. Other than the length, it fit her perfectly. The strapless bodice enveloped her smallish bust then skimmed her tiny waist. A bugle bead starburst—vibrant but not gaudy—started a couple of inches below her right arm and angled down across the flared skirt, ending in sparks scattered along the right side of the hem.

“Oh Sweetheart. You Take My Breath Away,” Ruth said.

“Good one, Mom.” Humming Air Supply’s song under her breath, Phoebe pulled a rickety chair to the center of the room and stepped onto the seat. The chair wobbled, nearly throwing her to the floor. One of the plastic slides was missing, which made one leg shorter than the others. “I thought Dad was supposed to fix this thing!”

“He’s been really busy, Honey. Hold still. Let me get that.” Ruth reached into the old fishbowl on the counter for a matchbook to put under the short leg.

“Yeah, real busy. Busy Throwing It All Away,” Phoebe snorted.

“Do you want me to do this or not, young lady? If you do, I suggest you stop talking and hold still.” Ruth had so hoped they could have a peaceful evening. She had a pot of chili on the stove and a plate of cheese and crackers waiting on the counter. Now they’d spent so much time arguing that Phoebe probably wouldn’t have time to do anything more than shimmy into her cheerleading uniform before she left for the bonfire. Ruth planned to hem the dress while Phoebe was at the ballgame and have it pressed and ready by the time Phoebe and her boyfriend, Dell, came home to change for the dance.

With the chair stablized, Ruth knelt in the floor beneath it, the pincushion stationed beneath her right hand. She folded up a sizable hem before she noticed Phoebe’s feet were bare. “Nice toenail polish, Pheebs, but you know you have to put your shoes on for me to get the hem right. What are you thinking?”

Phoebe slapped her forehead with the heel of her right hand in a pretty good imitation of Bart Simpson “Duh! Thinking? Who’s thinking? I’ve got dreams to dream here, Mom.”

Ruth hated The Simpsons, hated the “Duh” thing, but decided to let it slide for once. They were so close to getting through the evening in one piece.

“Just a sec—I’ll go grab ‘em.” Phoebe leaped gracefully from the chair and dashed down the hall toward her room, still holding the dress in both hands.

While she was gone, Ruth traced the lines in the old, faded linoleum with a straight pin, thinking back to her senior year and the fun she and Fred had back then. Things were so different. The world held such promise.

Phoebe hopped back into the room, a strappy sandal on her left foot, unbuckled, and another dangling from the fingers of her right hand. She dropped the sandal and lifted her foot. The silvery shoe hit the linoleum. . . .

Blammmmm! Ruth heard the shot and felt the old floor vibrate along with its report. She jumped up and, without a word, she and Phoebe ran out the kitchen door and raced down the worn path to the old shed in the back yard.

Hampered as she was by the shoe situation, Phoebe nearly tripped over a broken lump of concrete, a remnant of the pretty sidewalk that once led to the garden and the shed beyond it. She tore the silvery sandal off her foot and threw it behind her, toward the house, then gathered her skirt back into her hands and ran like hell down the old path.

The garden had gone back to the wild years ago, and the shed now held nothing but Fred’s guns, a shell reloader, plenty of shells, gunpowder, and beer. Lots and lots of beer.

Liquor and guns. Great combo, Pops.

An open padlock hung through the hasp of the latch on the front side of the shed door. Ruth yanked on the rusty handle, but the door was latched from inside. “You okay, Fred?”

Wild laughter floated through the cracks around the door and out into the dark yard. Phoebe swore under breath and let go of the sides of her dress, freeing the long skirt to fall onto the dirt path and the damp grass lining its sides.

“Come on, Pops. Let us in. We just want to see what you’re working on,” Phoebe called, knocking on the door.

“Onliest thin' I’m working on ish a way off thish god-damned planet, away fra you two witchesh.”

Shit. Not with the suicide threats again, Pops.

Oh Fred, honey, don’t do this to yourself.

The slurred words were a bad sign, evidence of mass consumption of liquor. He might not be able to hold a job or a dollar, but Fred Peterson could hold his liquor. Ruth and Phoebe begged pleaded, flattered and cajoled, but Fred wouldn’t open the door. A soft rain—more like a hard mist—began to fall, and both women were cold and tired but too frightened to pay much attention to the rain or the cold or anything beyond Fred’s voice.

“I’m jus gonna get it over wish,” he shouted.

A sudden shot reverberated through the darkness with unimaginable force and noise. Both women instinctively threw their arms up over their heads and stepped back. Phoebe thought she’d seen a flash through the small window and wondered how far the pieces of her family would scatter if all the gunpowder in the shed went off at once. Probably rain Petersons all over Dakota County.

“Fred?”

“Pops?”

Nothing. Not a sound. Not a peep. Even the neighbor’s dogs had stopped barking temporarily.

“Go turn on the yard light, Phoebe. Hurry. Run,” Ruth called over her shoulder as she ran toward the house. “I’ll get an ax from the garage.”

Phoebe picked up the front of her skirt and ran hell-bent-for-leather to the house. Once inside, she flipped on the switch, turned and ran back to the shed, the back of her dress dragging through mud and rain-soaked grass with every step. As Phoebe reached the house, Ruth threw open the garage door and felt along the wall. When the yard light blinked on, she found the ax hanging in its usual place between the branch loppers and the electric shrub trimmer.

Ax in hand, Ruth raced back to the shed, where Phoebe stood sobbing and shaking. “Stand back, Pheebs,” she said, and swung the ax into the door with all her might. The weathered board splintered, and she swung again. Another couple of swings and she’d made an opening big enough to reach into.

“Help me pull these boards away,” Ruth shouted. Both women grabbed edges of boards and hunks of broken wood, heedless of splinters or scraped knuckles. When the hole was six or eight inches in diameter, Ruth reached in and felt around til she found the hook and eye latch holding the door closed. She flipped the hook up and wrenched the door open.

As the door swung forward, its hinges squealing in protest at the rough treatment, a flashlight clicked on inside the shed. Its beam blinded the women for a moment, but when their vision cleared, they saw Fred, sitting on an old milk stool, laughing at them. In answer to their unasked question, he flicked the flashlight beam up to the ceiling, where he’d blown a small hole through the roof.

“You sha see your faches,” he cackled. “Funniesh sing I ever sheed. . .shawed.”

Phoebe rushed toward Fred as though to beat him with her fists. Fred covered his face with his hands and yelled through his fingers, "Hey. Whas a matter wi you? Can' you take a joke?"

"You think that's funny? I'll show you funny. Let's see how much you can bleed. That'll be funny," Phoebe shouted as she turned and reached for the ax now leaning against the doorframe.

Ruth stepped forward and wrapped Phoebe in her arms. “Forget it, Pheebs. Forget it. The Party's Over." No response from Phoebe, not even a ghost of a smile. "Let’s go see if you can still make the game. And we’ve got to do something about your dress.”

“Do something about my dress? What do you think you’re going to do about my dress? It’s ruined. It’s fucking ruined. Why don’t you do something about him? He’s the one you should be worried about. If he doesn’t kill himself, someday I’m going to do it for him.” Phoebe spat out her words in the rat-a-tat-tat staccato of the semi-automatic she wished she had in her hands.

“Don’t say things you’ll regret later,” her mother counseled. “Let’s just go see what we can do about your night.”

Later Ruth heard Phoebe had been named Homecoming Queen, the first Homecoming Queen in the history of Rosemont High School to miss her own coronation. By the time her name was being announced over the loudspeaker during halftime, Phoebe was deep into her second bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine, far from the football field and far from her father’s craziness.

The Irish lost their football game that night. Phoebe lost something, too. So did Ruth, and the pain of her loss lasted far beyond the football season.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a mesmerizing piece, too.

Have you described the overall arc of LOTO to the general public yet? I don't recall. If not, it might help everybody understand what the master plan is.

~NanCourt~ said...

oh. my.

you warned me but i had to see....to remember....to feel.

i am in great, hot tears right now because you obviously have peered into my past.

i will address this more later but just know that as painful as the truth is, it is ours to claim.

thank you......

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Yes, tough for the ACOA, indeed. You nailed the feelings around that, though! Take an A!

Go Mama said...

Gripping read, even for a non-ACOA, (although in my case it could stand for adult child of an asshole-sorry, that wasn't very nice.)

Jerri, now I know why you were on your silent streak. You were just building up steam so you could unleash a fury of stories on us. Wow, and wow.

On a side note, can I just say that A&W drive-ins, their root beers floats and take home souvenier glasses, ruled. (I also used to work at a Red Barn...fried chicken...remember those?)