Two steel ribbons of track shone orange, stretching into the distance under the setting Florida sun. Pale-green Spanish moss hung from the trees, clinging to the branches like bats. Across a ditch and a few tie-lengths away, three teenagers sat outside a small shack. It was twenty-one years before the funeral. They could not know this would be their last Sunday to spend together as a threesome.
Propped up against the gray, peeling wall, with a grapefruit balanced on her skinny knees, Beth Emerson dug a small hole in the citrus skin with her pocket knife as she answered Rudy's question.
"How is my mother doing? It's amazing. She actually seems to be coming out of her shell, if you can imagine it. I mean, she's still totally tied down, can't leave him alone in the house for a minute, but it's like this gift. God, I used to hate him. She used to hate him. She hated every minute of living with his cruelty, but she just couldn't do anything but obey him, let him do anything he wanted. And the amazing thing now is that she's so capable, so ready to really enjoy her life. But the question is: if she's so normal now, why did she live like that for so many years?"
"But you don't hate him any more?" Rudy listened intently, his acne-ridden face poised aggressively.
"Well, it certainly was easier before." Beth started to suck the juice out of the grapefruit. "Of course, seeing how everything changed, my God, if we had only known how it would all change ..."
Ruby stood up noisily. She didn't say a word, but yawned loudly and stretched before putting the chair and stool back into the shack. Beth and Rudy both watched her. It was what they always did. Ruby commanded a visual audience. She always dressed barely, and moved with a sensuousness that could not be called rehearsed. Her white halter top and shorts emphasized her deep cultivated tan.
"I'm leaving. I'm going home." Ruby's announcement was unexpected, and Rudy started to get up. "No, no, you stay right here. I'm sick to death, frankly, of hearing more about your father, Beth. Just sick of it. No, no, you stay here, Rudy. She needs someone to talk to, you know, she can't just talk to herself."
Rudy obeyed, settled back into his chair. He and Beth were silent as Ruby walked the quarter mile down the tracks to her house. She rocked back and forth as gently as a sailboat in dock. They watched her cross the ditch and climb through the fence to her yard.
"Why does she do that, Beth? She's not sick of hearing about your father. She can't be, she won't listen to anything you say about him." Rudy's puzzlement was unusual. He didn't often worry. He lived an uncomplicated life and thought everyone else did, too. It wouldn't concern him when a co-worker would tell him years later that he looked simple because he smiled so often. Rudy was simple enough to bypass the majority of mysteries confronting him. Where Ruby was concerned, however, he ventured a bit into strange waters.
"It's odd," he said to Beth. The minute your father comes up, she stops the conversation, one way or another, like she hates crippled people, or something."
"Don't worry about it, Rudy." Beth spoke quietly. Her long neck was stretched out and she held her head high up in the air, like an untamed filly refusing to be broken.
"Well, I'm not worrying about it, but it's just so strange. I mean, is there ..."
"Don't worry about it."
He looked at her for a moment. Her thin face was covered with a slight film of perspiration. Her hair, the color of earthy, red clay, clung damply to her forehead and ears. He said, "You're right, you're absolutely right. I don't know why I think I'm ever going to understand her. I never have. ... Do you envy her, Beth?"
"Envy? Why would I?"
Well, she's so gorgeous, she could be a movie star. It gets me. I see all the other guys at school, so much better looking than me, and I envy them, I sure do. I wish I looked as good to her as she does to me. And I think, what is she doing with me? I mean, she could have anybody she wanted in this town, and she sticks with me, little old Rudy Chapel. It's crazy."
"Rudy," Beth said, "if you don't mind, I need a little time alone please. If you don't mind." Her head was turned up and away from him. She didn't look at him as he got up, brushed the dust off his pants and left. She kept her head high and her tears back.
Walking home from school the next day, Ruby threw rocks. While Beth walked along one track, balancing with an imaginary pole as long and narrow as herself, Ruby picked up one heavy gray stone after another, chose a target, and struck it. A rock thudded against a dead tree stump. Ripe mango splattered. A turtle was knocked back into the swamp from its resting place, plopping into the warm water like fritter batter into hot oil.
Beth asked, "So what was it this month?"
Ruby shook her head. "You won't believe it, but I said no. I really did."
"You said no? What was it?"
"A stump-broke sheep." Ruby was still shaking her head. "That's what he wants this month, a god-damned farm animal."
Beth smirked. "But I thought you weren't going to say no."
"That was the original idea, all right, but there are limits. Variety is one thing. You know what I told him? I said, Rudy, my love, I'll do it. Just as soon as you let me stick a broomstick up your ass, then you can do that to me."
Beth pulled an orange out of her book bag and gave it to Ruby, who immediately whirled around and threw it. Beth looked where the orange had landed. An armadillo was curled up and still rolling in the bottom of the ditch. Beth glared at her friend, who was unconcerned. The two walked home silently.
They passed their little shack first, sitting forgotten on the back edge of the Chapel property. Beth's family's land was adjacent, and the girls walked into the circular bamboo grove that had been Beth's favorite place for several years. It had grown up with her, a mass of quick and tender bamboo shoots growing taller and thicker and wider as Beth grew taller, but no wider. The grove kept its nearly perfect circular shape, moving outwards each year. Beth did not flesh out as she passed puberty, but stayed tall and thin and narrow. If she dressed all in yellow, she would look like a pencil from a distance, her hair the color of the eraser.
Beth discovered the grove was hollow when she was eleven, and found the particular way to enter it. The opening and center remained the same even as the grove grew outward. Beth would withdraw into that small place, to read, to wait for the trains.
The girls entered the bamboo, sliding sideways through the smooth, tawny stalks. Inside, a bundle of blankets covered with a dark green tarpaulin doubled as couch and bed. Ruby slid down, reached inside the pallet, pulled out a small plastic bag, and started rolling the pungent leaves with a thin rolling paper.
"I'm so sick of this town, sometimes I could just scream with it. I could die here, you know, and fifteen people would know or care about it. On Thursday, the paper would come out with the week's obituaries - opposite the school sports, of course - what a tragedy. To die in this town so small nobody would even know." Beth smoked, leaning her head on the blankets near Ruby's ankles. She didn't speak. She'd heard Ruby say these same words so often, so similar. She inhaled the smoke and held her breath, her thin cheeks facing upwards, exhaling slowly. She relaxed, and slid her tongue over her upper teeth. "I think I forgot to brush my teeth this morning." Ruby kept on talking. Beth fell asleep.
The train reverberated within the bamboo with muffled but hollow sound. It passed the grove at 4:47 each day, and the first sound was like that of an entire regiment on horseback riding slowly forward with the sound buffered by a hill. Countless hoofs, churning the soil and rocks, thundering still out of sight. Then metal could be heard, faintly at first, then all metal - metal gliding on metal, churning, groaning, whining metal. Dark, rusty, old metal.
Sounds, like elephants, called to Ruby and Beth. They jumped up and collided at the opening in the bamboo. Ruby slid sideways first, Beth followed her and they ran out to watch the train come into sight, stood breathlessly and counted the cars as they roared past. The noise was black and red and chaotic. It was big enough to get lost inside. They lost count of the cars, caught within the excitement.
The last car slid by and the conductor waved. They had long since named him Max, and today, as every day, he motioned to them to run and jump on. Ruby shouted words to him that no one could hear. He smiled, rugged as a knot of blond wood, and waved a second time. The train was racing away from them again.
Rudy was on the other side of the tracks, and as the train pulled away, he crossed over to the girls. His wet shirt clung to his frame. With his books, he carried a bottle inside a paper bag, holding it by the neck. He joined Ruby and Beth as they walked back into the bamboo grove, although the space was barely big enough to hold the three friends. Boyfriend and girlfriend appropriated the pallet and Beth sat opposite them. With all their legs stretched out into the center, Beth's sneakers rested next to Rudy's knees.
"Mad Dog 20-20!" Rudy crowed. "Freedom, once again! No more watchful eyes of Mr. Cerny! Just give me that sweet taste." He gulped the purple syrup.
"You call this freedom?" Ruby took the wine from his hands and drank. "Freedom doesn't exist in this town. We leave one prison in the morning for another one during the day. Then we come here in the afternoon, so crammed together I can smell Beth's sweat. You call this freedom?"
Ruby handed the bottle to Beth, who drank two inches. Ruby was rubbing the moisture on her shoulders, outlining her collarbone, then pressing her cotton blouse close to her skin, absorbing the perspiration. Her legs looked oily, and her shorts stuck close to her skin.
"M-D 20-20 and sweat! What a smell!" Ruby roared it out. Rudy jumped. "Yes, wake up, my sweet," she said. "We're free, we're having fun."
Rudy started to roll another joint. "Oh, Ruby, come off it. What got you started today?"
Ruby shook her head harshly. I'm just sick, that's what got me started. I hate my life, I hate my family, I hate school. Isn't that enough? If I didn't have the two of you, I'd kill myself. It's getting worse at home."
Rudy handed her the lit joint. Beth rolled another, her bony frame hunched over, carefully rolling, slowly licking. Ruby talked on. "You've seen the neighborhood cats? How they growl, and creep around with the hair on their backs jerked out all wrong? One growls and creeps a few inches this way. The other one hisses and spits. That's my life, my family. It's so ugly." Ruby's eyes filled. "I might kill my mother. I don't think there is another person alive who could be so evil."
"Ruby, honey." Rudy's voice was gentle and pleading. "You just have to steel yourself, be strong. Don't let it affect you like it does. You aren't going to live with them forever. And at least it's not fist fights like Beth used to live with."
At Beth's name, Ruby started a low moan, closed her eyes and let it grow into a shriek. "Don't talk to me about Beth's father. Don't say that." She had jumped into a kneeling position, drawing herself up above the other two. She pulled her breath in and enclosed a panic inside herself. Quick and shallow breaths, panting, stunned Rudy. He sat still, staring at his lover, not close to understanding. Ruby and Beth's eyes locked, Ruby towering over Beth in the small space. As Ruby blinked, her breaths slowed, and she slid down on her ankles. The air was so hot inside the grove that Rudy imagined he saw their images waver, as if they were sitting on a large asphalt parking lot.
The external heat merely added to Beth's anger. She was dizzy even sitting down, leaning back against the bamboo. Her cheeks were sucked in, sharpening her thinness. She squinted her eyes, looking back and forth from Ruby to Rudy.
"Ruby. Rudy. Ruby. Rudy." She pronounced their names wildly. "Ruby. Rudy. Ruby. Rudy. Your names so close, your lives so close, your bodies so close - you might be the same person. You just might be the same person. Maybe there's no difference between you. You're just the same. I can say the same thing to the one as I can to the other."
Ruby and Rudy stared. "Beth, I think you're a little high," Ruby ventured. "Maybe we should all go home."
"I'm not too high, Ruby. ... Or maybe you're Rudy. I don't have to keep any secrets from either of you. What I say to one I can say to the other." Beth's voice was climbing, becoming louder and shriller.
Ruby leaned over to Beth. She kneeled in front of her friend, and yelled directly into her face.
"We are two different people, Beth, and you say different things to different people. We are not the same person. Everybody has secrets. You don't say the same thing to me as you say to Rudy."
Ruby had leaned over until her face was a hand's length from her friend's eyes. Ruby stared directly into the washed golden irises. She saw stone. The wildness had started to recede within Beth, and it was then being replaced by stone, the face of a pyramid, huge blocks of marble that would remain untouched, undisturbed, perhaps for centuries. Beth eased out from under Ruby's penetrating watch, slowly stood, and without another word, left the grove.
Their secret had barely escaped being spoken aloud that turgid day in the bamboo grove. Beth had nearly burst with wanting to scream it out, purge herself, vomit up the ugly, scaly truth. But it stayed down, hidden from Rudy. Ruby won that afternoon, but what she lost was Beth. Beth's secret could remain hidden only if everything about her remained hidden. She could no longer be friends with the young and virile couple. She simply withdrew, absented herself from their company, and soon she was the only person inside the bamboo grove, hiding. Rudy and Ruby let her go, not knowing how not to. They all graduated from school the same year, and Ruby and Rudy did not know where Beth went. She left in silence.
All his life, Rudy had felt incomplete. He didn't remember exactly when it started, but that afternoon in the bamboo grove could have been its genesis. Marrying Ruby didn't change it. He continued with his comfortable and daily life ... not discontent to stay in the town in which he was born. He knew that with time, Ruby would settle down and settle in, and he was right. As the years and trains rolled past them, and the children filled their house, he thought that Ruby smoothed into comfortability. Her discontent had been her rough edges, and it had taken merely time to sand them into placability.
He loved her deeply, and thought that his love should be enough to complete the mysterious void, his emptiness where there should be none. He felt it was his fault, somehow. That there was a level of understanding and accepting life, reality, his world, that he had not reached, and perhaps could not reach. Far cry from the simplicity he had been raised to expect.
Ruby knew none of this. He never talked about his uneasiness. He had almost come to admit to himself that it was impossible to define, but merely a natural part of life, unpleasant as disease and death, but just as unavoidable.
It was the night of the funeral that he became complete.
They had seen Beth, of course, but she wouldn't come with them that evening. She seemed glad to see them, and grateful for their invitation, but still refused. Her severe thinness was made even more prominent by the pinched grief and flood of tears that burst forth intermittently. She wore her hair short, almost shorn, and her weathered skin could have been a farmer's, lined and tough. Ruby and Rudy watched her drive from the cemetery, leaning forward into the steering wheel, intent, inflexible. They did not see her during the next few months while she was taking care of the estate, cleaning up the property, tying up other loose ends.
The Chapels had left the children with Rudy's parents the weekend of the funeral. They had gone home and fixed sandwiches and crackers to eat, propped up on their bed, the television off. And Ruby told her husband the secret, the one that had turned Beth to stone. She told him how, in a prankish mood, the two girls had stationed themselves on the overpass. Beth would pick out big, round stones from the tracks on the overpass, and they waited until a car came rushing under them. If there were no other cards around to see them hanging over the railing, Ruby would drop the stone onto the car roof below and then throw herself flat, out of sight - heart pounding, blood racing, adrenaline flowing - listening to the car brake suddenly, sometimes stop, then start up again and drive out of sight. As soon as they could n longer hear the car, the two girls would slowly peek over the railing, and laugh hysterically.
The fifth stone dropped, instead of on the roof, through the windshield. Ruby threw herself flat, but instead of driving away, this car screeched into a spin, and drove straight into the cement abuttment. The crash was horrible, and the girls thought it was louder than the train as it flashed by. Instead of laying await, they scrambled, on their hands and knees so that they wouldn't be seen, off the underpass and into the brush on the other side of the ditch. They were in known territory, as they passed this way every day to and from school. They raced through the undergrowth, staying away from the open tracks and away from the cleared path, through the marshy brush. The wet earth sucked at their feet, slowing them, until they came to the backside of the pond. It was about half a mile from the overpass, and they felt safe. They could hear the sirens screaming. They knew it was for the car they had stoned. They stayed hidden. Coming home late afternoon, they met hysteria. Beth's father had been in the car. He had nearly been killed. His spine had been shaped, and his brain had been broken open. Yet he lived.
So after his funeral, shared with his wife - both of them burned down with the house - Ruby felt safe. Her childhood mischief, which so terrified her for years afterward, could not be let loose. Ruby had lived with daily fear of being found out until she had married Rudy. Somehow that security had buffered her guilt, though it had not been purged completely. Now, coming from the funeral that day, it was - appropriate - to tell Rudy.
And while Ruby felt the isolation of twenty one years disintegrating as she spoke, Rudy was being lifted higher than he had thought possible. Ruby talked, laying heavily on her side and speaking quietly, and Rudy knew that he was being answered. Although he had thought he loved his wife completely, his love for grew even more as she unburdened herself in his arms. Ruby's head lay on her husband's chest, and one of her legs covered his. She was larger than he now, and soft. Rudy knew that his life would not feel incomplete anymore.
He woke Sunday morning, several months later, drenched in song. Ruby was still sleeping and Rudy thought he had never felt so tender towards her or seen her so beautiful. Her lustrous brown hair lay tumbled around her face. She was sleeping deeply, and Rudy watched for a long time. He knew he would be glad to see Beth now, truly glad.
"Beth, I told Rudy." Beth was eating dinner at their house the night before she left once again. Half a steak lay cooling on her fragile, porcelain plate. She looked up sharply and saw them, watching, expectant.
"I had to," Ruby said. "It's all over now. There's no reason to hide anymore."
Beth rolled forward as if to clutch at her stomach, but instead leaned heavily on her arms, clutching at her shoulders, then covering her mouth - rocking slowly. "You speak so calmly," she whispered. "You give it life again." Beth did not look at her childhood friends.
She looked small even in the small room. The overhead bulb was harsh although dirty. Beth was in enemy territory and knew she was outnumbered. Who ever had their basket arrangement, just so on the wall right behind them, would be empowered! The blank Ruby had crocheted covered the worn spot of couch. And here was Beth without even an extra layer of skin.
Rudy was the one to reach over and touch her arm. "Beth, we understand. It's in the past now, but Ruby was right to tell me. Holding that inside yourself is tormenting. No one should have to bear that alone. You can talk about it now, too." Rudy spoke with the solidity of granite.
Beth shrieked in response. "I knew I couldn't come over here. I knew you would force it on me. You might have felt guilty, Ruby, but it wasn't your own father you tried to kill."
"Beth!" Ruby was startled but spoke gently. "We didn't try to kill him. It was an accident. We couldn't have known."
"What do you mean, we didn't try. Of course we did. We failed, that's all. We failed at our one truly brave attempt at justice." Beth still wasn't looking at the Chapels. She could have been speaking to herself. She shook her head slightly back and forth. "Then on the other hand, we didn't fail that badly because it did the job. He couldn't walk anymore, he couldn't attack us anymore, beat us into the junk heaps he thought we ought to be. So, there's that. Of course, the question remains - how does a woman face that fact that she tried to kill her father and almost succeeded? Ruby, that's not your question. You were trying to help a good friend. That's a fine thing to do. I'm the one who tried to ..."
"We did not try to kill him, do you hear me?" Ruby pushed the chair away from the table, scraping it loudly on the wood floor. "We might have made a bad mistake, Beth, but don't you tell me I tried to kill anyone! I was a dumb kid, not a killer."
Rudy hadn't moved. Still sitting close to Beth, he carried a slightly dazed expression, looking back and forth between the two women.
"Ok, you can believe what you want, but ..."
"Believe what I want! We couldn't even see the oncoming cars, Beth, remember? That was the whole point. We couldn't see them, so they couldn't see us - that's how we knew we wouldn't get caught."
Beth was breathing heavily and her head was swinging high up on her neck, back and around, trying to get away from the images, the memories. "You think you couldn't have done that? Ruby, you thought you were saving my life. He had almost beaten my mother to death - he was the true killer. It was a good thing we tried to do, you don't have to be ashamed of it."
"No! You are wrong." Ruby slammed the words out one at a time. "I did not try to kill him and neither did you. Stop it. Don't do this to me."
"To you - don't do what to you? It's what we did to him that concerns me. You're just fine, we can all see that. And now I see why." Beth rose from her chair slowly. "You've done a very good job." She cast her sight around the room, backing up into the dining room wall, where she rested for a moment, tall and rigid. Rudy and Ruby watched her. "My plane leaves pretty early tomorrow, gang. I think I'll just let myself out."
They let her go without another word. They did not speak until they no longer heard the rented car. Then Ruby's sobs grew loud and Rudy crooned his sorrow. His arms wrapped around her shaking, balled-up torso. And he could not know that a whisper of doubt lived, and that it would hide with the dust for years before it was heard.
Copyright 1985, B. Ruth Rinehart
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