(Video Credit: Carlyle Poteat)
You walk close all the way down the hill and across the bottom to where it meets the road before Ruby lets go of your hand so she can fish through her pocketbook for a cigarette. She bends the match against the book to strike it and how you love that smell. The burning match and smoke and underneath that, cologne and hairspray and something else.
She is the prettiest of them, those pretty girls who are your aunts. You love how she walks fast, her pointy black shoes kicking gravel beside the road. You love the way she waves the cigarette toward the hill and points out things—the first lightning bugs you’ve seen this early in the summer; the fins on a Chevy up close to a house where she says she knows a boy. She blows smoke rings straight up as you walk and you love that, too, love the pink her lipstick has left on the cigarette’s filter and how she reaches in and pinches a thread of tobacco from the tip of her tongue.
The butt arcs into the weeds and then she takes your hand again. Her own hand is hot and dry and rough-palmed where she’s hoed and hauled water for the garden. She swings your arm with hers. It isn’t a long walk up to the store and you wish she’d walk slower so you could make it last, this time with her. You ask her questions she has to bend down to hear and you watch her nod, considering each thing you say. Yes, she says, you can have some Nabs with your pop and, yes, the two of you can sit a spell. She says this last with a look in her eyes that is far away, makes you squeeze her fingers hard.
You’ve heard your mother say this to your father. How Ruby would walk ten miles and back to town if she could, and how she’d been kissed already and how she even flirted with Eppie Lafferty, that older boy from Allen, met him at the swinging bridge and at the drive-in movie and who knew. Rock n roll turned up loud and a drive around the lake, late at night. She’d sneak out the bedroom window if they didn’t watch.
All of this is why you want to be her, someday.
At the store she buys two orange Crushes and peanuts for you to share. She tips half the bag in her bottle and half in yours and shows you how to fit your thumb over the bottle’s top and shake. The orange fizzes and you rinse the sweet, salty taste through your teeth as the two of you head outside. The two of you sit on the glider and push your feet against the ground. Back, forward. How she laughs and tosses her head back and how you know without her saying it what she’s hoping. How maybe the Chevy boy will drive by and see the two of you and pull over, his car window rolled down. Ruby, he’ll say, and he’ll let you sit in the back and her, she’ll find some country songs on the radio and turn them so loud you can’t hear a thing of what they’re saying or doing, way up there in the front.
Someday, thirty years from this moment, Ruby will die in a car crash, but not before she’s gone a little crazy. She’ll have been married, divorced. She’ll have had one child, a daughter who will not love her nor visit her or speak kindly of her. She’ll drink strong black coffee and chain smoke and have headaches so bad they blind her for hours at a time. She’ll take long naps in the middle of every afternoon. She’ll have had mysterious spells, tiny seizures, fainting once in the middle of the kitchen floor. She’ll have had visions of Jesus crucified, of angels from heaven, of a god with a face like her own. She’ll stare at the curtained windows like she can see something none of the rest of us can. A land far away and nameless. A road maybe. Anywhere but here.
But for now what she does is drink the last of her orange crush. She checks herself out in a little compact mirror. Her lipsticked mouth, her curly pixie-cut hair.
How beautiful she is, so pretty your heart aches to watch her.
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American,and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Other stories and essays have appeared in Iron Horse, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Riverteeth, and in the anthologies An Angle of Vision, Listen Here, Dirt, and To Tell the Truth. Her writing has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She currently teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Programs at West Virginia Wesleyan University and Murray State University.
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