|Onward! Home | Contents | Authors||Wordrunner eChapbooks | April 2020 | echapbook.com|
Ruth was a sophisticated woman who had very little use for children. She was always in suits or little dresses that seemed to restrict her movements — more to be looked at than played with. Her friend, Maggie was easier: louder, looser. Maggie was round and pliable where Ruth was straight and narrow. Dressed in her soft men’s suits, Maggie was just a little too butch to be an aunt, but she enjoyed the role. Ruth hated being an aunt — when she came out to Lynbrook for family events, a little late and a little overdressed — there was a reluctance clinging to her like the red scarf she wore with her black dress. And she didn’t like me much. I demanded too much attention, always insisting on playing the drums for everyone before dinner, making them stand around the cold basement while I practiced paradiddles and triplets. Ruth told my mother I was self-involved. I never took it personally.
Or, if I did, I had forgiven her by the time I left Amherst and moved to the city, crashing on that convertible couch in her living room. "A few nights" lasted until Ruth lent me the security deposit so I could move out. This was just after she came to the club, Red Fish Blue Fish, to hear my band. The place was cavernously empty and after the first set Ruth pointed out the job notice near the bar. So I gave up drumming to run the sound board for bands that actually drew listeners and began to tell people the real money was in production. Then Ruth completed my shove into adulthood by advancing me the money for an apartment.
Ruth had a lot of friends, so it was no surprise that the funeral parlor was crowded. Maggie was playing the role of chief mourner — sitting on that tiny couch under The Last Supper telling stories, gesturing with her cane, getting all the attention. That left me to deal with logistics and I was a little overwhelmed — talking to the manager, greeting people I barely knew. I had bought a suit and tie and shoes the week before, when we knew, and it was all a little stiff. The shoes cut a line across the bridge of my toes and my neck was on fire from the combination of shaving and a tie. I was shaking hands and hugging people and wincing up on tip-toes — craning my neck to answer the steady stream of questions — Is Evelyn here? Is that Rose Macher? Have you talked to Stella Simmons yet? I was already counting the minutes when I saw Jenny hesitating by the door, scanning the crowd for familiar faces before turning to sign the guest book.
Of course, it was not just her presence that made me nervous — she had loved Ruth and I had been expecting her — it was that she looked 25 again in that little black dress, her hands folded in front of her, clutching that tiny red purse Ruth had given her for her birthday the year before we fell apart.
The last time I had seen her she had been 9½ months pregnant with Julian… no, Madison. It had been a sun-filled day in Central Park. She was wearing men’s overalls and an extra-large sweatshirt, both probably Stillman’s, both stretched tight across her enormous belly. I remember the weary glow of sweat on her face, as if she had come in from a misty rain. She was smiling even though just standing up appeared to be a challenge.
Stillman stood like his name promised, a little behind her and off to the right, one hand rubbing a spot between her shoulder blades — equal parts supportive and possessive, handsome and smug. I disliked him mostly because I thought I should, but his dislike of me seemed more specific and that struck me as unfair.
Jenny and I had chatted only briefly that day — seeing her with both hands resting on her belly made me want to make excuses and keep walking before I started to cry, but she had remembered to ask — calling back to me as we separated, the profile of that belly and the little triangle of exposed flesh at the hip of the overalls and that perfect nose all making me slightly dizzy — how Ruth was.
“She’s great,” I said. “Slowing down a little.”
“Ruth? Slowing?” She looked at me as if aging were my fault. “You take care of her.”
“Tell her —”
“I will,” I said, waving my way out of there.
In fact, I had been cutting through the park towards Mt. Sinai where Ruth was in for the first round of the chemotherapy no one thought would work. Maggie was refusing to leave her bedside and I had agreed to come for visiting hours to convince Maggie to go home, take a shower, get the mail or something. Give the nurses a break. I had been up late at the club and was running late, a little hung over, impatient, anxious. I felt guilty not telling Jenny any of that, but I had an intimation that I would only discover that Stillman was not just silent but strong, able to take charge, ask all those questions I had been afraid to ask and then call some friend at Sloan Kettering who specialized in just this sort of thing. Jenny had never tried to offer anyone’s suffering anything but a little sorrow of her own and much as I craved that connection, I didn’t want to deal with this new, capable partner.
Now, I maneuvered my way through the crowd to Jenny as she stood against the wall under the funeral parlor’s 9-11 memorial: a picture of the wreckage, a letter from the fire station and a scrap of American Flag in a plain black frame.
“You look great,” I tried to make my hug quick and platonic though the smell of her neck made it hard to conceal how much I meant it.
“You look like shit.”
She reached out and squeezed my arm, just above the elbow — contact full of feeling, but not the feeling I wanted.
“Fine. He wanted to come but Madison …”
“Nice of him. To do that. Babysit, I mean.”
“Ohh, they’re bff’s the two of them.”
“And the baby — Madison? Beautiful and charming as we’d expect?”
“Maybe more than I expected. She’s kind of perfect.” I could tell Jenny was trying to tone down her smile, keep her joy in check to allow for my sorrow. Neither of us mentioned that I had not met Madison and it occurred to me that I no longer had chemotherapy or hospice or funeral arrangements as an excuse. I would need a new one.
“Was it hard … at the end?”
I thought about the angry grimace on Ruth’s face that whole last month, Maggie sleeping on my old couch and calling me every time Ruth’s expression changed, the way the stiffness, the tension, suddenly eased just before Ruth licked her lips, smiled one last time, and died.
“Only in that it was the end,” I said, my voice cracking slightly.
We were silent a second, Jenny still holding my arm. She stared at the floor a little in front of her and I stared too —at a thick carpet with ugly pink roses woven into dark blue. After a moment, Jenny shook her head quickly, snapping out of some reverie.
I gestured with my head, reluctant to move my arm. “Holding court over in the corner. She seems to be telling all her best Ruth stories. In chronological order.”
“Well, her Ruth stories are the best Ruth stories.”
“If you want, I’m sure I can squeeze you in there. She’d love to see you.”
“In a minute.” She looked around the room, now noticing the crowd near the coffin. “I guess I should go pay my respects.”
“Ruth would wish you wouldn’t.”
“Why,” Jenny smiled. “Is she not wearing makeup?”
“No, she is. Her instructions were very specific: closed coffin but still full make-up. She just wouldn’t want to think of you kneeling at a coffin.”
“Even her own?”
“Especially her own,” I said. “She’d hate all this.”
A high-pitched, excited voice came to me from behind, “Josh!” And suddenly I was spun around and being hugged by Bit Feldman, one of Maggie and Ruth’s old friends. He took my shoulders in each hand, his grip a little shaky with age, and held me back to study me. He looked older than I remembered, his face a pasty wreck of wrinkles between incongruously dark hair and polished white teeth. “Let me look at you. You look awful.”
“So I’ve been told.”
He turned to Jenny. “Jenny dear, you have to take care of this young man. He’s suffered a terrible loss.”
Jenny smiled stiffly and looked down at the floor.
“I’m okay, Bit,” I said.
“No, I’m serious. I can see the strain. She needs to — oh my god,” and he pulled me close again, breathlessly whispering into my ear, “I’m so sorry, I forgot you two …”. Then he thrust me away from him and brushed off the front of his suit. “I must go pay my respects, I’ll find you dears later.” And he stepped quickly and stiffly towards the line of people waiting to kneel at the coffin.
There was another moment of strained silence. Jenny looked down at the blurry roses. I looked at the American flag on the 9-11 memorial, at the carefully preserved stains of soot and ash.
“How are you, anyway?” she finally asked, looking up, pushing a note of casual curiosity into her voice, “I mean beside all this?”
“I’m okay. Basically.”
Jenny just raised that one eyebrow that had always been her bullshit detector.
“I’m between relationships, if that’s what you mean.”
“Well, I’m optimistic anyway.”
She smiled just to the edge of laughter, shaking her head and I wondered how we had gotten to this place of teasing about my sex life. “Maybe somebody will think you’re with the band,” she mumbled — an old joke — and I was sorry to think that I could still make her laugh even though I could no longer make her cry.
I had gone back to stay with Ruth when Jenny threw me out. Asked me to leave. It was really pretty polite — more sorrow and disappointment than anger, though I guess she had run through anger on her way to sorrow. Anyway, Ruth saved me again: seven years in and I was back on that couch. It was only a few weeks this time — nineteen days — before Ruth woke up at four in the morning to find me leaning over the sink in her narrow little kitchen, my jeans scraping up against the counter on the opposite side, stuffing a Big Mac into my mouth and sipping from a pint of Bacardi. She told me to leave the next day — just said, “Don’t be here when I get home from work,” and went back to bed.
It was good though, just the prodding I needed. I found a room with two other guys on Avenue C and I was free to do late gigs at the club, hang out with the bands and the groupies. Plus, I had someplace to put my clothes and CDs and the other junk Jenny had been holding for me. I took my time getting it all, and in the end had to get a box from her the week of the wedding, which I was not invited to.
Ruth told me a little about it later. As much as I could stand. She said she and Maggie had each danced with Jenny. It sounded sweet — like they were messengers sending a blessing. I had tried to be happy for them all but mostly wished I was dancing with her myself.
We both looked over at Maggie — large and round in a black man-tailored suit, her gray hair gathered at the top of her head. She had her silver-handled cane and was gesturing with it as she told some story. Jenny made a sound in her throat, like a choked sob.
“She’s going to miss Ruth.”
“They were friends a long time.”
Jenny turned and looked at me, a flash of anger in her eyes.
“Well, lovers? Whatever.” Jenny shook her head, silently scolding me. “I always wondered… Why they never just… like lived together.”
Jenny turned away from me now — she was watching Maggie poke the rug with her cane to emphasize some point in her story. “They were scared, I think. Then, when it was more acceptable, they were already set in their ways. Plus, rent control.”
I thought about that for a moment, watching the side of Jenny’s face as she spoke. The Garrisons, friends from the neighborhood, were at the door behind her, bent over the guest book. All four of them stepping up to sign, one at a time.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Ruth told me.”
“She told you?”
I looked back at Maggie, gesturing with the cane to make room for Misty Garrison, gawky and awkward in her adolescence, coming through the crowd to give her a card.
“You asked.” I said it more to myself than anyone. It struck me as an incredible piece of information. We were silent a moment, then Jenny stepped in front of me, turning away from Maggie to the line of people in front of the coffin, a giant grey metal affair with Ruth’s Barnard graduation photo in a silver frame balanced on top.
“I’ll miss her, too,” Jenny said. “I already miss her.”
“She missed you,” I said. “After.”
Then, in a soft, far away voice, Jenny said, “She was the one who told me to throw you out.”
“After the … fights. When the tension felt permanent. One night I left work kind of dreading going home and I just went to 20th Street instead. Rang the bell and started crying when she opened the door. I was there for hours.”
“Where was I?”
“I never knew where you were. I told you later I had been with Lindsey.”
“Oh. That night.”
“I lied. Sorry.”
“I may owe Lindsey an apology.”
She shook her head, slowly, as if my voice were just some background noise in the way of what she was really listening to — the hum of voices all around us, the way they formed a kind of noisy silence, the words in her head.
“I just started telling Ruth what it was like. Our marriage. Living with you. The suspicions. The lies.” I could barely hear her, as if she was talking to someone else or else wanted me to lean in to listen. “Ruth never hesitated. I said you needed to grow up. She said you wouldn’t.”
I turned myself to follow Jenny’s eyes; we were standing side by side staring at Ruth’s coffin. I craned my neck around Jordan Herbert’s shoulder to make eye contact with Ruth’s picture. My protector. I remembered the way she would tap her cigarette against the ashtray while she talked, always so definite, always right.
“I wondered for a while, even after I met Keith, whether I had acted too quickly.” She paused, as if wondering again. “Remember you said that we should have a baby? That would help settle us?” She turned to me, a strange smile of sympathy, maybe pity, on her face, as if she were remembering some silly thing I had said as a child. “I wondered about that. Wondered if you were right.” She turned away again, looking around the crowd. “Then I had a baby. So now I know. That would not have worked.”
I was having a little trouble breathing — the tie felt much tighter all of a sudden. I wanted to walk away, but Jenny was still talking in that low, dangerous tone.
“Remember the night I asked you to leave? I said — what was it — that you would go through life trying to convince people you were a member of the band?”
“Not easy to forget that night.” I thought I was speaking normally, but felt that same soft whisper in my mouth.
“I’m sorry I said that.”
“You were angry. It happens. And maybe I deserved it, a little.”
“It was Ruth’s line.”
“She said it about you. The night we talked.”
She said something else, maybe about the baby, needing to get home. Maybe something more emotional, but her voice had faded out of my hearing completely. To tell the truth the room was spinning slightly and I was suddenly very warm, sweating a bit. Then Jenny was touching my arm in some sort of goodbye gesture and moving away. Maggie had spotted her and was waving her over, using the cane to part the crowd, let Jenny through. I couldn’t bear to watch: I knew Jenny would bend down to kiss Maggie on the forehead and then they would sit together on that little couch — Maggie holding Jenny’s hand in both of her own.
I moved through the crowd and — cutting in front of Mrs. Munro from the laundromat — knelt in front of that gray coffin. I knew she was in there somewhere: Ruth, my favorite aunt. I pressed my hand flat against the gray metal, about where Ruth’s chest, her heart might be. I pressed down, but the metal would not give. Then I made a fist and pounded on the coffin with the soft flesh at the side of my palm and listened to it bellow, a little like a drum, then did it again, and again, until I got a rhythm.
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