Ruth groped toward the stairs in the darkened hall. She descended toward ghostly objects – a plant, telephone stand, hall tree...
Suddenly a door opened, framing a stout woman in the light. “Why darlin’, how come you’re still awake? Her voice was high and sing‑song. “Are you hungry?”
Taking the girl’s hand, she led her into the kitchen where Ruth wordlessly consumed three graham crackers and a glass of milk. This foster home was Ruth’s earliest memory. She was two and a‑half years old.
Subsequent homes diminished impact by their frequency. What she remembered most were visits from an exotically beautiful, fragrant stranger. Mamma would sweep in from Charleston or New Orleans, places filled with bright lights and exciting people. Sometimes she permitted Ruth to sit on her lap, where the little girl gorged her senses, knowing it would have to last.
Then the miracle happened. Mamma came on her eighth birthday along with a darkly handsome man who pinched her cheek and tapped her behind. They were taking Ruth home.
Ruth speedily packed her clothes -- blue jeans, T-shirts, hand‑me‑down dresses and two pair of shoes. “When we get to Texas we’ll buy out the stores.” Floyd’s teeth showed large and white as he smiled.
Ruth believed him.
Home turned out to be a ramshackle house in Baytown near the Gulf of Mexico. The heat pressed down like a soggy cover until it dulled the senses, and the heavy smell from oil refineries grayed the skies and penetrated everything.
“You’ll get used to it,” Mamma said. “C’mon, let’s take a walk and you can practice talking Texan.”
It was cool in the mall. She moved sedately between Floyd and Mamma, keeping step without holding hands. They were busy talking over her head. Timidly, she tugged at Floyd’s shirt. “When do we buy out the stores?”
Now Floyd was supposed to say, “Right now, you betcha. We’ll buy out the candy stores and finish it off with ice cream...” ‑‑or something like that.
She waited for the answer.
She tugged again. “Are we going...?”
The blow on the side of her head sent her reeling.
“Didn’t they teach you manners wherever you been?”
“But I was only...”
“Don’t be sassy.” Floyd’s voice was deep and gruff.
They continued around the mall in silence, passing clothing stores with enticing displays of bright dresses; past a shop making popcorn, the scent drawing a line of buyers; past banks, ice cream shops, jewelers, past them all until they came full circle from where they’d begun.
“Well, little Missy, what d’you think of Texas?” His voice was once more cheerful.
Ruth looked up to make sure he was addressing her. “It’s nice,” she whispered.
It was dark when they got back home. The bedroom doors were open to get what little breeze stirred. Stretched out in her panties, she listened to the muffled sounds – heavy shoes dropping onto the floor, the tinkle of water in the toilet. Then the bed springs creaked and Ruth could hear Mamma and Floyd panting and moaning. There had been sounds like that in the foster homes between the older girls and the Mister. Mamma and Floyd were married, but she sighed with relief when they were done so she could go to sleep.
Soon Mamma was pregnant with her delicate hands and feet softly swollen, her belly watermelon hard. The passionate night cries changed to pleas and coaxing, then to louder outbursts. “Don’t – not yet...”
“Is he hurting you, Mamma?” whispered Ruth one morning when they were in the kitchen alone. “D’you want to sleep in my bed...”
The sharp reply said Mamma was caught by surprise. “Don’t talk about your father like that, little girl.”
“He’s not my father. My father is...” She stopped because she didn’t rightly know.
“Your father is the rat who walked out on us.” Mamma stood with hands on the top of her buttocks, her belly thrust aggressively forward. “You’d better behave or we’ll send you back where you came from.”
Ruth put her hands over her ears and ran up to her room. Closing the door, she sat on the bed trembling. She was too big to cry.
The calendar circled June 10th‑‑another birthday. Mamma had told her that there would be no party. She was too big for such foolishness.
Ruth got up and went to the mirror, comparing her own face with Mamma’s. Some day she would be beautiful—and for what? To capture a man of her very own?
Her mother had once shown her the picture of a man holding a baby. It was the father she had never seen, his blondness radiating the sun like Sunday school pictures. If she could find him, would he hug her? Maybe someday... She’d be in a grocery store and the man in the produce department might be her real father. Or maybe she’d be sent to the principal’s office and the man in the swivel chair would turn and reveal himself as her real father. Another scenario: She’d be in the doctor’s office and the man in the white coat would have a nametag. Jon Benet, the man who left her only his name – her real father.
Megan was born two weeks after Ruth’s birthday. Within a month the nightlong sounds resumed, alternating with infant wails as though one sound triggered the other. Soon her mother was pregnant again.
Ruth watched as her mother’s hands and feet began to swell again. Her arms were also swollen, puffiness punctuated by red marks that turned black and blue then faded to the color of mustard.
“How come you’re bumpin’ into so much, Mamma?”
“It’s clumsy to carry a baby in this heat. Wait ‘till you start. You’ll see.” Then Mamma began wearing long sleeved maternity tops to keep cool, even in ninety‑eight degree heat.
Sissy was born three months before Ruth turned eleven. With the swelling gone, Mamma was more beautiful than ever, the shadows around her eyes adding a sense of mystery to the midnight blue.
Floyd’s weekend drinking was now daily. Instead of eating a late dinner, he’d sit in the eerie silence of the living room, dozing until past midnight while the house stayed suspended in wary vigilance. After he went to bed, the night sounds would start, a mix of Sissy’s thin cry, Megan’s louder wail at being awakened, and Mamma’s timid protests followed by rhythmic thumping, grunting, and finally silence.
The bruises on Mamma were now all over her body, even her face. Ruth surprised her once as she stood at the bathroom mirror, carefully applying makeup to cover a welt on her cheek that was turning blue. “Mamma, maybe we should go away...”
“Where to? It was hard enough with you...”
She stood staring at her mother for a long time. Then she turned and walked slowly to her room in the stifling attic. There was homework to do – English, history...
But her mind wouldn’t focus. Sitting at her makeshift desk, she picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a sheet of paper. Ruth Benet… After a pause, she began to write. Once upon a time there was a little girl... She wrote in fragments. After twenty minutes, she folded the papers and deposited them in a shoe box on her closet shelf. Curiously comforted, she went back downstairs.
Later she returned, writing to ease the pain. She showed no one, and no one asked what she was doing, scribbling in the reflection of the lights below.
At school she became a watcher, feasting on someone else’s childhood, wrapping herself in shyness that kept questions at a distance. In high school there were boyfriends, but after Floyd called her a Goddamned Slut, she knew she couldn’t bring them home.
“Leave him, Mamma,” she begged. “...before he kills you.”
Mamma shook her head. “He just needs to quit drinking...”
“Then go until he does.”
“I can’t. Your sisters...”
“They’ll be all right. He never touches them.”
“But once I’m gone...”
“Then bring them along. We can work...”
“Doing what? Just look at me!”
“How in the hell did you get that way? Has he knocked you brainless too?”
“Now you listen to me, little girl...”
Then Floyd was laid off and even the daytime hours became unsafe. Ruth would come home to a house menacingly silent with Floyd in front of the droning TV, his drink on the floor beside him. Mamma would be in the bedroom or kitchen. Sometimes she’d deny anything had happened. Sometimes it was so bad that they’d wait until Floyd went to bed, then drive to the emergency room where Mamma’d swear that she’d had a fall.
Ruth watched the calendar. In three weeks she would graduate. In four she would be eighteen. If Mamma wouldn’t come with, she’d go alone.
Monday was an early dismissal for graduating seniors. Floyd would be at the unemployment office, her sisters still at school. But when she arrived home the front door was locked and all the windows closed except for upstairs. The car was gone.
Impatient, she peered through the basement window, trying to penetrate the gloom of the laundry room. There was a pile of clothes on the floor in front of the washer. Mamma had gone out before finishing. How unlike her.
She moved toward the next window. As she did, she heard a thin sound like the whimpering of a puppy.
She stopped and listened. Then moving ever so careful, went back to the window outside the laundry room. “Anyone home?” Her voice made the window vibrate.
The air was shattered with a mournful cry. “Ruthie! Roo‑thie girl!” The pile on the floor moved. Then in slow motion, a silhouette took shape and sat up, the hand reaching out in supplication. “Help me, Baby...”
Mamma’s dark hair was matted with blood. One blackened eye was closed, the other, almost. She tried to stand up, fell back, then dragged herself up to the laundry tub. Hanging on to the washer and drier for balance, she tottered to the window.
“Mamma, let me in.”
“I can’t go the steps, Honey. Something in my belly...”
“Then unlock the window.”
Mamma reached up and after several tries, unfastened the lock then stumbled and collapsed on the floor.
Ruth squeezed through the small opening, landing with a clang on the top of the dryer and dropping onto the floor. “You’ve got to get to a hospital right away. You’re hurt bad this time. Where’s the car?”
“I don’t know. Floyd went somewhere.”
“I’ll bet he did. One step ahead of the police...”
Mamma started to cry. “That bastard hurt me good. He kicked me on the floor...”
“Never mind. I’ll help you upstairs. We can call a cab.” She put her arm around her mother’s swollen waist. “Lean on me.”
Just then they heard the garage door open.
Mamma gave a terrified whimper. “He’s back.”
“I’ll cover for you.” Ruth grabbed an armload of laundry from the folding table and added them to the heap on the floor, throwing the rest over her mother. “And stop crying. He’ll hear you.”
She sprinted down the hall and into the kitchen just as Floyd came through from the garage. His slow movements said he was very drunk. “What’re you doing home so early? Where’s your Mamma?”
“How should I know? Where were you?”
“None of your damned business.” He peered into the closet, behind the couch. “You’re hiding her. Where is she?”
“Why? What happened?”
“Don’t be smart, sister. Get outa my way so I can look upstairs.”
She could hear his heavy footsteps moving from one room to another as she picked up the phone and dialed 911.
He was sitting at the kitchen table when the police arrived. When Mamma was brought from the laundry room, he wept real tears. Ruth had seen that before. “You’ll never get another chance to do this.” She was giddy with indignation. She was also wrong.
After the repair to her damaged liver and ruptured spleen, Mamma came back home to Floyd. There were lots of reasons. He was truly sorry. She had nowhere else to go. The girls needed her.
“You want to live like this?”
“Wait ‘till you grow up. You’ll see things different.”
“Mamma, I am grown up.”
“Well then, you know what I’m talking about.”
“All I know is that Floyd’s going to kill you.”
“He’s a good man. He just drinks too much.”
She didn’t wait for graduation. Finding a job as a receptionist in a medical clinic, she rented a furnished room and moved. Her diploma arrived in the mail with a letter saying that she’d ranked in the top ten‑percent of her class. Ruth Benet – she’d kept Papa’s name.
Soon she made secretary then administrative assistant to the chief internist. The furnished room was replaced by a three‑room apartment. She met medical students from Galveston and dated a few. Her fantasies were now a drawer full of manuscripts, re‑read and revised. She started going with Rob, a technician at the lab, and was falling in love.
Mamma would call at odd hours to report that Floyd was working, that he had begun to go to church, that they had new furniture, a new car...
It was close to midnight and the phone once more jangled her awake. An unfamiliar man’s voice – wrong number. She hung up and curled back under the sheets.
It rang again. “Ruth? Is this 231‑87...?”
She sat up. “Who is this?”
“My name is Jon Benet. Does that mean anything to you?”
There were no explosions, no fanfare, no band to play a salute. The room was as before in light, warmth and color. But the intensity was blinding. “How did you find me?”
“I’ve looked for years. Your mother re‑married... Ours is a rather common name...” The words were rushed as though he expected her to hang up again. He mentioned places, dates and memories too intimate to be lies. “May I come and see you? There is so much I want to say...”
“Yes. Oh, yes! Papa...” Her lips caressed the word. “You’ll be surprised – I’m grown up now.” She laughed nervously. “Of course you know that. I’m almost married...”
“I can fly in. Can you get to Houston to meet me? If not, I can make other arrangements...”
“No, that’s okay. My boyfriend has a car. I know he’d want to meet you.” She swallowed. “The sooner, the better.”
He would come in two days.
What did he look like? She had two pictures from Mamma’s album, portraits in army fatigues. There was softness in his smile. The dialogue had been rehearsed forever. “Papa, it’s been twenty years.”
“Yes, my child. But I’ve come to make it all up to you, to carry you away to my mansion.”
He would come to her as a doctor. A scholar. No – a politician. “Papa, what were you doing all these years? What adventures...” He would stroke her hair, hold her close. It wasn’t his fault. He’d been driven out. He’d been summoned to a calling and didn’t dare tell anyone. It was the army, the diplomatic corps, the CIA...
Or there might be a different scene where she would face him in a rage. Then he’d put his arms around her and their tears would merge. “I’ve come to make it up to you. Won’t you let me? I’ve so longed for you, my own little girl. My Ruthie...”
She wasn’t able to sleep the rest of that night or the following. Food stuck in her throat so she drank Instant Breakfast and got heartburn instead. Her pulse was so rapid she stopped taking it.
“How d’you feel?” Rob’s voice was clinical as they started.
“I don’t know.” She leaned back and closed her eyes.
At the airport, they entered the terminal, located gate 14 and sat down in the waiting area. When Rob took her hand, she realized she was trembling.
The flight from Tampa deplaned at ten minutes after one. He was surprisingly thin and only a few inches taller than she was. His clothes were baggy and cheap. He was the man in the picture.
They stood apart, looking at one another. If his expression revealed anything, Ruth was incapable of reading it.
Rob broke the silence. “Ruth hasn’t had lunch. Maybe you two could…”
“It depends on Ruth...”
“There’s a restaurant on the upper level where we can watch the planes coming in.”
An escalator took them up and they were seated, each occupying one side of a small table. The room was almost deserted except for two men dangling legs over bar stools, talking of world events. Rob had discreetly disappeared down the hall.
A waitress came and stood expectantly, pencil poised. They ordered sandwiches and sat in silence until she left.
“You look like your mother.”
“She’s changed. You wouldn’t recognize her.”
“She’s a strong woman. Always knew her own mind. I can tell you’re like her. Just the way you hold your head, how you sit...”
“Papa, why did you leave?”
His eyes shifted around the room to see if anyone was listening. “I was young – not ready for responsibility. Then there was you. You cried a lot. Colic, I think...” The words were once more rushed, as though expecting to be turned away, not allowed to finish.
“That’s all? It was just too much?”
“You have to understand how things were then...”
Twenty years summarized over a civilized lunch while executive‑types sipped their drinks across the room, their booming voices echoing the bullshit being spread over her table.
It was getting dark when Rob helped Ruth into the car and headed back to Galveston, the radio’s country‑western turned up loud. “I think he wants to move to Texas.”
Rob patted her hand. “I’m sure you’ll work it out. D’you want me to stay for a while? I can call in...”
She shook her head. “I’ll just take a shower and go to bed.”
Back inside, Ruth moved through the shadows, running her hands over the chair, the lamp next to it, the first she’d ever purchased.
She sat down at her desk and opened the file‑drawer, gazing at the folders packed with manuscripts. “Poor baby. Poor, poor Ruthie.”
Then lifting her chin, she switched on the light, took out a fresh sheet of paper. And once more, she began...
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