Ruby lived by swampland all her life. Tourists
sometimes said it with a sneer: it smells, it’s
dirty, but they said the same thing about New Orleans. They said the same thing
about Paris! Well herwell-loved landscape wasn’t dirty, wasn’t dangerous because
of outlaws and crooks, and didn’t smell like piss. You just had to watch out
for gators and mosquitos, but she learned that young.
And she learned to stay away from the juke joints on Saturday nights—she was a
pretty little thing, and sometimes alcohol could do things to a man that they’d
regret come church on Sunday. Ruby had on occasion had her back pushed up against the outside wall, music and stompin’
bursting out the open windows, but men knew her uncle, and Ruby carried a knife, and even the strongestbarrel-made moonshine didn’t have a chance to work them up stupid before
some angel on their shoulder beat the hell out of the
devil in their pants.
Such a contradiction in this haunted, mesmerizing
medley of greens and golds, shot through with sun rippling the water—while
every street sign and neon drive-thru was shot through to hell with buckshot, the writing instrument of
anyone over 16 with a truck and a gunrack. Ruby was
getting’ on that age but still she walked to school each morning, her bare toes
squishing in the track,
sometimes dry as bones, sometimes muddy with last night’s rain. She didn’t care. And yes her muddy feet said she was poor but
also said she loved the earth, and she loved school. Ruby carried her lessons
in the backpack her older
sister Jade picked up last August at the church donation and give-away. But
Jade decided she’d had enough, carried herself north
with a boy who was leaving to make his mark in Nashville, one guitar, a banjo,
a baggy full of change, and
two phone numbers written on a matchbook from the
nudie bar where he subbed sometimes— after the real musicians got too drunk to stand.
Jade packed just a few things in a shopping bag, left the tell-tale charity
backpack at home, and Ruby grabbed it for at least one more year of writing
sums, practicing her letters and carrying any books she could get. Reading
under the covers at night, flashlight illuminating the pages, was her
favorite way to spend an evening, and she didn’t need
to make no apologies for that.
Mama worked hard to make a
good life for her girls. She told everyone she’d married too young and too
wrong; she gave up on Jade
once she given them all the slip, but didn’t want the same to happen to Ruby. So Mama cooked, and swept, and
worked her ass off in the local hunter’s motel, the one with sheets faded
yellow the color of dirty blonde whore hair. And she
always kept a little cash hidden in a biscuit tin in the pantry, just in case.
Ruby tried never to take it, she always thought of it as Mama’s getaway money. She
borrowed a bit once a year to buy a couple pairs of underwear—she couldn’t go
commando to gym class. Otherwise she didn’t need
nothing. Everything was there for her among the
willows and the wild skies. Her people, her stories, ties for her hair and a
swimming hole. Whatever else does anyone need.
* * * * *
"A Slice of Ruby" was first published in Better Than Starbucks (November 2018) and is in Tobi Alfier's poetry collections Slices of Alice (Cholla Needles Arts and Literary Library, 2018) and Symmetry: earth and sky (Main Street Rag, 2020).
Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominee and multiple
Best of the Net nominee. “Slices of Alice & Other Character Studies” was
published by Cholla Needles Press. “Symmetry: earth and sky” was just published by Main Street Rag. She is co-editor of San Pedro
River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).