This story, a mystery, is being told by two alternating voices, one male, one female. Ruth is the female voice. I haven’t got the man’s name yet. Ruth’s voice comes through her diary, which she keeps from her early thirties until her death in a nursing home. At the beginning of the story, she has just died. The man is reading her diary, for reasons I’ll explain later, and becomes suspicious about whether she really died of natural causes in the nursing home. Here is the first section of Ruth’s diary:
Today is the April 25th. 1973. I get to the funeral home early and take the first seat on the aisle, front row. There Frankie is, right in front of me in the casket. Laid out the way people usually are, face up, hands folded on his big belly. He is in the checkered suit I brought up. He liked that suit. I don’t know why. Funeral’s not for awhile, but I feel like waiting here, with him. I’m writing this in Paulette’s notebook I found in her room. It’s been on her bed since she left, like she forgot it on her way off to school. Except she didn’t go off to school like I thought. I don’t know where she went. I was standing in her room and thinking about her and wishing I could tell her about today, about her daddy. There was the notebook on her bed and of a sudden I felt like I should write some things down before it all is gone. Before everybody is gone.
They have fixed up Frankie’s face. Doesn’t look like him, much, puffed up like that, lips all swollen, but at least he looks bettern when he died. I sit here staring at his hands. When was it they got so fat and harmless looking? All the times he raised them big fists to me, and I stood my ground and dared him, with the babies at the kitchen table crying. He’d wind up punching the refrigerator and leaving another dent and slamming the screen door on the way out.
Things weren’t always that way. Here I am at his funeral, and thinking about that one night, and those hands the way they used to look. There was lightning bugs everywhere that night, going on off, on off, on off. The dark air was filled with their blinking lights. He was fifteen and I was a year younger. He was handsome. Wide shoulders, flat belly, hips narrow. I was pretty then, too. We was down to the river, just up from Calvary Camp, where the water is quiet. Even at night with your eyes shut you could barely hear the water burble. Back then there was a flat grassy patch that flooded over every spring. Soft ground. Good for barefoot. We was holding hands and he was so excited, talking about what the school teacher said. Smartest boy in the class. College material. He kept saying it over and over. College material. I remember that grin was so wide under the half moon.
I remember he poked me in the side and we wrestled a bit, and we was laughing. I said—I never told nobody this—I said let’s get naked. And he said what, and I said what, and then we did it. I was so curious to see what he looked like, but then there I was, naked, and I couldn’t even look at him. I said let’s lay down here on the grass and look at the moon and them fireflies and we did. We laid down there, side by side and we looked up at the moon. The fireflies went on off, on off, in the dark between us and the moon. I couldn’t think of nothing to say, and even though I was lying flat on my back and not moving, I couldn’t hardly even catch my breath, but just stared straight up. Then I turned my head a itty bit and I looked down his long body and there it was, just what I wanted to see, and it looked like it was pointing straight up at that moon. I remember thinking my word! how in the heck does he cover that up with his pants! I didn’t know they aren’t always like that, pointing straight up at the moon.
Then he touched me. I was so busy looking where I shouldna been looking I didn’t see it coming. His hand come over in the darkness and I think it was just one finger, I never have been able to figure which one, but it felt like a lightning bolt when it brushed against my nipple that way. I swear, every single one of them lightning bugs lit up the night sky all at once and I screamed. I was breathing like I just run a mile, and I jumped up from there and put my clothes back on quickern I don’t know what.
I kind of wish now I’da done it different, ’cause that was the start of it, and it started with what I done, with making him feel bad that way. I was so shook up I got the giggles and he got up and turned away and put his clothes on and pushed me back into his daddy’s truck. I banged my head on the door. That wasn’t his fault, but it sure cured my giggles. I was rubbing the side of my head and he was driving like he wanted to escape from something, and not saying a word. That’s when I realized I’d probly hurt his feelings. I put my hand on his arm but that only made him drive faster on that bouncy dirt road.
I really wanted him to like me. So the next Saturday night I made him take me back to that spot by the river. There wasn’t no moon yet, and only but two or three lightning bugs. It was so dark and I couldn’t see him above me except like a empty black shape in the sky. Then he was inside of me and I was so surprised I couldn’t even say what. ‘Course, later on it was so many times that he collapsed on top of me the way he did that night, but by the river that first time I thought he’d got stung by some kind of an insect the way, of a sudden, he tightened up and grunted and then sagged down on me with his nose right beside of my ear. All I could do was try to catch my breath under his weight while I felt him get smaller inside of me.
It doesn’t seem like we talked much for awhile after that, up until my daddy went into that schoolhouse and took him out by the hair and stood us both up in front of the preacher and we both said I do just so Daddy wouldn’t hit us again.
After that we stayed awhile at my folks’ place, only Frankie kept as far away from Daddy as he could. Frankie got a job at old Mr. Forster’s store, sweeping up and stocking shelves. He didn’t go back to that schoolhouse and I didn’t hear nobody say nothing about college material after that. I helped my momma in the kitchen, even after I got big and my back hurt. I coulda kicked myself every day for causing all this on everybody.
We was saving up Frankie’s money to get a place, and all Frankie did was work and come home to sleep, and every night, before he got into the bed, he counted the saved up money like it was air he needed to get through another night, and he was already setting a little aside for the day when he could buy that store after Mr. Forster retired. From then on I knew Frankie would never let me or the baby inside of me go hungry. He didn’t drink, either, and he came home every night even after we got our place, not like some of the husbands I knew about. We always had supper together, us and the babies. He didn’t talk much, but I was used to that, and he played with the babies some before he went to his paperwork and fell asleep in the chair.
Momma kept telling me I needed to be grateful for a man like that. I tried, but when I looked inside my heart for gratefulness, all I could do was cry. So many times I cried, those early years. Frankie said that was just the way I was. Mama told me too. Weak and no good. People like that can’t help but cry, they both said, and they was right. So I growed out of it and quit crying. But now, when I should be crying, I don’t feel a bit like it. I just feel like sitting here and looking at him, so big and dead in that wood box. Organ music is playing through the sound system. Soft. It’s a hymn, but I can’t think of the name. It goes Jesus, something something. But it ain’t coming to me.
I hope this is what Frankie woulda been all right with. What kinda funeral you want ain’t something you think about when you’re thirty-four. Probly wasn’t what was on his mind when he died, neither. When they found him by his truck, door open, he had one arm up, like a shield, they said. Like he was holding something off. The arm was broke, but he held it up anyhow. They called it a defense wound. They weren’t sure how it stayed up there after he was dead and all. He was already stiffened up when he was found.
A shiver runs through me and I rub my arms. He looked bad when they brought me down to identify him. He looks better now.
© 2013 Daniel Anderson