Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
Marlin's girlfriend, Ruby, is waiting tables at Macari's on Highland Ave. It's filled to capacity with late-afternoon family diners and the sounds of colliding silverware and frying food, while waitress's parade back and forth across the floor. In the middle is Ruby, taking an order from two twins with long, red braids. They are pointing at the pictures of the banana splits on the back of the large menu. Their mother is ignoring them, staring off at the bus boy, the spinning signs hanging from the ceiling.
Marlin sits at the bar at the far end of the restaurant watching her, waiting for her shift to end. She is wearing a black t-shirt and a jean miniskirt and her long, brown hair is tied up on top of her head. Walking quickly, almost running, Ruby goes between the kitchen and the tables. She carries trays high up above her tiny body, whips a pencil from behind her ear, shouts orders through the window to the cook in the back. A boy throws mashed potatoes at the wall, a bowl of peas goes crashing, a father complains about the service, the manager is yelling. Ruby stands near the toilets, alone, with a cigarette in her hand, sucking on it. Waitresses, she has said, are the last of the great American heroes. Marlin stands up to go to her, but she is gone, through the swinging doors, to get more fried chicken.
Later, Marlin stretches his legs as far as they will go, looking out the airplane window at the still night below. He sits next to Ruby, curled up on the seat next to him underneath a blue blanket, as they fly across the country. It is quiet except for the occasional cries of a baby two rows back and the gentle stirrings of the flight attendants. Ruby twitches in her sleep, gives a slight moan, her teeth gnashing together, her hair stuck to the side of her face. He strokes her cheek, traces his fingers around her ear.
He pads down the aisle, lingering by the flight attendants' station. One of them wears a button on her uniform that says "No Dancing in the Aisles". She is discussing motels with the stern one who keeps waking Ruby up to make sure her seat-belt is on. No Dancing says that the Comfort Inn has the softest towels and the best free cosmetics but Stern One says last week she stayed in one with old sheets. Pubic hair, she says. Gross me out, says No Dancing. They both look over at Marlin and give him a weary look, indicating that drinks and snacks are no longer an option. Marlin was just hoping for conversation, but thinks better of it and keeps heading down to the end of the plane to get magazines. He stretches to retrieve them from the overhead compartment and his shirt pulls up, revealing his firm stomach. He notices a woman by the window, staring at his bare skin, but when he looks at her, she turns away, back to her romance novel. In the bathroom cubicle, he looks at himself for a long time in the mirror. He notices a gray hair just starting to sprout near his left ear and his eyes look sunken further back into his head than he remembered.
On the way back to his seat, he hears Ruby talking, persuading the stern flight attendant to bring her orange juice. He sees only Ruby's outstretched hands while she pleads with the tall woman who looks down at her.
"How long have I been asleep?" She says to Marlin as he climbs over her to get back to his seat. She is sitting up, her hair tangled around her shoulders, rubbing her eyes.
"About two hours."
"I missed dinner?" It comes out like an accusation. She looks away, towards the window, lies down and falls back asleep.
Marlin flips through People, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, scanning celebrity profiles for clues on how to run his life. Everyone has dark patches but it all sounds better in a glossy magazine, especially in the past tense. Marlin looks over at Ruby. He can't stop looking at her. Last night he woke up at four a.m. to the sound of Ruby falling over, her head smacking against the bedroom wall, her jeans wrapped around her ankles, one shoe in the hall-way. In the morning, he stroked her back, pulled her hair away from her face, holding it lightly above her head while she vomited into the toilet. After, Marlin sat on the edge of the bathtub while she lay on the floor and promised not to drink for the three days that they stayed with his mother. The cool tiles felt good on her face, she said and then she threw up again. Then she was on all fours, crouched over, rocking, crying. On the way to the airport, he held her, shivering, on the bus. While he checked in, she sat with the duffel bag by the telephones, cradling her head in her arms. He brought her ginger ale, crackers, Alka Seltzer. They were the last ones on the plane. "She's fine," he told a shocked No Dancing as she looked at Ruby, pale and skinny, trembling down the gateway.
Ruby is still asleep when the plane lands. Marlin watches everyone else get off the plane while he tries to wake up Ruby, but she keeps pushing his hand away, telling him to be quiet. Two first class flight attendants are on him, calling him sir, telling him they have to leave, that it is now time to deplane. They are all shaking Ruby, hunched over the armrest, a ball of twisted clothes, tiny white pillows, a sneaker. "Ok, ok," she sits up. "Get off me," she says, smacking at everybody's hands, her hair strung down around her face. She is smoking as soon as they are off the plane, not talking to Marlin, glassy eyes looking straight ahead.
His mother is one hour late to meet them and Ruby walks around in tight circles. It is midnight and raining and the baggage claim area is nearly empty except for an older woman in a long coat talking on a cell phone and a large man slowly pushing his mop back and forth across the shiny floor. They hear his mother before they see her. Marlin, she is screeching. In the car, she has lots of questions for both of them, but Ruby is quiet in the back seat, so Marlin answers them himself. He reaches a hand behind his seat, searching for Ruby's long fingers while they drift back and forth across the highway.
When they get to his mother's house, Marlin takes the bag from the trunk of the car, holds Ruby's limp hand while she trails behind, her hot, clammy skin intertwined with his. In the kitchen, his mother offers sandwiches, pie, coffee, soda. "You should eat something," she says, her body deep within the refrigerator. "It was such a long flight."
Marlin explains the lateness of the hour, their tiredness, backing away from her while Ruby sits frozen at the table. This is not the home of Marlin's childhood, a ranch-style house his mother bought last year. She leads them to the guest room adorned with a queen-sized bed, shag rug, their own separate bathroom. She bought it more for this room than anything else, Marlin remembers her saying, so that her children would always have a place to stay. Now he looks at her in the doorway as she explains to a vacant Ruby where she got the bedspread and how it matches the sheets, but that she had to get a different color pattern for the towels. Watching her now, her small, stooped body shoved into a sweat-suit, her short curly white hair that she gets done every Tuesday morning at Mile Square Hair, her hands pointing everywhere at once, he has an overwhelming desire to hug her, to call her mommy. Instead he just kisses her lightly on the cheek and says good night.
Marlin lies awake in the dark, listening to his mother turning off all the lights and the sound of Ruby taking a shower. He closes his eyes as she climbs into bed, clinging onto him, her wet hair nestled in his armpit.
In the morning Ruby is up before him, making breakfast in the kitchen. Marlin can hear her calling his mother Esther, laughter, dishes and silverware clinking together. When he comes out, he finds them hunched over the Sunday paper, his mother marking her weekly shows in the TV section with a yellow highlighter. Ruby catches Marlin's eye, smiles at him, holding his gaze while he gets a cup of coffee.
For awhile in the morning, there is an illusion of something verging on normal, that this is something regular couples do, have breakfast together, visit a mother. Ever since his father died three years ago, Marlin flies across the country several times a year to change his mother's light bulbs. Ruby always wants to know why his sister Natalie doesn't do it. "She's older," she points out. Or someone else. But the truth is Marlin wants to be the only one that does it, loves telling people at work about it, rolling his eyes each time in mock frustration at the ridiculousness of the situation. And it is a ritual, their ritual and Ruby seems to secretly like it too. After breakfast they get out the paint-spattered ladder from the garage, the bulk box of long-life bulbs that his mother has bought that week at the Price Club. First they do all the lamps in the living room, the tracking lights along one wall, the six ceiling lights in the kitchen, then the fluorescent bulbs in the bathroom that require tools to take off the fixtures. Ruby is quick with the screwdriver, lifting out the long tubular bulb. Esther follows them around while they do it. "Oh jeez," she says, when Marlin is up on the ladder reaching for a light.
After, they drive along the coast and walk on the City beach. It is a warm day, even though it's only early spring, and they all take their shoes off and walk in the lapping water. Ruby is animated, gesticulating wildly, while she tells waitressing stories that she knows Esther loves. "Oh my," Esther says, wiping her eyes, clutching Marlin's arm. But by the time lunch is over, Marlin can feel Ruby slipping away again, crumbling before him. They are at the Pink Elephant, his mother's favorite restaurant. They all know her and she is showing off, calling everyone by their first name. "Lloyd this is my son and his friend," "Norma, I'll just have tuna, but on white toast today, no lettuce". She is stirring her iced tea with a long plastic spoon topped with a tiny elephant on the end, gesturing out at the boats, pushing at her hair. They are sitting at a table by the windows, overlooking the harbor, ceiling fans blowing her hair, her sunglasses never leave her face. Ruby is shredding her napkin, crossing and uncrossing her legs, going to the bathroom, sitting on her hands.
After lunch, they walk around the docks, looking at the sailboats and Ruby drops behind, but his mother doesn't notice and insists on buying a shirt for her birthday that was three weeks ago. She notices a store with t-shirts hanging in the window, but Ruby shakes her head no, so Esther herds them into "Ladeez Latest Fashions." Ruby looks down while Esther thrusts striped shirts, cashmere, and velour at her. Marlin tries to dissuade his mother, touches Ruby's shoulder, but Ruby flinches and Esther is already pushing Ruby towards the dressing room, a pile of blouses draped on her arms.
On the way home, Marlin can hear Ruby trying not to cry, a muffled choking noise. He looks over at his mother, sitting on her sheepskin pillow, stooped slightly over the steering wheel, as they drive along the freeway past strip malls and shipyards. "Remember Custers," she is saying. He grew up ten miles south of here and the City is still somewhat of a mystery to him, a place of occasional adolescent exploration and rare family outings. He is never really sure where he is when he is here. A vagueness engulfs him. It is an old feeling left over from childhood, his mother driving him around, the scenery bordering on the recognizable. And he could almost fall asleep like he used to on the way home from shopping or the circus, hot air coming out of the vents, his face against the cold window, the distant sounds of talk radio and Esther pressing the gas pedal and releasing, over and over. Except for Ruby, coming apart on faded beige Naugahyde in the back seat of the car.
"That was nice," Esther says when they pull into the driveway. Marlin gets out, opens the garage door for his mother, while she drives the car inside, Ruby looking straight ahead. He closes it behind them when only the taillights are visible. His mother fumbles with her purse looking for the keys, while they huddle around the front door. Ruby folds her arms, kicks her shoes on the steps while they wait. "Iced tea, anyone," Esther sings, once they are inside.
The rest of the afternoon is spent sitting in the back yard, his mother pointing out the flowers, the grass that used to be just dirt. Esther brings out a pitcher of iced tea, lies back on her recliner and lifts her head every once in awhile to yell at the cat that is eating grass. Suddenly she sits up, and is asking questions, and saying things like they've been together so long, that she doesn't understand. "Honestly," she is saying, looking down, her forehead crinkling, like it does when she is worried. But how can Marlin explain. He feels his throat constricting, a high-pitched squeak coming out of his mouth as he starts to say something, but then he thinks better of it. Ruby looks down at her feet and doesn't say anything.
Esther stands up, looking inside, saying that Natalie wants to make them dinner, and that they need to be at her apartment by six. "The traffic report is on now," she says, shaking her head, walking towards the screen door, her voice trailing off as she heads into the house. Ruby picks up the empty glasses and goes inside. Marlin sits alone in the backyard until his mother calls out from the kitchen, "we're going to be late."
Natalie answers the door, "Hiyeeee," she shrieks, drink in one hand, her boyfriend Al frying onions, peppers in a pan, smoke billowing from the stove. Natalie engulfs them one by one, her black curly hair entangled around Marlin's neck, her chain belt digging into his stomach. It is hard to see her face underneath the mascara, lipstick, and base, and she leaves deep, red marks on Marlin and Ruby's cheeks.
Al is tall and wears a gold ring on his pinkie. He plays drums in one of the bands that Natalie manages and peppers his sentences with "Alright", "Nice one" and an occasional "Excellent" thrown in. Sometimes he just says "Yeah" for no apparent reason at all. "The brother," he says to Marlin shaking his arm, patting his shoulder. "Oh ma," Natalie is saying as Esther notices something on the floor.
Ruby burrows deep into the couch, surrounded by Indian print pillows, she lights a cigarette, closes her eyes and inhales. She concentrates on the ashtray while Esther sits cautiously next to her. Natalie runs back and forth from the kitchenette to the coffee table with forks, ketchup, a salad bowl, paper towels. She is lighting candles, pouring wine, a whirl of hair and jangling jewelry. Marlin sits on the floor while Al plops lumps of food on each one of their plates and watches as they take a first bite. Natalie moans with satisfaction, Esther let's out a nonpartisan "Oh my" and Marlin just gives Al a small nod.
Ruby picks at her food, moving it slowly around her plate, asks for aspirin, and goes outside to have a cigarette even though everyone else is smoking all around her. Natalie hasn't stopped talking since they arrived. She is laughing, snorting between gulps of wine as she tries to regain enough composure to finish a story. Ruby has been gone ten minutes now and Marlin loses track of the plot. Natalie says "Fuck," his mother says "Honestly" and Al just beats his fingertips over and over on the table and makes popping noises with his lips. Marlin gets up and goes outside to the front porch of the building.
"It's so hot in there," Ruby is clutching her cigarette, her toes pointed in, as she waves her hand vaguely in the direction of inside. It is starting to rain and Marlin sits on the stairs while Ruby smokes and they listen together to Natalie talking inside, a nearby television, children fighting and yelling in the yard next door. A woman in a plastic red coat stares at them as she walks by. They watch a man with his dog, as he stoops down, plastic bag carefully wrapped around his fingers.
Marlin is sighing on the steps, rubbing at his temples, wishing he smoked, that Natalie would stop talking, that he could be alone with Ruby somewhere else.
"I can't do this," Ruby says, not looking at him. A boy rides by on a tricycle, ringing his bell. Marlin stands up, goes to Ruby, and puts his arms around her, and they hold each other, swaying a bit in the soft rain. Wrapping himself all the way around her, Marlin can feel her bony back underneath her suede jacket, his face tucked into the side of her neck, the familiar smell of her hair, her smooth skin against his lips, he starts to kiss her, caress her body that is finally starting to relax.
"Oh, sorry," says Natalie, opening the heavy front door of the building. "It's just that there's no more ice." Marlin and Ruby detach and he holds onto Ruby's coat.
"I'll go," says Ruby, stiffening once again.
"No, I will," he says. Natalie shrugs her shoulders. "Whatever," she says, explaining that the nearest store is on Western just around the corner. She tries to put five dollars in Marlin's hand but he pushes it away. "We also need limes," she says, turning around to go back inside. Ruby is already walking away, heading down the street. Marlin watches her for a moment before he goes after her.
It is raining harder now, the night air cold on his face, his breath visible as he runs, panting after Ruby. Natalie lives in what Esther calls "the rough end of things," and Western Ave. is dotted with boarded-up storefronts and busy with motorcycles, commuter buses and pulsating cars. The corner store is throbbing, groups of teenagers in front, huddling over brown paper bags, slapping each other.
Marlin sees Ruby walk right past it as three boys jeer at her. "Fuck you," she shouts back and keeps going. Her stride is directed, focused as she walks two more blocks, past a couple in an alley, men laughing outside the OTB. Marlin follows her as though in a trance, not willing to turn around or catch up to her, just always lagging a few paces behind.
And then he gets stuck by a traffic light, a moving truck barreling down on him as he tries to dart across the street. He dances up and down on his heels, waiting for the light to change. When it finally turns green, he sprints across the street.
At first he cannot see her. He stands still looking up and down the sidewalk. "Ruby," he is saying, at first under his breath, turning around in circles. Then calling her name to himself wildly, rabidly as people begin to stare and laugh. Finally he sees her, Ruby, just across the street, pushing open a door, disappearing into it. Marlin starts to walk towards her, then stops, and stands still in the middle of the sidewalk. He shifts his weight in his shoes, puts his hands in his pockets, takes them out, runs his hands through his hair. He sits down on a milk crate, staring at the twinkling sign on the window, "Schlitz" beaming back and forth. Someone asks him which bus goes downtown and he explains he is not from here, does not know his way around, is practically lost himself. He sits there, hands hung out at his sides, staring at the door, as it flaps back and forth across the frame.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Buttenwieser is a writer living in New York City.