BABY RUTH, HER MOTHER USED TO CALL HER. "YOU MY BABY, and you sweet and nutty jus' like the candy bar," Karen would tease. Karen Johnson had moved to Denver from Jacksonville, when she was sixteen, pregnant, and hot on the trail of the man she loved. He'd been in the air force when they'd met in Florida, and was transferred shortly before Karen discovered she was pregnant with Ruth. She'd managed to save up enough money for a one-way bus ticket to Colorado and discovered that he wasn't interested in her or the baby she carried because he was already married, with kids he'd wanted, so she needed to "Get back on that damn bus, and take your ass home!" Karen said he'd told her. Only her mother, the Set Aside, Sanctified, Holified Servant of the Lord, Filled with the Holy Ghost (but Cussed like a Sailor) woman, wouldn't let her come back and she ended up staying in Denver.
Soft-spoken Ruth was an immortal teenager and dreamed of being beautiful like her mother and falling in love when she grew up. She listened to music incessantly, had a one-year subscription to Right On magazine, and practiced her french kissing on the back of her hand, underneath her covers in her room at night. She'd just finished her homework, and checked on the chicken baking in the oven, when she happened to glance up at the clock on the wall and noticed whattime it was: ten minutes to five. Karen would be on her way home by now.
"Fine as wine."
"Built like a brick shit house."
"Mmm ... mmm ... baby. What's a man got to do to get in on some of that action?"
Karen Johnson was accustomed to being ushered home by phrases like these, and she didn't mind one bit. "They don't mean no harm, Baby Ruth," she'd say to Ruth who found the comments embarrassing. "Ain't nothin' wrong with a man 'preciatin' a woman. You wait till you get a lil' older. You'll see what I mean. You a shy, pretty girl, dark as molasses, and sweet as honey, got a cute little figure too. I just wish you'd stop coverin' it up with those baggy pants you insist on wearin'."
Ruth watched her mother walking toward their apartment on Champa Street. The sun was starting to set behind the mountains, but it didn't dare set on Karen strutting home in a pair of secondhand Jordache jeans, a pink polo top, and her favorite high-heeled Candies.
"Momma? I know you ain't wearing those shoes," Ruth had argued that morning.
"What's wrong with my shoes?" Karen asked, genuinely perplexed.
"It's cold outside, Mom," Ruth said, sounding mildly irritated.
"It's April, Ruth. Springtime? People do wear sandals in the springtime. So what's yo' point?"
"It's too cold for sandals. That's my point."
Karen rolled her eyes, picked up her purse and keys, and headed for the door. "Well, they my feet, and if I don't mind 'em bein' chilly, why should you?"
Ruth followed after her. "Because I love you and I don't want you to get sick."
"Girl, please. I ain't never sick, and you bein' a lil' melodramatic, if you ask me--as usual." Karen left the apartment, then called out over her shoulder, "And don't forget to put that chicken in the oven when you get home from school."
Ruth shook her head, and then closed the door behind her. "Sometimes," she muttered, "that woman's a mess."
As Karen walked home, the faint melody of Earth, Wind and Fire's "Devotion" could be heard playing in the distance and suddenly she stopped, closed her eyes, then smiled and gently bobbed her head because someone had the good taste to play her favorite song, which was anything by EWF. Ruth covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. Karen was a character, and Ruth always made it a point to be her audience, whether her mother was aware of it or not.
"Hey," Karen said nonchalantly as she entered the apartment and started flipping through the mail.
"Hi. Did we get any bills?"
Karen sighed. "Don't we always." She threw the mail down on the coffee table, slid out of her shoes, plopped down on the couch, and put her feet up.
Ruth picked up the mail and sorted out the bills that needed to be paid. She'd inherited the job of keeping track of them because Karen just hadn't shown any aptitude in that area. Her mother was thirty years old and most of the time they were more like sisters than mother and daughter. But there were times when Ruth wished for Karen to be more like a mother. Mothers did things like pay the electricity bill before the lights were shut off. Mothers brought home real groceries, not just a box of cereal and a carton of milk. Mothers didn't hang out in the clubs until dawn, knowing they had to get up early and go to work the next day. And mothers certainly didn't go without eating for days on end just to make sure they fit into a size five, tripping that the size seven had gotten a little too comfortable. But more than anything, mothers didn't move in new boyfriends every other month, letting them get high or drunk or call everybody in the house names just because they were pissed off about something stupid. Ruth was almost positive that most mothers didn't do things like that, but then, Karen wasn't most mothers.
Different men came in and out of their lives, one dissolving into another, and each time Ruth hoped this one would be the one. The one who loved her mother, married her, made babies with her because that's what Karen hoped for. Ruth wished she'd give up, and be content with it just being the two of them. As far as Ruth wasconcerned, life was perfect when it was just them, but then she'd wake up in the middle of the night to the muffled sounds of Karen's sobs from the other side of the wall in their small apartment. Karen was lonely. She'd said it enough times. She'd cried it plenty of times.
"I'm jus' goin' to keep on prayin' 'cause one day the Lord's goin' to send me someone--send us someone to help take care of us, Baby Ruth," she'd say smiling, basking in the glow of her wishful thinking. Maybe as a child Ruth had believed the Lord would send them somebody, but by the time she was twelve she figured maybe the Lord had forgotten, or that he wasn't paying attention, because all the men he did send turned out to be idiots, drunks, or deadbeats. That's when Ruth decided she'd rather find her own husband than trust the Lord to do it. He obviously had too many other things to worry about.
Karen's ritual never changed. A new man in her life meant euphoria. Everything was funny, and the glass was always half full. She'd hold her head up extra high when she walked, made sure she had fresh polish on her fingers and toes, and spent a little more time in the mirror in the mornings, afternoons, evenings, putting on her makeup. Then she'd prepare to tell Ruth about him, whoever him was. She'd make Ruth a bowl of ice cream and they'd sit down in the kitchen smiling at each other and giggling like best friends. Karen would prop her elbows up on the table, cradle her lovely face in her hands smiling at Ruth while she inhaled that big bowl of ice cream.
"That good, Baby Ruth?" Ruth's mouth would be so full of french vanilla that all she could do was nod. Karen never ate any herself because she thought it would make her fat, but she enjoyed watching Ruth finish hers, moaning and licking her own lips like she was eating some herself. She stared into Ruth's eyes and gently rubbed her hand down her cheek. "Slow down, baby," she'd laugh. "You don't have to eat so fast, Ruthie. That ice cream ain't goin' nowhere." Karen's southern drawl seemed out of place in Denver, Colorado. As out of place as she did. She'd taken the girl out of the country but there was still plenty of country in the girl.
"You know what?" she'd ask as Ruth guzzled down ice cream."Momma's met somebody, Ruthie. Somebody nice." She always thought they were nice, and in the beginning, they always were.
"His name's Walter."
"His name's Glen."
"His name's Bruce."
"His name's Cedric."
Walter ended up being a junkie, stealing what little they had and taking the last of her money to buy whatever it was he was shooting up in his arm. Glen turned out to be married and left Karen to go home to his wife each and every time the woman summoned him back. Eventually, he never came back, so Ruth assumed Mrs. Glen had decided to let him stay. Bruce couldn't keep a job and decided to sit at home, drink all day long, and let Karen be the family breadwinner. One day, she happened to mention that she had a problem with this little arrangement he threw a full can of beer at her and slapped her upside the head a couple of times just in case she didn't get the message. He left but came back, though. He came back quite a few times before she finally got tired of the drama and called it quits.
Then there was Cedric. Good old Cedric. Out of all of them, he seemed to have had the most potential. He had a good job, decent table manners. Sure he smoked a little reefer every now and then, but that was about the extent of his drug dependency problem. Ruth even liked him, but it wasn't perfect. Sometimes he and Karen argued. He'd hit her, but she'd hit back because she swore she'd never let another man treat her like Bruce did and get away with it. Often times they'd fight right in front of Ruth and once, when she tried coming to Karen's rescue, they both yelled at her, to "Get back in that goddamned room and shut the mothafuckin' door!" So that's what she did. They always made up, though. And when they did, peace reigned in the valley, or in this case, their apartment on the Five Points, and they were the epitome of the all-American family on public assistance. Cedric would be in such a good mood he'd take them to the amusement park or out to eat and Karen hugged, squeezed, and kissed all over him and Ruth too, until the next time.
When she told him she was pregnant, they didn't fight, but he gave her an ultimatum, "Get rid of it, Karen! I don't want no more fuckin' kids and if you don't do something about it, I'm gone!" Rather than lose him, she decided to do something about it.
"I got a doctor's appointment this afternoon, Ruth," Karen said. She'd fumbled around all morning, dropping things, muttering to herself, snapping at Ruth.
Ruth had started not to ask, but she was concerned about Karen because she never went to the doctor unless something was seriously wrong. "You sick?"
"Naw," she glanced quickly at Ruth and tried to smile. "It's jus' a checkup." Karen picked up her purse and headed out the door. "I'll see you later."
Ruth had been home from school less than an hour when Karen's key turned in the door. "What are you doing home so early, Karen?"
Karen looked tired. Her eyes were red and swollen like she'd been crying, but before Ruth could ask her about it, she slowly walked toward her bedroom, and then closed the door behind her. Ruth hurried to the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove to boil for tea. Tea would make Karen feel better. It always did. She made her a cup, just the way she liked it, then took it to Karen sitting on the edge of the bed. Ruth sat down next to her, and pressed her hand against her mother's face. She felt warm.
Ruth handed Karen the cup of tea. "You want some Tylenol?"
Karen shook her head. "I jus' need to rest. That's all." She cradled the cup in both hands and slowly took a sip. Karen lay down and Ruth covered her legs with the blanket folded up at the foot of her bed, and kissed her. "Night, Momma," she whispered. Karen tried to smile, and then let her eyes close.
Hours later, Ruth stared down at her mother lying still in the crimson pool on her bed, knowing that the sound of the ambulance siren wailing in the distance was coming too late. She backed slowly away from the bed, braced herself against the wall, and slid down to the floor. Ruth pulled her knees up to her chest, and watched Karen intently, hoping to see some sign that she was still breathing. The lump in her throat swelled, threatening to strangle her, and Ruth hoped it would. She hurried to wipe the tears filling her eyes, cloudingher vision. Someone frantically rang the doorbell and banged repeatedly on the door. And from somewhere else, the sound of someone screaming pierced through the air. Ruth covered her ears, closed her eyes, and prayed that the terrible noise would go away. Had it come from her? she wondered, but she never really knew for sure.
It wasn't until the funeral that she learned the truth about Karen's doctor's appointment. Ruth's grandmother had flown up from Florida and from the moment Ruth laid eyes on her, she wished she'd stayed in Florida.
Grandmother Johnson stood next to a sobbing Ruth, glaring impatiently down at Karen lying cocooned in a pale peach satin lining. "This is what happens when you don't do the Lord's will, girl. Ig'nant! That girl always was ig'nant!"
Ruth couldn't believe what she was hearing. This woman was burying her only daughter. How could she say those things? How could she stand over Karen and call her names like that? "Layin' up with all them men when she shoulda been keepin' her legs closed. Abortion ain't nothin' but killin'. It ain't nothin' but murder, plain and simple. God don't like it one bit." She shot a look at Ruth. "Yo' momma was a fool, child."
In an instant, Ruth had been flipped on her head and tossed into the unfamiliar. She sat silently next to her grandmother on the train they took back to Jacksonville the day after Karen's funeral. Ruth stared out the window watching the open oasis that was Colorado gradually transform into new places lush with huge trees and blossoms. Spring looked different in the east, and especially in Florida where the weight of the heavy, thick air threatened to suffocate her with its oppressive humidity and unnatural heat. Ruth found herself sucking in buckets of air that tasted foreign, just to catch her breath. This was her new home, and she'd share the next four years with a woman that obviously loathed her. All of a sudden, Ruth knew what it was to be truly alone.
"How many times I got to tell you to stop slammin' my screen do', girl?" her grandmother yelled from the kitchen. Ruth was late coming home from school. A year had passed since her mother's death and Ruth was a sophomore in high school. She'd stopped off at the library after school because being at the library was better than home.
"Sorry," Ruth answered quietly.
Grandmother Johnson emerged from the kitchen wearing a pink floral housedress that buttoned up the front and her pale pink slippers. She looked so much like Karen sometimes, Ruth thought, watching her. Especially her eyes, except there was no warmth in them. Karen's eyes had been so warm and inviting they made you want to swim in them. Ruth suspected that if her grandmother ever did smile, it was probably like Karen's too. But she'd never seen any evidence that she was even capable of such a thing. The woman's icy stare caused a shiver to run down Ruth's spine as she stopped and stood inches away from the girl.
"I was at the library," Ruth said, nearly whispering. Her eyes quickly dashed to the ground, focusing on those old pink worn-out house shoes.
"I didn't ask you where you been," she said indifferently. "Did I?"
Ruth cleared her throat. "No--ma'am."
"I thought I told you to come straight home from school."
"I know and I--"
The palm of the woman's hand landed hard against Ruth's cheek that stung all the way down to her toes. Ruth choked back her tears and stood motionless at the foot of the stairs. "I'm sorry--Grandmother Johnson," she sobbed.
"Oh yes, Ruth. You certainly are--sorry," she said maliciously. "You one sorry lil' heffa jus' like yo' momma was. She insisted on spreadin' her legs for every Tom, Dick, and Harry that come along, but I ain't havin' that shit with you. You understand me?"
"Now," she said, heading back into the kitchen, "you go on upstairs and wash up for supper."
Perhaps that's where she'd learned it. The art of knowing when to keep her mouth shut. That old woman's glares had a way of melting Ruth, making her bleed into walls or floors or into nothing atall. She willed herself invisible in her dreams, even when she was awake, making her lips chapped from biting down on them all the time, holding in her tongue every time she felt compelled to defend herself or Karen's memory.
A week after she graduated from high school, Ruth moved out and never did look back. Two years later, she'd been contacted as the next of kin by the insurance company, telling her that her grandmother had died from kidney failure. Ruth even inherited a little money, which didn't last long with Eric around.
AND ON THE EIGHTH DAY SHE RESTED. Copyright © 2003 by J. D. Mason. All rights reserved.No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.