By Emma Duffy-Comparone
He took the good knives from Germany. He put his clothes in Tupperware containers fit for a moose. Into their original boxes went his wingtips. Ruth sat on the arm of the loveseat in her sweatpants, swinging her feet back and forth. She was not going to beg. She did not want to beg.
She begged a little.
“What gives you the right?” she said. “What gives you the fucking right?”
“You’re all closed up,” he said. “All your life you just sit in the back seat. I’m sick of driving.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Do you want to get married or not?” It had been eight years.
“Sure,” she said. “Fine.”
“Sure! ” he said. “Sure is not an acceptable word in this conversation!” He asked if he could have the loveseat.
“No,” she said. But when she looked down, she barely recognized it. He had picked it. The Persian carpet, too, and the coffee table shaped like a whale. The treadmill and the food processor. The arborvitae out front, stoic as butlers. Ruth had never been one for decisions. At times, she could barely dress herself. She would wander through stores, holding one bra up and then another. “Which one do I like?” she would ask him, anyone, a teenage clerk hanging thongs like tinsel on a rack. “Which one do I want?”
“How about that one?” they would say. “You want that one.” She would buy it, and then decide that maybe she didn’t like it after all, and return it with the tags loose. Like that, she shuffled through life.
He gave her a long kiss: tongue and everything. She didn’t think he’d actually leave. She called his bluff.
“Fine,” she said. “Go.”
He went. He put the knives in the back seat and the dog in front. He hitched the U-Haul to his bumper. Then she watched him and his bluff drive down the street.
Agitated and breathless, she wandered around the apartment. He had picked that, too. She put her ring in the jar of Q-tips over the sink. She took a lot of NyQuil.
She dragged a life she could barely claim to the edge of the street: a television, a headboard, a three-speed blender. She set up the kitchen table and two chairs on the sidewalk next to the recycling bins, sat down, and drank a Heineken. Cheap Shit, said her signs. Some Cheap Shit. Nearby, a squirrel palmed a nut like a basketball.
Not many people came. A woman stopped and got out of a Buick. She walked along the strip of lawn between the road and the sidewalk and ran her blue hands over everything. She had shaved her eyebrows and in their place drawn a single line across her forehead with a pencil. Ruth noticed how important eyebrows were to a face. They either made it or they didn’t.
The woman rifled through Ruth’s boxes. She sniffed a paperback, broke wax off a candlestick, held up Ruth’s vibrator and turned it on.
“Give me that,” Ruth said. She stood up and knocked over her beer. “Where’d you get that?”
The woman bought two lamps and a pie dish.
“My husband’s going to make me a lemon meringue,” said the woman.
“Super,” Ruth said.
When it got dark, Ruth sat on the street. She could hear the mosquito patrol truck wailing up the hill, spraying the neighborhood, bullying the evening birds.
She went inside and shut the windows. She waited for the truck to pass. Chemicals roiled from the tank in a hemorrhage. After it was over, she went back outside and covered the remaining things with a tarp.
“Well,” she said. “Good night.”
She wore two pairs of underwear to bed. She was 33. She grew dizzy, grief wide and sharp in her ribs, stuck there like a serving platter. Life could be full of such terrible things. You had to guard against them. You could, at 14, come home from work and find your father dead from an aneurysm on the living room rug. You could stand there on an April day, a clutch of crocuses still dangling from your fist, and feel all that was light in you tighten to stone. You could watch your soul hobble out the back door.
The next day, she put all of her plants in the car (Molly and Maggie and Kevin: they were Irish, and dry) and moved back home to Maine.
The attic had low ceilings and a milky skylight. To get up the stairs, she had to put her hands on the steps in front of her and crawl, crumbs of wallpaper catching on her sweater. She could hear a pigeon in the crawlspace, gurgling and knocking around. It freaked her out.
Her mother had tried to make the attic pretty. “At least call it the third floor, then.” She’d put down a scatter rug and nailed two Klimt prints to the walls: The Kiss, and one of some birches.
“Do you like it?” Ruth’s mother asked. “I mean, not that you’d like it, but is it okay?”
“Yes,” Ruth said. “Thank you.” She gave her mother a hug. She squeezed her close little bones. Later, Ruth put The Kiss in the closet.
The only bathroom was on the first floor. Ruth’s mother had set up a commode in the corner under the window. “Is that what I think it is?” Ruth said.
“What, the commode?” Ruth’s mother said.
“God help me,” Ruth said.
“I found it outside the nursing home,” said Ruth’s mother. “I dragged it home on my walk!”
“No,” Ruth said.
“It’s perfectly clean.”
“No.” She was laughing now.
“You just sit in it like this.” Ruth’s mother squatted. She wobbled, and clutched the windowsill.
“Fuck!” said Ruth.
She scheduled two interviews. The first was in an Alzheimer’s facility. The woman interviewing Ruth kept her hands in fists and stared at them when she spoke.
“What are your aspirations?” she asked.
“My aspirations,” said Ruth. She paused. “You mean, besides getting this job?”
“Your passions, desires?”
“Desires?” Ruth said. She thought about this. She couldn’t think of anything, not even a lie. The woman stared at her, and pushed her lips around. She pulled a box of Marlboros from her purse, pressed it to her nose, and then put it back.
“The beach,” Ruth said, finally. “I really like the beach.” At the end, the woman told Ruth that they had already given the job to someone else. She just hadn’t wanted to cancel last minute.
In her free hour, Ruth walked through town. She went into a Peruvian clothing store and started trying on hats. She tried on eight. She wasn’t sure which one she liked. She thought maybe she wanted the red one with a felt rose on the brim. She looked like a flapper. Perhaps she had always wanted to be a flapper.
“Please don’t try on the hats,” said the man behind the desk, brushing his ponytail.
Gone were the old Italian men sitting in deck chairs outside Bucco’s deli. Gone, too, was Josie’s Hardware, with the goldfish. Where there was a movie theater there was now a Gap. In the square, by the water fountain, lots of mothers stood around with tight asses and ponytails. They looked younger than Ruth. They all wore black yoga pants. It was apparently trendy to be a stay-at-home mom in yoga pants. Feminism was a funny thing, Ruth thought. It could turn in on itself, like a bug.
She saw a woman from her high school class pushing a stroller, and she ducked inside the Bagelry until the woman passed. At the table, she pulled a hardboiled egg from her purse and shelled it. She covered it with pepper until it looked like a rock. Then she ate it, trying not to taste it too much.
The second interview was at the hospital, in the north wing. If she got the job, Ruth would have to sign a waiver agreeing to be quarantined if something terrible broke out in the ward.
“Something terrible like what?” Ruth asked. She could hear a stretcher whizzing down the hall: wheels schizophrenic in their casters, IV bags flapping.
“Who knows,” said the man. He seemed to be trying very hard not to look at Ruth’s breasts. When he did, he squeezed his little eyes and then opened them, wide, and beamed them at her forehead. “You could be contained for several months.”
“Sure,” she said. “Fine.”
She drove to the beach. She sat on the wall by the rocks. A condom was burrowed in a head of seaweed, and the fin of a kite. A whorl of sand fleas hung in the air, and she looked through it, out to sea, banging her heels into the cement. Her hair blew all around her face in the April wind. It caught in her mouth. It sliced her eyes until they watered.
She watched a couple by the shore. The man picked the woman up and ran into the water. Then he dumped her in the waves. She stood up, screaming, her hair blackened and flat on her shoulders. She pulled her heavy, ballooning pants back up to her ass. Then she shoved him into the sand, and they kissed. They kissed like that for a while.
Ruth turned her head away. She glanced down the beach to Frank’s Clam Shack, the little restaurant across the street where she had worked in high school. She stood up, yanked her nylons into place, and walked across the parking lot and down the road.
Frank’s was made of blue shake shingles. It looked exactly the same as it had 19 years ago. On the roof, a large plaster tuna was still pulling a fisherman from his boat. The sign still said “Eat Clams.” The marsh, bitchy from the moon, had overflowed onto the parking lot. Water slinked around the dumpsters. A pile of cardboard boxes was soaked through, thick as cake.
Ruth walked up to the counter and ordered a side of fries. While she waited, she looked through the open wall into the kitchen. Two cooks stood on the line, a boy and a man. The boy pushed burgers around on the grill and slapped them flat with a spatula. The man shoveled fish into baskets and called numbers into a microphone. Ruth recognized his slouch. He whistled, drummed the counter with his fists. He turned up the radio and howled into his French fry scoop: “Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. Oh, won’t you please take me home?” It was Eddy, of course it was.
Ruth found herself asking the girl at the counter for an application. She filled in her name and her phone number. I worked here almost twenty years ago, she scrawled on the bottom. As she handed it to the girl, Ruth watched Eddy drink from a glass of water. He spat out an ice cube. He spun the rim of his baseball hat to the back of his head, wet a dishtowel, and tucked it around his neck. He had to be, what—Ruth tried to calculate: he was 27 when she was 14. That made him—what? She couldn’t think. What did it matter now, really? It didn’t. She looked at him again.
He hadn’t changed at all.
She watched him slide along the floor and slam a handful of fish tails into the trashcan. He looked up at Ruth. His eyes narrowed.
“You,” he said.
Ruth waved, but she botched it, and did a flap of sorts. She scowled at her high heels. They were frumpy shoes. Nursing shoes.
“She wants a job,” said the girl at the cash register, her teeth black with metal. Braces made a wet, tragic thing of consonants, Ruth noticed. Braces made you sound drunk. She hadn’t had them, herself. Her teeth were fine, mostly, except for the bottoms, which were crowded and sharp, like a bunch of house keys thrown together.
“Is that right?” said Eddy. He sidled back to the line, pulled a few slips from the wire, and studied them. He picked up his scoop, spun it in the air, and caught it. Then he slapped it against his apron. He waved Ruth in. She stepped through the kitchen door and slid on a breaded chicken patty. She felt damp and frantic, standing there in her skirt suit. She rubbed her neck. In the walk-in freezer years ago, he used to grab it and press his teeth into it. He had clawed it with his fingers.
“Honestly,” Ruth said. “I don’t even live here.”
“Where do you live, then?” he said. He threw a handful of oysters in some batter and tossed them.
“Chicago,” she said. “Well, actually, a little closer recently. Actually, sort of—right now I’m in transition.”
“Julie,” he said to the girl with the braces. “Get her an apron.” She shrugged and trudged into the backroom.
“Christ, no,” said Ruth. “I really—”
“You want a job or not, babe?”
The girl came back with an apron and offered it. Ruth took it, held it up, and examined it, as if it were a piece of scary lingerie.
“Put it on,” he said. He took off his gloves and threw them onto the counter. Then he came up behind her and tied the strings. “Nice,” he said. She could feel his fingers moving near her ass. Her hands trembled. “We’re short today. Mercedes fucked up again.”
“Who?” Ruth asked.
“My oldest daughter,” he said.
“You know the cash register?” he said.
“In what sense?” she said.
He walked over to the counter. “You push this, and then it opens,” he said. “You count. Then you close it back up.” He jabbed his finger at the buttons. “Rocket science?” He pointed to the price list. Then he rubbed the inside of her elbow. “You’ll be fine,” he said, and then, “What’s your name again?”
“Ruth,” she said, hurt.
“A joke,” he said. “Jesus.”
“Oh.” Idiocy gripped her face. She felt like a child. She felt, well—
She felt 14.
When Ruth got home, her mother was making a soup and listening to k. d. lang. Ruth sat down at the table.
“What’s that smell?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ruth. She had left her shoes by the door. Her mother sniffed the soup. Ruth flipped through the CD liner notes and looked at all of the pictures.
“K. d. really looks like a man these days,” Ruth said. “She looks like Johnny Cash.”
“I know,” said Ruth’s mother. “Isn’t she handsome? Sometimes I look at her, and I get all confused. You know what I mean?”
“If I were a lesbian, I’d go for someone like her,” Ruth’s mother said. She looked as if she were really considering the matter. She stirred the soup.
“Huh,” said Ruth.
“Do you ever think you could be a lesbian?” Ruth’s mother said.
“No,” Ruth said. “Could you? ”
“No.” Ruth’s mother pulled a wooden spoon from the pot and poked her tongue at it.
“This soup tastes like the cat’s ass,” she said.
“I got a job,” Ruth said.
“Oh, honey!” Ruth’s mother said. “The nursing home?”
“Frank’s,” said Ruth’s mother.
“Yeah,” Ruth said. “Just for now. Until I figure out stuff.”
“Oh,” Ruth’s mother said. “Honey.”
After dinner, Ruth went up to the attic. She lay on her bed and looked through the skylight, listening to a pigeon hurl itself against the wall, sirens approaching and receding.
She had never slept with Eddy. After a year, she had come close, once in the back of the cellar near the Solo cups. She followed him down there, the air smelling of cardboard. He reached behind her and pulled her apron strings free. You’re fucking 14, he said, pulling up her shirt. He bit her nipples. He chewed on her wrists. He held her neck down and licked her spine. Then someone started down the stairs, and he pulled her shorts up from her knees. He zipped up his pants, and straightened his apron. He stuffed her bra in his pocket. She pulled her shirt down over her breasts.
And when she came home that afternoon—a new, bright heat in her, something fierce—she picked a few crocuses for the kitchen, walked inside, and found her father on the living room rug.
Ruth wouldn’t go back to Frank’s. Of course she wouldn’t. The whole thing was ridiculous. She didn’t know what she wanted. Always, she had watched others steer their own lives, take action, have strong opinions about things. You just sit in the back seat. She seemed to be bad at life, really getting it wrong, like a ferret trying to lay an egg. Perhaps she should go back to Chicago.
She had to pee, and made her way down two sets of stairs to the first floor. It was dark, and she stuck her hands out in front of her, trying to remember the bones of the house. On her way back up, she passed through the living room. She stood there with the shadows of the furniture. She felt something anxious in the room and sensed that, if she looked down, if she studied the rug too long, right then, her father would be there. Ruth ran upstairs, two by two, then crawled the rest of the way to the attic, her skin cold and hot as wintergreen.
When she got back into bed, she looked out the window for the full moon, beautiful as a woman, but the sky was black, its house shut up for the night.
Every morning, they prepped. Ruth mixed bags of lobster with mayonnaise and mushed it around in a bowl. She poured cocktail sauce into little plastic cups and slid butter between dinner rolls. She shelled pounds of shrimp and pulled the little black ropes from their backs.
“You know that’s, like, actual shit,” said Mercedes, Eddy’s daughter. Everyone called her Mercy. She was the kind of 15-year-old that Ruth found a bit intimidating: the eyeliner, the brooding bangs, the pushed-up tits. She painted her nails with Wite-Out. Her boyfriend, Kris, was hanging out in the kitchen. He didn’t work there—he just ate. He wore very tight jeans that he could barely walk in, and bright green sneakers as big as blimps. He always changed the radio. He liked the kind of music where angry people screamed into the microphone about bitches, and banged things. It made Ruth sweat. It made her swallow over and over.
“This music makes me want to die,” she said. Her shoes were covered in fish batter.
“Lighten up, Ruth,” Kris said. “What’s stuck up your ass?”
“Her dickhole husband,” said Mercy, wiping her eyes with her shirtsleeves. She was slicing onions in the machine.
“We were never married,” said Ruth. She couldn’t believe she had told Mercy anything. It was something she had done since she was a child—tell personal things to people she barely knew. It had been a way of making friends.
“Whatever. Either way, you’re here.”
At lunch, Mercy and Ruth ate veggie burgers at one of the picnic tables behind the kitchen. They could hear the highway behind the woods. Once in a while a truck drifted over the warning strip and it rang out like hunting season through the trees.
“Are those crickets?” Mercy said. She pointed toward the marsh. She sucked on a Camel.
“Peepers,” said Ruth.
“Good. Crickets make me think of fucking back-to-school shopping.”
It had stormed earlier, and the snails—slugs in mobile homes—were out, painting trails. On the table, cigarette butts lay swollen in a wet ashtray. There were flies all around. The dumpsters were rank as diapers.
A busload of Japanese tourists poured into the parking lot. Ruth peered at them through the back fence, gnawing indifferently on a pickle. She could feel Mercy studying her. “He looks at you,” she said, finally.
“My dad,” Mercy said. “Duh.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” said Ruth.
“What’s the deal there?”
“No deal,” said Ruth. “We just worked together a long time ago.”
“My mom said she caught you guys in the basement going at it.”
“We weren’t going at anything,” Ruth said.
“Aha!” said Mercy, grinning. She drowned her cigarette in the little tide pool of butts. “I thought it was you.”
Inside, Eddy was stressed. Blue piping ran along his neck. He paced in the backroom, slapping his French fry scoop against his apron and swearing. The situation was that the Japanese tour bus
ordered 27 fish ’n’ chips, and Eddy only had enough cut fish for eight. He punched a corkboard. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He brought his bottom teeth to his top lip and frowned. Ruth watched him. She chopped cabbage, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
Mercy was at the cash register, trying to change minds. “The lobster roll is, like, the tits,” Ruth could hear her saying. “Or hamburgers. Classic Americana.” Denis, a high school boy who didn’t speak, stood by the grill holding a bag of coleslaw and watching water drip from a leak in the ceiling.
“We’ll just fucking cut more,” Eddy said to Ruth, finally. He walked toward the fridge, where she was standing. “Move, Legs,” he said. She looked at him, startled. It was what he had called her 19 years before. He put a hand below her ribs and one on her lower back, and guided her to the side. He held her like that for a minute. His skin had tightened around his jaw and bunched around the eyes. He dropped his hands from her body and walked into the fridge.
“Get a knife,” he said when he came out, yanking a cutting board from the drying rack and slamming it onto the table. Ruth pulled one out of the block. “I’ll cut and you weigh,” he said. “Five ounces.” He grabbed a scale, slapped a square of wax paper on it, and set it down in front of her. He pulled out long strips of haddock from a tub and began to cut them on the diagonal. The veined flesh was beautiful and wet, a pink nacre. Eddy and Ruth stood side by side, passing the sections of fish back and forth. He hummed to the radio.
On the last piece, he sliced his thumb to the bone. The fat flared out from the skin. Eddy tried to wrap it in a paper towel, but it bled through and began to drip onto the fish.
“You need stitches,” said Ruth.
“Can’t,” he said. “Don’t have insurance.” He wrapped his thumb in a dishtowel.
“You’ll have to do it,” he said.
“Are you kidding?”
“Aren’t you a fucking nurse?”
“Not that kind!” she said.
“Well, what kind?”
The dishtowel was already red, and Ruth went a little blind. A migraine shot to the front of her head and sat there, like a piece of egg in her eye.
“I was the phone kind of nurse!” she said. “I sat in an office and gave advice for fucking yeast infections!” She couldn’t stand the march of pain, people’s bones bared, the weep of fluid, their machines rusting, breaking down, closing up shop for good. She had done okay in an office, with a textbook on her lap, and a cup of tea. She had done okay like that.
“Hey, Legs,” he said. He grinned, and held his thumb out, like a hitchhiker. “Fix the fucking thing, yeah?”
Mercy had a sewing kit in the office.
“Mercy sews?” Ruth asked. Trembling, she put on gloves. She looked for the thinnest needle and held it under a match. She dipped his thumb in a cup of iodine, and then draped his legs with a clean apron. He used to be a fisherman, working with his brothers all the way down to the Georges Bank. For a minute, Ruth stared at his hand—his knuckles scarred, the skin honeycombed and red, lined like a map. It was beaten and weathered.
She reached for his wrist and turned it over. A long, white gash ran along his palm, trailing out from a bigger mark in the center, like a star with a tail.
“Jesus,” she said.
“A beauty, huh? Took a hook in it off Boothbay and got pulled in. Got helicoptered to Boston. My heart stopped cold in the air, and they jumped it back to life.” He looked proud. She held the threaded needle now. His thumb was rusted with iodine, and blood was dripping into the apron on his lap. There was more of that egg in her eye now, a whole omelet. She blinked over and over.
“Okay, so—” she said. “So I guess I’ll just—”
“Jesus, do you need me to do it for you?” He took the needle, exhaled, and pressed it into his skin. He bared his teeth and hissed through them.
“All right?” he said.
She took the needle from him, and he moved his good hand to her thigh.
“Is that okay?” he said, looking down at her leg. “It takes my mind off this shit.” His big fingers slipped deeper under her shorts. He was feeling the edge of her underwear. She tried to steady her hands.
“Jesus, Legs, have a drink?”
“Sure,” she said. “Fine.” She felt his fingers pull away from her skin. He stood up and got a bottle of vodka from the freezer. Ruth’s heart was a pigeon in her chest. He pulled her bottom lip open with his good thumb and tipped the cold bottle to her mouth. Then he sat back down holding the bottle by the neck.
“I don’t live with Mercy’s mother, you know.”
“Heather,” Ruth said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I remember,” she said.
“I don’t live with any of my kids’ mothers.”
Ruth pulled the thread through the skin six times. He made her wrap his thumb with duct tape. At the sink, she washed her hands.
“Let’s feed a fucking bus,” he said, and kicked open the door to the kitchen.
Like geese, the tourists had taken over the picnic benches and were looking around, staring expectantly at the roof and the windows. Children cranked open the umbrellas and then closed them again.
Eddy breaded and cooked the haddock in bulk, using all four fryolators. He held his hand out as if mid-dance. After he shoveled the fish into baskets, he slid them to Ruth, who stood on the other side of the steel counter, putting them onto trays and handing them out the window. They didn’t look at each other, or speak.
After everyone was served, Eddy slammed the Closed sign on the window. He took his baseball hat off and ran his hand through his hair. He ripped off his apron and threw it in the hamper. The strings slapped against the canvas. “We’re done,” he said.
“Fucking A,” Mercy said. “I’m gone.” Kris was already outside, eating a hot dog and playing with his keys. He was stoned and happy.
“You gonna clean, lady?” Eddy asked Mercy.
“No.” She stared at him in a hard squint. Her eyes bounced between Ruth and Eddy. “You kids can do it.”
“Go,” Eddy said. “Whatever.”
“What about me?” said Denis, wiping grease from the grill. Ruth kept forgetting Denis was even there.
“Sure, go, go,” said Eddy. “Everybody under 18 get the fuck out.”
Eddy and Ruth wiped down the counters with bleached rags and dumped the rest of the dishes in the sink for the cleaners, who would come later that night. Eddy seemed tense and irritable. He still had to get paper products from the basement and then stock the shelves upstairs. “I can get them,” she said to Eddy, who was tucking money in the safe.
In the cellar there was a deep, waltzing darkness. Hot water rasped up the pipes. The air was close and mossy. Every few minutes, the generator would burst alive and call out. Through the half-window smeared with mud, Ruth could see the occasional shoe, and she heard all of the frogs in the marsh, the driving pulse of them.
As Ruth stood there, her old self loomed before her, hungry and bright, and she remembered, at 14, a desire so terrifying and flooding that she did not sleep: the sleeve of Solo cups knocked to the basement floor; the lazy walk home and the birds, their pleasant picnic chatter; the three crocuses bursting through old snow, and later, cold and white in her fist; the open kitchen door, the ugly silence, her father in the living room, his mouth open and dog-like on the rug.
Ruth could hear Eddy upstairs, the slam of the refrigerator door, and the wet knock of the mop in a pail. She heard him yell out the window, “Yeah, we’re closed!” and she hoisted herself on one of the supply shelves. She heard the cellar door open and shut, and as she watched his ankles appear—although she knew she wouldn’t be back tomorrow—she untied her apron and threw it to the floor.
Emma Duffy-Comparone ’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story and The Southern Review. She is a recent graduate of Boston University’s MFA program.