by Sara Patterson
Ruth wants to clutch entrails. Death is final and lacks decorum. She cannot walk back from this scene with its burnt coffee smell of off-brand hazelnut, its sound of screen door flapping in breeze.
Praise Jesus this be a consumptive country; surely it will drown her.
A touch jars her.
“Please, ma’am, come this way.”
Ruth Prophet lives with her mom Heather in a flat roofed, cinderblock Florida house. A low, shadowed thing with windows open in evening and closed during day. Heavy curtains block out summer heat though humidity claws through regardless. Walls sweat. Tiles sweat. Ruth and Heather sweat.
It’s always late when Ruth comes in from her second job at a truck-stop gas station. Her mother asleep Ruth leaves lights off as she brushes her teeth and crawls naked into bed. She tries to read but cannot focus, eventually falling asleep with face pressed into book.
Ruth dreams always, and tonight it’s the Blue Man. His back is to her and she can’t make out the details of his clothes beyond the color of the coat (Atlantic) and hat (hurricane-clouds). She asks, “what storm is coming? What’ll its name be? Will it bury us under silt?”
The Blue Man does not answer and though she walks towards him he remains out of reach. There is wind. The dream-beach is coquina and cool sand. She thinks of houses prepared for hurricanes with boarded windows and doors, generators tied down. She wants to shake him and demand answers. When she wakes it’s to the taste of salt and memory of rain on skin.
Early mornings are hot. Everything in Palmdale is hot. There are five minutes of cool at 3am but Ruth is never awake for them. Her alarm buzzes as she throws clothes around looking for it.
“You can stop now,” she snaps. It continues. “Jesus fuck there you are.” She hits the machine until it stops then looks at the dress it had been hiding under and decides that God clearly wants her to wear it so shoves it on. Going to the kitchen for coffee she hears the screen door flapping in the breeze. Banging itself against the side of the house in the breeze. She closes it as coffee brews.
“Mom?” She calls down the hall. “Mom I made coffee.” She knocks on her mom’s door but it’s quiet. “I made hazelnut. I’ll leave it on the counter ‘k? I gotta run.”
Ruth’s second job is at the one diner in Palmdale. Arriving Susan yells from the front, “girl, you work too hard.”
Ruth doesn’t argue this as she fries eggs and makes Texas-style toast. The diner coffee is strong enough to rip enamel off teeth and is never made to order.
Susan is forever cheerful even though it’s 6:30am and the humidity is thick enough to cut. Ruth attributes this eternal cheerfulness to her assumption that Susan has never been in debt and probably has a good relationship with her mother and an existing sex life. Ruth hates Susan but knows she shouldn’t hate Susan because of feminism.
The day marginally improves when Lisa and Miller arrive for lunch. Miller shakes everyone’s hand with a “God bless you” before ordering for him and Lisa. He has the easy charm of a Baptist, frugality of a Methodist and the raging faith of a Pentecostal.
He calls to Ruth, “Come out here for a break, Miss Ruth.”
“Who’s going to make your coffee and sandwiches then, pastor?”
“The Lord’ll provide.”
“Well the Lord’s provided me with sandwich makings so I’ll be out as soon as I’m done.”
Once she finds two minutes to rub together Ruth sits with Lisa and Miller. Where Miller is small-town homespun Christian, Lisa is big city mega-church Christian. He wants hymnals; she wants a projector and screen. He wears second-hand; she’s a dazzling light of crisp yellow dresses and red lipstick.
Ruth adores Lisa.
Neither Lisa nor Miller have touched their food. Lisa intermittently stirs her coffee. Miller looks at Lisa who isn’t looking at him or Ruth.
“What’s wrong?” Ruth asks.
Miller reaches for her hand and says, “I’ve prayed for you, Miss Ruth. God’s not given me the words.”
“It’s your mom,” Lisa says. “We’re going to take you home.”
The Blue Man is a Palmdale legend. He lingers on the sandbar that divides Pinecrest lake from Pinecrest swamp. Possibly, he’s searching for his lover, or he’s watching over her land, or seeking revenge for her death by hurricane. How do you take revenge against a force of nature?
The sandbar comes and goes. Sometimes barely a strip, other times expansive and rocky. The Blue Man shows up before big storms, hurricanes wearing a blue coat and grey hat. If you’re lucky enough to see him your home will be saved from the ravages of nature.
Death lacks decorum.
There’s a poem that is the colour red over and over and if it’s not red it’s white and Ruth can think only of that as she enters her mom’s room. The poem was about the poet’s wife who adored red then killed herself. Ruth thinks, while it was the woman who stuck her head in the oven it might as well have been her husband who turned on the gas.
She had told her mom about the poem and how it opens with red was your color and her mom had said, “she must’ve been a bright woman.” Ruth had replied “she was a sad woman” and her mom had said “well, there you go.”
Ruth had been a sophomore studying English Literature but thinking of changing to Political Science. Her mother had said, “get something practical. Something you can use, like a trade. You were always good with your hands.”
Ruth had replied, “you don’t go to college for a trade, you go for an education.”
“Tell me more about your poem.”
“It’s not my poem, it’s Ted Hughes’ poem and he was married to Sylvia Plath and she wrote that poem ‘Daddy’ do you know it?”
“Not sure I do sweetie.”
Ruth hadn’t bothered to explain. She had spent much of her time with her mom not bothering to explain. How do you break down the history of literary movements for someone who barely finished high school? They had always struggled to speak with each other but college made translation an impossibility.
An officer touches her elbow.
“Please, ma’am, come this way.”
Ruth blinks. Sees the quiet darkness of the hall, the red on the mattress, the blue of the woman’s uniform. She thinks, Sylvia Plath got all the white in her death. My mom wasn’t found in the kitchen with her head in the oven but in her bed and there’s so much red.
Ruth doesn’t see her mom’s body because the police have already taken it. But she does see what used to be inside her mom’s body. She sees it and knows why it is there and it is because of her uncle and some land that belonged to an old relative from a long time ago. Just as one cannot argue that Ted Hughes killed his wife one cannot prove that Ruth’s uncle Claudius killed her mom. It is not an argument that would hold up in an academic article. It’s not an argument that would hold up in court.
Ruth breathes out.
Dream of an alligator and an anaconda wrestling. Ruth does once the police are gone and she’s done answering questions she doesn’t understand because she doesn’t speak English anymore only the language of breathing.
She sleeps on the back porch wrapped in her mom’s coat that is too hot for summer. She sleeps with mosquitos buzzing and biting and she hopes she will get malaria and die like the old settlers. The family who first founded Palmdale in the 1870s died of malaria. Ruth wishes she were one of them so she could be buried in marshland.
She sleeps and dreams of an anaconda battling an alligator with its thick body wrapped around the alligator and once it has killed the alligator it begins to eat but the alligator is too big and the snake’s body splits. Wild cats and blue herons gorge themselves on reptilian feast.
At the edge of her dream are reeds, cattails, mangrove roots tangled like thick braids of hair. She can see her mother on dry land while she, Ruth, drowns in water that cannot decide if it is too much salt or too much fresh. She clings to a buoyant fact: certain animals can only survive in brackish waters. They will die if they live anywhere else.
She wakes drenched in sweat.
In fleeting early morning thoughts she thinks of ghosts, those hungry creatures. She recalls the malaria victims and those who followed afterwards. The second round of colonists were German immigrants who came down from the north and with them had come Ruth’s great-grandparents. She hates her great-grandparents on her mother’s side because of the inevitability of what they would have meant to the great-grandparents on her father’s side.
She fumbles with her phone, pulls up a family picture taken at her uncle Claudius’ and sees her mom smiling, holding a piña colada. There is her half-sister Julia visiting from Jamaica. Her grandfather Isaac, not yet dead, looking exhausted and yellow from his liver. Her uncle Claudius stands behind her mom. Her mom resembles Isaac the way Ruth resembles her father Fidel.
Ruth remembers Fidel’s cadence, his gentle silences, his hair big curly like hers, how he let her win when they raced from his van to the back door. That screen door that had been flapping in the breeze.
Had Claudius been in the house the entire time? Had he been hiding and waiting for her to leave before he—
She wants to cry and wash at the same time. So she does. The shower is as hot as she can stand and she screams and beats her fists against the floral tiles patterning the side of the tub. She wants to wash out her mind, clear brackish water of memory at the same time she wants to cleave to it. Her legs hurt. Her stomach hurts. Everything hurts. Snot runs down her nose.
Afterwards, she lies on the bathroom floor wrapped in a towel as steam settles.
An hour later she crawls from bathroom to kitchen, still naked with the towel forgotten in the hallway, and pours herself a shot of whiskey. Then another two.
Lying on the kitchen floor she stares at the filth beneath the fridge. Onion peels, dust bunnies, stale cereal. The kitchen needs a deep clean. The entire house needs a deep clean. Everything needs a deep clean.
She rolls to look at the yellowed walls above her and says, “Dear God, my mom better have gotten into heaven. Even if she drank too much and smoked too much and lived too loudly I hope she got in because if she didn’t,” she wags a finger skyward. “I will get a gun and I will shoot the fucking shit out of you.”
Afternoon doing its red dip into night. Still on the floor, as she cannot seem to get up, Ruth calls Lisa.
“Can you come over?” She asks. She is lying with the phone pressed against her ear. She thinks she ought to shower again.
“Of course. I’ll be there immediately.”
“Can you bring something to drink?”
“Did you think I’d come empty handed? I’ll pack a bag.”
“Does Miller have a gun?”
“Miller sure don’t, but I do.”
When Lisa arrives it is to Ruth on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor.
“Smells like church in here,” Lisa says.
“Does that make it holy?”
Lisa pulls a chair out from the other room and sits with legs crossed. Ruth looks at her from where she is on the floor in old jean shorts and faded t-shirt. She can see Lisa’s ankles and thinks that were she a believer, she’d assume the Devil made them to lead people to hell.
“Holier than my husband’s church. I’m going to make us gin and tonics and you’re going to get off the floor and sit in this chair and drink two of them.”
“I already threw up the whiskey I had before you came over.”
“Whiskey’s for rage, gin’s for grief.”
Ruth doesn’t think this holds up but doesn’t push the point. She feels empty. It comes upon her suddenly. Lisa eyes her with palpable concern. Ruth bristles. Lisa relaxes.
“There you are,” she hands over a glass. “There’s too much gin in it, sorry.”
“Can we go outside? I’ve sandals you can borrow.”
The only ones they find that fit are a pair of Heather’s old gardening sandals. They are red. Ruth looks away. That color is God’s.
Ruth thinks, God is a Right that I am too much monster to have. But, this has not stopped me desiring it.
She hates that she is too rational for faith and too irrational to be comfortable without faith. She wants to believe but cannot find it within herself. Perhaps religion would bring comfort. She has heard that it is a salve for the soul. She only half believes.
Ruth thinks, It is perhaps the greatest weakness of humans that we were made to bend at the knee.
“I never thought it’d happen here. In Miami, sure. Orlando…Tallahassee even, with all those politics. But here? Never thought I’d see the day.”
Despite the subject matter, which cannot be helped since it was less than fifty-six hours ago, Ruth could listen to Lisa for years.
“I think he was in the house before I left for work that morning.”
She tells Lisa about the screen door and the silence from her mom’s room. “Or maybe he had already done it and I went to sleep and mom was— you know and I was sleeping in the next room not thinking anything was amiss.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I should have checked on her. I should have looked in on her in the morning. I should have called home during my break.”
“Would that have changed anything?”
Ruth wants to scream, For fuck’s sake this isn’t helping! She doesn’t want therapy. She wants to rage. Rage, rage, against the dying of the—
She says, “no.”
They are standing beside the house. Ruth plays with a hibiscus flower from the plant that’s growing up the side. Ants use it as a ladder to get into the roof but her mom always liked the color so they put up with the occasional infestation. She relents. The anger flows out and away for the time being. She nudges Lisa’s shoulder, “isn’t this when you’re supposed to say something inspirational? Something moving about love and God?”
Lisa shrugs, “you called for me, not Miller.”
Ruth wants to say, Thank you. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. She looks back to the flower.
Some hibiscus flowers are a deep enough pink as to be red. Their thorns will prick skin, tear at flesh, but the petals are soft and edible.
“I want to become death the destroyer of worlds.”
“Oh Ruth, there’s no need for theatrics here.”
Ruth wants to tell Lisa about Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita but doesn’t. She doesn’t know how she would explain it to a woman who married a pastor whose family holds snakes when the Holy Spirit takes hold. Why does she always lack words and explanations? For Lisa, for her mom. All these women and she cannot talk.
Ruth’s heard Miller speak in tongues, she’s born witness to Lisa holding his hand as the Holy Spirit moved through him. She can’t imagine Lisa understanding Oppenheimer and Hinduism. She wants her to, though.
She wants, she wants, she wants.
Before bed Ruth and Lisa comb the house from one end to another. They check closets and behind the curtain in the bathroom, under every bed and couch and cupboard. They even look under the sink on account of Ruth having seen one too many X-Files episodes and confiding her fear of contortionists to Lisa who says that so long as the Devil doesn’t come out of the closet to impregnate her like some inverted Virgin Mary she’s good.
Once the house has been checked twice Ruth turns up the volume of the television and they watch reruns of soaps. To distract herself Ruth imagines things she cannot have and does her best to make sure Lisa is as comfortable as she can be considering they are in a house where a murder happened.
When Ruth was a little girl she and her mom would go up to Tampa to spend Thanksgiving with uncle Claudius and aunt Sharon, wife number two. Sharon was a large, expanding woman both in her body and personality. Ruth thought she was so cool because of her gold necklaces, expensive perfume and how certain she was in her opinions. She also liked Sharon because she was also black and would pat the seat beside her and whisper to Ruth, “we have to stick together you and me.” Whenever they would arrive Sharon would say, “ladies! We always need more ladies here. Es-tro-gen am I right? I can’t be having with only men here.” Sharon would whisk Ruth’s mom away and they’d drink and smoke by the pool. Ruth would then comb through her uncle’s house admiring the book collection and the several Neanderthal skulls he had on display in his office.
“You not out with your cousins?” Claudius would ask when he inevitably found her tracing the eye sockets of the skulls.
One time she had asked, “what do you do?”
“I’m an architect.”
Uncle Claudius was tall, thin, and freckled while her mom was short, fat, and tan. He made Ruth think of skyscrapers which she had only seen in movies and so it made sense to her that he would make them.
“How’d you do that?”
“Become an architect.”
He had smiled and motioned her out of his office. She thinks, He never did answer me. She wonders if her mom and him got on. She had never thought to ask.
“My mom and I – we never knew how to talk to each other.”
Ruth and Lisa are sitting with Heather’s jewellery spread out between them. Ruth is deciding what to keep and what to give away. Lisa is cleaning the jewellery box. Her perfect red nails have chipped at some point and Ruth wants to apologize but thinks that would be bridging on the absurd.
“She always used to say ‘I don’t know how to read you. You remind me so much of your father and your father’s mother.’ My grandmother on that side, my father’s side, her name was Dinah, which is interesting. Considering.”
“Well, they’re all from Jamaica right, and my dad’s black. Dinah was a generic name for slave women the way Maria was for the indigenous in Mexico after conversion.”
Lisa shakes her head, gives Ruth a sympathetic look. Ruth does not like this sudden investigation so becomes very intent on her mother’s old paste necklaces.
“Do you talk much to your dad?”
“No. Sometimes. Every few years one of us will call the other. He’s not a man who speaks and his presence is better experienced in person than on the phone.”
“Will he come to the funeral?”
Ruth thinks, No. She says, “maybe.”
Fidel is a man of islands and salt. He had not been able to abide the stagnant waters of Florida and had begged Heather to come with him back to his home. Her mother, in turn, had not been able to imagine a life away from Palmdale.
“My family,” Ruth says, “fell apart due to a lack of imagination.”
On the third day Lisa asks why Ruth thinks it was her uncle who murdered her mom. Ruth explains that it’s because of the land.
“Great-grandpa had land and gave it to my grandpa who then split it between my mom and uncle Claudius. Uncle Claudius wants to sell it to developers because there’s some good money being offered but mom didn’t want to because of nostalgia.”
“Doesn’t her land go to you?”
“No, grandpa was a Godly man. I was born out of wedlock and he thought we were still living in the 1930s so I don’t get it. Skips me, goes to my uncle when mom dies, then my cousins. Anyway, he’s the only one with a motive. Random people don’t just show up and murder strangers in their houses. I mean they do, I saw a show on it, but the likelihood is low. It’s most likely a relative or friend.”
“Aren’t the police investigating?”
“Yes. I’m assuming. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much evidence. But it can take a while, I’ve been told, before they can get the person who did it. Assuming they get the person. I looked up the stats, they’re not very high. Especially in rural areas and poor areas and rural poor areas.”
“We’re not that rural or poor.”
“We’re in a swamp, Lisa.”
Lisa does not contradict her.
“We’re swamp trash, Lisa.”
Lisa continues to not contradict her.
“We’re swamp trash in a swamp and no one has any money, or if they do it’s like my mom and tied up in land that is also a swamp and only developers have enough to make anything out of it.”
“Your family feud is excellent for conservation efforts.”
Ruth scowls then laughs. Her ribs hurt from it and she feels some buoyancy.
“See,” Lisa says, “there’s something to laugh about. “
Ruth rubs at a spot on the counter. She imagines purchasing a red convertible and driving away with Lisa like they were in a movie. Lisa would have a scarf in her hair and her cherry red lipstick on and she would be wearing impractical shoes. Preferably blue.
Sometimes Ruth hates her mom for making her come back. She hates that her mom would call week in and week out and say how much she missed her and how much she wishes she’d be here and how she could use the help and how poorly things were going until Ruth couldn’t stand it anymore and booked a flight to Miami then took a car to Palmdale.
“I’m only staying for a week,” she had said when they met. Her mom had tried to hug her but it was awkward. They broke apart. “Then I’m going back to Charleston.”
The house had been a mess so that week was spent cleaning. Then her mom had asked her if she wanted a whiskey and she had said yes but not too much since she had to drive to Miami to catch her flight and her mom had said, “look, I owe Claudius some money and I need your help.”
“Enough that I need your help.”
Ruth had shrugged and said she didn’t know how she could help as she was barely on her feet and her mom had cried and said that just her being here was a help and maybe if they work hard enough they could pay it all off. Then, when the debt’s paid, Ruth could go back to Charleston. Ruth had wanted to say no but found she couldn’t imagine leaving her mom and getting on a plane knowing she could have done something.
She hates her mom for that, for imparting the genetic inability to have an imagination.
The beach calls her. Ruth walks it when she remembers how much her mom hated it. The mosquitoes, the flies, the leeches if you’re in the water. There is little pleasant about either Pinecrest lake or swamp.
Her mother had once spoken of the north. Of how the grass is soft and a beautiful green unlike the crabgrass of Florida which is green-yellow and not so much grass as a weed with a convoluted root system, like fungi. It is impossible to eradicate. It itches, scratches against your feet. It is not a gentle thing.
She tries to remember something about her mom no one else knew. A secret shared between only them but cannot think of one. She doesn’t know her mom’s favourite color or show or book. She doesn’t know about her childhood or life before her own birth.
Sitting on a log she catalogues the limited facts she has: my mom met my dad in a bar in the Keys when she had been waitressing and he had been sailing around the Caribbean. At some point they moved back to Palmdale and had me and then dad went back to Jamaica and mom stayed here. She had only a high school diploma. Did she have boyfriends? Ruth cannot recall. Did she have friends? The women at church, she supposes. She dreads the speech she must give at the funeral.
She wipes at her cheeks, uses the edge of her shirt to wipe her nose. The air is still and the insects suddenly quiet. Even the frogs have stopped. It feels like hurricane weather; that absence of atmosphere before you’re slammed with the second half of the storm that’s always worse than the first half. Only, the sky isn’t eye-of-storm-green. It is perfectly blue. The air smells of salt. Her skin feels damp.
She looks around and sees a man standing down the beach from her. He wears a grey hat and an old blue coat. Ruth stands, starts towards him then stops. She thinks, It’s not hurricane season yet. He can’t be here. She glances up to see if there are clouds and finds none. When she looks for him again he is gone.
A heron takes flight, spreads its wings and they are a beautiful blue.
Ruth breathes out.
How do you say goodbye to your mom? How do you speak of someone for whom you have no words? You can’t. Ruth hides in the bathroom at the church until her makeup runs down her face. At one point Lisa knocks on the door, “y’allright in there?”
“Yes, I’m all right.”
“No you’re not.”
Ruth stands next to the door and places her palm against it. She imagines Lisa doing the same and thinks of how pilgrims touch the hands of statues of saints. Holding one palm against another is like a kiss.
“Your mom’s dead, Ruth. You’re allowed to not speak.”
Ruth rests her forehead against the door. Closes her eyes and waits until she hears Lisa walk away.
The wake brings skyscrapers and entrailed memories. Ruth sees a tall figure in the crowd with white hair and when the figure turns around she can only think: It doesn’t hold up in an academic article. It doesn’t hold up in court. Her uncle Claudius is in black, of course, and he walks towards her. She cannot move.
“I am so deeply sorry,” he takes her free hand in his. “Poor Heather.”
She looks around. She sees Miller and Lisa by the snack table and there are the women who served donuts after church with her mom in a circle and Susan from the diner and Gerry from the auto-repair shop and Paul, the rival Methodist minister to Miller’s non-denominational, and she wants to scream to all of them, Here he is. Here is the man who caused us all to be here today when it is too hot and too sunny to be in frocks and starched collars. He’s the reason we’re sweating awkwardly and eating warm egg salad sandwiches.
“Thank you, I need to uh—” She motions to the group. Claudius pats her hand again and says that of course she needs to circulate. She needs to be a hostess.
“If you ever need anything you know you just have to call. Family sticks by one another.”
He drifts into the crowd.
Instead of circulating she drinks too much then leaves and walks through town in her black dress losing her gloves and shawl along the way. Her shoes give her blisters and her spine wants to free itself from the confines of her body at the same time as her ribs want to buckle inwards. She stops beside the diner, leans against the hot concrete and breathes. Sweat drips down her back, down her armpits and thighs. The sun is too bright and she has no words.
She goes to the store and buys the makings for piña coladas before returning home. She then makes enough to fill every glass in the cupboard and begins drinking them one then another then another. Once she is sufficiently drunk she goes to her mom’s room. It is dark, and just as the police left it, the bed stripped. They gave her a receipt for the sheets in case she should ever want them back. She doesn’t. Or she does, just so she can maybe burn them. Her mom would not want to be remembered for being murdered. Her mom would want to be remembered for something else. Maybe. She doesn’t know. She has absolutely no idea. She cries.
When Lisa arrives Ruth is still sitting in her mom’s room. The mattress is stained. Lisa leans against the doorframe, “well?”
“I want to kill him.” Ruth feels outside herself as she says it.
Ruth rubs tear tracks off her face with the heel of her palm.
“I went walking before the funeral and I saw the Blue Man. It’s time.”
Sara Patterson is a Toronto-based writer raised in Florida and California. Her work has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, Occulum, Plenitude Magazine, Minola Review, and RagQueen Periodical (forthcoming).