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Excerpt from a work-in-progress...

Excerpt from a coming work by Michael Ransom

 

 

 

 

 

Decatur, Alabama
October, 1985


Ruby Mae Burnwell stood at the edge of her kitchen table and bent half-way down like a tipped-over V. She rested her thin, frail arm on the white formica tabletop, then slowly tipped backwards, falling for what always seemed too long, as though she'd missed the landing, before coming to an abrupt and painful halt in the aqua-green chair beneath her. The sharp bones of her spine and hips jabbed her thinly padded backside, and she inhaled a sharp breath on impact, as if oxygen intake would somehow lessen the sharp pain jolting her rear as she landed in the seat. She sighed and waited patiently until the pain subsided, then used both hands to lift the white purse from the table and set it gently upon the twin femur bones of her lap. She steadied it there with her right hand, and used the twisted arthritic fingers of her left hand to paw through its contents, searching with increasing desperation for her last pack of cigarettes.

 

After an initial false positive that felt like a full pack at first, she ultimately found them. She finally felt the soft white, cellophane-wrapped packaging on the very bottom of her purse, and it was woefully close to empty. She extracted the cigarette pack from the tangled inner contents of her purse with great care, like a mini-rescue operator trying to preserve the integrity of the long skinny cigarettes in the pack…which was exactly what she was doing. Squinting as she looked up at the ceiling for focus's sake, imagining the contents which she could not see at the bottom of her purse, she used her decrepit fingers to dislodge the package first from the crossed frames of her reading glasses, then over a lipstick container, next past an overturned pack of double mint gum, then over the soft bristles of a small hairbrush and finally past the small doppelgänger pack of Kleenex which had first tricked her into believing she still had a full pack when she initially reached inside.

 

She looked at the flimsy pack of cigarettes that she finally liberated in the fading dusk's light as it streamed through the rear window in the kitchen. Her eyes traced the familiar powder blue rings of concentric circles beside the single word 'Vantage' on the crumpled ;pack- the only brand she'd smoked for forty-seven years- and she carefully tapped out a long cigarette into the cup she tried to form with the dilapidated fingers of her arthritic left hand. The few thin cylindrical shapes she could detect within the soft packaging meant she might have three or four cigarettes left, at best. She glanced out the window. The sun was already hanging over the horizon, was already well below the tops of the walnut trees along the back fence…she knew she wasn't venturing out to the grocery store tonight, not at this hour. She never drove at night, certainly not in this neighborhood, anymore. And walking was out of the question…even if she'd had no arthritis at all.

 

It wasn't safe for anyone out there, anymore.

 

So… she thought with equal parts anger and sadness… she would have to let these three cigarettes last until tomorrow morning.

 

She thought this thought even as she lifted the first cigarette to her mouth. She then found and balanced a silver lighter in her arthritic left hand and, after several unsuccessful attempts, managed to click it with her right thumb to produce its tiny flame. She raised her cupped hands carefully and lit the cigarette in her mouth, took a deep breath and inhaled, then dropped the lighter into her purse and took the cigarette between two crooked fingers, and exhaled. She watched the smoke curl away and slowly dissipate towards the little fish shapes in the blue and white wall paper on the kitchen walls, and up to the dingy white ceiling (which, truth be told, was mostly yellow by now).

 

She was a secretary for Wilson Oil- a small oil company in town- and she faithfully tapped out their invoices and paychecks and correspondence with the index finger of her left hand and the middle finger of her right hand on the electric typewriter each month. She had worked for the Wilsons for seventeen years, ever since she'd left the Carnation company after Wallace died and after Laurel married and moved with her husband Jeremy to neighboring Mississippi, back to where he was from.

 

At one time she'd typed more than 70 words per minute…now she barely averaged 30. But still the Wilsons kept her on the payroll, resisting the temptation to hire a younger girl just out of school, with short-hand skills and blazing hot typing speed.

 

Ruby always made sure the invoices and pay checks were typed up on time every month, and that was good enough for the Wilsons. Keeping her onboard was the right thing to do- at this point, Ruby was more like family to them than an employee. She was, in fact, the longest tenured employee at Wilson's Oil, aside from Mr. and Mrs. Wilson themselves.

 

The arthritis that now twisted her extremities into such grotesque curling shapes… it had come on so quickly. She'd tripped over one of Laurel's twirling batons back when Laurel had been a senior in high school and had left the damn thing on the living room floor, propped up against the lower level of the coffee table, resting at an angle, one end on the floor and the other end elevated and resting on the shelf beneath the table. Unsprung and hidden like some trap set by a sadistic prankster.

 

The baton finally found her feet that evening as she carefully walked a cup of coffee over towards the couch for an evening of TV. And in one instant everything changed forever. She tripped and twisted her neck severely as she tried to avoid banging her head on the corner of the coffee table. She landed awkwardly and heavily on her hip on the wooden floor, banging her head against the side of the couch instead of the coffee table, then wrenching it further as she slid down from the couch and onto the hassock and finally the floor.

 

It all happened in slow motion and it felt like she was on the floor before the coffee cup smashed on the hardwood of the floor and sent coffee all over the room, some of the splashed contents even reaching the empty TV screen.

 

She'd lain there for three hours with a broken elbow, broken hip, fractured ankle and severe whiplash. Laid there, realizing at some point that she hadn't broken her neck and wasn't going to die, and wasn't paralyzed because she could move everything a little, sometimes with great sweeping waves of nauseating pain, but still… she was able to move, at least. Laid there until Laurel finally decided to come home from school that day- of course she'd chosen that day to go to the diner with her girlfriends immediately after school and listen to the new Beach Boys album in the jukebox…over and over… so that she didn't even get home until 6:30 that night, instead of her usual 3:30 arrival.

 

Laurel had rushed her to the emergency room when she finally arrived, and they stitched and bandaged and splinted her up well enough… but she was never the same. And the pain. The arthritis hounded her every day, anymore. And grew worse every day, as well.

She felt like the pain was getting worse by the hour, anymore. She shook herself from the memory of her arthritis-inciting incident, laid her crooked elbow and left arm carefully down on the table, "scooched" her rear up onto the edge of the kitchen chair, rocked back and forth several times- six, seven, eight times- until finally, with great and drawn-out effort, she practically thrust herself up with all her power and just barely got to an inflection point in mid-air, hovering over her seat, where she could continue rising to a standing position rather than cresting then falling back down into a sitting position again.

 

She shook her head as she gained her footing. Rising from her seat anymore was like having to get a running start to push a heavy wheelbarrow over the top of a steep hill— sometimes she gathered enough momentum that the whole operation was successful, and other times she didn't quite get there, and she teetered for a moment in mid air before falling back down into the chair seat heavily where she'd have to wait, catch her breath, regain her composure, and eventually try again.

 

This time she managed to make it to her feet on the very first try. Certainly a cause for celebration, she thought bitterly- well, mock bitterly. She wasn't a negative person. She dealt with it. It was less bitter and more ridiculous, she thought, this world in which she now found herself navigating as a major arthritic, a qualified handicapped person. Hard to believe.

 

She stood there a moment, and was about to open the pantry door and find the Anacin (or the Bufferin, whichever she could find first) when her doorbell rang. The chime mechanism was loud. Louder than she remembered.

 

The door rarely chimed these days. It only sounded approximately two times a month anymore: on the rare occasion that Laurel and her family (or sometimes just Laurel and the kids) would drive over on Friday nights for a weekend visit…which was happening less and less often even though Laurel and her family had moved back down South and into neighboring Mississippi, only two hours away… or when Mr. and Mrs. Wilson picked her up for church on the first Sunday of every month.

 

But this was a Thursday evening and she never had visitors on Thursday. She looked in the small mirror above her kitchen sink and smiled, checking that she looked presentable. She still had on her make up from the work day. And she noticed with dismay that her faint chin whiskers weren't as faint as she'd prefer… but there was nothing she could do about that now.

 

The doorbell chimed again. She glanced outside. The sun had fully descended and it wasn't really even twilight anymore, but rather full-on night-time. Her daughter Laurel had told her recently to just not even bother opening the door after dark anymore…she claimed that this section of Decatur had gone to hell in a hand basket years ago… but that was foolish.

 

Perhaps not foolish- probably more true than she wanted to believe… but she wasn't going to be an old reclusive spinster just because the neighborhood around her long-time home was changing.

 

The doorbell chimed again, this third time accompanied by a loud knock. It almost sounded to her like an angry knock…if the rapping of knuckles on wood could ever sound one way or another. Angry because it was so rapid, she decided.

 

Well, she said to herself, I'm not going to sit in here and pretend I'm not home. I'm not that woman. I will never be that woman. I'm sure its someone who has perfectly good reason to see me.

 

And with that decisive thought, she tottered towards the front door to greet the two large shaped figures on the porch outside (she could see their silhouettes through the ridged decorative glass covering the little diamond-shaped window in the front door)… and to find out exactly what they needed with her at this hour on such a lovely evening.