This is it, Ruth thought, I’m finally leaving.
It had been a hard bicycle ride from the Greyhound station to home, the place she called home these days, the corrugated tin box of a mobile home, the chipped pewter blue paint, patches of rust, the drooping window sill, the missing third step. The trailer was not outstanding in any way, just one among a flock of equally dreary trailers roosting on Weaver road. Twelve insipid flat miles from the Greyhound station to the trailer on the outskirts of Corpus Christi, an aesthetically unrewarding ride, but it was worth it to have the ticket in her pocket.
All the way down the street, the air was laden with the weighty scent of ham, the first ham she’d ever fixed. The trailer, when she opened it, was an incinerator, heat blasting in waves from the open oven, so hot she wondered why the parched-looking sienna carpet didn’t ignite. Licked clean of grease, the empty roasting pan lay on its side, centered in six square feet of brick-patterned congoleum.
The ham was noticeably absent.
The china platter, wedding present from Travis’ optimistic mother, waited to receive the vanished ham. That didn’t matter now; she had to do something with the ticket, and quickly. Had to put it somewhere safe. Even before she closed the oven, she taped the ticket to the underside of the platter.
Ruth looked at the roasting pan where the ham should have been.
He wasn’t on either of the wooden couches or the waterbed. She checked the closets, the bathroom and Travis’s workshop as she walked the hall. In her studio--an abuse of the word studio, but she always called it that anyway--she found him in his favorite hidey-hole, grinning his wolf grin at her from beneath the adjustable table that Travis had built.
She wagged her finger at him, “It’s a good thing you can’t open the refrigerator. You better get that look off your face quick if you don’t want Travis to stake you out for bait. How did you get that oven door open?” She wished the wolf had some way of answering her.
“What did you do with the ham? You couldn’t have eaten it all, not even you.”
Sam leered at her slyly and slinked away.
“You need some ice? You aren’t going to let me see if your mouth is burned, are you?”
He stood on his hind legs, pawing the door, jaw flexing, panting feverishly.
“You better practice looking innocent.” Ruth warned. Four o’clock. Sam would be wanting out--time for his handouts at the Mexican diner. A punctual wolf.
He leered at her some more, lips curling into his whiskers, baring yellow teeth, red gums, waves of ham-scented breath.
“Okay.” she said, opening the door, scraping her palm on the ridges left by Sam’s teeth in prior attempts to turn the knob. He didn’t gnaw doorknobs much any more, not since he'd discovered window-glass was breakable.
“Don’t eat any cats!”
A joke. Lazy Sam--she watched him, his bony, crab-amble, stopping at the sidewalk, looking, turning as he always did toward Padre Island Drive. A creature of habit.
The roasting pan was too big to fit in the sink so she took it outside, soaked it with engine cleaner, and hid it under the back porch where Travis wouldn’t find it. She opened the windows to flush out the ham smell, and dragged out the refrigerated Corningware dishes she’d filled last night, and shoved them in the oven. She checked the refrigerator again, hoping a twenty pound ham would appear spontaneously and offer itself for Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t there of course, nothing was there but the frozen fruit salad and the wooden bowl of spinach, lettuce, artichoke hearts, a bowl of that peculiar feta cheese/dill dressing that Travis liked so much, and a coffee cake. Her mother's recipe.
As she dialed the phone, she kept one finger locked down on a can of air freshener and doused the room with Honeysuckle Bouquet until she couldn’t smell ham anymore. Through the window, she saw Sam pawing the back door of the diner.
“El Casa del --,” The female voice broke off and hissed something muffled and angry-sounding.
“Carmelita? Is that you? This is Ruth.”
“Si, this is Carmelita.” Carmelita yelled over the background noise. Ruth heard the rattle of plates and dishes, Pablo’s steady stream of Spanish curses directed at the rattletrap of an antiquated dishwashing machine and the indignant responses of the waitress who was supposed to run it. For the past year, Ruth had been wishing she had taken Spanish instead of French when she’d still been in high school, but she had a pretty good idea what was going on on the other side of the phone, even without knowing the language. Pablo stopped cursing. Ruth heard the screen door slam and she watched Pablo emerge from the back of the restaurant, handing out goodies to Sam.
“You know, that spare turkey you mentioned? I might need it.”
“That Sam.” Carmelita said, “We have the turkey ready. We were going to drop it off after we closed but you come down now. Oh, Sam is here.”
“I know. I’m watching from my kitchen window.”
Pablo said something in the background. Carmelita replied to him in Spanish, then translated. “Pablo can’t see you.” Carmelita said.
Ruth watched from her window as Pablo looked through the restaurant’s screen door, then looked down Weaver road, his hand over his forehead, squinting over the rows of cars in his thirteen car parking lot. He waved vigorously in Ruth’s direction. In the aisle between the parked cars, Ruth caught glimpses of Sam as he paced in his wavy, sneaky do-si-do back and forth in front of Pablo. She sighed and pushed aside the potted jasmine to climb on the countertop. Hanging halfway out the window, she waved until Carmelita said excitedly, “Pablo sees you too.”
Ruth hung up. She hadn’t told anyone she was leaving, not even Carmelita. She was just going to do it. Some of her things were already packed and stored in the closet in her studio. She shook away the passing feeling of guilt. Maybe it was because her grandmother had died on a Valentine’s day. February had made Ruth sad ever since. That was why she felt guilty, she told herself, not because she was leaving but because she was leaving on a holiday.
She would give him this last Thanksgiving, then she would go. After.
In case Sam decided he wanted in without human help, Ruth checked that the windows were at three-quarter mast, then grabbed her wallet, her sketch pad and a few conte crayons, tacking a note on the door for Travis: Gone to Carmelita’s.
The navy aircraft were flying low today, earsplitting as usual. Over the roar, Ruth could hear the whine of vibrating glass windows in vibrating trailers. Was it Travis’s plane buzzing the street?
The diner stood at the corner of Padre Island Boulevard and Weaver road, the only real building on Weaver, which was one of the few inhabited streets in Flour Bluff. A more remote and desolate duty station Ruth and Travis had never endured. Four tourist traps that sold shell paintings and pallid seascapes, a drive-in laundry, a Denny’s, a Whataburger, an H. E. Butts grocery store, and a red clapboard hotel whose sign had blown down in Hurricane Allen pretty much made up the sum total of civilization.
When her parents had wanted to come for a visit, Ruth had panicked, delighted that at the last minute, they decided to go skiing instead. She could just picture her mother with her Sassooned hair “getting coiffed” at Estella Maria Rosella Sanchez’s beauty parlor while Estella’s husband Jaime repaired Daddy’s flat tires--and maybe confiscated the hubcaps--in the garage out back.
But the Mexican Diner had come to mean something to her. Up until a few weeks ago, all four of the diner’s exterior walls had been of asphalt shingle. Then Pablo had watched Travis building a metal building in the field behind the trailer and he’d asked Carmelita to ask Ruth to ask Travis if he could fix up the restaurant a little. The next day, Travis started on a cedar lap’n gap storefront, and a little roofed entryway.
Business tripled. Carmelita planted a flower garden, blue bonnets and yellow roses, but was disappointed that nothing was blooming yet. Ruth’s opinion of Texas was that flowers wouldn’t help.
A square of cardboard tacked on a stunted pecan tree said Open Until Five On Thanksgiving Day. Ruth walked through the front door and set her pack in the usual place behind her screen. Carmelita and Pablo had wanted to give their restaurant a certain caché by having an “artist” in the foyer and they made the most of Ruth’s presence. Her easel was propped against the wall. An acrylic painting of a mournful looking Sam gazed from the easel because Carmelita seemed to think Sam’s portrait drew customers. Carmelita also had a decided preference for paintings on black velvet, so Ruth didn’t let Carmelita’s enthusiasm for her talent go to her head.
Ruth’s alcove was separated from the restaurant by a screen Travis had constructed--a few sheets of plywood, hinged and covered with burlap. Her work place, her false shrine. But she was fond of her table because it was real: a two seater lifted from the restaurant, wearing a seedy red and white tablecloth stained with the dustings of many colors. From a house he had remodeled during his off base hours, Travis had scavenged two sets of lights from an old vanity mirror; he’d set them up here, with elaborate controls, propped just to the right and to the left of where a customer would be. Travis had installed different colored bulbs, lime-green and orange mixed in with the white. She could light from either side or both at the same time.
She preferred to work in white light, sunlight in fact, the first good light in the morning. Travis could not give her that. Still, he’d gone to a great deal of effort to arrange this garish corsage of lights and she’d never been able to face down his enthusiasm.
She set out the fixative (really cheap hair spray with the can spray-painted an officious black), the sheets of waxed paper Pablo had cut last week in the kitchen, some wadded-up hunks of cotton and the stubs of white, black, gray and red left over from yesterday.
She liked working at the restaurant, the opportunity to practice on new faces, the surprise of first-time customers when they saw her, the camaraderie of the regulars, all of the people so different from the ones she’d grown up with. Only their friendliness reminded her of the family she had left behind in Tennessee.
“Are you a crazy girl? It is Thanksgiving. You will not work tonight.” Carmelita pulled up the ladder-backed chair meant for a posing customer.
Ruth chose a green-toned pastel and swooshed the flat end in a roughly oval shape. She shaded in with a bit of orange and blended to Carmelita’s olive complexion with a bit of flesh-tone. Pastels mingled exactly as she knew they would. Ruth preferred pointillism, where colors blended only from a distance, yet on the canvas, close up, individual hues retained their original integrity. For now, she conceded to Carmelita’s preferences.
“You shouldn’t keep feeding Sam,” Ruth said, “He’ll keep coming as long as you encourage him.”
“Pablo says Sam keeps the armadillos out of the garbage.”
“Who will keep Sam out of the garbage?”
As Carmelita shrugged her shoulders, Ruth took a chunk of red and one of black and scumbled them on the gray paper to concoct just the right shade of Carmelita’s hennaed hair--a flat looking red with undertones of brown. She let the tooth of the gray paper show through. Around Carmelita’s brow, split ends curled into ringlets. The rest of her hair was ridged as if it would have burst into curl also, if not bound and slicked back into a bun with a forest of shiny black hair pins.
Ruth left out the pins.
“We feed Sam the garbage anyway.” Carmelita looked over her shoulder toward her last diners. “We are closing up early today. You put up your things before someone comes. Let’s go in the kitchen and see what we can do for you.”
“Wait.” Ruth said, and tacked the sketch on the burlap, along side a dozen others of Carmelita in different faces, different clothes. Travis’s portrait faced the diners, along with several others. Ruth kept only one sketch close where she could see it as she worked, a rendering of a gap-toothed little girl who reminded her of her nieces who lived in Memphis.
Carmelita looked at the new sketch, beaming. “Pablo, come see!” she called. Pablo stopped yelling in the kitchen long enough to come out and admire.
Inside the refrigerator were three whole turkeys. Carmelita had already wrapped one of them in foil for Ruth.
“I am sorry we have no ham,” Carmelita said, “Your Travis will be angry.”
Ruth shook her head, knowing Carmelita was speaking out of her own experience. Everything made Pablo angry--his hot Spanish temperament, Carmelita called it. Pablo smashed things when he was contradicted and used his voice at top volume. Travis was Pablo’s diametric opposite. Not that Travis was cold natured--if Travis had a flaw at all, it was that he was too nice.
“No. The ham was a surprise. Travis will never know he missed it. He never asked me to cook one. But since his mother died last year, all he’s done is talk about how his mother used to fix ham for the holidays. You should have heard him going on about the cloves, the pineapples, the honey. I wanted to do something special, you know, just for him. Funny that after all this time, how he never said anything about ham, but . . . funny how a man wants you to read his mind.”
My last gift to him, she thought, and Sam ruined it. The sadness of leaving because too much and splintered into nothing. She would not feel it. She would not endure the obligation of Travis’s belief in her any longer.
“I don’t have that problem.” Carmelita said, looking toward Pablo, who was yelling at the waitress again. “My Pablo makes his needs very clear.”
Sam scented the turkey as soon as Ruth set foot out of the restaurant. She had a hard time walking home, playing keep away from the wolf. Shutting Sam outside the trailer without dropping the turkey was a major chore, a tiny, unwitnessed triumph.
She inhaled. Except for right beside the oven, the ham-flavored air was gone, blown out to sea by gulf shore winds. All she could smell was salt, sea and a hint of generic air freshener.
She put the turkey in the oven.
Travis walked in with a collection of his Navy buddies. She wasn’t surprised--but this time, this last time, she had wanted to have a Thanksgiving with just the two of them.
“Real nice for you to have us for diner Miz T,” one of them said, a stranger, shorn and sad looking, clearly uncomfortable without his navy uniform. She looked away from him, from those other homesick faces. She wondered how well Travis knew them; he always brought home strays on holidays; and they always looked the same: shorn and pathetic; and they always looked at her like it was up to her to make it all better. Sometimes she wondered what Travis said to them to make them look at her like she was all women rolled into one.
“Hey seaman, how do you like my red-headed woman?” He put his arm around her and showed her off; she wanted to die of shame as he introduced her all around, her mind on that ticket taped to the platter his mother had given them for a wedding present, the platter the turkey was on now, she realized.
Judas, she thought. I’m Judas.
“Rue, let’s go in to Corpus this weekend. We’ll go to Gillys and paint the town.”
She nodded, hoping she could be gone by then.
Travis never merely smiled. He glowed, the delight in him so intense he drew the lonely like moths to revel in his warmth. He hugged her; she felt that steady joy in him break through her reserve and despaired that she had no choice. If she left him, she would break the dam of his walled in joy; he would lose his innocence--or what passed for innocence; he would never be the same. She had no right to do that to him, he was whole the way he was.
But she had to go.
“You fixed ham.” He beamed, coming close to the stove, his hopeful nose snagging a ghost of lingered scent.
Yes I did, Travis. So clean cut, the strong cheekbones and manly squared jaw not meshing with the young eyes. She’d married Travis for the youth in his eyes. She had felt old as long as she could remember.
She shook her head.
“There’s no ham here.”
“But I smelled baked ham all the way down the street.” He sniffed the air, looking so disappointed that she regretted not having given Sam a good swat earlier.
She couldn’t measure up to those eyes. He was a couple of years older than she, another birthday coming on Christmas eve. He would be twenty-eight. After seven years of marriage, he was no closer to knowing that she was a fraud, a shallow reflection of who he thought she was.
“I’ll fix you a ham for your birthday,” she promised him, wondering if she would do it, feeling guilty because she hoped she would not. She knew through his unexpressed disappointment that she’d failed him; she knew he’d hoped she would surprise him, magically, with just what he wanted. She glanced toward his friends.
“You’d better warn them about the furniture.” Travis had built the couches out of two by fours--they were solid wood. The only cushions were a few Navaho blankets draped across the backs.
“Naw.” He grinned, “Let ‘em find out for themselves.”
By then it was too late to say anything anyway. The airman introduced as Dodie had already sat down too hard and his face turned from pathetic to belligerent. He was complaining at the top of his lungs while the others tried to cool him off with nachos and beer.
Travis turned on the television and went into the bedroom to change out of his dress whites. Ruth listened to the voices that went with those faces, not differentiating from other faces that had sat at her table other years, other duty stations. The words, the feelings were the same. She set the food on the counter--not enough room for a table and not enough seats in the den so she stood on the tile island behind the counter and puttered in the kitchenette. She unmolded her coffee cake, a little sad because it came out so perfectly.
Then they ate, the roomful of strangers all looking at her as a surrogate for their mothers, wives or sweethearts; and they praised her with just the kind of deferential, approval-seeking politeness that made young military men seem even younger. She returned their politeness with warmth and bottomless cups of coffee with cream and sugar but hid from their yearnings behind the kitchen counter and she cleaned up after them.
When they brought out the beer, she retreated to her “studio” to work on a project. Behind her, she could hear Travis getting eloquent about her “art”--why did he always do that? She wasn’t that good. She was thankful that at least he had stopped giving impromptu showings of things she felt were private--and she was very glad she had left the room before he started to elaborate. She could not bear his massive pride in her, so undeserved, so unearned.
She wouldn’t have to bear it for much longer.
She toyed with her acrylics, painting roomy patches in floaty washed out scarlets and crystalline whites and moody indigo, but she was thinking of Thanksgiving at home with the folks.
Probably right now, this very minute, her sisters were sitting behind lead crystal and Irish linen at the baronial table in the formal dining room in the old house, with their husbands and children crammed all around. Mama would have brought out that awful looking coffee cake she always made, the one with the brown sugar streusel that always stuck to the pan and never came out looking right. Everyone would be fighting over the last few slices anyway. Maybe Mama would have recited the poem she made up twenty-five years ago, but the sight of Daddy with his nose getting red, looking as if he were ready to cry, would interrupt her and she wouldn’t finish it.
She used to wonder why Daddy cried when Mama said her poems, but now she thought she knew why. He was remembering other Thanksgivings, and the empty chairs where the grandmothers used to sit. She wondered if it was for everyone the way it was for her, that a few holidays in childhood became the model for all the rest that would come after, and never measure up.
She looked at her canvas, covered in shades of indigo; she couldn’t get the picture right, not in this moment. So she capped the tubes and rinsed her brushes and listened to the voices of men echo down the hallway. She wondered if they knew they were lonely. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe she was just projecting again.
More than one guest had brought his own case of beer. The voices grew louder and more frantic. She started to sketch, randomly at first, playing with nothing, then with lines as they turned into shapes and faces, then lonely men, and then back into nothing at all. As the voices grew wilder, as the men grew drunker, she thought about home. About how much she wanted to be home with people who loved her, not here in Flour Bluff listening to drunken sailors being raucous and sentimental in her den.
She pulled her canvas down on the floor and sat cross-legged in front of it. Here a random observation: close to Sam’s favorite hiding place, the adjustable table, the scent of ham was still strong. The acrylic, already dry, looked flat and boring. She found her palette knife and dug out lumps of clear acrylic, modeling the edges of the colors, giving a touch of depth here and there, the color underneath coming through. The red to rise, the blue to recede, waves over waves. She wanted a canvas that she could touch, that could be as deep as she felt, but the channels in her were constantly moving, changing. Paint was too static. Then Travis was standing over her, laughing. Tired as she was, she was still reluctant to go to bed. He carried her anyway.
In the morning, the strangers were gone, Travis’s head was on her pillow and he was smiling at her. She had the eerie feeling that he’d been watching her sleep.
“Morning Rue,” he said, “Get up woman.” He wrestled with her playfully and shoved her out of bed.
“What did you do that for? What is it?” Maybe he was still drunk from last night.
But he was still smiling.
She showered and dressed, gathered beer cans, washed ash trays and fixed coffee. Travis shadowed her every move.
“What is it? Do you want something?”
“No,” he said, still following, still smiling. “Let’s go on a picnic today. Let’s drive down to Padre. Wanna go?”
She thought of the ticket, still taped to the platter.
Get your paint box and stuff.” He said, “I’ll fix turkey sandwiches.”
He set the turkey carcass on the counter. She eyed the platter and went into the studio to find a sketchbook and gather her colors. He followed her. Why, she wondered, was he in such a strange mood? And then she found what he’d been grinning about. He’d made her an artist’s bench, like the kind they had at Del Mar; he had even drilled grooves for her drawing board, her pencils, her pens.
“Like it?” He asked.
“Like it.” She answered, wondering if he’d noticed her baggage packed in the closet behind him. Soon, so soon she would be free. Travis took her hand and pulled her down, but was interrupted by a crash that came from the kitchen.
“What the hell was that?” Travis leaped from the floor.
Ruth was slower to get up, faster to think. She dealt with things like this all of the time. “Is Sam inside?”
“Then it’s the turkey.”
Because he was looking down the hall instead of where he was putting his feet, he didn’t notice the ham bone until he’d stubbed his foot on it, wedged between the doorway and the back of the drawing table.
He picked it up, and charged down the hallway.
Sam was lying on the kitchenette floor, his paws stretched out on either side of the shattered platter, a shred of turkey skin dangling from under one side of his lip.
His tail thumped.
“I don’t like turkey anyhow.” Travis said.
His hand on her conveyed his grief over the destruction of his mother’s gift; but he didn’t say anything about it, not having the words, she thought, maybe not having the feelings, not like she did anyway. He didn’t have the kind of feelings that kept him up nights, that swelled until he couldn’t contain them any longer. that drove him to canvas with the need to express the inexpressible. Tonight he would forget the broken platter. Tonight, she would lie awake and remember the woman who had given it. She would dream of shattered china, shattered hope.
She fought the pull of his touch but it was so compelling--his need of her. How could she bear to hurt him when she loved him, she really did, but the life she was living was not her life. Travis would never understand, not any more than Sam would understand that some things were not for his personal consumption.
“There wasn’t much left.”
“Not much, no.” Travis agreed, rubbing his thumb across the ham bone still heavy with meat the wolf had intended to hoard. Robbed of his stash, Sam grabbed the turkey carcass and ran down the hall. Travis thundered in pursuit. Ruth picked up some platter pieces and threw them in the trash.
She found the halves of the ticket, ripped jaggedly, bound on two sides to separate pieces of shattered china. If she taped the ticket, would it still be good?
“Sam’s under your worktable.”
She balled up the ticket pieces in her fist.
Travis had his back to her, looking toward the wolf under the table. He raised his ham bone and looked from it to her.
“Sam looks like he’s putting on some weight,” he said casually, coming toward her.
“He’s been eating a lot at Carmelita’s.”
He came close. “Umm humm.”
Ruth backed up.
“I told Pablo not to feed him so much but . . .”
Travis reached out.
“Pablo doesn’t listen very well to women."
Travis shook his head.
“I’ll talk to Carmelita, I’ll have her tell Pablo about it, ok, Trav?”
“So the wolf liked my ham.” he said.
Ruth nodded, feeling like a little girl caught doing something naughty--like covering up for a little brother or sister. Or protecting a pet wolf. Or a gentle man.
No. It was a lie, that feeling. She was a bad girl caught doing something good.
“Baby,” Travis said, looking at her with those sweet fathomless eyes. “Rue, my Rue, you’re a rock.”
Who was she when he looked at her? She touched his cheek and yielded. How could she not? Behind her back, she tossed the ticket into the trash, sighing. But then...tomorrow would be another day.
then, I'm with you. Let's