Ruby Hix stood outside the gates of the Women’s Penitentiary in Chowchilla, California. Looked up and down the dusty highway for Ivy but Ivy was not there.
She waited an hour outside the gates, as long as the guards would let her, then walked down to the bus stop. Caught the 9303 bus down to Fresno. Fresno hadn’t changed much in these seven years and six months. Eleven city blocks to Gallo Union Pawn Shop, blinking back all the light and life and noise of the hot summer streets. A dull gnawing in her lower belly reminded her she needed tampons, pronto. She stepped into the sudden cool darkness of the shop and walked down an aisle of pawned leather jackets breathing in the scent of thwarted men. A couple other patrons noticed her two hundred and twenty ropy pounds of coiled energy and decided to look elsewhere.
“I help you?” the clerk asked, keeping his hands out of sight.
“That sap there,” Ruby said, throwing the grip bag up on the counter. “It work?”
The clerk slid open the glass, removed the squat extendable baton from the shelf, the kind cops keep strapped to their gun belts. “You tell me,” he said, and handed it across the counter.
Ruby hefted the sap in her hand. The balance felt right. Snapped her wrist and the baton snicked out to full length with a soft hiss, metal gleaming dull in the light. She took a few experimental swings, cutting the air with a stroke born of the mystery of speed. Another swing, another. She knew just what these cuts could do to soft flesh and brittle bone.
Then she tapped the tip against the heel of her palm. The shaft collapsed inside the handle. She rolled it over in her palm. Someone had scritched “PRATHER” in the leather cover on the handle.
“Who’s Prather?” she asked.
“I could be.”
The clerk cocked his head. “You’re Ruby Hix, ain’t you?”
“Linda talks about you. Linda Patrecho. Said you helped her out with the Featherwoods.”
“I did what I said I would.”
“Yeah. She told me that, too.”
“How much for the sap?”
The clerk shook his head. “For you? Free. Linda Patrecho’s my cousin.”
The word “free” washed over Ruby like a benediction. Seven years and six months she worked every shitty trusty job they’d give her back in Chowchilla, swabbing toilets, washing dishes, pressing laundry. Came away with a grand total of $477.18.
“Thank you,” Ruby said.
“De nada.” Linda Patrecho’s cousin leaned over the counter, voice gone conspiratorial. “Listen,” he said. “There’s work. If you want it.”
“No,” Ruby says. “No more work.”
“Linda said you wanted to go straight. Won’t last, you know.” The clerk straightened behind the counter, nudged the sap across the counter. “You sure as hell won’t get much done with this stick.”
“You might be surprised,” Ruby said.
Ruby walked five blocks down to the Ralph’s. She stood in the cereal aisle a long time. The last time she’d been here in this Ralph’s it was with Ivy, and the store manager had to call out security and a check-out boy with a broom to clean up their mess at the tail end of Ruby’s attempt to coax her big sister down off a two-week bender.
“They’re going to call the cops,” Ruby said desperately, picking herself up from a pile of Honey Nut Cheerios boxes.
“I hope they do!” Ivy screamed. “I hope they fucking cart you away!”
Ruby held out a hand. “Just come on,” she said. “I know you don’t mean that. Come with me. I’m going to help you.”
Ivy’s eyes were so dilated Ruby could see the back of her skull. She was shivering and her T-shirt was dirty. She skittered backward when Ruby grabbed for her wrist.
“You can’t help me,” Ivy said. “You can’t do shit for me.” Turned and galloped for the exit.
“Fuck you too, then!” Ruby shouted at her sister’s retreating back.
Then a sprinting security guard tackled Ruby and by the time she got untangled from his beefy grip and nacho breath Ivy was long gone.
Ruby searched for Ivy for three December days smack in the middle of Fresno’s most frigid cold snap in fifty years, living on Butterfingers and battery-acid gas-station coffee, sleeping in the puke-yellow ‘79 Datsun she hadn’t insured in over a year that featured four bald tires and one working heater vent, haunting Fresno’s back alleys with a sap in her hand.
She didn’t find Ivy. Instead she got harassed by some suit downtown. The suit got a few less teeth and a squashed nut sack, Ruby got arrested, the suit got a lawyer, and Ruby got seven-to-nine. The next time she saw Ivy it was through prison plexiglass, too late for tears.
Ache in her lower belly worsening, Ruby strode the fluorescent aisles of Ralph’s in a daze at the abundance. About seven hundred items to crave . A bag of marshmallows, a five-pound sack of hot dogs, toffee ice cream bars, a pair of leather work boots especially caught her eye. But all she put in her in basket was a pack of off-brand unscented tampons, a jar of dill pickles and a bottle of barbecue sauce. These last two she’d craved endlessly back in Chowchilla. At the check-out she menaced the cashier with a hard stare,. In prison they’d short you on taters and beans if you didn’t keep a careful watch. She’d once seen a trusty cook take a fork in the cheek over a scanty ladle of beans.
Ruby headed straight to the ladies room with her purchases and did her best to get comfortable on her first enclosed privy in seven years and six months. Grunted with pleasure at this first red-tinged piss in the free world, then fumbled around with the slick tampon. Surpassing strange to slip it inside herself. Been a long while. In prison they only issued pads, the thin kind with no adhesive wings, and then only half a dozen at a go. Ruby bled pretty heavily and rationing out those half dozen little pads out was an impossibility. So she’d have to buy extra at the commissary, cursing every dollar they ticked off her meager account. So she sat a moment longer on the toilet, looking at the little string dangling between her big thighs. Felt a whole lot like freedom.
Thirty-one years old and so far life had pinballed Ruby Hix from one institution to the next trailer park. She took her time.
On the way out, Ruby passed by the Play Center. A gaggle of kids surrounded a chubby boy cowering on a Garfield tea cup.
“Fatty McBlatty! Fatty McBlatty!” the kids chanted at the chubby boy, his lip atremble, near tears.
Ruby Hix remembered her own nickname. She shoved the bullies aside, sent them crying for their mommies.
“You all right?” she asked the chubby boy.
The boy looked up and down her bulk. Pulled a face. “Leave me alone, fatso,” he said. Slipped off the Garfield teacup and ran away.
In Chowchilla Ruby volunteered for every work detail they had, eventually working her way up to trusty status and the floor-waxing crew. To spend a dime felt like robbing the future so she went without everything she could. A pillow was seven bucks at the commissary (85 hours of labor). An extra blanket, eleven (157 hours). The ticket lady at the Greyhound station had to pry the eighty-three dollars (1185 hours) for a ticket to Barstow out of her palm.
In the waiting room Ruby ran a thick stream of barbecue sauce over a dill pickle, slippery in her fingers. More delicious than she could have believed, starbursts of flavor a supernova on her tongue. She ate half a dozen pickles, barely breathing, then licked her fingers clean. All the while hoping, somehow, that Ivy would show. Ivy did not show. On the TV Bruce Jenner was calling himself “Caitlyn” and the host kept asking why.
“Why the fuck not?” Ruby said out loud. Her fellow passengers looked away.
She went to the bathroom and locked the door and stood in front of the mirror, practicing with the sap. The trick was to get it out of your pocket and extended in one fluid motion, ready to strike. Fifty or so practice flicks in, she started to get the old feel back.
The bus departed Fresno at 10:10PM. Wedged into a seat two sizes too small for her frame, Ruby was plenty glad to pass the lion’s share of California in the dark. Fuck this state and the seven years and six months it’d stolen from her. She sat in the aisle seat, ignoring the window, dipping dill pickles in barbecue sauce. After a time the motion of the bus swayed her to sleep. She dreamed of Ivy and pickle juice swimming pools.
When she woke it was dawn in Barstow and her mouth tasted of salt. Someone had stolen her pickle jar. She filed out of the bus with the other passengers and in the terminal scanned the crowd with no actual hope and Ivy was not there.
She strapped her black sling bag over a shoulder and headed out of the station, ignoring the cabbies. Like she’d spend that kind of dough on a cab, for Chrissakes. All she bought was a bottle of Mountain Dew to wash the salt taste out of her mouth. It was just past nine AM but already sweltering here in the desert.
In the library at Chowchilla Ruby had memorized a map of Barstow. The return address on Ivy’s last letter read #32 at the Coach Lamp Trailer Court and Ruby knew just how to get there. She walked at an unhurried pace. In that last letter Ivy mentioned working steady. Middle of the day like this, maybe nobody would be home. Maybe Ivy occupied a position of some importance somewhere. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t been there at the prison gates, or up for a visit the whole last five years of Ruby’s spit.
Ruby’s feet soon ached on the uneven cement and in the oven of desert heat and she paused to rest in what meager shade the Barstow streets offered. That Shawshank Redemption bullshit was even more bullshit than she’d thought back in Chowchilla. The world hadn’t gone and gotten itself in a big damn hurry. To Ruby it seemed more like everything moved in a gel of slow motion, clear and bright and wondrous, a passing red-and-white Budweiser truck, a little girl on a pink-frilled bike, glazed donuts sweating in a bakery window.
Midday had come and gone by the time Ruby arrived at the Coach Lamp Trailer Court. One of those rural ghettos the news shows ignore, pay-by-the-week trailers, some with the siding ripped away in patches to expose rows of pink insulation, others with plywood nailed over windows, yet others with tires on the roof.. Ruby walked down the hot gravel lanes to #32. A brown-and-white striped singlewide, no car out front, no name on the mailbox, railroad ties reeking of creosote stacked up to the door to form a stairway. A half- collapsed knee-high white plastic fence shielded a patch of dead grass with a hose coiled up in it. She turned on a tap and let the hot water ran out of the hose before slaking her thirst with long gulps, splattering the dust on her boots. Then someone swung the door open. Ruby dropped the hose.
Not Ivy. A little boy.
The little boy had dark olive skin and straw-black hair and a snotty nose and a pair of iridescent violet eyes, blinking at her. Ruby had to look deep to believe those eyes were real. They were. Otherworldly, but real. The boy also had Ivy’s hooked nose and bangs that curled a notch above his eyebrows, just so. It required no imagination, none, to know whose child this was.
“Aunt Ruby?” he said, ending any more suspense on the point.
Ruby dropped to one knee to get down to the little boy’s level and also so she wouldn’t lose her balance. “I’m Ruby,” she said, not quite able to append the title of “aunt” to herself.
The boy responded by throwing his arms around her neck, snotty nose pressed against her cheek. The first human being to touch her in affection in seven years and six months and Ruby enveloped the child in her hefty arms and squeezed just as long as the boy would let her.
“You got a name, big guy?” Ruby asked, relinquishing her grip but hanging onto the boy’s shoulders.
“I’m Leo,” the boy said, voice cracking with tiny earnestness.
“Leo the lion, huh?”
Leo’s face brightened with pure pleasure. “Mama says the same thing.”
“I bet she does,” she said. When they were girls, Ivy had toted that stuffed lion doll across half the country. Yellow-maned and snaggle-toothed. Named Leo. Leo the lion. “So is your mama home?”
Before the boy could answer footsteps clattered from the back to answer for him. Ruby stood, runnels of sweat running down the small of her back. Ivy, all right, but shrunk down to an altogether different person. Once upon a time, schoolgirl days, Ivy had been full-figured. A little pudgy, even. Now she was a waif. Wrists like twigs. Hair so thin you could see her ears through the strands. Peachy arm hair blossomed on her forearms and her collarbones beneath a cheap T-shirt looked about to bust through her skin. Perched in the doorway like dandelion fuzz.
Look at the Hix girls. Come to bad ends, the both of them. Just like Mrs. Custer back at Little Lake Agnes School predicted.
But fuck Mrs. Custer. Ruby dropped her grip bag and wrapped her arms around her big sister’s neck.
“Heya, Banana Bean,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about him?” Ruby asked.
“I don’t know!” Ivy said. “I don’t know. How you are, I guess. You worry. I didn’t want you to worry.”
“When did this happen? How old is he?”
“Seven. Well, six and a half.”
“So that’s why you didn’t come to see me the last half of my spit.”
“It was bad, Moon Pie. You don’t understand.”
Strange, so strange to hear that pet name again. “You don’t suppose I maybe would’ve like to see him?” Ruby said softly.
Ivy shook her head. “I know that. It ain’t about that.”
“What’s it about, then?”
“You know how it is when you go up there, all them forms you got to fill out. Background check and all. I was worried if I showed up there, they’d. . .take him.”
“As bad as that, huh?”
“It was. For a while.”
“Jesus. What have you been doing since I been gone? Is that why you’re living in fucking Barstow?”
Ivy shook her head. “It’s better than it was.”
“But you still couldn’t come up to see me?”
“By then Brett didn’t want me to. He says he won’t go within a hundred miles of a prison if he can help it and he sure wasn’t going to drive me to one.”
“Tell me this Brett is Leo’s father.”
Ivy looked away. “No. I can’t tell you that.”
“Then I don’t see what say he gets a say in where you go and don’t go.”
“This is his house, Moon Pie. His car. He took us in, me and Leo both. We had to have somewhere to go.”
Ruby looked around the shabby trailer. “Looks like he’s a real prince.”
“Oh, Ruby. You should’ve seen him up there. Singing.”
“He was a real rock n’ roll singer, Moon Pie. Had a band and toured and everything.”
“Made a real mint at it, I can see.”
“Not everything’s about money, you know.”
“Aren’t rock stars supposed to die young?”
“Ah, Christ, Moon Pie.” She giggled. “You haven’t changed a damn bit.”
“Were you expecting me to?”
“All right then. So what happened to you working steady? Like you said in your letter?”
Ivy shrugged. “I was. At the Family Dollar. Now I’m not.”
“This just gets better and better. Let me guess. Your rock star didn’t like you working?”
Ivy shook her head. “No.”
“I knew it. They’re all the same, these assholes. Everywhere you go, they’re all the same.”
“Brett says to in order to get a paycheck you got to let them track you. Social security number and address and all? Even computers and drones, Brett says.”
“So? It’s a job. They got to know something about you.”
“Brett don’t want no one tracking him. He worries about it all the time.” Ivy nibbled her fingers. “He don’t even like me leaving the house.”
“You should’ve seen the fit he pitched when I even wrote you the one letter telling you we were here in Barstow.”
“Who’s this asshole think he is? CIA?” She looked over at Leo at his cartoons. “So he’s not a rock star anymore?”
“What’s he do then?”
“Oh, you know. This and that. For people he met on the road, you know.”
“On the road.”
“You know. When he was touring.”
“Right. Fucking drugs, isn’t it. Ivy? Jesus Christ. Don’t tell me he’s running fucking guns.”
“Then it’s drugs. He runs drugs.”
“He doesn’t sell them, Moon Pie. He’s just a courier. Back and forth. That’s why we live here. All the interstates. He keeps it to small-time stuff, you know? Keeps us in bread.”
“So what’s his plan? Keep you locked up forever so he can be a piss-ant in the middle of nowhere for the cartels?”
“Not the cartels.”
“Boy, Ivy, this story just never stops getting better, does it?”
“I had to go somewhere, Moon Pie. So this is where I went. Anyway, he worries about us.”
“Yeah. I bet. I just bet he’s got you and little Leo’s best interests right at the tippy top of his mind.” Ruby looked out at Leo, sitting cross-legged about three feet from the TV. “So what happened to Leo’s real daddy?”
“I see him every now and again. I never know when.”
“So after Leo’s daddy took off you you took up with this asshole here.”
“Among others.” Ivy tugged a Red Apple out of the pack, blew a hard wreath of smoke around her face.
“You shouldn’t smoke around him, you know.” Ruby juts a chin toward Leo at the TV.
“You’re right, you’re right.” Ivy stabbed out the smoke after one long last drag. “What’d you want me to do, Ruby? Leave California?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what I mean. I couldn’t leave you behind.”
“Don’t throw that in my face! Don’t.”
“I’m not throwing it. I’m telling you what’s true. I’m telling you why I ended up here. In this shithole. With this asshole.”
Ruby put her hands on her hips. Felt it all flowing out of her.
“Ah, hell, Banana Bean,” she said. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It is so good to see you.”
“I’m just doing what I have to, Ruby.”
“You know how they are.”
“Yeah. I know exactly how they are. I also know you don’t have to do nothing. Not from now on. And I tell you what. I’m going to get you out of here. Away from this asshole. Out of this shithole.”
She hugged her waifish and cigarette-reeking sister, feeling every bone all down Ivy’s back. So delicate she looked built of fish bones.
“Hey,” Ruby said, “at least you stuck with him, huh? More than we can say for mama.”
They released each other. Ivy’s eyes were wet and she wiped at her cheeks. “Do you ever think about her, Moon Pie?” she asked.
Ruby snorted. “You think she ever thinks about us?”
“I like to think so.”
“Why? So you can slap her face if she ever showed it around here?”
“I mean it. She never gave a fuck about us, Banana Bean.”
“You don’t know that.”
“How do I not know that? She was out the door five minutes after they snipped my umbilical cord.”
“That’s just what Daddy used to say.”
“Yeah, well, Daddy was there, wasn’t he? Why are we talking about Mama, Banana Bean?”
Ivy smiled. “Maybe she really was a secret agent.”
Ivy used to make up stories to tell Ruby about Mama, back in that house in Wyoming. That she was a secret agent dueling with Chinese, or an adventurer hacking her way on a secret mission through a distant dark jungle, or a cowgirl riding a lonesome range. All the stories with the same origin and ending: Mama had no choice but to go, to save their lives, to keep them safe, to fulfill a grand destiny.
“I got to hit the head,” Ruby said, and pushed past Ivy.
In the bathroom Ruby inserted a fresh tampon, counted how many she had left. Not enough. Then she stuck her face in the crook of her elbow, to stifle the sobs at this squalid homecoming.
Ruby sat cross-legged on the floor watching Scooby-Doo with Leo curled up on her lap when the screen door slammed and Leo flinched and Ruby could feel his whole little body tense up.
“Ivy!” yelled the man who stumbled through the doorway. “Ivy!”
Brett stumbled in the door in a stained black leather jacket and floppy hair and a miasma of beer. He toted a sixer of Mickey’s looped around one finger and a battered guitar case. He set both on the counter and cracked himself a beer, narrowed eyes hard on Ruby. Ivy sidled up next to him, fawning-like. Made Ruby want to puke, the way her sister minced up to him like he was some kind of conquering hero when it looked to Ruby like he hadn’t conquered anything more than a few innocent cans of beer.
Same old story. Ivy drew herself to men such as this like a a bad habit. Daddy issues.
Ruby gently slid Leo off her lap and stood. She thought Leo would stay with Scooby-Doo but he followed her instead. Brett wrapped an arm around Ivy and ignored them.
“I’m about to hit it big-time, baby,” he said to Ivy.
“Oh?” Ivy said.
“That’s right.” He drummed his fingers on the old guitar case. “You got no idea, baby.”
“That’s good, honey. That’s real good.”
“You goddamn right it is.” He turned and gave Ruby the old once-over, not all that different from the one the toughs liked to put on back in the yard at Chowchilla. “This the jailbird little sister, huh?”
“This is Ruby,” Ivy said.
“Hi, Brett,” Ruby said, and stuck out a hand.
Brett considered her hand. Took a long pull of Mickey’s, set the can down, and then took Ruby’s hand.
“Be damned, girl,” he said. “You sure you been in lockup and not in the fitness protection program?”
“Brett!” Ivy said.
“What?” Brett said, and slugged more beer. “I’m just saying.”
Ruby didn’t say anything. Leo clung to her substantial leg.
“Leo, honey,” Ivy said. “Go back to your cartoons, huh?”
“But, moooom. . .”
“Just do it, sugar. Please.”
Leo reluctantly tore himself away from his aunt and back to the cartoons. Brett planted himself on a stool. Polished off the Mickey’s. Ivy unringed him another and he popped the tab. Pushed the remainders towards Ruby.
“Beer?” he asked.
“No thanks,” Ruby said.
“Why not? Better than that hooch they got up in the clink.”
“I didn’t drink there, either.”
“Suit yourself. I don’t trust a man who won’t have a drink with me but I guess in your case I’ll make an exception.”
“Jesus Christ, Brett,” Ivy said, pushing away from him.
“What? What? I’m just fucking with her. She’s used to that, ain’t you? Ruby? Ain’t you? Up where you came from they fuck with you all the time, don’t they?”
“Course, that ain’t all you fuck with, is it.”
“Brett, would you watch your mouth?” Ivy said. “Leo’s right there.”
“Don’t push me, woman,” Brett said. “I got a hundred places I could go.” But as he talked he kept a steady drunken eye on Ruby. “I heard,” he said, “that you all are a bunch of rug munchers up there. Bet it was one a hell of a scene, huh? All you rug munchers up there. Just going at it.” He stuck out his tongue and flicked the naked air to a sloppy flapping sound. “That true? Ruby? That true? You a rug muncher, Ruby?”
“No,” Ruby said.
“Well, you’ll have to pardon me. Ivy here’s never much talked about you. I guess that’s understandable enough.”
“Brett. . .” Ivy said again.
Brett ignored her. “How long were you upstate, little sister?”
“Seven years,” Ruby said. “Seven years and six months.”
“Long stretch. Out on parole?”
“No. I wouldn’t take none of that. I did my full spit. That way I owe 'em nothing.”
“I’d say that was smart except for the fact that you ended up there in the first place.” He tapped the briefcase on the counter with the flat of his hand. “Me, I ain’t been caught at nothing. Ain’t planning on it, neither.” He staggered a little on his stool, caught himself from falling over.
“Good for you.”
“Yeah. Good for me. Well, at least you ain’t one of them bull dykes. One less character defect you got. I suspect you got several you’re not telling me about, though. Hell, if I’d have known my sweet Ivy here had a jailbird for a sister, I might never have took up with her in the first place.” He wrapped an arm back around Ivy. “Man like me can’t afford to keep company with someone who’ll rat on anyone to keep from going back inside.”
“I ain’t a rat,” Ruby said.
“Not yet you’re not. But I know you ex-cons will do just about anything from having to pull another stretch. Wait until they pull you over for a busted headlight and start asking you hard questions and talking about sending you back to the cage with the rug munchers and you just think to yourself, what, what, what can I give them.” Brett swigged hard on his beer. “What or who.”
“I’m free. I ain’t got to beg to no one.”
“Sure you are. Bet you were telling yourself right up until they threw you in the back of the police cruiser last time, too, huh?” He squeezed Ivy tighter to his side. “Like I say, the way I see it, the trouble ain’t what you did. It’s that you got caught for it.”
“I got caught because the man I did it to couldn’t walk away from it,” Ruby said.
“Whatever, little sister.” Brett looked back at Ivy. “She can stay one night. That’s it. One night. Then jailbird here hits the fucking bricks. I ain’t having no ex-con hanging around this place.”
“All right, sugar,” Ivy said. “All right.”
“I want her to say longer!” came a squeaky and quavering voice.
No one had noticed how little Leo had sneaked away from Scooby-Doo and back into the adult conversation. But now there he stood, plaintive in his goldfish footie jammies.
“Shut up, shithead,” Brett said. “You’re lucky I don’t toss your ass out with her.”
“Don’t talk to that boy thataway,” Ruby said. She could feel the sap in her pocket hard against her thigh.
“Don’t say nothing, jailbird,” Brett said, tone amiable. “You ain’t got a goddamn word to say about anything I say. Not in my house. Not now or ever.” He swiveled on his stool. “Where were you planning on housing the jailbird, honey?”
“I was going to give her Leo’s room,” Ivy said.
“They can share. I don’t need shithead there crawling up in my bed again, kicking me in the nuts.”
“Fine by me,” Ruby said.
“Good. Now why don’t you get on back to the back before I start slapping some sense into people around here. Both of yous.”
Ruby started to say something but stopped when she saw Ivy’s pleading face. So instead she held Leo’s hand back to Leo’s room. In a singlewide trailer this was not a long walk but it still took all her effort not to squeeze Leo’s hand so hard she hurt the boy.
Leo’s room was close and dark, the more comforting for the fact. Seven years and six months she’d passed in close, dark places. A few more hours wouldn’t hurt. Creaky walls sadly hung with a poster of Ichiro Suzuki and a lion, the kind of creased posters that come out of cereal boxes. These covered most but not all of the holes. For Leo’s bed, a mattress on the floor and for his chest of drawers, a stack of laundry baskets. There were burns in the carpets and aluminum foil hung over on the window. Ruby remembered that trick well enough, the way to keep out the light when you didn’t want to face the day. She knew everything about this room. She’d done all her growing up in places just like it.
Little Leo sat cross-legged on the mattress on the floor and smiled up at her. Ruby set her sling bag down and sat beside him, mattress sagging badly with her weight. She put an arm around the boy who snuggled his tiny frame and mammal heat into her.
“Aunt Ruby,” he said, “do you know any songs?”
“Sure I do,” Ruby said.
“Will you sing them to me?”
From the front of the trailer Ruby could hear Brett and Ivy arguing. Leo seemed unfazed. Ruby supposed it wasn’t anything like his first time.
“You bet. That what your mama does at nights? Sing you songs?”
“Well, now. I’ll sing to you. Your Aunt Ruby will sing to you.”
Ruby sang the songs she knew, surprised that “Mama Tried” and “Rainy Day Woman” and “Pancho and Lefty” leapt up from her memory. She could smell Daddy’s whiskey breath with the rhymes, feel his scratchy whiskers on her cheek.
When Leo fell asleep, she laid down next to him on the narrow mattress. A lamp sat on the thin carpet beside the mattress and she flicked it on on and off, on and off. In Chowchilla there were no light switches. It went dark when they said so, light when they said so. Ruby kept on playing with the lamp till the bulb burned out with a soft sizzle.
Some time later crashing and screams jarred Ruby from sleep. At first she didn’t know she was in Leo’s room. She didn’t know she was in the trailer. She didn’t know she was in Barstow. She thought she was back in Chowchilla, some guard down the corridor welcoming a new fish to life in prison with some beating and raping. She didn’t move, she didn’t sit up. Number one rule in Chowchilla, never attract attention to yourself. Even when one of those guards came to visit your cell, you never moved. You never said a damn word.
Then she felt Leo’s warm breath on her cheek, his animal warmth against her ribs, Ichiro Suzuki with his bat looking down on them like a wise old god. It all came back to her. Down the hall echoed shattering glass and Ivy screaming. Leo went on slumbering. None of this bothered him a bit. She thought about that a minute, how a boy of his age could sleep through such a ruckus.
Then she cast aside the lingering prison paralysis, snicked out the Prather to full length and barreled down the hall. Sap in hand just like the old days.
The overhead light above the kitchen counter swung on a crazy arc, casting jumping shadows. Brett loomed over Ivy crumpled and covering her face like she knew what was coming. Brett’s fists were clenched and he looked like he sure did, too.
He never got the chance. No, not this time. Ruby swung that sap faster than the bouncing shadows. A crack against Brett’s temple and the man keeled over like a stack of wet lumber, head crunching against the countertop corner and flopping onto a spaghetti sauce stain on the linoleum. The guitar case toppled off the other side of the counter.
Ivy looked out from behind her elbows and up at her little sister, holding out a hand. While she let Ruby help her to her feet Brett quit flopping around, blood pooling over the spaghetti stain, eyes flipped open and rolled back to their whites. The two sisters stood over him till he finally went still.
“Did you. . . ?” Ivy said. “Is he. . . ?”
Ruby knelt by the man though she already knew. Felt for a pulse anyway.
“He’s gone,” she said.
“Ah Christ, Ruby!” Ivy said. “What have you done?”
“You a big goddamn favor, is what,” Ruby said.
Ivy laced her fingers at the back of her head and walked to the front window hung with a Minnesota Vikings blanket for a curtain. Ruby followed her. Noticed she was still gripping the Prather when she reached for her sister so she tried to slip it into her pocket and this was when she noticed that Brett’s guitar case had popped open. There was no guitar inside.
“I knew this was going to happen some day, I just knew it,” Ivy said, still circling the room, ignoring her sister. “This or something goddamn like it.”
“I just didn’t think it would be . . . Oh Christ.”
“Now what are we going to do?”
Ivy turned and the “What?!!?” died on her lips. Instead she said, “Is that?”
“Don’t touch it,” Ruby said.
A dozen identical white bundles wrapped in light blue plastic spilled out of the guitar case onto the floor.
“Oh my God,” Ivy said.
“You said he was small time,” Ruby said.
“He was!” Ivy said.
“This ain’t small-time. This is the kind of shit people come looking for.”
The two sisters stood over the scene, the dead man, the narcotics, the trailer.
“Russians, you said?” Ruby said.
“We got to leave it. Leave it alone and get out of here. Hope to hell they won’t care about us.”
“Sure, sure. Moon Pie, what do you. . . what do you think this is all worth?”
“Don’t go getting any stupid ideas, Banana Bean. Because it’s worth enough for them to come after it. And whatever that number is, it ain’t worth your life. Leo’s life.”
“No,” Ivy said. “No, of course not.”
“We got to think this through. We got to do this right. And if you touch that stuff even once, they’ll never stop coming after us.”
As if on cue the phone in Brett’s pocket went off. The dial tone was “Bulls on Parade,” Rage Against The Machine.
“See what I mean?” Ruby said. “We ain’t got much time.”
“You think they’ll let us go?”
“Not if we’re here when they get here. So we best not be.”
“All right,” Ivy said softly. Looked over Brett again. “Funny, you know. I was just sort of getting to like it here.” She walked around the counter to the kitchen and kicked Brett’s unlaced black boot. “Dickhead,” she said. “I can’t believe you did it again, Moon Pie. Instead of me. Again.”
Ruby put an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “How about you make it so there’s no more ‘again’ for either of us. Ever.” She turned for the back room, cataloguing everywhere she’d been in the trailer. “You got any money?”
Ivy shook her head. “Fifty bucks, maybe. A hundred. You?”
“Three hundred and seventy-seven bucks and eighty cents. Which ain’t going to get us very far down the road.”
“I know where we can get some money.”
“You ain’t going to like it.”
Ivy heaved a deep sigh. “The ’End.”
“Back in the ’End, Moon Pie.”
“Fucking Wyoming? Are you shitting me?”
“Shhh, shhh,” Ivy said, jutting a chin at the backroom. The sisters listened, but no sound came from Leo’s room. “I’m serious, Moon Pie. I got five grand stashed back there.”
“You’re going to have to explain that to me.”
“I went with Brett on one of his runs. Out to Chicago and back.”
“You went with that sack of shit one of his drug runs?”
Ivy shrugged. “We were smoking a lot of crank.”
“I quit now, Moon Pie. Anyway, that’s how I know he works for the Russians.”
“Worked. And all that means is that they know who you are, too.”
“Yeah. God, that’s right.”
“Go on. You were saying something about five grand.”
“Well, on that trip, I told Brett I wanted to stop back home. Haven’t been there in years, I said. He always did get a kick out of me being from Wyoming. What the hell, he said, and drove us there.” She looked at his twisted ankles there on the cheap linoleum. “I could talk him into most anything once he started toking up. He wasn’t all that bad a guy sometimes, you know.”
“Whatever. So you actually went back to the house?”
“Yes we did. Drove right up Burma Road. It’s abandoned now, Moon Pie. No one lives there. The way the place was falling apart, probably no one’s been living there for years. Brett went out back to piss and roll us up a joint, you know out back by the shed?”
“Uh-huh. This is a great story, Banana Bean, but would you come to the point?”
“I’m getting there! I always thought a day like this would come, you know. But what the hell was I supposed to do, try to hide money in this shithole? So I took a cashbox from the car, and hid it in the house.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it seems like one hell of a good one right now. I walked right in the house and upstairs and back in that crawl space off our old bedroom. The third rafter. You remember, the one I carved a heart in?”
“I hid it back there. Insurance policy, I figured. Figured someday I might need it.” She put her arms on Ruby’s shoulders. “Today’s that day, Moon Pie.”
“Sure looks like it,” Ruby said. “And Brett never noticed.”
“Oh, he noticed. I convinced him later that someone had stole it out of the car at some gas station back in Iowa. Christ, he was pissed.”
“How much, again?”
“Five grand. Maybe more. Maybe seven.” She rubbed her nose. “Funny thing, you know. That cash box? Kind of reminded me of the one in Mrs. Custer’s office.”
“Ha. No shit.”
“Fuck em, right, little sister?”
“That’s right,” Ruby said. “Fuck em.”