Baby Ruth

 When you walked out of the door of the hotel where Ruth lived, the first thing you noticed was the noise of the factory across the street, and those men she called niggers out smoking what she called dope on their breaks. Then was the sound of the expressway to your left and the smell of grilled onions blasting out from the diner on the corner to your right. Then there was the weather: always that hazy gray Chicago weather, with the sky matching the color of the sidewalks in one sweep of stone, making women's pretty red lips or dresses leap out at you from the colorlessness.

Voices from all of the shops flew at you and people hung out in front of Mickey's, sipping on drinks in paper cups, pulling themselves back when the cops went by. And that awful smell from Diana's—Ruth hated it—"Chopped goat is what they serve! Smells like the grease on those men's heads." is what she would say.

There were the powerful blasts of burnt-fat smoke rolling out as we walked by kitchen vents, and then the tangy beer odor of the bars floating out and working on the fat smell like lemon on fish. It was difficult to get to breakfast, especially for Ruth, who dragged herself slowly past all of this on our way to the Snow White Cafe, where we would have coffee and doughnuts. The waiters there thought us a funny pair, and I couldn't wait to get back to the hotel. "Hello pretty little lady," one of them would inevitably say, and I'd wonder if I should spit at him.

Ruth would have liked to go over to the Adams Tavern afterwards, to see some of the ladies that sat at the bar there starting around noon, but she wouldn't because I was with her. She thought she had to keep up appearances—meaning, I shouldn't get the wrong idea about her, she wasn't like that, etc., etc. But we both knew that she was.

She would've liked to have been something else, but the truth was that there was no one else with fake eyelashes quite as long as Ruth's, no one with green eyeshadow quite as bright, or penciled eyebrows and beauty marks quite as vivid or elaborate.

When she was made up for the day the effect was dazzling, as your eye was forced to wander a terrain slathered with shiny creams, matted base, shimmering powder, oily lipstick, gooey mascara and teal eyeshadow without getting lost, before finally getting to the blue eyes, which if you could locate and latch onto, were of exceptional beauty and clarity.

Each of us tried to pretend that we were not lonely. I'd burrow into her warm, dry flesh and listen as she talked and chain-smoked. I'd watch the red tip of her cigarette moving in small circles, moving to light another, moving to let off an ash. "What you get," she'd tell me, "is mountains of nothing at birth."

We pretended not to notice that she never went out, except to buy food and cigarettes, and that no one ever came to visit. Sometimes I felt as if she and I were one, on those long, eventless days that I spent in her room. Then it was as if it was me who was drinking the scotch from a short, cloudy glass; me who was opening pack after pack of filterless Camel cigarettes; me who ran yellow-fingered hands over clothing that no longer fit.

Ruth's hand would mold my head and hair as she spoke, when we'd get back into bed after dinner and turn the lights out, the tv on, and she'd talk way past the time when I fell asleep. It was always something about the war, the war: her husband had died in it, she'd worked then, they'd drawn lines down their legs for lack of stockings, the rationing, the bread lines, soda fountains, sailors, hooch, diamond rings, v.d., VD Day, and on and on and on. Ruth's life was one of almost pure memory, and almost all of it revolved around WWII.

But she could also remember her first date, the first time she betrayed a man, and her first miscarriage, all as if it had happened yesterday. I would stare into the darkness at the conjured bloody mess of a miscarriage of twins on the livingroom sofa in awe at the power of those memories, which seemed more potent than anything that occurred in real life.

"It was the fortune in the Chinese cookie that said, "If everybody is jumping out of the window, there must be a reason.' and then we all laughed and laughed 'till Esther had to run to the bathroom and Rudy just watched her and then we looked at the face on the mug he was drinking out of—it was one of those blue drinks that cost three dollars each—and then we really cracked up, because it was a carved monkey's face and the blue drink was bubbling over and it had a little paper umbrella sticking out of it like a hat and it was so damned funny we almost died and I gasped, "heeuuuh, heeuuh, heeeuuuh.' That was on Wabash there, near Van Buren. That was probably the best night of my life, right before Rudy left for Germany. He looked so handsome! His black hair was shiny and the curls kept spilling onto his brow just like Clark Gable's, and everything he said and did was so amusing. And when Esther came back and he patted her behind and asked if she 'made it okay,' I didn't mind because we were all friends and it was Rudy's party and it was all for him that we were together, anyway."

Ruth never cried when she told her stories, even when they were terribly, terribly sad. She'd just light another cigarette and check to see if I was still awake. She'd adjust the blanket, which I'd tried to keep away from my face because it smelled, under my chin, and continue talking. The stories no longer held the same kind of meaning for her, I guessed—that was locked away somewhere else. Instead, they were merely incantations to make the pictures dance before her eyes and mine.

I didn't like the way people seemed to make fun of Ruth when we went out. They didn't say much, but the look in their eyes, the smirk playing across their lips, was obvious enough to me. I'd get squirmy and want to go back to the hotel, where I knew it was safe. But no, Ruth loved to walk around the neighborhood when she went out. Sometimes she didn't go out for days, so when she did, it had to be a total sweep of the area, including the huge Salvation Army on Green Street, the drugstore, the butcher, the Adams for cigarettes and a pint, etc., etc. Sometimes I'd stand away, pretending to be alone, say, when she spoke with the butcher, who was Mexican. I'd toe the moist, bloody sawdust on the floor and gaze up at the boxes of detergent while she shopped and talked. The butcher would ask me to come over—maybe as an excuse to get away from Ruth—to see the side of beef being cut into ribs and steaks. I liked watching the sawteeth cutting into the fleshy-fatty meat and the butcher's strong arms as he held the carcass. Then he'd wipe his big, bloodied hands on his fresh white apron, smiling at me as he did so.

I wasn't embarrassed of Ruth, but of the things that went unnoticed by her. I was embarrassed to have noticed them; it made me feel guilty, complicitous.

This was especially true when she said nice things at night as she combed my hair and got me ready for bed. Close up her face was not ominous or ugly; the nose did not protrude too much nor did the lashes seem on the verge of falling off as they sometimes did when we were out. At those times, in her room by ourselves, she was my guardian angel, gazing at me with those bright, blue, caring eyes. I know people wondered why anyone would leave me with her—she drank, she was odd—but they just didn't understand.

Ruth told me stories, of great loves and sour tragedies, things no one else told me—after all, who really talked to children? But the fact that I was a child didn't bother Ruth. On the contrary, it opened her up.
She'd lean over in her bra and panties (large things that looked like men's boxer shorts) and peer at her long, white face in the dresser mirror and say, "Once I was beautiful. Once I turned heads." I must have been the only person in the world who believed this. The only one who saw the former beauty in the old woman with mottled flesh and pendulous breasts. She'd undo her red hair, which though long, she added to with extensions and hairpieces. The hair was scary and wild, snaking down her mole-dotted white back in dry, wispy runnels. She'd pose, smoking in the bright sunshine, for her audience (me, on the bed coloring, looking up now and then). Then she'd hold up a piece of clothing to her chest—some dress jacket saturated with memories which no longer fit—and prance around with the item, smoking, sipping a bit from the glass on the dresser now and then, until she got too tired and the sun started to fade, and then she'd put on her robe and sit in the soft chair wedged between the bed and the dresser and finish her drink, looking very sad. But she never cried. She never did.

We'd lie in bed, an after those episodes she wouldn't talk very much but instead smoked silently. She whispered now and then, "I lie in my bed with you and think, imagine that he's there next to me. Him, the dead one; his soft flesh, his rough hands. Baby Ruth, he used to call me, Baby Ruth, like the candy bar, because I was so sweet."

This talk scared me. I could understand that for the whole day she hadn't really known I was there; I was a warm body, a familiar presence that could be transformed into figures from the past; conveniently, painlessly.
After Ruth died I remembered a story she once told me, not about herself (I thought), but about a Prince and Princess buried together on a hill. They loved each other very much, so much that when the Prince died, the Princess died soon after, of a broken heart. Years later, the Princess' coffin was opened to include a gold necklace that she had loved very much. Upon opening the coffin, it was found that her hair and nails had grown and grown and grown, filling up the entire box. The people present had never seen such an abundance of rich, auburn hair nor such lengths of clear, almondine nails. They stood around for hours, and other people came also, to see the miracle of the Princess.

I wasn't quite sure what Ruth's death meant, I only knew that it felt strange not to see her and stay with her anymore. When I found out I cried and cried, and wondered if I would die too, and if my hair and nails would grow as I lay smoking in my coffin, telling stories and drinking scotch, desperate for a mirror to look into, to confirm my long-held belief that I was once beautiful.

[Deborah Pintonelli/story] [Brenda Barnum/art]

Deborah Pintonelli "Giving Birth to Letter eX"
(DP) Uncommon Ground
Columbia Journal
Meat & Memory
Brenda Barnum at Butters Gallery
Brenda Barnum on Progressive Art Media
© copyright Thin Ice Press 2007
© copyright Deborah Pintonelli 1997, 2007
© copyright Brenda Barnum 1997, 2007