Volume II, Issue IV Winter 2003


Ruth mired herself in denial until her best friend, Juanita, dragged her over to the Wal-Mart to pick up a pregnancy test. When the result glowed positive – a distinct, luminescent lavender ring in the bottom of the test tube of her brownish-yellow urine – Ruth cried on Juanita's shoulder.

Then she called her mother, on the off chance that the old lady had slipped in toward civilization, out of the cell-phone dead zone in that God-forsaken desert where she and Dad had put down stakes. A shopping safari to Brawley, perhaps, or one of their periodic doctor's appointments in El Centro. Ruth's parents, Rose and Jake Hagan, lived in a faded old Winnebago parked on a cement foundation slab on an abandoned Army base on the east side of the Salton Sea. But they were en route to the coast for a week's respite from the heat – temperatures out there at The Slabs were hitting a hundred and ten that early June – when Rose's cell phone twittered.

Winnebago "Mom," said the wavering voice of Rose and Jake's oldest girl, Ruth. "I'm pregnant."

"Christ alive," Rose said, reaching for her beer. She took a sip and said, "Is that possible, Ruthie. Aren't you too old? You're forty-nine now, aren't you?"

"Mom!" Ruth cried, crestfallen. "I'm forty-seven!"

"Oh, sorry hon," Rose said, as a bug the size of a sparrow exploded on the windshield, leaving a greenish-yellow splatter as big as a dinner plate. Jake cursed, turned on the windshield wipers and pumped the washer fluid button, but the well was dry. The rubber blade smeared the bug into a small color spectrum rainbow arc across the glass. Jake hunched so he could see beneath the obstruction and a pulled onto the sandy shoulder, and grabbed his squirt bottle and the squeegie from behind the seat. Rose slipped her beer back into the cup holder and said, "Well, we're on our way in, hon. We'll drop by and see you." Jake, out front now, squeezed the plastic bottle, squirting a squiggle of fresh water at the windshield. It hit the bug smear, diluting it.

"You been to a doctor yet, Ruthie?" Rose wanted to know.

"Ellis lost his health insurance, Mom," Ruth sniffed, "Two years ago, when he lost that warehouse job."

Oh," said Rose. "Always the provider, hmm." Though in truth she was rather fond of the dumb ass: he'd taken Ruth – who way back when had morphed from sweet little girl into a defiant, foul-mouthed and occasionally violent teenaged monsterette – off her and Jake's hands, early. And he'd kept her.

"I'm going to kill him," Ruth said in a low growl.

The squeegie squeaked on the windshield. Rose leaned forward and tapped the glass beneath a black insect leg that Jake had missed. Jake scowled and squirted and squeegie-ed it away. Rose sipped her beer. It wouldn't do to try to dissuade her daughter from giving poor Ellis hell. Ruth was hard-headed – always was; always would be. She instead tried to give the situation some perspective: "Well, hon, it does take two to tango, you know."

"Well me an' him are gonna tango when he gets home, Mom, believe you me," Ruth promised.

Rose sighed, told Ruth that she and Dad would drop by to see her, and when Jake climbed back behind the wheel, Rose said, "You ready to be a grandpa again?" Jake settled in to his seat, smiled at his gleaming windshield, and said, "Yvonne?" guessing it was their youngest who was expecting. Rose shook her head. "Oh Christ," said Jake, checking his rearview mirror. "I thought Judy (their middle daughter) was smarter than that, gettin' knocked up at her age." Rose lifted her beer from the cup holder, gave her husband a hard stare and shook her head again. Jake, who had just begun to pull out onto the highway, hit the brakes and cut onto the shoulder again and stopped. "Ruth!?" he said. Rose nodded. "You gotta be shittin' me," said the incredulous grandpa. "She's pushin' fifty, isn't she?"

     ~ ~ ~

Ellis Leahy, Ruth's husband and father of her incipient child, split a twelve-pack of beer with the two waitresses after they closed the Loma Alta Café's doors for the day. A "clean-up treat" they called the minor indulgence, something to wet the whistles as they wrapped up a hard day's work, Ellis scrubbing the grill and mopping the kitchen floor; Mona and Johanna vacuuming the dining room and restocking the condiments, tidying up the counter area. A couple of beers apiece and the oldies rock station blaring always seemed to put a little pep in their service-sector steps, an infusion of energy to close out the day.

empties Since the refrigerator was in the kitchen, Ellis ended up ahead of the curve on the beer-drinking, and after his fourth can – the grill sparkling, the mop bucket filling at the spigot beneath the deep sink – he grabbed Johanna's wrist when she wheeled the vacuum back through the swinging doors. "Hey," she said in an annoyed tone as Ellis tugged her into the slinky slip and slide of a fluid jitterbug to Marvin Gaye's unctuous "Sexual Healing." But she'd had three beers herself, and the music was smooth and soothing. The next thing Johanna knew, her hair was unpinned and she and old fat-ass Ellis were gliding across the floor, hanging onto each other tight. The old cook had the lead as they shimmied past the grill, until he bumped the waitress against the wall; then, her eyes ablaze, Johanna took charge, forcing the issue and the dance back in the direction of the dishwashing machine, into a salacious culmination of a tango pose: Ellis with his back against the refrigerator, one knee thrust forward, his stout thigh offering an angle forty-five degrees off the vertical that Johanna straddled, riding its nervous quiver as she clasped hard onto the hair on either side of her dance partner's square, goggle-eyed, gape-mouthed head.

That's when Mona walked in, looked at the entwined pair, and said, "Oh, yuck," as she grabbed the spray nozzle from the deep sink and hit the dancers with a blast of cold water that broke the spell. After that close contact with Johanna, Ellis needed some nookie, bad; and since potential riches – no matter how remote the possibility – were an aphrodisiac for his wife, Ruth, he bought her a lottery ticket at the liquor store. Then he zipped home – smelling of fried food and beer and Johanna – and bumped through the door and announced to his wife: "You're gonna be a rich woman, Ruthie; I bought you a lotto ticket, and I played your age, forty-eight, for luck."

The forty-seven-year-old Ruth had only intended to strangle him. Now (why the hell was everyone adding years to her age?) she decided she would beat him to within an inch of his life first.

     ~ ~ ~

Jake pulled the Winnebago to the curb as Ellis exploded.through the screen door. The old man's son-in-law bound off the porch steps and dashed onto the front yard, where Ruth's flying tackle brought him down, face-first on the lawn. "Oh my," said Rose, grabbing another beer from the Igloo cooler. Ruth wrestled her way into a straddling of her husband, then she grabbed the hair on either side of his head and drove his face into the lawn, again and again, informing him each time she pulled him back up: "I am not forty-eight, Ellis; I am forty-seven."

Sprinklers She didn't say anything about the baby; and Juanita, who had followed the bickering pair out of the house, turned on the lawn sprinklers in an unsuccessful effort to break them up. Jake accepted the beer from Rose and opened it, took a long pull and handed it back. "That girl ain't changed much in the past thirty years, has she Momma?" he said.

Ruth yanked Ellis' head out of the grass again. A lawn divot the size of a grapefruit protruded from his mouth, dripping dark dirt and earthworms. Ruth screamed at him and shoved him back down again. Rose said, "Tch, I suppose you're right." And Jake said, "Why don't we come back later." Rose nodded her assent, and Jake pulled the Winnebago away from the curb and steered her toward the coast, saying, "Maybe we can have us a little barbecue down there at the State Beach." "That sounds fine," said Rose, imagining the cool grey overcast they'd likely find down there; while back at her daughter's house, Ellis bucked Ruth high and spun out from under her, then jumped up and tried to run, on a wet lawn that afforded limited traction, his legs pumping a hundred miles an hour, his butt going nowhere. Ruth caught him, and applied a headlock from behind. Ellis – slick from the sprinklers – was able to spin around to face her. They clinched like two soaked sumo wrestlers and glided into a slip-and-slide tango toward the curb, while Juanita turned off the water, and their unborn child yawned and slipped a thumb into its mouth.

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