A Baby is Born in the Holy Land: A Chapter From a Forthcoming Novel
Poor Ruth. Poor Ruth Leahy, forty-seven years old and pregnant. Forty-seven years old, pregnant and now, late in her eighth month, enormously fat. Fat beyond the ability of a bathroom scale's capabilities to weigh her; beyond, perhaps, the combined capabilities of two bathroom scales; double the size she'd attained in her two previous forays into the reproduction arena, back when she was in her twenties.
Depression resulted, and lethargy, to the extent that even her husband Ellis a benign but obtuse and self-absorbed man noticed it.
"What do you say we hit a buffet, Ruthie?" he suggested in an effort to lift her spirits when he came home from work and found her stretched out on the sofa like a beached sea lion in front of a dead T.V. no Oprah, no Dr. Phil, just a noiseless grey screen.
"What do you say," Ruth grumbled into a cushion, "that I get up and punch your lights out?"
Not likely, Ellis mused. You'd have to catch me first.
Ruth, not subscribing to an "it-takes-two-to-tango" frame of mind, blamed Ellis for the pregnancy; while Ellis figured sometimes things just happened, and you tried to make the best of them. He, of course, didn't have to carry this child, and suffer a doubling of his weight, bloating, water retention, ankles painfully swollen to elephantine proportions. He didn't have to resort to an exclusive wardrobe of size triple XL muumuus.
Ellis tried another tack: "We gotta get you outta the house, Ruthie," he said as he rummaged in the refrigerator for a brew. "You're turnin' into a damned hermit."
"There's no where I wanna go," Ruth said, as her husband opened his beer.
"Maybe," Ellis suggested as he picked up the TV's remote control, "we could go to Vegas."
It was just something to throw out there, a suggestion he considered far-fetched in the extreme, given their precarious financial situation, and the purely logistical problems of transporting Ruth, in their worn-out little Toyota Tercel, three hundred and fifty miles across the desert. He thought she'd laugh out loud.
Instead, her head rose from the sofa, tortoise slow. "Las Vegas," she said. The mound of Ruth flesh undulated and oozed into a sitting position that made the internal structure of the piece of furniture groan. "That," she said, with more light in her eye than Ellis had seen in six months, "sounds like fun. Maybe Clete and Juanita can come, too."
Clete and Juanita Johnson lived next door, but Ruth, her mobility impaired, called Juanita on the phone instead of going over there. "Juanita," Ruth said when her friend answered her call: "What do you say you and Clete and me and Ellis head off to Vegas for a couple of days, just like old times?"
Just like old times. The two couples had known each other since high school, had lived next door to each other for a quarter century now; and they'd done the trip together to the city of lost wages a dozen times along the way. In fact, they'd all gotten married in a dual ceremony, twenty-eight years ago, under the bright lights in the big city Ruth now suggested again as a getaway.
"Ooo, Las Vegas," Juanita cooed through the receiver. She called to her husband: "Hey Clete! What do you say we head off to Vegas with Ruth and Ellis?"
In the background, Ruth could hear Clete croon into Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," singing about bright lights and having his soul set on fire.
"We're packin' right now, Ruthie," Juanita said.
The idea of a trip to Las Vegas had lifted Ruth's mood. The potential of quick riches lay there, and any possibility, no matter how remote, of a step up in the Leahy's financial situation gave her a lift. She ignored the possibility of losing money.
Her outlook dimmed, though, at the prospect of fitting herself into the car.
The pregnancy, in its late stages the past two months, when the bulk of the weight gain piled on had put Ruth out of a job. So she and Ellis, in a budgeting mode, had sold her car. No more maintenance, no more insurance. The ten-year-old Tercel was good enough for Ellis to run back and forth to his grill cook job at the cafe.
All but housebound of late, she hadn't tried to climb into the little subcompact since her slimmer days; and as she stood in the driveway, sweating in the morning sun under the tent of a muumuu as Ellis stuffed their suitcases into the trunk, Clete, from his own driveway next door, gazed at the enormously rotund Ruth, at the swirling colors of her garment, and observed, "She looks kinda like Jupiter."
Juanita cuffed him on the head and said, "Be nice."
Vangie solved the problem for them. Evangeline Johnson, Clete and Juanita's older daughter. Juanita had enlisted her to house-sit and baby-sit Ginger, Juanita's Chihuahua, while Mom and Dad were in Vegas. Vangie jumped at the chance. Her apartment a little two-bedroom out on Melrose, with six adults sharing the space had devolved into an unlivable situation; and just the day before one of roommate Judy's crystal meth friends had rifled through Vangie's purse and made off with a precious twenty-dollar bill.
Vangie rolled into the folks' driveway as her dad and Ellis, shoulders dug deep into Aunt Ruth's cursing bulk as their feet skidded and skipped on the oil stained cement, tried to force the Jovian figure into the passenger seat of Uncle Ellis's Toyota.
"Why don't you guys," Vangie suggested as she stepped up beside her mom, "Just have Aunt Ruth ride with you?"
It made sense. Clete's Buick Regal was a four-door, with a muscular rebuilt V-8 beneath the hood.
"We tried that," Juanita said. "We had to slide the front seat so far foreword to get her in there me and Dad were sittin' on the dashboard."
"Oh," said Vangie, envisioning her father with the steering wheel biting into his ribs as he breathed a fog onto the windshield. "Well, why doesn't Uncle Ellis take the front passenger seat out of the Tercel. That way Aunt Ruth can sit in back, with lots of room to, um ... spread forward."
Juanita's hand floated to her cheek. She gazed at the Tercel, then back to Vangie, beaming. "You're a genius, little girl," Juanita said.
A ratchet set and a crescent and the straining of overlapping muscles in Ellis's lower back as he angled himself at frozen bolts in the floorboard did the trick, and forty-five minutes later Ruth and Ellis and Clete and Juanita were on a two-car caravan on Interstate 15, the Leahy's car listing badly to the right with Ruth's weight, the Johnson's Buick following behind, in the right-hand lane, twenty miles per hour slower than the flow of traffic.
Viva Las Vegas.
The ladies chatted back and forth on their cell phones about where they might find the loosest slots; and they decided their first stop ought to be The Holy Land, the newest resort/casino down on the south end of the strip, where a thousand hotel rooms rose over the desert, housed in a ninety-story crucifix looming above the Christian-theme gambling/entertainment palace that was second to none.
It was decided the boys having no say in the decision and they rolled on, the girls dreaming of riches, as Ellis navigated to the top of the Cajon Pass, four thousand plus above sea level, to gain entrance to the desert. They just made it, the Tercel, with the accelerator floored, chugging down to ten miles per hour as the finally reached the crest. It was halfway up the Halloran Summit, a four thousand footer just outside of Baker (Home of the World's Tallest Thermometer) where the Tercel pooped out, throwing a timing belt and rattling over to the side of the road with two hundred and ninety-two thousand miles on its odometer.
Clete followed it onto the shoulder and got out in the sand with Ellis and peered cluelessly beneath the deceased car's hood. There was nothing to do now but get Ruth into the Buick, a task that proved much easier said than done, in large part because the car was parked on an incline, front end aimed at the mountain pass. Getting Ruth out of the back seat of that little two door sub-compact was a daunting enough task on level ground. But with the car nosed upward, bringing gravity into the extrication equation, it proved impossible, no matter how hard Ellis and Clete tugged at her wrists. So Juanita called the Auto Club, and an hour and a half later a tow truck driver named Emilio, running out of Baker where the world's Tallest Thermometer announced a temperature of a hundred and ten degrees wrapped a tarp around Ruth's back, clipped a cable into four overlapped eye hooks, and winched her out of the back of the Tercel.
Things were close in the Buick, the men in front with their chins hovering above the dashboard watching desert bugs as big as walnuts commit messy suicides on the windshield mere inches from their faces; Juanita crammed in back with Ruth, with the knob that rolled her window down digging deeply into her side. And Ruth: when a body reaches the size hers had, there are numerous creases and folds of flesh that harbor a concoction of perspiration and natural body secretions that produce musty aromas, colonies of yeasts.
"When," Juanita asked her husband, "are you going to get this air conditioning fixed?"
"As soon," he replied, noticing that The Holy Land's crucifix was now in view, twenty miles from town, "I hit a big fat jackpot." He didn't tell her that as stuffed tight as this car was, the air conditioning wouldn't have been able to circulate any cold air anyway.
Forty-five minutes later thirty miles an hour was all the Buick could muster under the load Clete pulled up in front of the entrance to The Holy Land Resort and Casino, at the casino entrance, to let Ruth and Juanita out so he could go park the car. Moses (the doorman) went wide-eyed when he saw Ruth rumbling his way, and he used his staff and strident commands to part the crowd ("Big high roller coming this way, folks; make a hole!"); and then Ruth was inside, in the glorious air conditioning, ruffling her muumuu to encourage a sub-fabric draft.
A Jesus shuffled by, bent under the weight of a ten-pound fiberglass cross. Two Roman soldiers flogged him with whips of soft cotton strand as he made his way to the Mt. Calvary wing, where they would Velcro him (it's an OSHA thing) to his cross then affix its metal brace to a fitting in subterranean machinery that would raise it up high in front of an offering basket that would soon spilleth over.
"This place is something else," said Juanita, spying a Magdalene cocktail waitress gliding across the casino in split-up-the-side flowing robes and a low-cut push-up bodice. "What do you say we get us something to drink?"
"That," Ruth replied, as she scoped out a bank of nearby slot machines, "is the best idea I've heard all day."
Ruth engulfed the little swivel chair in front of the slot machine, the hem of her muumuu brushing the floor. To the casual observer, she wasn't sitting down at all she was simply now a very short and extremely rotund figure, fishing a quarter out of her purse.
She fed the machine, punched the button that set the wheels into motion, and hit with two faces of Mother Mary a five-dollar profit right off the bat.
She whooped, and Juanita, after feeding a ten dollar bill into the adjacent machine, punched her friend's arm and cried out: "ALL RIGHT RUTHIE!"
Ruthie played on. Juanita roped in a Magdalene and ordered two beers, and tipped her a dollar when she brought them.
Ruth upended her green bottle, drinking down twelve cold ounces in twelve seconds flat. Then she belched, and with watery eyes she punched the button on her slot machine, using up the last lonely credit from her initial five dollar win.
The wheels spun, and the left hand cylinder came to a stop on the face of Jesus.
"Lord, Lord," said Ruth.
The second wheel stopped on Jesus' identical twin, and Ruth rose and thrust her arms into the smoky air and cried out: "PRAISE THE LORD!" as the excitement of the moment incited the churnings of labor.
Juanita leaned in, and with her eyes on the final spinning wheel, she waved blindly for a Magdalene, signally for another round of beers, as the wheel clunked to a stop, making it identical triplets across the horizontal, three Jesuses crowned with thorns, gazing toward heaven, as the machine jangled into a bell-ringing, light-flashing conniption, to announce to everyone within ear or eye shot that the big lady on the quarter slot had just hit a jackpot for a thousand bucks.
As a throng converged bent on proximity with the lucky lady, hoping that good fortune might rub off Ruth's water broke dropping a viscous deluge under her muumuu. She clapped her hands over her face and took the Lord's name in vain; and held her ground, in hopes that no one would see the soaking of the carpet beneath her. The sudden contraction foiled that plan, a powerful and very urgent rippling of deep muscles announcing an imminent arrival.
She raised her eyes to the ceiling and blurted, "WHOA!" and collapsed, rolling onto her back, hiking her hem, spreading her legs and screaming: "HE'S COMING!"
He came, a half-second after Juanita tugged Ruth's panties off. A boy, jettisoned from Mother Ruth's body in a propulsive delivery. Up, up and over a bank of slot machines, hovering in place against the bungee tension of the umbilical cord, setting off it was later claimed three simultaneous jackpots beneath him before the cord snapped and he flew onward.
The Magdalene waitress bringing Ruth and Juanita's beers saved the day, flinging her tray away and diving, scooping the baby into her arms two inches before he hit the floor.
The Holy Land's camera system got it all down for posterity, of course. The publicity department got the first call, and then the infirmary. The Holy Land's paramedics were on the situation in thirty seconds flat, ten seconds behind the publicity director and her legal documents, and Ruth was lifted with a good deal of help from the crowd onto a gurney that shook with her weight as they rolled her and her new baby through The Holy Land Resort and Casino.