Ruth Maureen Riley was taller than most of her peers, which bothered her until she entered junior high school where everyone seemed to come in all sizes. Even then, she had a sense of being apart from other people that was vague and unsatisfying. Throughout high school she bore a confused confidence concerning the family’s social net, which somehow seemed to have holes in it. She felt left out and she didn’t understand why. They should have been a part of whatever it was other people seemed to be a part of.
When her dad (everyone called him Riley) worked the third shift from midnight to 8 am, Ruthie never asked him for anything. He complained with pouting and cursing when she and her mom, Sarah, and little brother, Cass, tiptoed around the house, and he complained just as much when they did not. Goddammit he would say. When you creep around the house I know it and I can’t sleep with all that creaking and whispering. It never occurred to him, thought Ruthie, that he might be cranky from working three shifts, and that everyone else had to live with that, too. When he worked days she could take him to work and keep the car until time to pick him up. That is, if she was careful about when and how she asked reserving tears and angry tantrums as a last strategy. She had endured Driver’s Ed and passed the state test, which didn’t impress her dad very much, yet the fact that she could now drive reduced the tyranny of a one-car family. Her mother, Sara, had tried to learn to drive once, but her father had had no patience with her. In the suburbs there were no bus lines.
Ruthie walked the thirty steps from the house to the mailbox, which was by the road instead of by the front door of the house where a proper mailbox ought to be. In the suburbs you didn’t say street because there were no sidewalks for walking or riding a bike. Just roads where sparse traffic of all kinds moved together. She brought in the mail and tossed it on the limed oak coffee table, part of new living room furniture her father used as a bribe to appease her mother for moving from the city to this place.
“But how will we get around, Riley?” her mother had said in one of many fruitless arguments. Suburbs my foot, Ruthie thought when these discussions began. Three-fourths of the family viewed such a move as frightful, while the other quarter treated it with what Ruthie knew to be unrealistic nostalgia for a rural, pastoral life her father wanted to believe belonged to his past and that it could be recaptured.
“There are no bus lines out there at all. I’ve already checked. The nearest grocer is 10 miles
away. How is Ruthie going to get around for college or a job? Cass will need someone to take him to
cub scouts and baseball practice, and with you working three shifts, how can Ruthie keep the car and
have a schedule …?”
“Sarah, get off my back! I can’t stand it living with people right in my face all the time. I want a place where we can breathe fresh air, a yard big enough to grow a garden. We’re going to have our own vegetables.”
“Riley,” Sara’s eyes narrowed as she spoke, “you will never turn a spade and you know it.” He ignored her comment.
“It will be great for the kids. Plenty of room for them to run around. You’ll get used to it.”
Room for the kids to run around thought Ruthie. Holy Toledo. She was 17, a brand new high school graduate, class of ’52, and hardly interested in playing in the yard. Her little brother, Cass, was 8 and already a loner. You can get used to anything, thought Ruthie. And this family probably would. We always have.
“It says Sunday, 2 p.m., Mom. See here.” She held the invitation near her mother’s nose.
“Yes, Ruthie, I see. Take it easy. It won’t take us five minutes to walk over.
“But he’s still asleep. Do you think he’s O.K.? Why can’t he leave it alone for once when we want to do something?”
“He’ll be fine when he wakes up. You’ll see. Your father’s worked hard all week and he needed to … relax. Now settle down and go find Cass.”
“Mom. Let’s go without him. He’ll probably sleep all afternoon.”
“No. He’ll wake up soon.”
“He always spoils things. Either we can’t go anywhere because he’s working, or he’s “relaxing,” or he’s sleeping. Now we can’t even hop on a bus and go to a movie. Why do we have to be late because he’s tired?”
“Ruthie, your father works hard to make us a living …”
“I know, I know. But we have nothing, Mom, unless he lets us. At least in the city we could ride the bus and do things. And you just lie down like a doormat half the time.”
“Ruth Maureen Riley!”
“Well, it’s true isn’t it? And whenever you’ve just about had enough, he sweet-talks you with something you’ve wanted for a long time and you give in and here we are. In the middle of nowhere.”
“Ruthie.” Sara Riley tilted her daughter’s chin up with one enameled fingertip. “Your father works hard. He was looking forward to this, too. He wants to go.”
“Why do you always take his side? What about me? What about Cass and what we want? And you never fight for what you want.” Ruthie looked down as she said the last words. “I wanted it so, Mom. I wanted it so. All of us together having fun at a picnic. Eating lots of exotic dishes.”
“I think I heard it’s hot dogs.”
“If he comes to the picnic, I’m not going. I’ll stay here and read. Cass can play outside.”
Sara looked at her daughter for a long while in the silence between them that always followed these outbursts. She put on the face Ruthie knew so well. “Let’s get ready and if he’s asleep when we are ready to leave, we’ll go without him.”
The family had been invited to the Baumgartner’s neighborhood picnic. Ruthie felt triumphant as they rushed about, scooting in and out before the bathroom mirror on the medicine chest, mixing the fragrance of soap, perfume, freshly shampooed hair and VO-5 for her little brother while Riley snored on the sofa.
Ruthie fussed with her ponytail in the mirror over the sofa each time she passed through to the kitchen. There was no dining room in the new house. They had reasoned that the back porch, which had been enclosed for use as an extra room, was a good trade-off. It was to become the newest graceful addition to homes, the family room, just off the kitchen like the magazines said.
Ruthie knew that the differences between what went on behind the door in the Riley household and the Baumgartner household were continents apart. He was a dentist. His wife worked in his office. They had money. Their house was a modest one, but Ruthie knew instinctively that they did not share a bathroom with their three sons, that the enclosed breezeway between the garage and house, and all those windows meant lots of light, a premium feature considered by House Beautiful to be a mark of the good life. It was a new start for the Rileys. They were going to be a part of something. They would be known. People would say, That’s the Riley place. They grow their own vegetables. Yes, lovely children. The girl is going into medical training, or even college. The boy, a cub scout, is still in elementary school. He will probably make Eagle. Nice people.
There was a muffled sound and a grunt from the sofa.
“Sarah?” what the hell’s going on around here: Goddamn. What time is it? James Riley rolled to a sitting position on the sofa and looked at his watch. He staggered the few steps to the bathroom and “made water” as Ruthie put it without shutting the door. He wandered into the kitchen dressed in boxer shorts displaying his enormous chest and stocky build. He picked up a pint of Jim Beam and drank a hefty slug. Ruthie wished he wouldn’t choose to sleep on the sofa in his underwear. She brought a friend home once, and there was her father’s chunky form in nothing but knit briefs when they came in the front door.
“Daddy, please! We have to leave for the picnic right away.”
“Picnic? Hey sweetie, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“Jesus.” Ruthie muttered to herself as she swept past him to find her little brother.
“What’s the matter with her?”
“Oh, James, this is important to her. Get dressed. We’re ready to leave.” He grunted and started toward the bedroom taking the bottle with him.
Ruthie led the procession to the picnic through trees and grass with Cass and Sarah behind her and her father bringing up the unsteady rear. Mother and daughter had not gauged the condition of the head of the household accurately. They observed he walked straight. He seemed fine. Some food would make everything better. They paraded into the Baumgartner yard, a closely clipped carpet of green punctuated with tables dressed in long white tablecloths. Twenty or thirty people milled about.
“I’m so glad to meet you and your family.” Mrs. Baumgartner’s smile seemed unusually wide as she shook hands with Sarah, Ruthie and Cass. “And Mr. Riley …?” She leaned forward, her eyes searching behind Sarah and Cass.
“Oh, he’s already dipping into your marvelous spread of food, I believe.” Ruthie gestured in the direction of the tables.
“It’s wonderful to meet you Ruthie. I hear you are a recent graduate.” Mrs. Baumgartner bent her angular frame slightly at the waist when she spoke. She was a tall woman with very large teeth. Cass had migrated toward the barbeque grill, and a chatty woman commandeered Sarah who always felt numb and tongue-tied among new people.
“I graduated five weeks ago in the city where we used to live … fourth in my class.” Ruthie added the last phrase with a flushed face and quick glances at her Keds. Maybe she shouldn’t have bragged.
“Oh, how grand, Ruthie. I’m sure your family was proud of your accomplishment. I know we’ve just met, but let me extend my earnest congratulations.”
“Thank you.” During the second the words left Ruthie’s lips, there was a commotion at the far end of a table. It was Riley. Ruthie felt terror rip her chest when she and Mrs. Baumgartner traveled the few steps it took to confirm the disaster. One word left Ruthie’s lips like the last air escaping a balloon. “Daddy.”
“He must have taken ill, or stumbled …” said Mrs. Baumgartner attempting to impose some measure of logic on the scene before them. Riley had fallen down pulling the white linen tablecloth and the potato salad with him. He sat blinking with the crumpled tablecloth half on one shoulder like a huge cape and the lumpy contents of a cut glass bowl between his legs.
Ruthie wanted to run home, no, leave and go back to the city, anywhere but here. Her mother and brother made awkward moves toward Riley. Ruthie lost all hesitation and stepped forward to get an arm under his shoulder and get him on his feet. Mrs. Baumgartner rushed to Ruthie’s side.
“Really,” she said, after a whiff of Riley’s breath, “why the man is drunk!”
“He’s very tired. He’s been working twelve hour days.” Unflinching, Ruthie stared directly into Mrs. Baumgartner’s eyes.
“Well, please take him home.” Mrs. Baumgartner stalked toward the breezeway for more lemonade and a dustpan to clean up the potato salad. People stared. Some snickered. Many murmured and watched or turned their attention in other directions the way people do when they are embarrassed for someone.
Ruthie’s face was burning by the time they got Riley home and to bed. The anger rose in her like a torch that lit the bungalow.
“I’m never, EVER , going anywhere with him again as long as I live. He can rot on that sofa, read his Mickey Spillane books, eat out of bowls in the refrigerator, drink water from the water bottle instead of using a glass like the rest of us … how can anyone live like that?” She stormed into the kitchen, her eyes searching for the whiskey. She tramped into the bedroom and returned holding the bottle aloft. She dumped the remaining contents into the kitchen sink.
“Ruthie, honey. Ruthie, stop. That won’t do any good.”
Ruthie was in tears now. “I’m getting a car. I don’t know how, but I’m getting my own car. And I’m going to college or lab tech training. I will, I will.” Now she understood why they were slow to get acquainted. Why they never went anywhere. Why they would be imprisoned in this little suburban wonder even worse than they were in the city house.
Sarah went limp in a chrome, kitchen chair, her eyes focused on the sink. Ruthie knew about the small vinegar bottle under the sink filled with her mother’s bourbon. She knew it meant sleep and peace for her mother on some days. Alone in the living room, Ruthie stopped sobbing as she looked out the window across the driveway to the house next door. They were adding on. There was to be a second story. She knew, looking at the roughed-in walls of the second floor, that she would live in a big space, some day, with plenty of light.