Mornings often smelled like tar, although other things might burn: eggs on the stove, toast in the toaster, a cigarette hole in a robe. Be good, Ruth Mowry’s daddy said when he left for work such mornings. My girls, he’d call out, kissing Ruth and her mother on top of their heads when he came home. At dusk the crows cried Tar! Tar! as they tumbled out of the sky.
The Mowry house stood near-last on a dead-end road, and after the dead end came the tar flats, a piece of Carville land which in 1959 nobody wanted, now the boom was over. A one-lane access road ran a hundred yards further out to the tar pit itself. Barrels of tar, even a road roller with its giant foot (smooth as a baby’s rump, Ruth Mowry’s daddy said, his hand resting on the warm metal) had been forgotten nearby. On hot days the tar bubbled at the tops of the barrels, and a rippled heat rose off the flats. Ruth was let out barefoot; her father said any child of his ought to know enough to watch for nails. Tar’ll keep her stuck down fast, he persuaded her mother—she won’t get far.
To Ruth, who was four, a sturdy child on scabbed legs, each night arrived from nowhere. Suddenly it was close to bedtime; her parents put the lights out before her eyes. You are bigger now than you were, they told her. When in the dimness they stepped away from her, she checked her parts. Here was a gray arm. Here was the brutal hair in her eye, and her bitten tongue, and the dark holes in her head and privates. When you were born you had a strawberry birthmark, her mother murmured, here, at your nostril. You couldn’t breathe right, so the doctor took it out. Ruth took to watching how her chest rose and fell. What if she forgot?
“You’d die,” her daddy said one night over his ice cream.
He grinned. He held her mother’s swollen feet on his lap under the table and rubbed them until her mother pulled away. Finally he said, “But don’t worry. You can’t forget. It’s built-in, that control; it’s set deep in your fishy brain.”
She understood the idea of automatic breathing, the helplessness of it, though she could not articulate how she knew.
One day Ruth and her mother were having lemonade on the back stoop when a neighbor, name of Mrs. Doone, stopped by. Doone had sharp red elbows, and Ruth did not like to be near her, or most other people. She leaned back against her mother.
“Don’t.” Her mother swatted at her tiredly, and sent her in for the whiskey bottle. “Be quick but don’t run.”
The kitchen was full of dull green light that filtered through the shades. Ruth made out the chrome handle of the refrigerator, the silvery pots and glasses in the dish rack. The shape of the bottle was here, too; it was on the counter, blocking the stove clock’s eye. Outside on the stoop her mother and Doone murmured back and forth. With both hands Ruth pulled the bottle down.
She was quick as her parents saw she would be, quick legs, quick mind. The alphabet’s toy words came easy: abee seedy, elemenopy. She understood the bottom layer, the simple parts of what her parents said: the blocks, if not the tricks they could do with words. Supper talk was plain. Daddy is an engineer, Daddy makes machines. What kind? Refrigerators. She did not like the slippery talk they spoke with whiskey. When her mother said things such as “I got a bug in my machine, too; I want him home at night,” to Ruth it meant a kind of No, no, gimme! “I want” or “I don’t want” were often clear to her, but not the rest, the wanted things. She hung behind the screen, listening. The stove eye saw her. All she wanted was for Doone to go away.
Her mother was muttering about the baby she said was in her belly. “I can’t see my damn feet. I can’t hardly walk a step without the floor tripping me up.”
“Such won’t last, Iris,” Doone said. “Baby’ll get itself born soon enough.”
Ruth pushed open the screen door, holding the bottle fast by its neck.
“Let go now, honey,” her mother said, taking the bottle, and to Doone, “Freshen that?”
Doone smiled and tried to pet Ruth’s hair.
Ruth hopped back against her mother’s legs, meaning to escape just so far. But the legs gave way, and she tumbled over the side of the concrete stoop. As she fell, a hand reached out and snagged her arm, and another caught her shorts, and they lowered her to the ground. “Oh, she’s all right,” her mother said. Ruth squatted in the driveway, just beyond.
At twilight the street lamps came on. Her mother’s face stood out flat and white as a plate. Their voices seesawed back and forth until, finally, Doone got up to go home. She waved good-bye and ducked under the clothesline, Ruth’s daddy’s shirtsleeves brushing her shoulders.
Ruth’s mother rubbed her own swollen belly and closed her eyes and smoked. The cigarette’s orange coal at last flew out and landed at Ruth’s feet. There was no more talk, only the night-cooled smells of smoke and tar, until her mother said in her tired voice, “Let’s go back inside.”
Next day was too hot; the road shimmered early on. Ruth’s mother kept her in after lunch.
She built a city on the kitchen floor. First she had to decide—night or day? The sun was there in the ceiling, showing itself in the blaze of the lightbulb. She stacked baking pans for buildings. Certain alphabet blocks stood for people; the red rubber bands were balloons that showed what they were thinking.
This one thinks of how a baby got into its stomach—eaten. This one picks up the sister (Ruth picked up the saltshaker) and shakes it until the insides come out. That one rides to work on a bus. Here is a rabbit in the grass; here (bit of electrical tape) a crow. These are the telephone wires singing with headaches. These are the refrigerators holding the cold food. Here is me (Ruth gave the shaker a rubber band) on my tricycle. Here is me finding Daddy’s money for him in his pocket. Here I am falling down.
Now it is suppertime, and the crows have flown home, and the eye in the stove sees you while you play. Your mother has gotten up from the couch and is standing by the sink, just waking up. Her eyes drift to one side and her mouth yawns to show her egg teeth. The bottle slides from her hand and falls in the sink with a broken sound.
Ruth’s mother jumped.
“I’m clumsy,” she said, her eyes angled so she couldn’t really see Ruth. She got the dustpan and picked slivers of glass from the white sink and pretended to hide them in Ruth’s dirty hair along with her damp fingers. “Did you get cut? Look what I found!” Obediently Ruth said Ooh over the sprinkle of brightness found on her. The bristle brush appeared. The fire ants swept over her scalp. The windows went dark. Her mother stood Ruth on a chair, and washed her hair under the faucet.
Ruth’s daddy was building a cellar under his house; in fact, he bragged, it was almost done. In Carville, Tennessee, nobody put cellars under houses. He could not understand that. Everything he did made room around him. There was money in his pockets when he came home. He loomed in the kitchen doorway. He washed his hands at the sink, humming in the refrigerator’s monotonous language. Ruth knelt on the stool beside him and dug his money out. He turned and opened his mouth wide for her. “Look at all this gold,” he said, bending so she might examine his molars.
“Are we rich?”
He burst out laughing. “When I’m dead you can tell the undertaker to yank it all out for you,” he said, patting Ruth’s head. He opened the refrigerator door and basked in the coolness.
At supper he hunched over his plate; his hair waved out from his cowlick where it had grown long.
“You look like a lunatic, Dan. Get a haircut,” her mother pleaded.
“I don’t get you Southerners.” He cut into his fried eggs with a steak knife. “Where is a man supposed to put things? There’s no garage on this house, either.” He said this as if it were proof of some failing. He trimmed the whites and scooped up each yolk to swallow whole.
“Disgusting,” her mother said. She went and put her plate on the counter, tossing back her messy hair, her red mouth around a new cigarette as she turned and leaned against the sink. “You, finish,” she said to Ruth.
The cold eggs rubbed unpleasantly against Ruth’s teeth.
After supper they sat out on the back steps awhile. When her mother rose to do the dishes, her daddy pulled on his black knit cap. He winked at Ruth, and she followed him and stood exactly where he told her to in the driveway, holding a flashlight. He carried two-by-fours into the cellar hole under the living room. He buttoned his collar and pulled his cap low over his ears against spiders. They nested in the floorboards above his head, a dangerous rain, he told her; black widows eat their own husbands. She shivered for him. “You see? I’m all right—go back inside now,” he called from the floodlit cellar. But she wanted to hear the hammer sound—he was making the walls.
What she would remember was the three of them dancing in the living room to the loud Mexican records until her mother fell down. She would remember how exultant they were, stamping and whirling. When her mother’s tangled black hair caught in her daddy’s hands, he pulled her head back sharply, and kissed her neck. She was laughing when she fell, slumping heavily to the couch, her eyes rolling back. “Faker,” he said. “You’ve got nowhere to go, Iris.” But she didn’t rise, so he stood over her, his face flushed, breathing unevenly. His shirt was dark with sweat. He raised her legs to the cushions and covered her with a sheet. She stiffened and rolled away from him, showing the underpants that cut under her big belly. There was spit on her cheek.
He picked Ruth up and said she was his good girl. She had never seen him as happy as he was that minute. He carried Ruth into her room and shushed her. He showed her the rabbit’s head on the wall. He sucked the rabbit’s ears—his fingers. “Daddy’s checking you,” he said, “hold still,” and he hummed his soft hum. There: he poked between her tired legs. She jerked and whined when he cracked her open.
She understood nothing. These are the letterless blocks; these are the whiskey bottles her mother pulls from under the floor; this is the money she takes from her daddy’s pocket. Daddy put his fire-ant finger on her, and shivered like a very cold man. She lay quite still. She watched the ceiling for the sun. It’s still night, her daddy whispered. Why? Because it is. When he put on the lamp, that was when he looked scared. A little blood was coming out of her. “You fell,” he said. “You fell, that’s all. Did I see you? You and your mother were dancing so fast.” He patted her clean with a washcloth. “Good thing I checked you,” he said with his sweaty mouth. “You’ll be okay.”
In the morning Ruth’s mother called the doctor to say Ruth had another infection. “It’s the badness coming out, is all,” she said into the telephone. She put Ruth in the bathtub and washed her with hot water and tar shampoo. There was a red rubber band around her own hair, wrapped tight so no one could guess what she was thinking.
The water hammered from the faucet and was shut off. “Daddy’s gone,” she told Ruth. “He went to work, but he left you these.” She showed her paper children, the kind that came in McCall’s magazine, and left her a towel to dry with.
The boy doll had curly hair that was coming unstuck from its backing. Ruth peeled his face to see how he was made. When she tried to fix him, pressing her thumb over his damp eyes, his face kept lifting away. She felt the sudden pump of her heart as she climbed out of the tub.
In the magazine there were not only doll’s clothes to punch out, but spare arms and legs. You laid the pink flesh of a new arm over an old one. She waited for her mother to forget her. She was good at remembering. She was a breather like her daddy, who loved her. The baby living in her mother’s belly was so heavy it pulled her mother down.
The habits that came to Ruth were those of quickness, and falling. She understood plain things, eggs and rectangles and rhymes. When her father sang the one about falling, Rock-a-bye Baby, she was never afraid. She didn’t yet understand things such as jealousy, and tearing sadness.
June bugs smacked the kitchen screens as soon as evening came. Her mother whacked a head of lettuce against the sink to get the water out. The alphabet towers had toppled in the corner. The cellar door squeaked when Ruth pulled it open. “You’ll fall. You’re not allowed down there, so don’t try anything,” her mother said without turning. “I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, you know.”
Ruth stood at the top of the cellar stairs listening to her daddy’s sawing—he was home again. The lights were blazing. Lightbulbs were the color of salt; that was why moths licked them. Then the moths’ wings burned. Did it hurt when that happened? No answer from the red rubber bands, or the dolls’ mouths. The steps ran down to the cellar like a steep block slide, and when she looked she saw it was her turn. She felt her mother’s eyes on her like a push.
“Shoo, flies,” her mother said to the June bugs. What did the tricky words mean: you’ll fall, you fell. What was falling like? Ruth tried, but she couldn’t remember any other falling, only Doone’s and her mother’s hands picking her out of the air. The boy doll was in her hand. She pinched his flat head to keep him still, and swayed out until she lost her balance.
It was a quick, loud fall, with no thinking in it, only hard banging against the stairs that echoed in her different parts. At the end her ear struck the bottom step; her legs pointed up the stairs. Her daddy ran to her and put his thumbs to her eyelids, trying to see in. My God, his mouth said; she could not hear him very well. He felt her bones and picked her up. His nose ran. She tried to say, Wipe it, Daddy; no air would leave her. She could hear her mother calling her, saying, Ruth, Ruth! Want my baby, under the salt light, and she was so thirsty, but she felt no push to answer.
Sylvia Foley‘s first book, Life in the Air Ocean (Knopf, 1999), a collection of linked short stories, was named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times. The title story won GQ’s 1997 Frederick Exley Fiction Competition. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Story, Open City, LIT, Zoetrope, and The Antioch Review; and in the anthologies On the Rocks: The KGB Bar Fiction Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2002) and They’re At It Again: Stories from 20 Years of Open City (Open City Books, 2011). Her poetry has appeared in Black River Review, Sinister Wisdom, Conditions, and Alaska Quarterly Review. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Yaddo.
Elemenopy first appeared in Life in the Air Ocean (Knopf, 1999).
Read an interview with Sylvia here.