Every day after elementary school, my mother would pick me up and we’d drive home together. On the way, we’d often pass our neighbor, Ruby, aiming the nozzle of her gardening hose at the disordered arrangement of bushes and vines that surrounded her front porch. Ruby was an older woman, who wore ankle-length skirts under long-sleeved button-downs even in summer. She kept her dark hair pinned so close to her head that, to a child like me, she seemed to have little hair at all. She would always wave as our car approached, then turn her hose on our back windshield if we tried to drive by without stopping.
On most days, Mom would pull over so the two could commiserate on the burdens of housewives. I would sit in the backseat and eavesdrop while Mom complained about whatever stray animals Dad had dragged home that season—an abandoned fawn or a crate full of puppies—before moving on to all the ways in which he had taken her for granted for the last thirty-five years. Ruby was less vocal. She preferred to stand outside our car nodding and giggling, still holding the rubber hose between her hands as if it were a ground for my mother’s ever-flowing anger. Ruby never raised her voice. I took this to mean she was the happiest woman we knew.
That’s why one day as we drove past, I was surprised to hear my mother ask, “Did you know that sonofabitch hit Ruby in the back of the head with a shovel?”
Mom had a habit of referring to everyone, even her own children, as sonsofbitches, so I wasn’t immediately sure as to whom she meant.
“No,” I said. “Who hit Ruby with a shovel?”
“Lou, that no-good motherfucker she’s married to! He did it right there in the yard!” Mom gestured at Ruby’s yard as we zoomed past in case I’d forgotten where it was.
“Is she okay?” I turned the top half of my body to stare out our back window. My tiny stomach filled with fear when I confirmed Ruby wasn’t out front.
Mom let too long a pause go by before answering, “She’s fine. This was years ago.”
Every day after that, instead of eavesdropping on the conversation closest to me, I kept my eye on Lou, as if my small, watchful gaze might save Ruby any more beatings. He was always lounging in a lawn chair on their front porch, which sat high on a latticed foundation, giving the impression that he was some sort of foreman looking down on Ruby and the work she did there. While I waited for him to jump down from his perch and try to black her eye in front of us, I became more and more obsessed with the contrast between the giggly neighbor we talked to each day and the woman who looked just like her, but got whacked in the head with a shovel sometimes.
Day after day, I prodded Mom for more details. I learned that Lou only hit Ruby with a shovel once, though he might’ve done it a second time had he not loused it up so badly on his first attempt. Mom said the old bastard hit her too hard the first time, and she passed out in their front yard. It was winter, and her scalp opened up and poured so much blood onto the snow that the simple motherfucker panicked and tried to bury her right then and there.
Lou was a stereotype, a wife-beater who couldn’t put the bottle down, and since he was too hammered from that day’s allotment to properly handle the situation, he just dug a hole the size of a small dog and dragged Ruby into it. He began the impossible task of burying her, but soon found his flabby arms with their illegitimate farmer’s tan weren’t up to the task. Mom said he hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a forty-ouncer since he’d went on disability twenty years before, so even if the dumb sonofabitch had managed to dig a hole the right size, his arms would have still given out long before he finished.
He struggled on anyway, optimistic in the face of all obstacles as only a drunk can be, and it was only a short while before he became convinced that her body—still visible despite his best efforts—was moving. Eventually, he was sure of it: Ruby, like her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, had come back from the dead to save him!
Later, Ruby relayed this same moment to Mom without the miraculous implications: “I woke up, shiverin’, and there Lou was, pilin’ snow on the back of my head!”
I asked Mom, “If that man hit Ruby with a shovel, why does she let him live there?” In our household, lesser offenses had gotten Dad banished to the truck in his underwear for the night.
“Because she don’t believe in divorce, Sherry.”
Although she was the one implying the concept of divorce was something to believe in or not believe in, like Jesus or the Tooth Fairy, Mom punctuated the sentence with my name as if I were the idiot.
“She wouldn’t have to divorce him. She could just come live with us.”
“She don’t wanna live with us and hush up! Ruby don’t want her business talked about all over God’s creation.” She muttered to herself, “Besides, then the old, no-account bastard’d be showin’ up at my table for bread.”
Mom was right; Ruby would never leave Lou. She was a woman of God—a devoted follower of the Wesleyan Methodist faith, who believed the only document powerful enough to end a marriage was a toe tag. She and most everyone I grew up with interpreted the Bible literally, meaning divorce was no more an option for women than pantsuits or haircuts. To these friends and neighbors, even televisions were windows into sin, and they believed a single glimpse could lead to eternal damnation.
When she came to visit, Ruby had no choice but to barrel through the front door past the floor-model TV that was the centerpiece of our living room; Dad was never one to save leisure for the afterlife. Ruby would cover her eyes with one arm and sprint toward my mother in the kitchen as if she had interrupted Dad watching some particularly offensive pornography instead of the same five syndicated episodes of Gunsmoke he clearly preferred.
The minister didn’t approve of our television either, but Mom seemed to favor everlasting hellfire over trying to convince Dad we shouldn’t have one. Had he known, I also doubt the minister would have sanctioned Mom’s habit of cursing her family each Sunday morning for not waking up in time to attend service with her, but that didn’t stop her from doing it. Dad and I preferred sleep to divine accompaniment, but on Sundays we got neither. After Mom cooked our breakfast and finished telling us what a couple of lazy motherfuckers we were, she would mercifully leave and head less than a mile up the road to sit in the back pew and hum along to “The Old Rugged Cross.” Dad and I were then free to spend the rest of our Sunday morning watching old cartoons and eating cereal, our second breakfast of the day, which tasted all the better since it wasn’t simmering with resentment.
Mom said the morning after Ruby’s attempted murder was a Sunday. Service started at 10 a.m., but Ruby always arrived fifteen minutes early just as my mother always rushed in fifteen minutes late—they joked that they canceled each other out. But on that Sunday at almost 9:30 a.m., Ruby hadn’t yet gotten dressed.
While female victims of domestic abuse in movies have many womanly tricks at their disposal to help hide the bruises and in this case, gashes, on their skull, Ruby had woken up with no such luxuries. Even as a child, I knew the church promoted immodest sanctions on modesty forbidding makeup, jewelry, or any other costuming construed as flashy or prideful. Over and over my mother would tell the story of how a woman once asked our minister if an exception could be made for the special nail polish she used to keep from biting her nails. “A little chicken manure would do the same,” had been our minister’s flip reply.
Similarly, hair was said to be a woman’s “true glory” and was never to be cut. Mom told me many of the older women in my neighborhood, Ruby included, had hair that reached their ankles. I never saw for sure though because outside their homes, those long, seductive locks had to be pinned in a tight bun to prevent otherwise holy men from committing sins of the flesh in the streets.
Ruby followed these rules to the letter—she would no sooner leave the house with her hair down than she would without clothes on. But the new bloody bald spot on the back of her head had matted while she slept, entangling her remaining hair so that she couldn’t perform a brush stroke without going to tears, let alone attempt a bun with bobby pins. Rather than miss the service completely, she decided to call my mother to see if a second pair of hands might help.
Mom was an expert on domestic abuse seeing as how she was often a perpetrator. She chased as many people from her dinner table as she welcomed to it, and this mix of generosity and rage often led her to take on other people’s battles. On a morning ten years before Lou took a shovel to Ruby, Mom’s older sister, Tina, phoned to say that her own husband had beaten her badly the night before, stomping on her chest until it was black and blue before heading out for a pack of smokes. At the time, Mom had three kids of her own, plus a grandmother with dementia squeezed into a two-bedroom house that lacked indoor plumbing. She hung up the phone and left for Tina’s anyway, bringing her and all eight of her children back to the house like she thought it was a Tardis.
The story goes that many of my cousins were so malnourished they began eating raw hamburger from the refrigerator upon arrival. Within a few months, Mom helped get them back on their feet and moved them into a cabin visible from our front door. Still, she held a lifelong grudge against the man she thought responsible for their poor condition. He went by “Buckshot,” and while Mom seemed to view Lou as more of a mean-spirited fool incapable of overcoming his own pitiful circumstances, she taught me that Buckshot was the Devil incarnate. She promised to kill him on sight, and in an attempt to make good, accosted him with a butcher knife in our driveway one afternoon. Dad broke them up, sparing Mom the second-degree murder charge by carrying her back in the house over his shoulder.
Ruby knew this story and what it said about Mom’s threshold for domestic abuse, perhaps better than anyone else since her driveway was practically adjoined to our own. She called anyway.
Mom fielded many calls from the women of the church on Sunday mornings, greeting each one with the same friendly routine.
“Hey lady, what’s for breakfast? You makin’ eggs yet? I ain’t made nothin’ yet.” Sometimes, she might add, “Jim put on the coffee though!”
Dad rarely touched anything in the kitchen so mornings when he got up first to make the coffee were gestures of great kindness—newsworthy. Ruby always praised my father for these small acts as if he were a beloved German Shepherd.
“Aww that’s awful good of him! Tell him to come to church sometime, Jesus misses him! You comin’ this morning?”
“Yeah, I’mma comin’, but you couldn’t get any of these sonsofbitches to go without bringin’ in the Jaws of Life.” Mom’s disposition changed with the wind, and even Ruby wasn’t always immune. “I guess I’ll see ya up there?” Ruby never missed a service so this question was usually rhetorical and would have marked the end of their call.
“I can’t go. I can’t do my hair.”
“Ha! What do you mean you can’t do your hair? You get a brush stuck in it?”
“No. Can you come up here?”
“What’d the sonofabitch do now, Ruby? What’d he do? I’ll send Jim up there, I swear I will!”
The threat, which Mom had made many times before, was an idle one. Though Dad was far from a coward, he wasn’t about to get involved in someone else’s marriage. This was an unspoken rule among men in our community, and Ruby could recite it better than anyone.
“Sandy. Just come up here. He ain’t here right now anyway.”
“Oh, is that so?” Mom drew out the last syllable, showcasing fluent sarcasm. “Well, where’s the ol’ no-good alky at? I know he ain’t at work, ha! Probably out pickin’ up his next bottle! I’ll kick his piss drunk ass all over your driveway, Ruby, I will—”
“Don’t talk like that, San. The Lord don’t like to hear that kinda talk.”
“Mhm. Let me put some clothes on and I’ll be up in a minute.”
Ruby’s head wound healed within a few weeks, although no one was to say if she was hiding any new ones under her bun. Mom had taken to going to aerobics in the afternoons, and she was driving home from class one Saturday when she noticed Lou standing alone on the hill in front of his trailer. He had his hands in his pockets and wore a blank stare, swaying to and fro’, so drunk a strong wind could have knocked him over.
Thanks to Jane Fonda and her ilk, Mom was feeling like she could “take on the whole goddamned world,” so she whipped her larger-than-life Chevy Caprice into Ruby’s driveway and jumped out, still wearing her spandex leotard and legwarmers.
“You good for nothin’ motherfucker! She’s a good woman! Too good for your piss-drunk ass!”
She closed the gap between the car and Lou in the length of time it took to scream her battle cry. Mom was not very large, but neither was Lou, and Mom was sober. One finger to the chest sent him reeling backward down the hill so that he landed face-up in the ditch at the bottom. Mom followed, jumping on top of him and pummeling his slack jaw left and then right, until his eyes started to roll, until he pissed himself—from fear, drunkenness, or the way Mom was no doubt bearing down on his bladder is still unclear.
Fortunately for Lou, our minister’s son drove by and broke up the “fight.” Lou slurred through bloodied teeth that he planned to file a police report because now he had a witness! The minister’s son replied, “I didn’t see a thing, Lou,” and ushered Mom back into her car. She was in a fit of tears, as if Lou was the one who had attacked her without provocation.
In her mind, he’d done worse.
Mom longed to be the perfect woman, which to her, meant being the perfect Christian wife. Her grandparents, who raised her after her own mother had run off to find herself, instilled this strong conviction from early childhood. Back then, her grandfather had been the minister of the church and in the middle of one of his Sunday sermons, dropped dead in the pulpit from a massive heart attack. Mom was four years old at the time. This cemented a personal connection between her and the Wesleyan Methodists, but as an adult, she was vigilant about separating herself from the rest of the congregation. She used to say she didn’t “belong to church,” she just went, and if she were to ever “get religion,” it’d be the “real kind” her grandma had practiced with no compromises made for Dad’s love of Unsolved Mysteries or my refusal to put on a dress.
In the meantime, Mom spent every day believing a sudden heart attack of her own was the only thing between the breath she drew and an eternity in Satan’s hell-pit, fundamentalist edition, complete with demons, murderers, and unbaptized infants. When you factor that in, it’s really no wonder she was so tense all the time.
She channeled her rage and fear through her inner compass, signing up to be God’s black ops agent—someone willing to do the things no good woman should ever have to do but that still had to be done, things like preventing sonsofbitches like Lou from ruining the peace of good women like Ruby. To Mom, Ruby was not only good, she was a holy woman of whom my great-grandmother would’ve been proud. Ruby went to church every Sunday whether she felt like it or not. She may not have been able to stop her husband from drinking, but she had surely kept a television out of her living room. She never spoke a bad word about anyone, whether they deserved it or not. And it wasn’t Ruby’s daughter who was sent home in junior high for kissing girls.
Mom told everyone Lou was afraid of her after she beat the hell out of him, and his behavior didn’t suggest otherwise. He never spoke to her after that, and barely said two words to Ruby in front of her—maybe that’s why he kept to the porch all those years we spent chatting with Ruby in her yard.
The liquor got him before his sixtieth birthday, and Ruby asked Mom to write his obituary.
Rumpus original art by Nusha Ashjee.