"I don't know," said Martha Nell. "You knew when you married him he was older. You must've known John Clay would come back from the war. Or did you think he'd die over there and save you the trouble of telling him?"
Ruby walked over to the tea cart that held Bubba's liquor. She poured herself a shot of bourbon neat and didn't say anything until she'd drunk it. Then, refilling the glass again, she shrugged. "I'm free, white, and over twenty one," she told her sister.
"Twenty," Martha Nell interrupted, "and married."
Ruby was irritable. "It was just fine, you know, until John Clay came home. Come to the shop looking for me, Gladys told him I wasn't doing manicures, told him I was working with Bubba".
"He never got your letters?"
"And so?" Martha Nell bit off a piece of gold yarn and looked up from her needle work, her green eyes reminding Ruby of a cat staking a bird. She watched her wind thread around her finger without ever taking her eyes off Ruby.
"He walked right into the store, back where I was marking stock, straight away looks hard at Bubba over in the hosiery counter where he's waiting on a customer, and says, big as you please, 'What in Sam Hill has been goin' on?' Bubba hears his voice, not what he said, but something about the manner of his saying it, and he looks over, wondering.
"Hush," I told John Clay. I wanted to hug and kiss him, not having seen him for three years, but I let my hands stay where they were, full of pins and cardboard. My stomach was full of butterflies. "So you're back," was all I said. He had on blue jeans and a plaid shirt, boots and a straw hat. His pants were tight, you could see every little rise, and it was rising, let me tell you.
He'd shaved his hair, you remember how dark and thick it was? It's cut close; it makes his features sharp, and his eyes, you remember how they used to fairly burn right through me?
They're still the same, looking right into my soul. He still gets to me. I backed away a little, practically into the Coke machine there at the back next to Lay Away.
This raised Bubba's suspicion. He called over to me, was everything all right, did I need any help, Sugar. It was the Sugar that did it. John Clay looks straight away to my hand, he sees the ring." Now Ruby held out her left hand, studied the small diamond set in gold, let it fall into her lap, and continued.
"'My God,' he says, 'I don't believe it.' He looks hard at me, and harder still at Bubba.
'He's old,' he says. 'What ever could you be thinkin' of?' And then, he turns and stumbles up the aisle out of the store."
Martha Nell bent over her embroidery, squinting but listening carefully.
"Of course Bubba wanted to know what it was all about. I told him before I married him I had been keeping company with John Clay, only it wasn't serious."
Ruby looked up over her empty glass, her red hair falling into her shoulders as if it were heavily weighted. "It never was, for me. It was mostly hustle and tussle, far as I'm concerned. It's been finished with since I met Bubba." Ruby shrugged. She had been married for over a year now although it seemed like yesterday that Bubba had hurried her off to a justice of -the peace in Wynne, afraid that his family would raise objections unless they presented themselves already beyond the reach of their entreaties. He'd used a French expression, she hardly knew where he got it, a fait accompli, he'd called it. She had asked him if accompli meant worse than death, because if that was what he meant, she didn't plan to marry him.
He had laughed, and said that she tickled him, and that it gave him pleasure to think of spending the rest of his life with her, his baby, his sugar, his sweet.
That was how Ruby felt too. She'd been very happy until yesterday when John Clay showed up, mustered out of the army, ready to take up where he'd left off. She leaned back in her chair, playing her fingers over the hob nails, thinking how it used to be with them. She sighed. Martha Nell was echoing her words.
"Hustle and tussle, that's some name for it. You are a mess, a regular mess. Maybe worse than me."
Ruby sat up straight. "Do not judge lest ye be judged," she said sharply. "I never got myself p.g., Martha Nell. You are a fine one to talk."
But now while Martha Nell began to backtrack and apologize, she sat there barely listening, wondering how and why it was that she wasn't pregnant. Bubba was eager for a family, and so was she, but nothing had happened that way. She felt Miss Sissie's eyes on her when they went over to his mother's for Sunday dinners, but her abdomen remained disappointingly flat. One of Maude's and Doc's daughters had just had a baby. Ruby wanted one too, found herself praying every month out of disappointment and longing.
Women came into the store to buy over-sized dresses, cotton shifts. She knew they were pregnant, and she envied them. Doris Jean, her old friend from high school, had quit her job at the restaurant to marry Danny Harrels in a hurry. A year from now people would forget they'd had to get married, and Doris Jean would be pushing a perambulator up and down the uneven sidewalk, like the other young women. She sighed.
"Guess I've worn out my welcome," Martha Nell was saying, "'pears to me you haven't heard a word I've said." She stood and put away her sewing.
"I've got a lot on my mind," Ruby said. Bubba would be coming home soon, and between remembering John Clay and thinking of a baby, she wanted to be alone.
But later, lying on their bed, smelling his cigar, listening to the radio, feeling the evening creep into the house, purple and blue over the Rose of Sharon outside their bedroom window, Ruby was surprised by sadness. She rolled over on one elbow and gazed at Bubba. His eyes were closed, the dewlaps of his cheeks lay against his throat, but his teeth clenched the cigar, and he was not asleep. He opened his eyes and saw her there, the hand-painted bedside lamp behind her.
He pushed himself up and placed his cigar in the ashtray on his nightstand. "Looks like you lost your best friend."
"I'm not pregnant, Bubba. It's been over a year."
He pulled her down and rested her head on his shoulder. The thin strap of his tee shirt rubbed against her cheek, but she lay still while he stroked her hair.
"You don't want to see Doc about it, I'll drive you over to Memphis," he said. "Take you to a doctor there. That suit you?"
"Who will mind the store?"
"Don't worry about that."
They drove the next week to a clinic specializing in female problems, but after a series of tests, it was determined that nothing was the matter with Ruby. Driving back to Arkansas in the green Hudson, Bubba smoked his cigar and frowned. He pulled his fedora down to avoid the glare from the setting sun. Ruby could barely see his face between the hat and the smoke. "I don't know," he muttered, "I just don't know what to make of it."
"What do you mean?"
"The idea," said Bubba, "that having mumps might be the problem. It was bad enough to have mumps. Everyone teased me. Maude's kids had 'em and I caught 'em too. But that's--lemme think-- four, five years ago. What took my attention wasn't the mumps, it was not getting into the army. I'd volunteered but they found some heart flutter from when I was a kid and had rheumatic fever. That really upset me, everyone volunteering and me having to stay home. I never thought nothin' about those mumps." He pushed his hat up and flipped the grey visor down on the car. He pulled off the road onto a spit of pink and orange gravel and threw the stub of his cigar back onto the road. Ruby turned to look at him but over his shoulder she could see the tiny bit of tobacco smoulder on the asphalt, and she watched it as if her life depended on it until its glow turned into ash.
"Well, now," she said, unable to think of anything to say. After the doctor had examined her, he had called Bubba into his office while she sat idly leafing through magazines in the waiting room.
"Nothing wrong with her" hummed in her ears while she sat there, beat against her like the wings of a humming bird. Her whole being sang with the pleasure of nothing wrong with her, and the world looked fresh, even the doctor's waiting room with the brass humidor filled with dirty sand and cigarette butts. Less than an hour had passed since then.
Stunned now, Ruby continued to stare at the dead cigar ash in the road. At length she turned to look him. His face was twice grey with anguish and stubble. There were tears in his eyes.
Across the road a large sprawl of trumpet vine gave her something to look at other than the grey. Intuitively she focused on the vine, the way it climbed out of the dusty ditch and hugged the barbed. wire effortlessly, the way it sought the light, also, as it was late in the afternoon, the way the orange blossoms closed protectively until next day.
"Sweetheart, Bubba, honey. This is not the end of the world. This is just a man in a white coat saying maybe the mumps could be a problem." She covered his face in kisses until its grey pallor flowered with bright red lipstick, and then she took out her handkerchief, spit on it, and tried to wipe it off.
"You are a mess," she said. "You look like a regular circus clown."
"But what if he's right?" Bubba could barely manage the words.
"Well, then I'll be your baby, and you will just be mine." He hugged her close, and over his head she stared at the trumpet vine until her own eyes cleared and were dry again. Please, she prayed, please, God.
The next day, back at the store, she spent the morning reviewing sales slips from the day before when they had been in Memphis. Louise Haven had come in and bought a cotton dress, size twelve. Ruby knew what that meant. Still, she tallied everything carefully before she and Bubba went home for dinner at noon. After their meal, she lay down with a headache, and Bubba told her to stay put. He didn't need her at the store except on weekends. Ruby lay on the bed feeling the crocheted bedspread rasp against the calves of her legs. She stared for awhile at a picture on the wall next to her maple dresser. Bubba didn't know it, but John Clay had sent her that picture as a souvenir from the South Seas when he had first been sent over there.
Made of the wings of butterflies, all silvery blue and orange and black, the picture was of a boat sailing over the water, but you couldn't see where it was going. Ruby thought her life might turn out like that, uncertain of direction but essentially colorful. She wondered how many dead butterflies it took to make the picture, and she wondered too who killed them, who fashioned the picture, what life was like in that place. She was sure, lying there, that it must have been a question of survival. She imagined a Philippine woman sitting in a grass skirt making the picture of the boat. Ruby's head ached. She took aspirin and slept fitfully, and not surprisingly, dreamed of Bubba and John Clay.
They were sitting on a river bank, fishing in metallic blue water. John Clay kept catching fish, bream, catfish perch, it seemed like everything that swam was hitting on his line. Bubba was catching nothing, and she was there too, running back and forth between them, but all her activity was to no purpose . She wasn't fishing. She was just running, and at one point, behind their backs, she tried to scoop a silvery fish from John Clay's bucket without his noticing. But the fool fish floundered right out of her grasp and onto the grass where it flapped in a glass-eyed frenzy, wanting its natural element. She woke dry-mouthed, breathless, anxious.
She decided to walk Uptown to the A& P. She would buy a small piece of ham and black-eyed peas for tomorrow. The peas had to soak overnight. They'd swell to twice their size that way, she thought, and frowned. Carefully she applied her make-up and dressed for her walk as if she were going to Maude's for a Coke. She might, she thought, stop off there on her way back from the grocery. But at the A & P, who did she run into in the parking lot but John Clay himself, and because she didn't want to be seen talking to him there where everyone was running into the store for last minute tomatoes and okra and corn meal, she found herself agreeing to a lift home.
John Clay just looked at her out of the corner of his eye, allowing his toothpick to droop over his lip.
The edge of town blurred past, a few houses built on stilts, a series of empty lots, and then a vast openness that spoke of cotton and soybeans, hard impoverished soil and despair. There was a small shack shingled with yellow asbestos siding, colored children on the porch and under it, barely clothed, their eyes vacant as they stared at John Clay's car. It wasn't any different from any other car that passed this way, a man staring straight ahead, a woman turning aside. They had, she thought, no sense of themselves as scenery. They were people, real children, so many of them for one house, no mother in sight, only a girl about fourteen, in a pink and brown dress, staring back as Ruby stared at her, without curiosity or enthusiasm.
"Children so cute," said Ruby, but John Clay didn't answer. He remained silent all the way to the edge of the peach orchard, where he drove the car not up to the scales and the crates of fruit, but down a long side-aisle through the peach trees, coming to a halt in the dust and weeds at the far end of the orchard. The trees were old. Ruby fixed her eyes on a blob of amber sap that ran from a gash in a limb bent down toward the hood of John Clay's car.
"That sap'll make a fine mess if it gets on your car," she said. She wasn't nervous except that she felt a physical stirring, of the very sort he always aroused in her. She had hoped now she was married that this shimmery feeling had disappeared, dried up and fallen away except with respect to Bubba, but here it was in spite of what she hoped. Her skin felt transparent, and she could tell, as he turned to reproach her in the middle of the fruit orchard, that he could feel her desire. She concentrated on the peach sap, globules that clustered along the trunk to no purpose. Desire, she thought, was like that, purposeless, sticky, almost impossible to be rid of. She scratched her arm absently.
"Fine mess," John Clay said, "don't talk to me about fine messes. How come you married him? Wasn't I good enough?" Roughly he took her hand and scrutinized the diamond Bubba had given her.
"You never cared about fancy stuff with me," he said.
"Don't," she said. "You don't know what I care about. We never had any understanding between us, except --". Ruby hesitated to describe the way they had of giving pleasure without words.
But as if her unaccustomed reticence had recalled their former passion, John Clay now reached farther and pulled her to him, crushing her into the front seat, where the plastic knob of the window handle pressed the top of her head as she lay pinned beneath him.
She asked herself later why she hadn't resisted him, how much responsibility she had. When she reconstructed the afternoon, which she could do by simply standing still and closing her eyes, or by walking into her kitchen and picking up a fuzzy peach from the pressed glass bowl on her white enamel table, Ruby had always to come back to the fact that her hips tilted to his as hungrily as ever they had before her marriage.
"Only this once," she told him, and John Clay laughed.
"Girl, who you kidding?"
For two weeks she tormented herself with that afternoon, sometimes telling herself that it had only happened because she was upset over the man she now called the mumps doctor. John Clay had taken advantage of her, trading on the physical attraction they had always felt for one another.
Ruby doubled her efforts at housekeeping, polishing silver, shining brass, dusting furniture She took to visiting her sister-in-law Maude in the mornings, buffered by the presence of Maude's daughter and grandchildren visiting from St. Louis. Maude and Doc kept a decanter of bourbon on the sideboard in her dining room, and Ruby splashed a little into her Coke when she re-filled the glasses for everyone during those visits. She made up a manicure kit for Maude's grandchildren and painted their toes and fingernails, marveling at their tiny fingers. She was so occupied with the children, basking in their evident admiration, that almost a week had passed before Ruby noticed that she had missed a period.
She walked around praying for another week, but nothing happened. She tried to tell Bubba, but his dark mood prevented her. More preoccupied than she had ever seen him, he was almost beyond reach in some sorrowful place. Finally she brought herself to corner Doc one afternoon when she and Bubba had stayed for the noon meal. Doc smoked Dutch Masters cigars which Maude termed vile, and he smoked them after lunch on the side porch. If a Cardinals' game was being broadcast from St. Louis, he would string the cord beneath the screen door and set the radio down on the porch beside him.
"Doc," said Ruby, smoothing her skirt, sitting down in a wicker rocker opposite him, raising her voice above Harry Carey and the Cardinals, but keeping it low enough to prevent being overheard, "I think I'm pregnant. I'm two weeks late. I haven't told Bubba yet."
"Well, don't," said Doc abruptly. "You're not pregnant. Dr. Blander explained to Bubba about the mumps. I've been explaining it all over again this week. You know what that means, don't you? You're just upset about it, and you have a right to be. Being upset can make you miss a time. I'm sorry, Ruby, but you and Bubba cannot have children together."
Then what, she wondered, and why? She imagined all the eggs she had been born with clustered inside her like a tray of grapes held by the smiling young woman on the raisin box. Lord, how she wanted a baby, but as the month wore on, she became nervous. Doc always knew what he was talking about. And if she couldn't have a child with Bubba, then the afternoon in the peach orchard with John Clay could harvest yet more bitter fruit.
Ruby lay on her bed most afternoons, feeling faint, staring at the picture made from crushed butterflies. She held imaginary conversations with the woman in the Philippines who had made the picture. What should I do? she asked. You do what you must to survive, said the distant woman. You try to make it as beautiful as you can, and sometimes you even put a frame around it. You call it your life.
Ruby told Bubba she was going shopping in Memphis with Martha Nell and went to see Dr. Blander again, telling her sister that it was a follow- up visit. Martha Nell sat in the waiting room doing needlepoint while Ruby saw the doctor.
"I don't understand this," he said. "It's physically impossible for your husband to father a child, and yet here you are pregnant. Well, congratulation are in order." He looked narrowly at her as she began to cry. "Or are they?"
"There's no such thing as a little bit pregnant," said the doctor. "Almost a rape? Either it was or it wasn't." "I knew the man," she said in a low voice. "I love my husband. I cannot have this baby."
"Do you love him enough for that?" She stated down at her perfect nails, looked at the ring Bubba had given her, thought of the way he had looked on the highway back from Memphis, drawn and grey and anguished. She imagined herself sitting on a cushion patiently sifting color from the wings of butterflies while the woman from the raisin box stood waiting for her to put down the butterflies and take a grape. But she never looked up. No, she seemed to whisper, those are not for me.
She looked up again at the doctor. She sniffed, then slipped her hand into her purse and felt for her compact. She took it out and powdered her red nose, then slid it back into her purse while the doctor sat there looking pained. She rose and gazed out the window over low roof tops and used car lots from which the shimmer of hot metal shot shards of cutting light in the summer sun. She could feel his eyes on her back, and she stood straight and tall.
"Women know about these things. Where to go. But it is dangerous. You could die of it, and I don't want to die. I have a good life with Bubba. It will have to be enough."
Then she sat back down. "Dr. Blander, you went to medical school with Doc. This has to be very private, just between you and me." When Ruby left the office, pale and shaken, she was no longer pregnant.
"You look awful," said Martha Nell cheerfully, winding up her embroidery. "Are you going to have a baby?"
"No," said Ruby, "I'm not."
"There's always hope. These doctors don't know everything. You can always pray for a miracle. Sometimes a person's prayers are answered when they least expect it." She took her brass thimble and popped it into her bag. Ruby bit her lip. She opened her purse and took out some Dentyne gum. She had a bad taste in her mouth.
"Oh, Martha Nell, she said, slipping the gum back into her purse only to discover that her compact had sprung open dusting everything with face powder, "I am going to be careful the way I pray for the rest of my life," she said. She withdrew her powdery fingers and rubbed them together over the brass humidor in the doctor's waiting room. For a moment then she thought about butterflies and the way the dusty shimmer must flake from their flattened wings.
"I'm going to be very careful. Or maybe I won't pray at all. There' lots of ways to get through life,