Marginalia

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jen Julian


e-book generation 8356
Photo Credit: korafotomorgana

Our cousin Ruthie was seventeen when she disappeared. By that point in her life, she’d swelled to the size of three average full-grown women, which inevitably became her defining feature. My brother and me heard all the usual punches about how impossible it was for a girl that big to go missing at all: a guy who stepped out on his front porch anywhere in the county would be able to see Ruthie; Ruthie’s ass was visible on Doppler radar; Ruthie had to iron her jeans in the driveway. Etcetera. We joined in. Given our tenuous place in the fourth-grade hierarchy—we wanted to be tough, tricksters, uprooting order for the sake of chaos—it was impossible not to join in. In fact, a couple of the jokes I just mentioned, that was actually Chris and me.

When Ruthie had been gone three months with no word, our uncle hit a breaking point. The bus dropped us off from school and we found him home from work early, wearing a paper surgeon’s mask. He had doused the bathroom and the kitchen all over in bleach, and the smell was so strong that Chris and me couldn’t stay inside without getting dizzy. We moved our play to the magnolia tree in the front yard. There, higher in the branches than any adult would dare to go, we watched our uncle coming and going from the door carrying trash bags. He put whole boxes of Ruthie’s books out on the front sidewalk for the garbagemen to pick up. We threw magnolia fruits at him, pretending they were grenades. He ignored us. This wasn’t by itself unusual. If we were outside, the rule was that we were basically animals, and our uncle had come to accept our wildness in a way that had earned him our respect. Still, we could feel his intensity as we watched from the tree, the buildup of anxieties that had been quivering underneath since Ruthie’s disappearance. In his yellow gloves and surgeon’s mask, with his rimless glasses flashing, he had become the mad scientist of our Sunday morning TV shows. We found ourselves genuinely unsettled.

By dinnertime, we’d mostly forgotten this feeling. The gloves and mask were gone, and we assumed our uncle was once again himself, salesman, smooth-talker, unaffected and distant. He wore nothing on his sleeve but a large silver watch, and when he spoke his voice was warm as whiskey; it could, as our father had said, “wheedle the bloomers off any blue-haired lady.” But the intensity was still there, bubbling in the steaks he cooked for us that night. When Chris and me began to fight and stab at each other with butter knives, something broke. Our uncle snatched the steaks up and hoarded them at his end of the table.

“If you don’t stop acting like a couple of goddamn fools,” he said, “neither one of you will eat till Sunday. I will consume every bite of this in front of you. Every bite.”

We fell quiet. The house, still thick with the lemon-bleach smell of the Great Cleaning Blitz, was all the more filled with absence—absence and misery and a kind of guilt I wouldn’t understand until I was much older.

“Now listen,” said our uncle. “Y’all need to grow up. Y’all need to grow up because y’all need to help me out. If we’re on our own, then that’s the sad state of things, and the foolin’ has to stop.”

I looked at Chris. Chris stared at the table.

“Now eat,” said our uncle, pushing his plate within our reach. “And don’t be animals about it.”

We ate, but our uncle didn’t. He looked out toward the window with his chin in his hand, his sharp movie star chin. He was among the better-looking men in town. Strangers wouldn’t have guessed Ruthie was his daughter. Once, a crazy woman in a supermarket had mistaken him for a resurrected Marlon Brando, though I wouldn’t know who that was until years later. Out of a family of six brothers, he was the only one who’d actually been successful; it was due to his pretty face and charisma, according to our father, who didn’t think much of either quality. Our father was in jail for assault. Our mother was at a place upstate with manicured lawns and topiary, “unwinding” as it had been told to us. We had been living in suburbia for a little over two years.

“The books,” our uncle said. “I should bring them back in, I guess.”

He wasn’t talking to us.

“No,” he said. “They’re just gonna take up space. Leave ’em out there. Hell, leave ’em out there.”

*

I dreamed of rivers that night and woke up to the heavy sound of rain on the window and the pale gray light of morning. Our uncle went on to work while Chris and me waited for our bus in our rain jackets. The big trash pile was still there at the end of the driveway.

A lot of the books had laminated covers and call numbers on their spines. Ruthie must have gotten them when the library closed down and sold off all its stuff for five cents a pop. As I remembered it, Ruthie had bought everything she could and read it all, cover to cover, even the children’s books. Even the biographies, for God’s sake.

“Why do you think he’s throwing this stuff out?” I asked, kicking at the waterlogged boxes.

Chris shrugged. “Like he said, they were taking up space.”

“Seems weird,” I said. “She could come back still, or the police could find her.”

Chris was ten months older than I was. He’d ceased to be curious about the ways of adults. He thought he saw through them.

“Shut up about it, would you? She comes back, it serves her right for running off, her stuff getting thrown out. If she doesn’t come back, don’t matter no way.”

“But what if somebody kidnapped her?” I asked.

Who would kidnap her?” said Chris, a statement of fact, not really a question.

The police told our uncle that Ruthie had probably run away. That was usually what happened. She’d come back in a few days. But none of Ruthie’s things were missing, and she hadn’t taken any money out of her bank account, and her mother in Jacksonville, who’d remarried years ago, hadn’t heard a thing. As the weeks wore on, we entertained morbid ideas. Visions of serial killers and cannibals populated our imagination, though girls like Ruthie were rarely targets in the horror and crime movies we obsessively watched. We had trouble reconciling this contradiction.

The bus was late that day. I started picking through the books.

“Check it out,” I said. “The Elephant Vanishes.”

Chris looked at me and smiled. We shared a high five for the unsaid fat joke, but it was more out of habit than meanness.

See, we’d never wanted someone to harm Ruthie, though we hadn’t liked her much. For all our uncle’s coolness, Ruthie was surly and shrill, prone to bouts of seclusion and panic. It was always pranks on Ruthie that got us banished from the house, since our uncle’s only recourse as peacemaker was to shove us out the front door and tell us to come back later. He’d send us off with some sardonic phrase, a signal to us that we weren’t really to blame for being so wild: “Go find a feral cat to torment. Go poke a stick into a fire ant mound. Go throw some rocks at a wasp’s nest. Go on. Get.” So we’d wander around the neighborhood until dark. By the time we returned, our uncle would be watching a ball game, and Ruthie would be sealed up in her room, doing whatever it was she did in there.

“She wrote all these notes and crap in her books,” I said. “You can’t read most of them now. They’re all wet.”

“Why you still looking through that shit? Leave it alone,” Chris said.

If we’d grown up twenty years earlier with the advent of Scooby Doo and Jonny Quest, we may have been more interested in figuring out what had happened to our cousin. But this was the nineties, Scooby Doo was lame, and the coolest thing you could do was not give a flying fuck. In town, whatever interest had been piqued in Ruthie’s disappearance had settled by the time our uncle shoved her books out on the curb. No leads, no new information. Her name had disappeared from school altogether, and she had started becoming one of those faceless town legends that kids brought up at sleepovers to scare each other. When our uncle threw away Ruthie’s books, it raised the last questions we would consider for a long while. Why throw them out? Was he so torn up that he couldn’t bear to see them in the house? Did he think Ruthie had in fact run away, and was he punishing her for abandoning us? And if Ruthie had run away, why had no one seen her? She had no car, no close friends that we knew about. How would she get out of town? She was, as we’d known her, an outsider, lonely, distant like her dad. But on her wide, homely face, her distance just seemed to us like desperation. Had someone helped her leave? If they had, they’d stayed quiet about it.

I wouldn’t have said it to Chris, but throwing out Ruthie’s books seemed mean to me. She had been totally invested her books, if nothing else. She’d read intensely and without discrimination—pulp romance and fantasy, anthologies of short stories, Victorian novels, war novels, speculative sci-fi novels, self-help books, Beat poetry, whatever. She liked old books, enjoyed their feel and smell. In the book pile, I found an illustrated collection of limericks so ancient the binding was peeling off.

“Hey,” I said, choosing a page. “Hey, Chris, listen to this.”

“What,” said Chris.

“Listen.”

“I’m listening! Jesus.”

“Look what she wrote here. ‘My whole fucking life. Here is my whole fucking life.'”

Ruthie had written this underneath one of the limericks. Chris took the book from my hands. I watched as he read, his lips moving silently with the words.

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.

“That’s so friggin’ stupid,” said Chris.

The opposite page featured a cartoon of the man of New York with the fork jammed into his round belly. Beside it, Ruthie had written, “me.”

For a while, we were quiet. The neighborhood seemed enfolded in cloth, and I felt a hum, a ringing, and I think Chris felt it too. I remember thinking the hum had been there all along, pulsing throughout the entire suburb, only I hadn’t noticed it until then.

It was Chris who broke the silence. “I don’t think you could murder Ruthie with a fork.”

We smiled, but we didn’t high-five each other that time.

For a reason I couldn’t have explained, I kept the book of limericks, though I wouldn’t crack it open again until years later. When we came home from school that afternoon, the rest of the books were gone.

*

We finished up our fourth-grade year at our uncle’s place and moved back in with our mother over the summer. It was the last summer Chris and me were really what you’d call friends. After that, he made his own friends, kids with acne and tobacco teeth, kids who liked fire and jumping from high places. Chris got in trouble. I got a scholarship. When I was seventeen, he got pissed off at me for some stupid reason and broke my jaw, and it’s been clicking ever since.

Ruthie never came back. Our uncle never heard from her.

I kept her book of limericks, though I couldn’t say why. I opened it up again during Christmas while I was home from college, around the same time our uncle paid a visit, slinking around the house and drinking spiked eggnog from fluted glasses. He made charismatic gestures as he spoke. I noticed for the first time how long his fingers were.

My mind kept going back to the long afternoons we spent wandering around the neighborhood, coming home to a quiet house—our uncle on the couch, Ruthie in her room like a hermit. They didn’t interact much, not that we cared, though I remember getting up one night to raid the kitchen, and I saw his lanky shape and Ruthie’s round one on the living room couch together. They were eating leftover pasta and watching a movie, and as I slipped by, I saw a flash of silver as he poked her side with a fork.

“Porker,” he said, the word sifting out of his mouth with softness and affection I hadn’t heard before, the tone you’d use for a child much younger than Ruthie was.

“Quit it,” she whispered, sliding away.

He poked her again. “I’m gonna eat you up.”

“I said stop,” she said, sternly.

I went back to bed with a handful of Oreos.

I must have told Chris about this. Maybe I didn’t. In fact, I may have forgotten about the moment entirely until I opened up the book of limericks at Christmas and saw the page again, the image of the man on his back with the fork in his gut. “Me.” The neighborhood hum returned, unceasing. It stayed with me.

If Ruthie did leave town, my hope was that she ended up someplace better, someplace without kids like Chris and me to torture her, without a town to laugh at her. I don’t know for sure and this troubles me, I admit. Her moon face on the window keeps me awake at night, expectant and surly. In the end, all I can really do is close the curtains.

pencil

Jen Julian is a first-year PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Missouri, Columbia. In 2010, she received her MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she worked as editor for The Greensboro Review. She has had work published in Four Way Review and Press 53’s 2010 Open Award Anthology, and her fiction was a finalist for the 2009 NC State Brenda L. Smart Fiction Prize. Email: julianjen.n[at]gmail.com