Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of legs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.
That is how Ruby walked when she lived in the splintered house that Papa Bell had built before he passed. When she dug into the East Texas soil under moonlight and wailed like a distant train.
In those years, after her return, people let Ruby be. They walked a curved path to avoid her door. And so it was more than strange when someone walked the length of Liberty and brought a covered cake to the Bells' front porch.
Ephram Jennings had seen the gray woman passing like a haint through the center of town since she'd returned to Bell land in 1963. All of Liberty had. He had seen her wipe the spittle from her jerking lips, run her still beautiful hands over the crust of her hair each day before she'd turned the corner in view of the town. He'd seen her walking like she had some place she ought to have been, then five steps away from P & K Market, stand pillar still, her rain cloud body shaking. Ephram had seen Miss P, the proprietor of the store, walk nonchalantly out of her door and say, "Honey, can you see if I got the rise in these rolls right?"
Ephram watched Ruby stare past her but take the brown sack filled with steaming yeast bread. Take it and walk away with her acres of legs carrying her, while Miss P said, "You come on back tomorrow, Ruby Bell, and help me out if you get the chance."
Ephram Jennings had watched this for eleven years. Seen her black-bottomed foot kick a swirl of dust in its wake. Every day he wanted nothing more than to put each tired sole in his wide wooden tub, brush them both in warm soapy water, cream them with sweet oil and lanoline and then slip her feet, one by one into a pair of red-heel socks.
But instead, with each passing year, he watched Miss P do her Christian duty from the corner of his eye. Watched the gray woman stoop to accept the doughy alms. He sat alongside the crowd of men parked on their stools outside P & K. Who read their papers, played dominoes and chewed tobacco. Toothpicks dangling. Pipes smoking. Soda pops sweating. Just as they had the day Ruby arrived back in Liberty. When she'd stepped from the red bus, the porch had crowded her with their eyes. Hair pressed and gleaming like polished black walnut. Lipstick red and thick, her cornflower blue sundress darted and stitched tight to her waist. Ephram had watched her light a cigarette and glare down at the crowd on the market porch in such a way that made folks feel embarrassed for breathing. Chauncy Rankin had said later, "Not only do her shit not stink, way she act, she ready to sell it by the ounce."
They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline. After a time they barely glanced up from their papers when Ruby walked up to the market. They yawned her existence away, or spit out a wad of tobacco juice to mark her arrival. A low joke might rumble as Miss P handed over her bread, followed by throaty chuckles.
But one end-of-summer day, Ephram Jennings took particular notice. One by one the men on the porch did as well. For instead of walking away with her bread, as she normally did, Ruby didn't move. Her body rooted to the spot. She stood there, holding the brown sack, hand quivering like a divining rod. And then she peed. A long, steady stream that hit the red dust and turned it the color of brick. She did it absently, with calm disinterest. Then, because no one knew quite what to do, Gubber Samuels pointed and hurled out a rough bark of laughter. Ruby looked down and saw the puddle beneath her. Surprise flowered on her face, then fell away leaving a spreading red shame. Her hands leapt to her eyes, but when she brought them down the world was still there, so she dropped the sack in the pool of urine and ran. But it wasn't running. It was flying, long and graceful, into the piney woods like a deer after the crack of buckshot. Ephram almost stood. Almost ran down the porch steps and into the woods after her. But the eyes of men were too strong, and the continued spitting and snickering of Gubber Samuels anchored him against the tug of mercy.
Excerpted from Ruby by Cynthia Bond. Copyright © 2014 by Cynthia Bond. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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