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Distancing

Ruth held out her gloved hands to Clarisse, wiggled her latex-coated fingers. ‘No risk,’ she said, pointing to the paper mask she’d found at a hardware store. She felt like an astronaut. She waved a hand in the air as entreaty to the standoff, but Clarisse stood still behind her screen door, a certain determination glowing in her eyes.

 

‘You’re my one friend on the planet,’ Clarisse said. ‘But social distancing means social distancing.’

 

Ruth might have expected as much. Clarisse was the kind of germ freak who never allowed shoes in her house, who tucked hand sanitiser in her bra at bars. It was on all the news channels now, the way they were all supposed to shelter in place, and Ruth should have known. She felt corrected, as a small child might have. She heard a noise from her stomach that sounded like a plunger being forced down a clog.

 

And the truth she’d keep in her own body: her throat tickled in a way she hoped was simply the manifestation of seasonal allergies, and she was holding a cough that so desperately wanted out. She envisioned her bronchial tubes as tiny balloons, tied by clowns into the shapes of bulbous dogs. She breathed deeply, willing them into good behaviour. ‘Just one last Saturday coffee?’

 

Clarisse stepped aside from the door and back into her house, then reappeared holding the kind of folding chair she might have taken to a tailgate party. ‘How ’bout we do this,’ she said, handing it through the door, and as Ruth unfolded the chair onto the porch, Clarisse sat down in her own hardwood foyer, criss-cross applesauce. Ruth tried hard, so hard, not to look at Clarisse’s legs, because they were orange. Ruth couldn’t decide whether it was a mistake – the wrong shade of pantyhose clashing with Clarisse’s natural skin colour, or a sudden inability on Clarisse’s part to match her stockings to any other element of clothing. Either way, it was an indicator of some sort of slippage, which might be a problem, since Clarisse was just coming off a two-week stint of psychiatric rehab.

 

It was why Ruth had come – she had her doubts about Clarisse handling a pandemic on top of everything else. She’d been transferred to the psychiatric facility, a clot of inconclusive-looking tract homes on the edge of Shelby County, after the EMTs had filled her stomach with charcoal and told her just how fucking lucky she was to have such good health insurance, because most people got chucked right back out the door. Clarisse’s first and only telephone call from Rivendell, three days into her stay, had been to Ruth.

 

‘Rooth,’ she’d slurred into the phone, at 33 1/3 rpm. ‘Come get me. No, that’s wrong. Come see me.’

 

She was Ruth’s oldest friend on earth, the only person left who’d known Ruth when she still had a brother. A sister. A mother. A father. Ruth could never understand how it was that her family had suffered the consumptive tragedy, but it was Clarisse who grew up and lost her mind. As far as Ruth could tell, Clarisse had enjoyed a childhood soaked in happiness, complete with a mother who sewed her dresses from McCall’s patterns. Where Ruth had spent most of her fifth-grade year watching her brother fester away in hospital after more serious and comprehensive hospital, Clarisse had still been secretly dissassembling and reassembling her Lego Millennium Falcon. In high school, she’d been popular with the boys and graduated third in their class: the worst thing Ruth could remember happening to Clarisse was a tenth grade in-school suspension for wearing a miniskirt.

 

And it had been hard to watch, her friend’s slow roll down the hill. In youth, Clarisse had been the stronger one. She stood 5’9 by the end of junior high yet refused, when asked repeatedly, to play on the girls’ basketball team. ‘You know they’re asking because I’m Black,’ she told Ruth. Even now, Ruth could remember how the intensity of everything Clarisse said back then showed up in her face. She cut off all her hair in seventh grade, shaved it close to her scalp like a boy’s. The haircut burned away all the softness of childhood, revealing a ferocity to the shape of her eyes and the cliffs of her cheekbones that made the adults all around them suddenly a little afraid of her. When the basketball coach had asked her to join the team he’d spoken softly, Ruth noticed. He’d used the conditional might consider. He’d said please. ‘If I was White,’ Clarisse told Ruth after he’d walked away, ‘they’d just leave me alone and let me make good grades.’

 

Clarisse had graduated high school with a 4.0 and a full ride to the University of Kentucky. She could have taken full scholarships, too, at Bryn Mawr, UCLA, and the University of Arizona, but she’d taken Ruth by the hand and helped her type up an application, then hustled the both of them all the way across the country, where, she told Ruth, ‘you can be whoever you want. Reinvent yourself. The people in this town are expecting you to fall apart, and you will, if you stay. Come. Come with me.’

 

Clarisse had started the web-growing, then, without meaning to – she’d been speaking of a small psychic shift, but Ruth had swept away the ashes entirely and become a whole new phoenix, one with unrecognisable wings. She’d cleared the entire state of California from her personal history, paid to change her surname of record, burned off the eight years of compounded tragedy that had befallen her. After college, Clarisse moved from sleepy Lexington to progressive Louisville. Ruth followed.

 

Like an expanding star, Clarisse still burned up the world around her. Ruth watched as she got her MBA, took a job at Humana, bought a four-bedroom house in the historic district. Ruth floundered; Clarisse spun gold. The same year Ruth flunked out of law school, Clarisse paid off her mortgage and quit her job to go teach second graders at Greathouse Shryock. Her fourth year there, she won Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

 

But now. It was as though things had gotten mixed up, and a part of Clarisse’s helium had ground itself down into Ruth’s hydrogen, as if Clarisse had caught a disease that Ruth refused.

 

Clarisse was pulling her hands into her shirtsleeves now, so far back that Ruth could see only her bitten-down fingernails. ‘Thanks for coming by,’ Clarisse was saying. ‘You know I cherish you.’

 

‘Back at ya,’ Ruth said, putting her hand on the door screen as a proxy for physical contact. In Rivendell, when she’d visited, Ruth had found a sort of shadow Clarisse, drugged beyond existential meaning, sucking on a grape popsicle in the hospital sculpture garden. On that occasion, Clarisse had retracted her hands all the way into her sleeves, so that she was holding the popsicle through her shirt fabric. Ruth cheered herself now by noting that Clarisse’s hands were at least partially exposed. So she was better, then. And maybe it was okay if she no longer had the American penchant for coordinating an outfit. The skill might return to her.

 

Ruth removed her hand from the screen and leaned against the canvas backing of her chair. ‘You good these days?’ she asked.

 

‘I’m staying out of trouble, if that’s what you mean.’

 

‘Not at all. It’s not like you ever went looking for trouble.’

 

‘Yeah. It turns out even when you’re not looking for it, it gets bored and shows up at your door.’

 

Ruth knew this intimately. She was a criminal defence paralegal. Trouble was the very theme of her work. Just that morning, the month’s first Friday, at 9.30 as actual clockwork, Mrs Ina Stavins had called about her son Martin. ‘They tested that DNA yet?’ she asked, as she had every month for the preceding three years.

 

‘Mrs Stavins,’ Ruth said, stalling the lie. ‘Are you okay today? How’s that weather treating your arthritis?’

 

‘Oh, you know. I reckon this new weather’s going to kill us all, one way or another.’

 

Mrs Stavins’s joints always flared when it rained – not before or during the rain, she reported, but just after, when the earth warmed and the sun came out to stay. The mixed blessing, Ruth thought, was that any amount of precipitation whatsoever prevented her from visiting her son Martin, who was doing time in West Liberty. Mrs Stavins was always worse after she’d seen Martin, sadder and more emotionally threadbare, sometimes unable to wait until the first Friday at 9.30. Sometimes, after she’d seen Martin, she’d call as soon as she got back to Louisville, agitated to the point of having to leave the phone momentarily and pour herself a glass of water. Martin had gained weight in prison, according to Mrs Stavins. He needed a prostate exam. His blood pressure medication. Martin’s just rotting away up there, she’d say. His arteries are going hard. He ain’t even done nothing. And none a y’all cares on whit.

 

Ruth would explain to Mrs Stavins every month anew that her office had fired five public defenders in the several years she’d been there, thanks to the Kentucky legislature’s ever-crueller state budget. There was no way to tell Mrs Stavins that her son, sitting on time for a rape he probably hadn’t committed, a rape the circumstantial evidence pointed to possibly never even having happened, was one of many. The backlog for DNA testing was such that Martin’s DNA wasn’t scheduled for examination until after he’d already finished his sentence. There was no way to tell any of this to Mrs Stavins. It would kill her.

 

‘We’re on it,’ Ruth had said to Mrs Stavins that Monday. ‘And we do care. I care personally, because I’ve come to care about you.’ Ruth had hung up the phone wondering why God was testing Mrs Stavins like this, what spiritual good He saw in wringing her dry in her golden years.

 

‘What about you, Ruth?’ Clarisse was asking now, through the door. ‘Things looking up?’

 

‘I’m fine. I mean, my lawyer’s costing too much money, but there’s nothing worse than sleeping in a bed with someone who can’t stand you.’

 

‘Come on. James loves you. He does. It’s not that he doesn’t love you –’

 

‘Baby. Darlin’. It was right there on his pass screen.’

 

‘I still say he was joking.’

 

James had failed to kill his iPad alarm one morning, before an early meeting at work, and when it rang, at its full, bawling volume, Ruth had run into their bedroom to turn it off, but the device was locked and wanted a password. She made an educated guess and typed in Annie, but the alarm continued its baying. James1974 had failed, as had cardinals and hurly43. IhateRuth, she typed, as a joke, and the alarm went silent, blessedly silent. It had been so shocking that at first, she had laughed.

 

Then she’d gone practical, checking all his open apps, scrolling through his Gmail for further proof that their marriage was over – correspondence with another woman, perhaps, or details on an extra life insurance policy. She’d found Annie’s homework notifications from school. ACLU petitions he had and had not signed. Requests for his presence at a Kappa mixer. She hadn’t known what to do, but she’d known that her one and only phone call should be to Clarisse, and so Clarisse it was who, over the course of a fortnight, convinced her to file.

 

‘That, you don’t need in your life,’ Clarisse said. ‘I hate Ruth? Fuck that. Take half.’

 

After she’d told him James had written Ruth a final, torrid love letter on college-rule paper he’d ripped out of one of Annie’s school composition books. If you leave me, I will die of grief. You hold my bleeding heart in your hands, like a slab of raw meat.

 

Ruth had crossed both lines out in red ink. You have your hand. Its five fingers, she wrote back, leaving the sheet of paper on the chair in his home office.

 

A breeze came now, and Ruth felt again the tickle in her lungs, the little balloons tightening themselves into tiny cocktail straws. She swallowed once, twice, frantically. She thought of baseballs soaring over stadiums, canals opening up for large boats. Still, it came. A cough.

 

Clarisse scrabbled back on her floor like a crab. ‘Dang, girl,’ she said.

 

‘It’s just allergies.’

 

‘How do you know that? You don’t even know that.’

 

‘Clarisse, I’m just here to support you right now.’

 

‘Support me or support you?’ Clarisse pushed herself up to standing, raised one knee and then the next, as if she were a flamingo. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘But you got to go.’

 

Clarisse had been the same way in the hospital where Ruth’s brother Russell had died: heeding only her own feelings. Clarisse and her mother had shown up too late for visiting hours, and Clarisse had run across the hospital cafeteria where they’d been directed to find Ruth and her family; Ruth’s mother, Coralease, who was heavily medicated to ward off reality; her father Donnie, smiling with inappropriate affect. Her older sister Wendy – she of the fraying cornrows – grown sour, world-weary, reckless with the boys at her high school.

 

Before Ruth could completely stand up from the table, Clarisse was throwing both arms around her, pushing her sweater-encased body into a propulsive hug, knocking Ruth’s bowl of hospital-grade chicken tetrazzini to the floor. ‘Jesus, I’m so sorry,’ Clarisse had said, as the plastic bowl clattered around the circumference of its rim.

 

‘Watch the Jesus,’ said her mother. The bowl quieted itself.

 

She gave Clarisse a fistful of napkins and they both got down on hands and knees to wipe the smeared alfredo and chicken, only stopping when a hospital custodian arrived with a mop. Even then, they quietly watched him work rather than resume conversation, and Ruth knew they were grateful for the emergency of spilled food, because no one who visited Russell in the hospital ever knew what to say.

 

He’d been born sickly, her brother, spitting up his food even as an infant, tearing the ligaments of his ankle while doing normal childhood things like playing dodgeball or jumping on a trampoline. At school, he peered through his thick glasses to decipher letter combinations he would never quite learn to decode. Their paediatrician, kind, cartoon-voiced Dr. Malone, had left the room one day after listening to Russell’s heart at a routine appointment, only to return, ten minutes later, with a referral to Jewish Hospital. Jewish sent Russell up the chain to Hamilton: Hamilton sent him to Mayo, where Ruth learned, sitting on I90 in a rental car, with Coralease humming mournfully in the front seat, that traffic could move slowly enough for starlings to swoop down and roost on the median.

 

Nowhere, it turned out, could anyone find an answer. ‘We must enjoy Russell as long as we can,’ her father said to her one night after Russell turned up short of breath after a simple walk up the stairs, and was sent straight to bed. ‘We can’t possibly know how much longer we have with him.’

 

Still, the end came with a suddenness that surprised all of them, even her father. It had started after school on a Monday, a day Ruth relieved each time she let herself remember it. She felt, each time, a certain nausea rising in her oesophagus that asked her to spare herself the act of remembrance, a certain ringing at the base of her skull that told her that remembering was opening a deep, sad void. Remembering was pushing herself into the jaws of a bulldozer that would gnash its teeth, turning her and turning her until she was gone. When she gave in to the past she felt, each time the school bus seat sticking to her sweaty derrière; she saw Russell boarding, climbing the steps with his empty backpack, finding her three rows back, in the seat they always shared. ‘My head hurts,’ he’d told her, as he slid his hips in alongside hers. ‘It hurts real bad.’ The only thing that changed, in Ruth’s reliving it, was that each time she felt even more scorched with regret at having said nothing to her brother then, not having hugged him or touched his head. It had seemed to her, that afternoon, not like a medical emergency so much as a regular moment of childhood malaise on a school bus.

 

By the time the bus turned into their neighbourhood, Russell was crying. ‘I want to lick the cold, cold floor,’ he told his mother when he cleared the front door. Coralease gave him an aspirin and sent him to bed, but not even an hour later, Wendy passed by his room and heard him taking shallow, desperate breaths. ‘For the love of God,’ she screamed downstairs, ‘you can’t hear him? One of you people needs to call a fucking ambulance.’

 

The ambulance came to carry Russell away as it would any innocent, sickly child during the Lenten season, but when her mother climbed in the back door and told them to call her father, Ruth heard a new air of finality in her voice. The EMT closed the door on the tableau of Cora leaning over Russell; Ruth heard the sound of the latch as it shut, the wrong emptiness of her mother’s not mentioning when she’d return. She hadn’t mentioned, either, any arrangements for Ruth or Wendy to join them at the hospital later. Cora had run upstairs after Wendy screamed; she’d touched Russell there in his bed, and must have instantly known. He was ready to leave them.

 

Though she couldn’t possibly have known the details, the way surgeons would repair Russell’s ruptured aorta in a nine-hour surgery that would, after insurance, bankrupt them; that post-surgery, he’d linger on in the hospital for thirty-nine of the longest hours Ruth could ever have imagined, opening his eyes every so often to register them all as they hid behind one another like a Fosse frame, speaking what they hoped were soothing words. ‘It’s okay, Russ. We love you forever.’

 

Nothing was okay, Ruth thought. And what good would their loving him be as he rocketed off to the frightening realm that lay beyond life. She hadn’t been confident that Russell was even looking at them, because his eyes were composed of nothing save sheer, shimmering terror.

 

‘He’s at peace,’ her mother said that Wednesday, when she had the school office summon Ruth out of her French class to the telephone. But Ruth knew he wasn’t. And even at the funeral, as they lowered the casket down into upper Earth, Ruth felt that if it suddenly fell open, what she’d be looking at was the fear in her brother’s wide-set eyes.

 

Which made the Christmas card from Sacramento so cruel, though Wendy couldn’t have known that Ruth had put them all so squarely away. She couldn’t have known that seeing her brother’s eyes all these years later, turned Ruth’s toes and fingertips cold. That Ruth’s husband, whom Wendy had never met, would recognise Young Ruth as captured on Kodak paper, that he’d inquire about the other two children in the photo, that each word in his query would lower her body temperature by half a degree, until her feet and then her calves felt like blocks of ice. She ripped the photo in two, tossed it in the bin, and stood shivering, numb in places, hoping that James would just shush, be quiet. Her family’s bad luck was none of his business. Being caught in the truth would be so much worse than being caught in the lie.

 

Ruth felt herself sink into sadness now, felt the sadness chaining her to distant memory, a space under an Olympic-sized swimming pool, filled with years she’d not previously let herself relive. She felt it physically, as actual pain in her hands: the first time she let herself recall the rest of the day Russell died. After Cora’s call had taken Ruth out of French class, Wendy had arrived at the school and signed her out of the office. Wendy had been a new driver, with just a permit, and in retrospect Ruth would pin the rootlessness of their grief on Wendy’s behind-the-wheel nerves, but they drove to the hospital without crying, without talking, without even talk radio as cognitive dissonance. Ruth couldn’t have known then that she was losing Wendy too, that the sister who’d played chess with her, and written misspelled love notes to her from kindergarten, and dragged her around their room by one arm when she was a baby, was now going to absorb this tragedy completely and depart from them all, too.

 

Ruth couldn’t have imagined, either, the present day, in the new digital millennium, when she’d comb through profiles on Facebook and find her sister there under the search bar, smiling wearily into a camera while flanked by two teenage boys in baseball uniforms, her name now changed to Wendy Bailey DePaulo. Ruth couldn’t have imagined the pang she’d feel every time she clicked on Wendy’s photo and then left the page, the feeling of something akin to guilt but not exactly, the sense that even the smallest unreal-world contact between them might spring the latch on that broiling dimension of remembered grief, that so little as one Messenger conversation might sear Ruth to the point of no recovery. Ruth couldn’t, the day Russell died, have imagined a universe where she didn’t even know who DePaulo was, a world where she’d completely lost contact with her sister.

 

When they got to the hospital that day, her father’s old blue Nissan was still parked in the hospital’s entrance circle, its windows rolled halfway down on both sides. ‘Wow,’ Wendy said. ‘I can’t believe they haven’t towed Dad’s car.’

 

Ruth supposed, silently, that someone had notified the front desk that the sad, old car belonged to the dead kid’s father. The dead kid’s family, they were now. They would be the dead kid’s family at the hospital. In the community. At school, she’d be the dead kid’s sister. Her father would be the dead kid’s dad. The dead kid’s mom. The dead kid’s bicycle. The dead kid’s books. The dead kid.

 

She decided by nightfall she wouldn’t let Russell’s death hem her in as any one thing or another. Going forward, moving on to new situations in life. she told no one. In the Public Cosmology of Ruth she had no siblings. My parents always wanted another kid, she’d tell people. She’d unravel this half-truth: they desperately wanted a son. By the time she met James, both her parents had passed on – young, in their fifties, still full of shame and sadness. After she lost Wendy, it had been easy to simply omit the information. She erased it so cleanly from the part of her mind that accessed language, that Russell became present only as a figure of deepest cellular memory. On the more conscious shelf of her mind she had almost completely forgotten him, until she became pregnant with Annie, and then what had come to her was that none of it had been her parents’ fault. All those years they’d blamed themselves for a trick of genetics, for what she found out later, after science began to reveal all the new diseases, was a missing chromosomal period. A tiny hiccup of nature that had cost her family everything.

 

But only in her first trimester had she let the thoughts in, because when she thought of Russell sitting propped against the bleached pillows in his very last hospital bed, looking dead already, neither opening nor closing his eyes, her heart began to race. Deep breaths wouldn’t slow it, nor would the consumption of water: memory made it beat like a hummingbird’s. She’d lose control of her own body, as if she were a truck speeding downhill, looking for an off ramp. And if she was going to die, thinking about the truth, she’d just stop thinking.

 

Only small, hurtful things came to her now and then, jobbed by certain colours she saw in the supermarket, or certain situations she spied between families in the street. Like this tattooed teenage girl she sees now as she drives past, who summons her memory of Wendy’s tired lope as she walked over to their father’s car the day Russell died. The defiance in Wendy’s gait had already solidified into something more adult, more codified, something that knew everything it needed to know about the injustice of the universe. But Ruth doesn’t remember what happened next, whether Wendy moved the car. Ruth doesn’t remember how Wendy would have had their father’s keys. The memory goes blank in her mind like the end of a television programming day. Fizz. fuzz.

 

Back at home, in her bathroom, she watches a strand of her own blond hair, the rare one of fifty reds, float to the floor and blend into the pale tan tile. It’s time. Here, in the middle of global crisis, she realises that she needs to put Clarisse away. It’s going to be harder to put away a friend than it’s proving to put away a husband, but she no longer wants Clarisse there, in the present, making her heart scrinch around the past. She rocks a little on the toilet and feels neither great nor terrible. She thinks nothing, nothing, nothing – just outer space. She forgets the hair. It’s become as invisible as truth.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

 is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Saint Monkey was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Her second novel, Kif, will be published by Graywolf in 2022.


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