by Leonard Kress
I’ve always loved rubies. Ever since I was a child. It’s not just the fact that Ruby is my name and that rubies are my birthstone. It also has something to do with growing up in northeast Iowa—and all that Wizard of Oz crap that everyone else seems to think so much of—If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I . . . ? Not emeralds like you might expect, but rubies—ruby slippers, the ones that Dorothy lifted from the dead witch’s feet. It doesn’t matter that that was Kansas and this was Iowa; even here we tended to confuse the two. But people here hated that movie. There was always a big to-do whenever it showed on TV, and the local video stores even kept it behind the counter like it was some sort of porno flick. I don’t know that much about the politics behind it, but I do know that it had a lot to do with all the witches and magic in the movie and how all that interfered with lessons parents were trying to teach their kids about Jesus. To them it was just another Hollywood product trying to get their kids hooked on Satan. That was reason enough to attract teenagers, and for a time when I was in junior high, there were even unmarked bootlegged editions of the video circulating throughout the school. One kid made a couple hundred dollars selling them out of her backpack. Anyway, that’s what I heard.
At least we had twisters, lots of them. My friends here never believe me when I tell them I never saw one in person. Too busy rushing down into the cellar or filing out Indian-style to the hallway at school. I did have a great aunt who was carried away by one, at least according to my mother. This was back in the forties when all the men were off at war. The sad part of it was that she was clinging to her newborn at the time but couldn’t keep hold of her. She survived it and went on to have six more kids. By the time I met her, she was already in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, so she didn’t remember a thing about it. I really wanted to ask her what it felt like watching your baby spiral up over the house and barn, up over the poplars, watching it get smaller and smaller, till it was barely the size of a fertilized egg, before disappearing altogether. I was named after her—not my aunt, of course, but the infant, whose body they never found.
So you can see why rubies are really important to me. That’s why I’m shopping for them now, even though it’s taken me an awful long time to get one. It’s taken till my second husband and the birth of my daughter Stacey (short for Anastasia) to get one. Actually it was my second daughter, too. The first one—and here I’m guessing it was a little girl and not a little boy—was aborted. It was just after I got married the first time, right out of high school, and you’d think that since I didn’t get pregnant till after the ceremony, we should have kept it and raised it. But my husband would have nothing of it. He wanted to go to Chicago, just the two of us, me getting a job as a waitress or something and him trying to work his way into the Art Institute. He really believed that his baling-wire sculptures would take him places, and he surely had me convinced at the time. I still have nightmares about that ob/gyn in Madison, Wisconsin, who performed the procedure. In them he’s coming at me, all I can see under his surgical mask and hat are his big dark eyes flashing under bushy eyebrows waving like tendrils of wheat stalks whipped up by a prairie wind. He’s holding a long piece of baling wire and commanding me to spread my legs and stick my heels into the stirrups. I know that he’s planning to stick that wire with all barbs up inside me, scraping it against my uterus, hoping that one of those barbs will snag on my fetus so he can fish it out.
It’s not easy going shopping for jewelry with a two-year-old in tow. The jeweler is this real snooty guy with a beard trimmed so close to his face he probably has to groom it every day. Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose of having a beard? That beard, though, is practically the only hair on his entire head, so I figure it must mean a lot to him. His hands are perfectly manicured. I wonder whether he does it himself, in the privacy of his own bedroom, even down to applying that thin coat of clear polish. I can’t picture a man getting his cuticles trimmed and his nails buffed in front of one of those big windows where all the mall walkers and shoppers can gape in. He certainly does a better job than I do—just look at Stacey’s toes! There’s gobs of hot pink running over the edges, and the purple polka dots she wanted painted on the center of each toe look more like drips. From the time I was my daughter’s age, my mother used to make sure that my toes were always painted. And that usually meant more than just a single-color coat. She usually painted teensy stars or hearts on each toe, even in winter when no one would ever see. The jeweler keeps staring at my daughter like she’s an earwig or something that he really wants to stomp on. I know that he thinks we’re trailer park people. He might as well parade around the store holding up a sign—like the men in the meatpacker’s union back in Iowa. Instead of SCAB or SCAB-SCUM written on it, his sign would say DO NOT TOUCH, or NO CHECKS, or NO LAYAWAYS.
I’m not too wild about the rubies the jeweler displays for me. It’s really hard to inspect them with my husband breathing over my shoulder and rubbing my lower back. I know that he’s being affectionate, but his breath is clouding up the top of the display case, so I can’t really compare the cheaper rings and earrings on top of the felt with the more expensive ones left inside. Besides, Stacey is clamping herself to my thigh and whining. It’s funny, but at this very moment I am sure that I know what’s going through everybody’s mind. I’m sure of it. I’ve always had this ability to make time seem to stand still and be able to read people’s minds. I don’t mean that I’m psychic or anything like that, but I can tell from the looks on their faces and their gestures just what they’re thinking. It’s not something I choose to do—it just happens—like the time when I was in sixth grade and I just knew that the teacher was going to accuse the boy next to me of cheating, and that he was going to throw a stapler at her if she didn’t give him another chance. She needed seventeen stitches. Right now, the jeweler is thinking about how he’s going to politely get my daughter out of the store without losing his sale. He’s also deciding whether he should get lunch at Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips or Magic Wok. I just know that if we would walk past the food court in half an hour, he’d be at one of the two. My husband isn’t thinking about lunch at all. He’s hoping I’ll buy some ruby earrings because of what I promised him last week. I told him that if he bought me a nice pair, I’d present him with a ruby surprise fantasy. I had no idea myself what I was talking about, but he seemed intrigued, so I told him I’d come to him one night in nothing but rubies—ruby fingernails and toenails, ruby lips, ruby barrettes in my hair, and, of course, ruby earrings. I know that he’s picturing that right now and that he probably wants to stop off and get a blank videotape so he can film me doing whatever he thinks I’ll do to seduce him in my ruby getup. If I told him I needed ruby slippers to complete the outfit, I’m sure he’d ask if they had them at Walmart.
Speaking of Walmart, I hope that now that I’m buying jewelry, I don’t revert to my old Walmart self. I call it that because of all the times when instead of getting a single good pair of shoes, I go to Walmart and end up buying three or four shitty, chintzy pairs, and spend the same amount of money. I don’t know why I do it—it must be some part of my personality. Maybe it’s genetic, something in my Czech blood—giving up those breathtaking rolling hills and river valleys, crossing the ocean in steerage, trekking all the way out to this swamp and clearing the land and then draining it. Keeping it drained and keeping all the dirt and dung and other farm crap out of the house. At least that’s the short version according to my gramma. After living with all that, well, who wouldn’t want to be practical, who wouldn’t want to do all their shopping at Walmart, where you can get four for the price of one?
My first husband, the baling-wire sculptor, was Czech too, with a bit of Dutch and Swede thrown in. He understood my Walmart side, only for him it wasn’t Walmart but Farm and Fleet. He even bought his high school graduation suit there, insisting that it would last a lifetime, that he’d probably be buried in it. I’ve never tried to explain this way of thinking to my new husband, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it somehow got passed on to my daughter. Then again, we didn’t have a mall yet when I was growing up, and I’m sure things would have turned out different if I had been able to hang out at one like this. If I had an afternoon job in the food court—like operating one of those smoothie-cone machines, learning to perfect the perfect little Gerber-baby curl on the top. I would have learned to want the real thing. No substitutes, no matter what the cost.
I settle for the earrings, rubies, of course, and take Stacey back to the car. Both of us sit in the front seat, and I get real frustrated trying to tune in the radio station. Instead of music, I get this call-in program with this teenage girl telling her story to the host.
I’m up in front of groups all the time. Kids, teens, seniors. They’re the
ones who love me most, the old people, they love me just for surviving
my ordeal and coming back to tell my story. I usually begin by holding
up my arm. I wave it all around, show it from all angles, almost like
I’m modeling jewelry for a TV quiz show . . .
Stacey asks for the hundredth time, “Where’s daddy, where is he?” I snap at her because I’m trying to listen. There’s something about this girl’s voice, how sincere it is, how urgent and knowing, but I have no idea what she’s talking about. Stacey starts bawling uncontrollably, almost like she’s going to start wheezing any minute, and I start to feel real guilty. She won’t calm down until I reach into the back and get her some crayons and this scratch pad I got at work. Immediately, she goes to work, making these purple spirals that she calls whir-wins. “Look, Mommy, I make whir-wins, whir-wins.”
“They’re beautiful,” I coo, trying to encourage her, but actually I’m frightened by how ferocious she gets when she scribbles them. How she puts everything into it, not caring if she breaks the crayon or if it slips off the page and she stubs her little knuckles on the dashboard. Her whole being gets sucked into these whirlwinds, and I don’t see how she can be so possessed one second, then look up at me so sweetly the next. Her big blue eyes peer up almost worshipfully from under her lashes. I’ve never seen her look at her father that way, even though he’s the one who taught her how to make them.
How do you think this happened, I ask, still waving, knowing they
can see my mangled hand missing pinkie and tall-man. Of course the
kids get it wrong. They shout all sorts of things—A grizzly bear ate
your fingers. It got caught in the garbage disposal. Your father chopped
it off . . . Wrong, I tell them. The teens yell out things like gross or cool
or awesome, but the seniors, they know, they know right away, even
before I explain to them that I am the victim of a botched abortion.
I get the chills and turn off the ignition to stop her. Stacey breaks her crayon, and to keep from having to dig in the back for more, I take her onto my lap. We look through the big store window, watching my husband leaning over the counter. He pulls out his wallet and I see him counting out twenties. I’m sure that he’s relieved to be able to pay cash and not layaway. They only cost a hundred and fifty dollars and we can almost afford that—especially if we say the earrings are an early Christmas gift. I imagine acting surprised after retrieving a tiny wrapped present from under the tree. It’s almost overlooked—so small among the gigantic packages with things like life-size Barbie for my daughter and some new-fangled exercise device for my husband. I gently tug open the bow and raise the lid and there they are—deep red and gleaming, reflecting the lights strung around the tree and over the mantle. I hold them in my fingers, my first rubies, and I wish I had enough for all eight holes in my ears. Each ruby like a perfect little blood clot. This ruby like a six-week-old fetus. Just now detectable in a home pregnancy test. The beginning and the end of morning sickness.
It takes him an extra-long time to pay, and I’m in tears by the time he leaves the store. I’ve never told him about my abortion before, and this doesn’t seem to be a good time. He thinks if I accidentally get pregnant again, it’ll be easy to deal with, because he’s made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want another kid. But I want to get pregnant, I know I do. We already talked about this possibility, and he thinks there’d be no bickering, no silent treatment. Just make the appointment and have it taken care of. I already know because he made me call Planned Parenthood just in case. They said there’s only one doctor around here who’ll perform the procedure. He’s Japanese, the woman told me, and I shouldn’t be scared or put off by his accent because he’s a brilliant doctor, very straightforward and efficient. I asked her why he’s stuck doing abortions then, but I think she misunderstood my question and said, “No, he doesn’t do term babies.” That sounded strange, the way she put it—term babies. Like pregnancy and having a baby was some kind of prison term.
The clerk is probably relieved to have made any sale. Stacey has climbed back into her car seat where she once again scribbles her whir-wins. My husband’s walk is almost bouncy. His heels barely come down. Having to part with so little money to satisfy yet another of my whims seems to have lightened his load. If he only knew that this is only the beginning. He doesn’t open the door and slide into the car because I’m still in the driver’s seat. He passes me the tiny box through the cracked-open window, waiting for me to slide over. Even Stacey knows the procedure, shouting out, “Wrong side, wrong!” He’s wearing this goofy smile he usually gets when I tickle his balls a certain way, almost like digging into a cat’s neck and sliding its fur with your thumb and finger.
“I thought you’d be happy,” he says.
“I want to be, “I tell him.
“Here, then take them. I love you.”
“I love you too,” I say, and Stacey screams out, “What about me, Mommy?”
I take the box, pry open the lid. I desperately want to go through the whole ordeal—remove my old hoops and all my other studs, push the new ones through, try them in all different combinations—two in one ear, one at the very top of one ear and one at the very bottom of the other. I want to ask both of them to vote on what looks best. I even want to joke in secret with my husband about next time getting my nipples pierced if he’ll buy me emeralds. Instead, I just balance the box on the top of my knee and freeze for a minute. I don’t want these. I can’t take them. They just don’t make it. They’re not good enough. He could’ve gotten them at any Walmart. He’ll probably suggest we just buy another pair. I can’t do it—I hold open my left palm, flattening it and stretching out my fingers like I’m preparing to feed some sugar to a horse. But instead of sprinkling the sugar, I place the closed-up box right in the middle and extend my arm out the window as far as I can, hyperextending the elbow like I’m returning something gross and buggy to a waitress.
My husband looks like he’s about to cry. He knows what I mean, and he slumps around to the passenger side and crawls in. “What should I do now?” he sulks. “Should I take them back? Because I still have fifty bucks left over.”
“Just forget it,” I say. “Ignore me.”
Suddenly, I realize that I’ve had this conversation before but not with my husband, not this one but my first. Yes, it was right after the trip to Madison, and he wanted to go out to a fancy restaurant and celebrate how we averted a catastrophe. Nipping it in the bud, were his words, I think. That’s when he confessed to me that when he first telephoned the clinic he felt a little like a gangster putting out a contract on someone. I tried to say, “Like my baby, for instance,” but it didn’t come out. No, it wasn’t then—I’m getting confused. I think it was back in Iowa, right before that. We were at the Dvorak Festival, walking slowing down Main Street. He had my hand wrapped up in his and we were joking around, trying to match our strides, bumping our knees and wobbling so everyone thought we were drunk. The smells were making me nauseous—brats getting charred in the thick smoke, beer splashing out of plastic pitchers, lard spitting on the grill with potato pancakes. We were talking about Chicago, about getting away from this hick town for good, about how much we despised Mr. Mikula, our high school guidance counselor, up on the bandstand shaking his button box.
“Never again,” he said. “No more dumb Bohunks and their stupid-ass music.”
“Never again,” I joined in. “No more men wearing red-sequined vests. No more fat polyester ladies with big-boob T-shirts saying I’m a Czech-Mate’s Mate.”
“Never again,” he said. “No more geezers shaking boom bases, and no more polkas.”
“Never again,” I said, “will we have to endure the likes of Brenda Koudelka, twirling her flaming batons on every makeshift festival stage. No more of her skimpy skirts and flashing teeth and her hair like frosting.”
Suddenly the music became so quiet we thought the crowd could hear our comments. I think they began to play a waltz, because everyone got real teary and sentimental. My husband ripped open another beer and yelled out, “Hey, Mr. Mikula, have a good life!”
“Mr. Mikula,” I shouted, ko-lee-kee ho-deen,” the only Czech I still remembered from my gramma. I don’t even remember what it means–I don’t think it’s bad, because he just smiled back, his little bird-face peeking over the top of his accordion.
Then my current husband turned and grabbed my arm. “Is there anything else you want? Cause, if not, I’m going into the gambling tent. I still got fifty bucks left over.”
“How about some rubies,” I said, but I don’t think he heard. No, I never said that but I probably wished it.
He’s still holding the box in his fist, staring at me. I’ve already started up the car. The radio comes on and the girl is still telling her story.
My mom wanted to kill me. The doctors and nurses, all of society was
going to stand back and let her do it. But they botched it, can you
believe it, they botched it. Seems like the Lord has other plans for me—
a miracle baby who survived what should have been a fatal dose of
ammonia. Now what do you think happens when you drop a teeny
earwig or even a roach into a bucket of ammonia? And right here
I know I have everyone’s attention, no matter what their age,
squriming like they just now feel a beetle-bug crawling up their
thigh. But I wasn’t some vermin, I say, I was just a helpless
unborn baby created in the likeness of God . . .
“What kind of crap is this?” my husband mutters and goes for the dial. I pull his hand back in a way that shocks him. He just stares at me.
“I want to hear this,” I insist and let his hand go.
“How about ice cream?” he says, and Stacey goes bonkers. “Why don’t you drive, Hon, it’s just a block away.”
I’m only sixteen, but I’m sure you remember what it was like
back then. Even today there’s women who’re afraid that having
a baby might hurt their career, or God forbid, their figure.
You know, keep them from looking good in a bikini . . .
Maybe, I think, when we finally get around to piercing Stacey’s ears, I could give the earrings to her. If I weren’t driving right now, I could crawl over the seat and sit in the back with her. I know she’d get real excited and want to hold them against her earlobes and never give them back. She’d let go of her Crayola box and I could rip a sheet off her sketch pad. I could make a drawing of a ruby bracelet or necklace, or even a ring. I could design it myself and it would be magnificent. Who cares it if cost us two months’ salary. I’d begin by pulling out the sixty-four colors one by one until I found the exact match. Purple Pizzazz. Cerise. Mulberry. Razzmatazz?
I pull out of the mall parking lot. It’s harder to hear the radio, so I turn it up. It’s blaring, but my husband seems afraid to touch the dial. Even Stacey seems to have calmed down.
I used to describe the procedure they used when they tried to kill me.
I had blown up pictures and the actual murder instruments that
I stole from a clinic when I was twelve. But what I really want to do is
locate the others. My pastor says I can do it on the internet,
because in all my travels, I heard about other miracle babies
that God saved so they could deliver His message. We are His
precious jewels, I always say. There’s some missing toes, some
missing ears and chins, and even some with great big holes
in their hearts and bellies.