Happy Families

Ruby pulled on her faded parka for her daily trip to the neighborhood grocery.  Milk, white bread, corn flakes, hamburger meat, and her grandfather’s damned cigarettes.  That was about all he did anymore.  If he wasn’t watching “Cops,” he was watching the neighbors – on the lookout for bad boys, bad boys – and smoking, always smoking.

Ruby cooked and cleaned and ran errands.  She was enrolled in a night class, Introduction to Business, but the old man was sure to interrupt her studies, needing something, thumping his cane on the floor until she couldn’t think straight.  It wasn’t going well.

Just this morning at the breakfast table, she had been trying to read her assignment while the old man shoveled in his corn flakes.

“What’s that you’re reading?” he had said.

“My school work.”

“Don’t waste your time.  No amount of books is going to fix stupid, girl.  Now get me my coffee.”

Zipping up her coat and pulling her cap down over her ears, she looked out at the dirty snow piled along the sidewalk.  She would be wading through lakes of icy water at every corner today.  On the jalousied porch, her grandfather was peering into the open trash barrel.

“Take this thing out to the curb,” he said.

“Trash day is tomorrow.”

“You heard me, girl,” and he poked Ruby in the chest with his cane for emphasis.

Not today, she thought, and to her own surprise, she grabbed the cane and pushed back.  Caught off balance by this unprecedented response, the old man fell back and landed rear end first in the trash barrel, armpits and knees over the rim.

Catching his breath, he hissed, “Just you wait, you little piece of nothing.  Now get me out of this thing.”

Ruby looked at his angry, unshaven face for a long moment.  Then she turned and walked through the door and down the steps.  As she turned onto the sidewalk, she could see those skinny arms waving through the closed windows.

When she returned from the store two hours later, her grandfather was still struggling to free himself.  Without a word to him, she went straight to the kitchen to place the milk and hamburger in the fridge, the bread in the breadbox, and the corn flakes in the cabinet.  The two packs of cigarettes she placed one atop the other beside her grandfather’s place at the table.  As she climbed the stairs to her room, she could hear him, “Ruby!  Ruby, you come here this minute, you worthless girl!”

She took her battered suitcase from the closet shelf and laid it on her bed.  She placed a pair of carefully folded pajamas into the case, added a change of clothes, and brought in her toothbrush from the bathroom.  Then she gathered up her night school materials, placed them carefully on the top, and closed the case.

Back downstairs, she emptied the ashtrays, ran the vacuum cleaner, and washed the breakfast dishes.  She folded the dishtowel and hung it over the oven handle.  Then she took her parka from its hook, zipped it up and pulled on her hat.  She looked around, picked up her suitcase, and without a glance at her weakly-kicking grandfather, walked across the porch, through the door and down the steps.

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