It’s Sunday. The city is at rest. Not even the wind is stirring. Ruth sits on the bed basking in morning sunlight. Her pink slip pulled back. The pale-yellow light warm against her thighs. She’s looking out the large uncurtained window at nothing she can see.
She’s looking out and in and back.
Except for an untucked white sheet and pillow in its case, her bed is laid bare. Like her legs and arms. It’s going to be too warm for any other bedclothes.
Ruth is happy with that. Being unhampered. Unencumbered. She wants to be alone with her body. She wants to own it. Reclaim it. From her husband. Her children. The idle speculation of strangers.
Has it ever been hers she wonders? Has she ever been wholly herself? The questions evoke memory and she hears from not so many years ago -
“Ruth. Ruth, where the hell are you?” Henry called up the stairs. His voice resonant with boyish exuberance.
Ruth leaned over the railing of their Cambridge home. “I’ll be right down,” she said her face discomfited with news of her own, but Henry declined to notice and strode into the kitchen looking for something to eat.
Ruth put the kit back into the medicine cabinet and hurried down to Henry who had found a drumstick and was eating the meat from it cold.
“What’s up?’ Ruth asked, handing Henry a napkin.
“I made the team. I’m going to Los Alamos and then to the testing site. At the Pacific Proving Grounds. Not the Bikini Atoll this time.”
“Terrific. When do you leave?”
Ruth frowned. “And this is Friday.”
“I know. Short notice. Sorry.” Henry tossed the denuded bone into the trash. “We’re testing a whole new design. It could make the current model obsolete.”
“It’s a bomb, Henry.”
“It’s the life-force, Ruth. We’re unleashing it.”
“It’s a bomb and it kills.”
“And protects. Never forget that.”
Ruth thought of the life-force within her. Four weeks maybe. Her second child. Her first, Cynthia, a shy gawky five-year-old, napped upstairs.
“I’ll be gone a month – more or less,” Henry said wiping at his mouth. “Yes, that’s a long time. But you’ve got your mother cross-town and your friend - what’s her name?”
“Yeah, Marilyn. So you won’t be alone.”
“And Cynthia. Of course.” Henry took a glass from the cupboard. His eyes bright with nuclear possibilities. It’s the how, when and where of physics that enthrall him, not the why and what if.
“We’re calling this trial Sandstone.” He filled the glass with water and drank, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
“And you have to go.”
“I want to go. It’s a career maker.”
“Right,” Ruth said and offered a good-wife smile. Henry has a career. Ruth has a job. “Well, make certain you’re protected, Henry. For all our sakes.” Ruth, an oncologist nurse, appreciated the risks. Understood about radiation.
She kissed his cheek. “I’ve got laundry to fold.”
Laundry to fold. It must have been Saturday then. That conversation, Ruth thinks. When I discovered my second pregnancy. Saturday for household chores. Monday, Tuesday, Friday for her shift at the hospital. All the rest for Cynthia and Henry. And very little for herself.
Ruth shifts her legs. Letting the spring sun in. The luxury of its touch. It demands nothing. It gives her what she desires. Time and patience. Comfort.
They met in college. Columbia. Graduating seniors. Ruth got pregnant right away – the flush of their romance making fertile all their intercourses. Both were excited about their prospects in post-war America.
Cynthia, of course, altered that. Altered their plans – her plan. A nurse by default now.
And her relationship with Cynthia more unsettling for it. More Henry than Ruth, Cynthia was a fretful, worrisome baby – a withdrawn toddler. A reluctant kindergartener. It had been difficult, but nothing compared to after Kenneth’s birth.
Why had it been five years between babies? Perhaps her preoccupation with Cynthia’s ungainly presence had something to do with it. Certainly not for lack of effort. Henry may be a physicist grappling with the atomic, but he enjoyed his hedonism as well. Her generous breasts. Her luxuriant thighs as he called them. The divine calculus of her sex.
Ruth opened herself up to Henry gladly – at first. Relishing his ardor. And nursed him afterwards while he wept.
When he was most exposed.
She kept him safe then and never asked about his weeping. She knew he was in a place beyond where science or even language could go. In a place so elemental it defied definition. At the root of being where life becomes possible in an improbable universe.
“Life,” Ruth says aloud the sun warmer against her skin – leaching the chill from her mind. Life. Deep in her womb. Her womb rocking the unborn like a cradle. Nurturing the multiplication of cells. Their creation by recreation Henry teased her. They laughed easily then. And the euphoria of shared intimacy is still a fine memory. And his tender considerations. But no matter Henry’s solicitude, he was divorced from what was happening inside her. His paternity provided no access to her maternity. And why should it? Who bears the weight? Who bears the pain? Who provides the sustenance?
There’s something majestic about being a woman, Ruth’s mother told her. Ruth was fifteen at the time. She didn’t feel majestic. She felt cramped and messy. She felt burdened.
Henry was especially affectionate with Ruth Monday evening before he left for the Sandstone tests. He gave her a jaunty kiss early morning and promised Cynthia a phone call once every day and twice on Sundays. Of course, it’s a promise he didn’t keep.
Cynthia needed Ruth more than ever then. Her father’s absence destabilized her world. She clung and weighed on Ruth who was preoccupied with her own sense of loss and the profound and strangely ever more troubling promise of life thriving in her.
She let Henry leave without telling him. He was so enthralled with his work, the intricacies of the new design, it seemed there was no room for baby news. Her pregnancy became a secret between Ruth and the universe.
And her physician. “You’re definitely a month in, Mrs. Wallace,” Dr. DeMar confirmed. “Congratulations.”
“That seems such a peculiar thing to say,” Ruth responded.
“I mean it’s almost always to be expected.“
“But not always appreciated.”
“I suppose not.”
They let that hang there – unexplored. Safer to move on.
“Your last child was born without any complications. Am I right?”
“Cynthia. Yes. Everything went well.”
“Let’s hope for the best this time round.”
A pigeon settles on the windowsill outside Ruth’s stark room. She ignores it. Hope for the best? Had Dr. DeMar been referring to polio? Had he somehow condemned her second baby? Kenneth? Or was he referring to the any number of diseases and traumas to which children are susceptible? As a doctor he was familiar with them, of course. As a nurse, Ruth had walked the path with parents whose children died under her care.
And thinking back to that moment. In his office. It was shared premonition: They both knew what life could do. It could disable and destroy itself.
Like it did with Kenneth. Finally.
Like it will with so many others this year alone, Ruth knows.
Kenneth – nearly ten pounds at birth. Tearing Ruth open. She required stitches and abstinence thereafter.
Kenneth - a big brawny baby – flailing arms and legs and smiling – eager. ‘Let’s get on with it’ he seemed to be telling the world. He grew and then slowly and then not at all.
At age three, the swelling and ache in his joints became intolerable. He cried out even as Ruth massaged his legs per doctors’ orders. It was excruciating for mother and child.
It drove Henry from the house. He sought refuge in fission.
As likewise Ruth does now.
And just as suddenly as the polio virus attacked, Kenneth was defeated. His limbs gave way. His breathing laboured. And, finally, impossible.
He died hardly having lived. It crippled Ruth’s heart.
“Kenneth,” she whispers in the quiet of her room and lets the tears welling up in her eyes pool over. They crease her cheeks. She allows them their moment. In the sun. And it’s mourning all over again.
“I’m so sorry,” Dr. DeMar offered. “We, all of us, did everything we could.”
“But science couldn’t save him,” Ruth said more for Henry’s sake than the doctor’s.
“Not Kenneth, no,” Henry rejoined, “but there are ongoing trials –“
“To hell with your trials, nuclear or otherwise, Henry!” Ruth shouted at him and fled the hospital. Retreated from life. From Cynthia. From Henry.
When Henry entered her again, days later, Ruth abandoned him there on his own. Impenetrable everywhere but where it mattered least anymore.
And she left that evening. Yesterday. Rain pelted down covering her departure.
Cynthia stirred when Ruth kissed her goodbye and clung to her mother’s hand impulsively – half-awake. But Cynthia was no longer hers. Ruth too far away to reach and Cynthia too heavy to carry. Better now than later, Ruth counseled herself in the taxi toward the city. At Cynthia’s age she can forget more than she can remember.
And it’s Sunday morning – May 1952. The pigeon has flown away and earth continues spinning round and round the sun. But where Ruth sits, the light seems to hold. The moment waiting for her.
She’s been emptied into, poured out of, ripped apart and suckled on. Much like earth.
She’s barren now and fallow.
The future one minute away. And another. And another. And so on.
Cynthia is safe with her father. Henry secure in his calculations.
Ruth closes her eyes. She can see where she’s been. That’s not where she’s going anymore.
Gavin Kayner lives in Tucson, Arizona. He's a retired school teacher. His poems, prose and plays have won numerous awards and appeared in a variety of publications. Some of the publications include Mazagine, Cricket, Teaching K-8, Wildcat and Flagstaff Arts Festival. Most recently, Passager published his short story "Right With God." Venues that have produced and/or awarded his plays include Long Beach Playhouse, Chameleon Circle Theater, New Rocky Mountain Voices, New Works of Merit, Live Theater Workshop, Beowulf Alley Theater, University of California Irvine and so forth. He appreciates this chance to be heard.
The Ekphrastic Review
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