by Christopher Foster Past the turn off for the cemetery and farther down the trail winding around the south side of the lake the car sat quietly in the late afternoon sun—silver, languid, chippings of paint mingled with rust around one of the taillights, all metal and combustible potential; a hulking intruder amongst the tall grass and ash trees around the clearing’s edge. Down twenty or so yards at the bottom of the grassy incline where a sandy wash ran out to meet the retreating tide, she dipped her foot, big toe first, into the cool water. The ripple, small at first contact, gained rungs to its expansion as she watched it stretch outwards into disappearance where the rollback of a slight wave swallowed it into the greater body of the lake. She did again, this time with other foot, then again with the first—again and again, and each time her eyes trailed the ripple until it dissolved out there beyond the quay rocks.
Ruby Daggart had always loved the water—a fact she attributed to spending her life thousands of miles from either ocean and in a state where lakes could only be enjoyed a disproportionately small amount of the year—she loved the feeling of being submerged in water, the way it hugged every inch of her, the texture of it, the way it adapted to whatever it found itself in, the way on a waning afternoon like this she could be alone with its calm music and stick her toes in it and lean out over its small pools to catch her reflection: an exposition of symmetry—almond eyes rising to a central emerald peak and softly curving with the rhythms of her mouth, eyebrows dark and finely woven, hair swept with a late August breeze the color of Caribbean sand seen through clear water and unfurling like a curtain’s length draped over a bannister from the parting on the high left side of her forehead to where it gathered in ribbons at the nape of her neck and along the crest of her shoulders, the cute upturned nose culminating in a little pink button, cheeks making the slightest indention along the glide of her jaw, the thinnest dash of white among the press of her lips revealing a minute overbite, a teenage vestige, an endearing blemish in a wash of soft beauty—tanned by the months of summer and brushed lightly with dimples so small they could only be truly appreciated in the close proximity right before you kissed her—she pushed her toe through the water again, scattering herself among the ripples reaching into the tide.
“Jav! Hey!” she called after the yellow lab futilely chasing a gull a little too far down the shore for her liking, “Come now. Get back here”—the dog turning, looking, looking again back at the soaring bird, pausing, dutifully returning. Ruby knew she was beautiful—had known ever since that dawning moment of her teenage years when the opposite sex, with eyes and hormones, awarded her some unnamed gift that without knowing why, she secretly understood would help her the rest of her life; and Ruby supposed it had—the eyes of attraction followed her naturally and among her peers a certain status was afforded to her which others would have to work for. Her thoughts fell back upon Plattsmouth and that little girl: braces to fix the gap in her two front teeth and wondering where mama had gone—god I don’t even remember what she was like, what I was like. All gangly and awkward. Fantasies of somewhere else, anywhere else. Find a boy to love me and the promise of graduation. Off to college and grandeur. Prince charming—how funny, how naïve. What—fifteen years ago? Fifteen years. All that has happened in between here and now. Barely eighteen and off to college in Lincoln. It was a big city in my mind then. Peeling back the myths. Kissing dad goodbye outside the dormitory, ugly red brick, wondering who my roommate would be—fifteen years? Really? Guess if I hadn’t paused to look up I never would have known.
She looked down at her painted toes, red and waving under the clear tide; she kicked her feet out to make a splashing foam rise up and pepper her bare calves, the most arching droplets of water reaching the bottoms of her blue jean shorts hemmed at mid-thigh with a damp sensation—the cool tingling of liquid on skin she relished and kicked her feet again—the dog seeing this flurry of movement pounced with zest into the tide as well, right beside Ruby, whooping and barking and jumping and with banging paws flinging lake water into the pink fabric of her t-shirt.
“Ok ok Jav”, she laughed, “Ok easy buddy”, and was suddenly alighted with the image of her husband, who had bought her the Labrador as an engagement present several years ago—his robust face and always gelled hair, adjusting his tie in the mirror of their double-sided vanity, pulling the chair out for her at their favorite little Italian place downtown, scrolling through Nasdaq on his tablet as an early morning sun crawls across the duvet’s warmth—and for no reason or premonition at all she found herself wondering if she loved him.
What am I saying? Of course I do. Of course I love him. I married him. I’m his wife. I wear his ring. But what does that really mean? People pretend all the time, but I’m not one who just jumps into—am I? I mean, I wouldn’t be thinking, or doubting it if I did right? What am I doing? I love him. This is silly.
“What do you think Jav? He’s good to me.”
A quick bark leapt up at her.
“Yea you would say that, ya big goof”—she bent down and flicked some water at the dog still splashing around in the tide—ah why am I even thinking about this? I love him. He’s built a wonderful life for us: ranch-style house on the south side, the porch swing, fig tree in the backyard he helped me plant and he loathes gardening, last spring we saw Wicked in New York, my guitar he had engraved—her mind, as though coming abruptly to a flat and impassible wall, ceased it wheeling ministrations—for it occurred to Ruby the nature of what she was doing.
Oh my god—how did I get to this?
Across the water on an unmarred hill of green pasture the sun rolled yellow over the earth and disappeared, leaving a wistful still-born grey to entrench the lake—the dog, as if sensing an enemy on the run, took off barking towards the retreating light and birds ran from the trees. Ruby moved her gaze over the whole expanse of water and vegetation, imaging the chilled wind that would roam over all this a few months’ time—do I love him? Is it that simple—it should be, I agreed to it. Agreed. That sounds wrong. Like a contract or something I had to do. That’s not what it was. At least in the beginning it wasn’t. Do you love him yes or no? It can’t be that simple. But it should be. It’s too soon for this. We’re still new in our marriage. I love him. I have to. Her thoughts, like the ripples she made, rolled away from her.
I have to. Otherwise why would I—and yet, here I am, beside a lake 17 miles outside of town wondering if I love the man I promised my life to and he to me. That was THE moment. Everything leads to and from. The happiest moment of my life. But I’m not dead? How can people say that? If we’re not dead yet how can we truthfully declare what was the happiest moment of our lives? Did I lie then, when he lifted my veil? Did he lie—no he didn’t, he loves me. But we don’t’ have cameras in each other’s heads. Only our own. Did I lie? No, I don’t think I did. I believed it then. What do I believe now?
She watched the dog as he ran with apparent desperation in her direction, only to roll in the sand at her feet. He turned onto his back and looked up at her, slobbering and wet—a thought melted into shape across her mind: nothing ever leaves us. She’d heard or read that somewhere—the returning arrows of nostalgia sinking into the mind, ripples, ripples, synaptic currents in communicative ripples—Gabe: first in that dingy bar and young, doughy in a handsome sort of way, an appreciation to grow into, long arms on a squat, sturdy body, friend of who’s boyfriend—blurred night in an apartment bedroom, first time since Emory—the screeching halt of her thoughts nearly staggered her in the sand.
Oh. Him. Emory—rush of nameless sensation into cheeks and mouth, eyes reclining into far-off places—Emory, Emory. The peculiar sound his name made in her mind, like an old book swept of its dust. Emory—oh what, 8, 9 years maybe, late ’11? Oh Emory. Taller than….than Gabe! Christ can’t I keep my—I do love him, I know I—mental drift over images appearing like bursts of light: Emory, a lot like Gabe only…oh what would it be…sensitive? More alive? No, that’s only because Emory’s still twenty-two in my memory—thin face, lanky body and those cheeks always reddened embarrassing him, especially when he’s drunk—do they still do that?—oh all those old times, so damn young, kids away from home. Basement hands and quick kisses beneath loosely-strung bare light bulbs of off-campus fraternity party houses. Emory boyish in Abercrombie shirts. What fraternity again? White house on the corner of R by the student union. Alone in the president’s suite upstairs and our skin in the open window sunlight, June or May sometime, first summer after freshman year—it felt to Ruby, removing herself from her mind for a moment, as though the whole lake had risen up and enveloped her. She had not thought of Emory in a long time.
And why was that? Three dark birds fell quickly through the greying sky and swooped low over the lake—well, what always happens. I became lost in the curve of my life, probably on purpose. Her mind filled suddenly with the vague image of a figure turning around and staring down a long road whose beginning was too far out of sight. Or was it the end? I moved on. Time stops for no one. In her mind Ruby was greeted with flashing explanations—Dylan songs strictly forgotten, painting the apartment walls over, resigning from the Gallery, the Shramm Hall girls’ insistence on a ‘reintroduction tour’ of the O street bars and the weekend in Chicago, back home with Dad in sad conversations—where a stubborn column of sunlight fell along a gathering thick with trees on the eastern bank of the lake a grouse fluttered in the mudflats with a nasal squeal before lifting into the air, eliciting a call from the dog. Ruby became aware of her feet in the water and retreated a few steps back into the brittle sand.
It’s not really sand, more like the weathered sediment left behind when they drain the lake—a long hot bath is in order tonight. She gazed down the shore and followed the curve all the way around the lake’s jagged progression, a squint of eyes revealing a similar wash of pale sand between the water and the grassy shoreline along the opposite bank—smiling into the memory of her father, his long weathered face, explaining how the Game and Parks commission drain the lakes of the Salt Water Valley like this every so often—all this water will be gone by the first frost probably hmm—that thought drawing parallels in her mind: nothing ever leaves us. But that’s not true—Emory left, my mother left, youth, as it once was left—she paused there, for it struck Ruby that the bloom, the electric feeling of impulse and excitement she had carried with her in those first scenes with Gabe had left as well—a strangling silence rushed like a gale around her as the whole tapestry of the last decade opened like windows along a vast collage and each one opening with a red alarm glowing from somewhere within; a thousand-windowed beast finally revealed for what it is, moving and quietly groaning along, and with sick horror Ruby realized she had loved the beast—no. Not love. LOVE. Not like that. I loved the escape. Love of escape, that’s what to call it. Cold acknowledgment in the prefrontal cortex: how could I not have seen—ah, why would I go thr—I don’t even understand—liked it though, there’s no denying that. Lap of luxury the phrase is. Pretty things and casual comforts. The kitchen with a million buttons and blinking lights. Sun room spun with gold. Distractions? I didn’t see them as such then. Or yesterday. Or this morning. How can something like this just creep up on you? Explode like the roof of a volcano. Distractions? Gabe too?
Her mind silted with this notion in the silence of advancing evening—the dog tiring now, laid down in the damp sand at her feet.
The last skeleton of sunlight wavered over the hills to the west and Ruby turned suddenly for the car, her sandals still nestled in the grass and the dog taking up after her. She wanted to make use of what light remained—grabbing a little green memo pad from the middle console and rummaging through the jumbled mess in the trunk she was curved with a brief sadness at the sight of her old acoustic, half-covered by a blanket and dusted with neglect, untouched and forgotten for an unknowable article of time—the engraved RS obscured by the side of an Pennzoil canister. The lab placed with curiosity, his paws on the edge of the trunk and peered with his master at the guitar.
“Whaddya think Jav? Think I can get her into tune?” The dog looked up at her with big dark eyes, panting. She imagined if Jav could talk, he would say dryly and in an aristocratic voice, “Darling, I don’t think it’s the guitar that needs tuning.” Instead she was greeted with a soft whimper.
“Alright c’mon then”. Slamming the trunk down and guitar neck in hand, her bare feet rubbing in the grass cooled by the sun’s wake, she found a stump near the edge of the tree line where digging in her feet so little blades of grass sprouted between her toes, she began pulling and twisting the gold pegs and dragging unsure fingers across the fret strings with a bent ear, the warped and woebegone sound echoing along in the stillness of lake about her—a determination to break through—another hoarse whine and the pang of tightly-wound nylon against wood, the sensitivity in her fingertips notifying her how long it’s been, darting glimpses of forgotten music—“There”, suddenly announcing and jolting the poor dog who had only just laid his head down, “Or close enough I guess. It’s been while ok?”
Her fingers began to fall across the strings in lazy rhythms, catching nothing in particular and chasing nothing either, just swinging in recognition of an old motion, a side-lined memory, the little pin-pricks on skin welcome reminders and the other hand pressed its fingers along the neck in excavation of buried chords—like her memories by the water, the guitar began to open and color, music coming forth from her mind like a slow train, long tunnel to illumination, and from her lips a voice nearly unrecognizable in texture began to hum:
‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
when blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
the words issuing from her brain to her mouth under the acute stewardship of memory, lyrics long thrown away from her with the rest of those years returning now in painful and beautiful directness, evocations springing up around them—
Well I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back to clock to when God and her were born
visions like sudden blasts of luminescence appearing before her strained eyes: snug living room 2nd floor condo full of evening and faces, Emory fumbling with the chords she’s trying to teach him and bright laughter, the miniscule turntable crackling over a worn-through record, a feeling, like a bird, a hummingbird flapping furiously to fly from her heart, their feet bumping the guitar off the bed—
And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
in a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm
Emory; all the old graves wrenching up before her from long ago—he had a mole on the side of his face below his eye—New Year’s Eve his parents’ house an open emporium of excitement, friends, tongues dueling against the maroon wall of his father’s study, faces drummed up in conversation and the shared illusion of forever, sparkling wonder at such warm gatherings under the stars: Alexis, Brittany, Samantha spilling champagne on the leather couch, Emory’s fraternity brothers: Mikhail, Chuck, Mulbach, Limoli—the Auld Lang Syne wafting from speakers as glasses clink together, champagne golden in the soft patio lights, a numerical chant begun, and another face among the celebration, mysterious under liquor and withdrawn like a shadow in the corner—
But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
and the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
Ruby let the enunciation on “horn” dribble out and took her hands down. The lake in front of her was becoming strung with evening’s emissaries and from her pocket she took out the memo pad, writing in small cramped letters the word Layla. An all-together different nostalgia swam through her remembering that face, dark in its pale youth, a lost quality run through it—it was a very different bird writhing in her heart, and it never flew—that dark face never explaining itself when its eyes flamed with a desire to, running, twisting from an unknown command—under “Layla” she drew a question mark and looked out across the lake where the distance bent into shrouds of darkened water, the remaining skirts of grey rolling into its embrace—straining her mind to remember something said or a moment in which sweetness might have been missed, but all that would come was the sad dream of that strange long ago face, the boy forever beyond her edge—beside the question mark she wrote Poet and closed the notebook.
Evening settled firmly into the grooves of the lake. Ruby opened the notebook again and stared at the words on the page—they were nearing invisibility now in the dearth of light and she ran the pad of her thumb over them once, twice, two more times, then resigned to simply staring, eyes well beyond where her vision was fixed. When they returned Ruby could no longer make out what was written on the page—“The great what-ifs come back like ghosts don’t they Jav?” and the big labrador appraised her with his own sad eyes and long snout in the dark grass—silence the edict of this place—except in Ruby’s mind where the past flamed like a galaxy of glowing cathedrals at the awakening moment of rapture, her fire to walk though barefoot—Emory swaddled in exhilarating light, the dark face a dream returned in mystery, Alexis all blonde and white perfection and Samantha too walking through the years of sorority houses and secret promises exchanged with each other—jesus, when did I see Sam last? Her wedding? And that was three years ago—pang of quick regret, time divides—the rich cream walls of the art gallery, Ruby’s desk a disrepair of drawings, installation concepts, letters from big museums she’d hoped to one day visit, all held up against the uniformed cubicle neatly arranged and straightforward silence of the National Research Corporation desk where she was due in the morning—an empty feeling surround by friends and candles on her thirtieth birthday—Jav howling for his mother on the first night we brought him home—mother, mom, mama, Jean René Sanders—Sanders, yes that what my name had been once and she had long hair, long down to her waist that would shine in the morning when she dressed me—wetness rising around the eyes—mama, mama—I’m too old for “mama”. Says who though? Is there an age. Marriage. A career. Do we get to a collection of titles in life where we just simply become too old for our past? A line in the history of oneself? Mama. I haven’t thought of you in too long and you were my mother. Created me. Put me into all, all this—arms spreading in the darkness to no one—the mind clawing itself for a mother’s remembrance and producing nothing more than the framed photograph her father kept on his dresser in the old house—ceremony of lights in the convention center during graduation and her father waving from the stands surrounded by strangers, no mama, Emory gone too—nothing ever leaves us—father sitting in the pew alone in the church of St. Francis as Gabe slides the ring on a shaking hand—oh Gabe! Oh Gabe!
A breath heaved from her and she looked around noticing that all her agony of memories had not ruffled even a single blade of dark grass or a leaf on a tree at the forest’s edge. The guitar rested across her lap with the notepad on its wood body and though she could no longer see through the darkness, both felt as real to her as they had been in the light and as much a part of her as the blood issuing forth from her heart—her heart, announcing itself bolder now in her chest, uncertain but seemingly fuller and, like the rest, she was more aware of it than she could recall being in a long time.
She stood and slung the guitar over her shoulder, heading back for the car. Halfway up the slight hill she paused, turning her gaze again across the water to the point on the far side of the lake that seemed to consume all else, the blackened grove where the grey water had rolled into a deep abyss and disappeared; she beheld that lost face again: sorrowful eyes that betrayed the face’s guard, eyes on the verge of color, garrulous eyes, eyes when fallen into her own opened a strange, frightening, and holy flame across the silence which always kept them restrained, eyes she had turned away from, eyes that had turned away from themselves—then it was gone, dissolved back into the shadow of the lake. At the car she ushered the dog into the backseat and placed the guitar gently on the passenger seat, securing the notebook between the neck and the fret strings like a pick. With the keys in the ignition unturned Ruby remained motionless, paralyzed by a nameless malady, a confluence to be felt and not understood—the expanse of Branched Oak out her windshield roving in the dark, big shoulders and sloping curves, sharp inlets and marked with swarming patches of silent trees that looked like devious envoys of the whole lake’s evil secret, all held her silent in nothing as though she had awoken suddenly and in a strange climate. She felt very far from what she supposed someone would call her life—her hands tightened on the wheel and its leather felt unfamiliar, the digital glow of the dashboard clock suggested a time she couldn’t understand—the headlights unrolling long white beams down the hill and up the trees seemed intrusive and she switched them off—where’s moon? It should be out by now. Where is the damn moon—the inability to trace the silver dusting on the water to its source invoking a deep irritation—hand shoots out, last glance over where she had been, keys turning, car humming in response, headlights again, gear shift, graveled crunch of tires, dog’s face over shoulder, pedal inched, red lights gone in the night.
At the beginning of the trailhead where gravel meets the smooth asphalt of north 84th street, Ruby hesitated. No cars came and night threatened to swallow everything beyond the scope of her headlights. She rolled down the window and heard no sound save the dog’s rhythmic panting; even the birds had retired from this place. Her eyes fell upon the small gravel trail to her left leading away from the street into a dark thicket of hanging ash trees. The car swung around in one jagged twist of the wheel and joined the silence as she left it parked.
“Stay”, she whispered to the dog and set off alone down the path. In a small clearing among the long and shadowed trees she found the graveyard. No more than ten yards wide and surrounded on all sides by the forest, the ground was sparsely molested by only a few graves and they too were small and unassuming, as though the bones beneath them and their whole sad affair had been forgotten by the world as it rushes madly after its own pulse. Ruby slipped off her sandals and felt the cool glide of the grass beneath her feet as she walked slowly over the strange earth filled with death and let her hands trace the grooves and cracks of each stone slab, weathered by wind and rain, tracing the lettered indentions of names she would never know and shivering in the breeze that had slipped the trees’ guard—each grave was met with the soft feather of her touch and in a voice hidden by the wind she spoke her secrets to the stones—at the last one she knelt and whispered, “Emory”.Then as all the memories and recesses of mind came snarling forward—the dark face, Emory, her mother, her father, her youth, old friends and old avenues, her marriage, Gabe’s face and Gabe’s love, her old hopes and aspirations, her dreams, sweats, desires, life as it was, as it is, and as it will be—she fell back on the old and silent earth and laughed—laughed uncontrollably and without a breath reserved as though her whole life she had been holding in one great final laugh woven into the texture of her soul—flat on her back with her body open to the stars Ruby laughed—for looking up, she had found the moon. About the Author:I am an aspiring writer living in Tucson, Arizona after spending an eternity in Lincoln, Nebraska, where most of my writing takes shape. I earned a BA in English from the University of Nebraska, where I was fortunate enough to stumble into several of the great poet Greg Kuzma’s courses. I owe him a debt which cannot be repaid in flattery. I think of D.H. Lawrence often: “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.”