Sticks

Zina Peterson

When I was born, the doctor said, “Rose,” (which was my mother’s name)”you’d better name the afterbirth.” What?” my mother wheezed. “You’ve got another little girl here,” he said. But then somewhere behind him my sister-baby died. 

So since then I walk around like one drumstick, like one chopstick, like one chromatid stick. After my mother died I learned that I had had a twin, and I understood some of me; why I needed a cat’s cradle of smiling people around me. I went to the cemetery. I learned about genetics in high school, and I looked at my skin cells in the bathtub and thought that there is another collection of this-the very, very same stuff, all planted, all hidden in a box.

 

At college, back from Christmas, I come to a class in this building and I feel like I’m walking into a tombstone, big and white and too small to be so grand. I learn about society here. Frustrated, I look over at a girl whose head is bent over her books, her hair is long and black and it falls around her face. From under her collar two cords sneak to her ears, and she taps her desk in rhythm. 

She is the model model of the an department: Ruth, Sitting In Class. She moves like a painting and poses like a dance. 

My notes say, “Chicago school, 1930s.” Under this I have written Ruth Ruth RUUUUUUUTH. She never sees my paper. 

Later in the month, accidentally, she is my friend. 

Ruth, still in her coat, sleeves bunched up, at the sink at my house; me in a bathrobe, early: she makes a wet and skinny “ok” sign and she picks up dish soap with it. She blows and the bubble pops before it is even the size of a fist. She sings, “Oh, sister, sister I’m just like you, we sing us all for one same man, we sing, we sing them blues…”

Her voice stays just above the sink. 

“But nothing save or help or guide us Lord we sing them blues.”

She puts a plate in the dish drainer: “Mmm-hmm-hmm.” Ruth is a dancer of several kinds; she listens to her records and knows them all. (And if I begin to talk too close for her she sings from them, moving.) She has a low voice with no vibrato. I can say that she sings like a bird and mean it. Not the usual kind of bird, though. 

“When did you get up this morning? Where were you last night?” I say. 

“Out with a boy, I can never say, no, I don’t want to. So he told me all about himself. Ruth, Ruth, you ‘re so interesting, that kind of thing. They brought out these plates that could feed the planet! I had to ask for a doggy truck. And I hate Mexican food.” 

“Then why ‘d you take it home?” 

“I didn’t. I gave it to a cat, oh yes I gave it to a cat, a mangy cat who sang the blues…”  

“Ruth, why are you doing my dishes?” 

“The water’s hot. And because they’re dirty, Lord, I say they’re dirty, mm-hmm, hmm.” 

I am an entire fan club. 

 

At Ruth’s house I can hear her singing come through the door, accompanied by the shower water that rattles on the curtain. 

A lamp goes flitting off. I know this house by now, how its wires choose the lighting for themselves. I replug the lamp, jiggling the cord, and there it is. Under her bed, under the outlet, a shoebox is full of letters. And bottles of starch blockers and appetite suppressors, and one last tissue-sharp wrapped straight edge razor blade. I already know about all this. I hate proof, I hate it. 

When she comes out I say, “Orange juice?” and hand her a glass. She sips. It is hers, so it is watered down, to fool people. Me. Her stomach. 

Now she tells me, “I’ve got an appointment to get my hair cut on the first; falls into my eyes.” 

I’ve asked her to come seventy miles home with me for that weekend. “To see my father in his element.” It is a ploy; I hope she comes; I need to have her there. 

She sits, and I notice this: that gravity pulls harder on her bones than on any other part of her, that they sink, through the rest of her, to the surface of the chair, pinching. (“Bird bones are hollow, did you know that?” she said once.) 

I say, “So you can ‘t make it?” 

“Oh. Geeze, probably. I forgot. I’ll change it. Sure we ‘ll go.” And now she’s the mother, giving me something to keep me comfortable while she figures. 

 

Ruth sits in the passenger seat, pressing the buttons of her walkman. “Here it is,” she says. “Listen to this.” She leans toward me and shoves a dime -size speaker sideways into my ear. 

“That’s nice,” I say. Tiny little guitars and drums. “Listen! Listen!” she says, aching. “Isn’t that…?” 

She has the other speaker in her ear and suddenly she feels something. “No, here, look,” she says. I drive and she straightens out the speaker the guitars have tone and the drums open deep. She isn’t satisfied; she takes the other speaker out of her ear and hands it to me, leaning away again. “You need to hear it chase your brain around, use this.” 

It buffers. I can hear why she spreads this sound over herself, all over herself like warm honey. She smiles at me while she knows the song is playing. 

When it’s over she takes the music back to her own ears.

 

My own father is now twice my age almost exactly—the same years, but doubled over and then stretched out past me. He is like this about Ruth: he tells me on the phone, I’m glad you have a friend like Ruth. You need a good friend. Give her a hug.” I want to, I want to. 

Today he meets us with his screen door open. He comes out to kiss me and to carry our bags even though they’re small. He has shaken hands with Ruth before but he is bewildered this time with how much of her is gone since then. His face smiles but he thinks he ‘s missed her hand and grabbed a cold glove. It is a reason she avoids being touched, anywhere, by anyone. People find out; people are alarmed. She mistakes the source of that alarm, every time. It infuriates her. That and touch sometimes hurts-her elbow, for instance, is wearing through the skin inside, rubbing harsh on the skin of her clothing, and on the skin over her ribs, white and clean as bone. And this part is too privately hers people could offer help, but for her, it’s for what? 

But she talks and smiles as he carries the bags, wanting to carry her, and she seems cheerful and gracious. The cords of her Walkman speakers tangle in her hair, black and curled. 

 

That night we make cookies. I steal chocolate chips into a pile of my own and my father raises an eyebrow. Ruth hums, buzzing the low notes. She gives us sturdy walking and hips softly swinging to her music. Not much else. Not frailty. 

I watch her dropping little blots of dough, too small, onto a cookie sheet. She slides the dough off the spoon with her finger and then scrapes her finger with the spoon, and then her spoon with another finger, and back and forth—

Ruth, dammit, lick your fingers! It won’t matter! 

Shaking so I can’t believe I didn’t really say it, yell it. I wander around the kitchen. I wash a clean fork and an almost clean water glass. 

When the cookies are baked she gives them all to my father, who tries to share them back. 

 

Ruth is placed on the edge of my old camp cot like a brittle little Buddha, folded. She paints each toenail, slowly, at a time. I stop unfolding a blanket because it happens to me again, looking at her. Black hair, so black the highlights are blue. More than sculpture, once before we were friends she stared at me all day in sociology. She came after class and said, “You look so much like this one girl I know back home. What’s your last name?” 

She came to my door that night, crinkling something under her arm.

“What is that?” 

“It’s a blue moon…” (She started singing.) “Come with me. See? Put seventeen pounds of clothes on, it’s cold.”

“It’s four a.m.” Shaking, giddy, “I’m coming.” 

And it was a kite with a long foil tail. In the air, it splintered the light, and we looked blue and silver too; her lips were not too stiff to sing. 

I look at her now. I know she will keep trying to dissolve herself to clear, thin bone, and I will keep trying to catch all the Ruth she loses, and collect it, and keep it. 

She looks up from a toe and catches me in the act of not moving. She thinks this is sadness, for the wrong thing. She smiles, so warm, through her face, but her eyes are too deep, and they are not clean. There is always that distraction in her, always this: you may be important to me, but I’m so hungry, I’m so hungry. 

 

We sleep that night like an “L.” Our heads meet at the joint, and we laugh. We are heavily blanketed, neither of us satisfied with five. Ruth settles for six. We count eight of them on my bed and then we talk about something else: the beach. She wants a windy cold beach, in Maine, where she can wear a sweater and walk along the rocks by herself, getting sticky with the salt, and tangled up in her hair. She wants to look at the ocean Ishmael travels. I want a still beach at night, on an island right on the equator (“Bugs,” she says), where the sand is still warm from the sunset the evening before, and the air is so humid and hot that it fills your mouth. I don’t want to be alone on mine, though. I don’t tell her this part. I tell her about the sounds instead. 

“And there would be a tin drum band way off—so far off it’d sound like tin drums are ever in tune. They ‘d be playing a song I didn’t know so I could write my own words to it.” 

Ruth says, “They’d be playing ‘La Bamba’ or something. Get real on your beach, already.” 

In the morning she’s the one to suggest it. First. When we get there the air is cold and the gate is closed, chained, in thumb-sized links, like Marley’s ghost. So we scale the fence. (Ruth says we are “Westsidestoryizing” it. She sings Bernstein.) Back where there are pine trees, back away from the road. 

“Why do you come here? Do you come a lot?” 

“Yeah, a lot. For funerals. Mom is over there.” I point, over there. 

Ruth, stepping her legs over a broken branch—her legs do a one-second pas de deux with each other: “How do you miss your twin? You never met her.” 

“I feel like.” 

“No. You lived, is all. She came out first, but you lived. Ok? That’s all.” 

The footprints we make come from nowhere or from heaven only—they start with the snow. We find the headstone, scrape the old snow off it, look at it. I look at Ruth to see if there is anything I might have for this. 

She quakes in the cold; her neck is tense, and tiny in the crooked circle of the collar to a coat that fit once. We have to leave: she has no energy to keep for herself; she is cold, inside her coat; she is always cold. 

 

In the car back to school her feet are up on the dashboard to collect from the heater, and her hands are tucked hard into the bend of her stomach. Her Walkman bridges her wrists, and it teeters. She unplugs her earphones and looks out her window at fields and fields of prickly snow. I say, “What are you thinking of?” And after a minute she says, “When I was a freshman I used to take off my watch and leave it in my dorm. And walk in the commons so I could ask people what time it was. Just to talk.” Her face is molded out of bone. 

Then she smiles, and then she shakes her head. “The day after Groundhog’s day is always such a letdown.” She tries to change the tape in her stereo, but the tape falls on the floor and she laughs, desperately: “I can’t hang onto anything, can I?” 

This is all I will get from her own mouth. There is a tremendous rattle inside my ribcage. 

 

She is still as a plastic flower. And she is not enough like a movie sick person. There are violent little holes in her arms where she has ripped out her intravenous food. Now the needles invade the backs of her hands, under and taped onto the skin. And her unconsciousness, at least, is docile. 

But I think, buckles? 

If she were awake I would say, “Now do you believe me?” 

If she were awake she would say, “I was finally getting there, and look at what they’re doing to me.” 

If she were awake she would say, “Please don’t tell your father.” 

I had planned on her playing this for me, and then for herself. But she is buckled, across the wrists, so her hands can’t reach to unplug each other; they can’t reach her ears. I put in one tape and leave the other one out of its case, next to her hand, where she can reach it. I move aside her hair, dull, like a crow’s feather, and I put the speakers in her ears, in snug, to block out all of it but music. I place her hand over the little stereo, trying to make her index finger rest on the play button, trying to prop the stereo up against the blankets. I look at the door and I say, “I’ll only be gone for a little while.” 

When I walk out of the hospital all I can hear is birds.