Elsie Ruby, 1912-1999 (2024)

Elsie Ruby, 1912-1999 (1)

Elsie Ruby Farris surveyed the egg-sized clods that had invaded her garden, hogging all the oxygen in the soil. It was a June day, but she wore a cotton dress with long sleeves and a blue-and-white sunbonnet she’d bought from Holley’s Store, when there was a Holley’s Store. Elsie Ruby hadn’t bought clothes in years. Her daughter, Vanessa, bought her things at the mall, whisking away sweaters, dresses, and particularly offensive shoes, and dumping them into her trashcan at home. Plus, she got gifts from the boys on Christmas and her birthday, picked out by their wives. She had more than she’d ever need. Lord, what was a woman her age supposed to do with chocolate-scented bath bombs? As for the house, the only changes since Howard’s death were ceiling fans. He’d put in air-conditioning, but she’d turned the unit off, installing ceiling fans throughout the house. Air conditioning was too expensive. She remembered when Mother couldn’t pay the light bill.

Elsie Ruby tightened her hands around the hoe handle. She’d been busting up clods since she was a girl and could take care of these with one whack. Her lips formed what might have been a curse but wasn’t. Elsie Ruby was a dutiful Methodist. She mouthed the word again, soundless. She had spoken the word long ago, and its effects had been disastrous.

Harshbarger Mills by Joan Spilman is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

She’d been born in a yellow frame house on Orchard Street not four blocks away. The house, having long collapsed on itself, had sat at the edge of five acres planted with fruit trees, which everyone called “The Orchard”. The Orchard ended where a street named Orchard started. Now, she lived on Florida Street, named by Earl Tracy who’d been south when Harshbarger Mills was growing, and had come back with a fantastic report. Palm trees, warm weather, and salt water that had cured his sinuses. Earl bragged so much that several asked, “Whad ‘ja come back for?” and in response, he’d grit his teeth, and mutter about the wife. When a new street was dozed nearby, Earl tore apart a cardboard box, wrote FLORIDA STREET on two flaps, taped one to the corner mailbox, and the other on Hensley’s gatepost.

The town made the name official at the next council meeting.

For the last fifty years, Elsie Ruby has lived where the Hensley’s house had been, in a brick rancher with a carport on a double lot --- one for the house and the other for the garden, where she now hoed.

When Elsie Ruby was a tiny thing, her mother had sewn her a sunbonnet and given her a “Little Digger” hoe. Told to loosen the soil along the front of the house so Lavinia could plant flowers, instead the child had walked to the Orchard and begun pounding the clods of dirt between the trees.

The orchard belonged to Lev Farris. He’d started planting it when he first married Minnie, and he was now the father of nine, the oldest boy being twenty-two. Rows of cherry, apple, peach, plum, and a few persimmons were planted in straight, widely spaced rows. There was one pear tree which Lev always meant to cut down but never did because, besides having a large family, he owned a harness shop, made and repaired shoes, and was a lay pastor at two country churches, one of which was still standing.

Walking in his orchard one morning, Lev saw a little girl busting clods like she was busting out of prison. He noticed her bare feet and flour sack dress with a pocket made from calico cloth and promised her a nickel every Saturday if she’d break up clods during the week. Elsie Ruby agreed and stuck out her hand. Lev Farris shook it, sober as a judge, but when he got home, he told the story to his wife between hoots of laughter.

“She was pure spunk,” he said, slapping his knee. “Is she Bert’s girl?”

“No, she belongs to his brother.”

“Marvin?” Lev leaned forward, his brows drawn together. “Why, Marvin’s not here. He left to dig coal in Allentown.”

“I hear he sends money,” said Minnie, after a pause. “We’ll have the girl up to eat after we finish cleaning.”

Minnie never bothered with spring cleaning, she waited until summer when the boys were out of the house. Once out of school, they seldom went beyond the kitchen. They’d show up for supper, eat like horses, and hurry back outside to play baseball, football or reenact the Civil War on the hills. Nights, they slept in the upper loft of the smokehouse. Howard, Frank and Thomas were getting big, of an age where they’d roam with other boys in the evenings. Only the oldest, Lambert, stayed inside, sleeping in the front bedroom.

The girls helped Minnie clean the house. The three oldest pounded out carpets on the clothesline, while Vida Mae and Hilary ran the smaller rugs through the wringer washer. The first time the rinse water was always black, so they ran them through again.

“I’ve got to wash the walls in the living room before we put up paper” Minnie told her husband. “You’ve had that look on your face ever since you saw Marvin’s girl but forget it. I’m not having any more babies, Lev. The twins nearly did me in.”

The twins. Hilary had lived, Hilda had not, and Minnie had nearly died with her. He’d knelt by his wife’s bed and prayed she’d live, and God had heard his prayer. “Why didn’t God let my sister live, too?” Hilary would ask later and Lev told her. “Death was already in the room, and death never leaves without taking someone.”

Though Hilary was nine, Minnie had never gotten over the births. When she worked too hard, she got a tremor. Plus, there was Lambert, a hunchback born with a protruding chest and arms long as his legs. Wisps of legs that couldn’t walk far, but arms that helped him climb. Lev had made him a special cart with big sidewheels that he could control, and Lambert used it to get to town. When he was small, Lev carried him on his back to the harness shop, but Lambert was now grown.

Lev knew his wife was right, but even so he decided to take care of Elsie Ruby in little ways, and not just having the girl for supper. Polly, Hope, and Beatrice would curl her hair with wet rags, and Minnie would give her a pie to take home to her mother. Minnie made the best crusts in town, using lard instead of that oil called Crisco, which made everything greasy.

He’d made shoes for years and got a good look at the girl’s feet, sized them up in a second. Sturdy shoes that would last all year unless Elsie Rosie took a growth spurt. He’d see about her when the time came. If Marvin sent anything, it wasn’t much.

Though Lev Farris paid a nickel every Saturday, it wasn’t always at the same time. Elsie Ruby would put on her sunbonnet and grab her hoe as early as eight o’clock, then she’d wait. Sometimes, she’d take a stick and write a story in the dirt. Sometimes she’d draw pictures to go with it. Sometimes, she’d sing what she’d written.

Sooner or later, Mr. Farris would arrive and ask her the same question.

“What are you going to do with your nickel, Elsie Ruby?”

“I’m going to Holley’s Store and pull a dill pickle out of the barrel.”

“Are you going to eat it all yourself?”

“Course not!” The question never failed to draw indignation. “Momma loves dill pickles, too!”

Indeed, Momma did. It was their weekly treat. Elsie Ruby was careful to carry the pickle home in a double-bagged poke and give it to Lavinia, who would cut it into long, thin slices. They’d sit in the kitchen, crunching and drinking water. Sister was quiet, sucking on a pickle slice.

Elsie Ruby eventually became a fixture at the Farris homeplace. Though she was six and Hilary nine, Hilary had given her the dead twin’s place. Elsie Ruby didn’t mind. In fact, she was glad Hilda had died. If she hadn’t, there wouldn’t be room at the table.

Every day, after she’d broken enough clods to satisfy her sense of duty, Elsie Ruby would meander through the arbor and wait for Hilary. They’d play jacks or paper dolls, but sometimes Hilary took a “spell” which meant she’d sit in the swing and talk about her dead twin. After a while, Elsie Ruby would jump up, saying she’d forgotten a pile of clods.

Over the years, her hoe became her paintbrush, her piano, the embroidery she never sewed. Like a ring on her finger, it was always in sight.

The friendship between she and Lambert, the handicapped son, began when she was breaking up clods among the persimmon trees. It was a Wednesday and her mother, a devout Wesleyan, had gone to a prayer meeting alone, a real treat for Lavinia because, when the baby was awake, she had to do everything with one arm. This evening, Sister had taken a late nap and Elsie Ruby had agreed to watch her. If she woke and fretted, Lavinia instructed her that a cold rag would ease Sister’s gums.

Once her mother was gone, Elsie Ruby swelled with a great sense of responsibility. She sat on the edge of a chair and watched Sister sleep and keep on sleeping until she grew bored. The screen propped open the window, which meant she could hear if Sister cried, so Elsie Ruby decided to hoe.

She walked to a persimmon and began to break clods. She worked harder around them than any others because persimmons were always dropping to the ground, which meant starlings, and once even a racoon. But there were no intruders this evening, only persimmons that had fallen and rotted, gumming the edge of her hoe.

“I can help you with that,” said a voice from nowhere.

Elsie Ruby looked around. She didn’t scare easily, but it was nearing twilight, and a Wednesday. She wondered if Death was in the orchard, looking for the unchurched.

“Where you at?” she called.

“Up here.” She heard a rustle to the left, and suddenly a pair of skinny legs dangled from the pear tree. The tree was huge and covered in white blossoms. It always bloomed late and never produced fruit. Its limbs spread low and thick.

Lambert had been sitting on the fourth branch up, watching her work. He half fell, half hopped to the ground and repeated, “I’ll help.”

“I don’t need help,” she said, tightening her grip on the hoe. His daddy was paying her to work. What had started out as an extra was now a necessity. Last week, Mother had asked her to buy bread instead of a pickle. “Especially from you.”

Lambert flushed a deep red, and Elsie Ruby wished she could bite off her tongue.

“I didn’t mean. . .” she began.

“I know what you meant,” Lambert said, looking away.

“No, you’re wrong!” Elsie Ruby pounded her hoe. “I’m working for your dad. I need my pay!”

“I’m not trying to take your pay.” Lambert was a little guy with an adult face. He had a deep voice and a high, wide forehead.

“Then what do you want?” she asked.

“I want to be friends,” he said. My, but she was prickly. He started to call her “Cactus” but decided against it. If she was like his sisters, she’d cry.

“Okay,” said Elsie Ruby, and twisted her ring. It was a gold ring with red glass for a stone, and she’d shaken it out of a Cracker Jack box last Christmas. She’d been elated; the Christmas before she’d got baseball cards. “Here, you can have this.”

Lambert stared at the ring in his palm.

“Why?” he asked, finally.

“I have my pride,” she replied. “I won’t be beholden to no one.”

“Okay.” He slipped the ring in his vest pocket. He always wore a vest, as if to disguise his hump. “Thanks.”

Elsie Ruby felt the air against her bare finger and regretted her generosity. Surely, he’d give it back, she told herself. What would an ugly old cripple want with a girl’s ring?

“I’ll pick up the persimmons while you hoe,” Lambert said. “I hate these things; they stick to my shoes. Pop grows them so Mom can make persimmon jam.”

“Do you like it?”

He threw one, then another, into the ditch. “What?”

“The jam.”

“Not much,” The persimmons made splashes in the water.

Nothing else was said, and Elsie Ruby was working around another tree when she heard Sister’s cry pierce the screen. “See you,” she said. Without a backward glance, she ran into the house and away from the boy.

When her mom came home, Sister was happily sucking on a wet rag as Elsie Ruby rocked her. She didn’t tell her mother about Lambert.

Lambert didn’t mention it either because the next time Elsie Ruby went to their house for supper, Mr. Farris was grumbling about the pear tree. The lower branches now swept the ground and could splinter from the trunk any day.

“Don’t be climbing that tree, Elsie Ruby, its branches aren’t safe,” Pop Farris warned her from his end of the table. “You’ll break an arm or a leg.”

“Maybe your neck,” said Hilary, who was always thinking of death in one form or another.

She never climbed that tree, but Lambert did. When he wasn’t helping, he was climbing, high and higher, until she could see only the narrow soles of his feet. He began bringing books. He’d bring one every day, and walk up the wide limbs like a ladder, a volume under his arm. His brothers might have been rough and rowdy, but Lambert was a reader. In a booming voice he’d read her all the stories she should have known: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Handsel and Gretel, but her favorite was Rumpelstiltskin. She’d asked to hear it again and again, while she busted the clods to powder. It was easy for Elsie Ruby to imagine herself as the beautiful miller’s daughter, and Lambert as the misshapen Rumpelstiltskin, eager to trick her.

She often thought of her ring.

One day, Lambert brought an undersized book called Grimm Machen. It was a book of fairy tales written completely in German. Lambert could read and speak German fluently because a professor who’d taught German at Marshall College had boarded with them for two years. Seeing that Lambert had a mind to learn, Professor Von Hecken had begun to teach him the German language. They’d stay up all hours until Mom brought a tray of milk, biscuits, and a dollop of persimmon jam for the professor. Though Professor Von Hecken and Lambert still corresponded, Lambert was, for the most part, self-taught.

The day he brought the undersized book was the day he fell from the tree. Elsie Ruby knew he was reading her favorite story because he pronounced “Rumplestilzchen” carefully, then repeated before he began.

She hoed and listened. It was a rough language, yet it made her want to dance. Perhaps it was the excitement of hearing words in a foreign tongue. The closest she’d come to hearing a foreign language was when the Pentecostals got loud on Mason Street, but that wasn’t often. Mother slammed the windows shut on glossolalia, declaring it gibberish.

But this wasn’t gibberish, it was music, a rough, jagged music that caused her to spin with glee. Elsie Ruby spun round holding the Little Digger as if it were a dance partner. She stomped her feet. She pounded the tip of the hoe into the ground.

Lambert stood on the branch, chest out, bracing for a shout.

Oh, oh! She knew this part. The Queen was naming the imp.

“Rumplestilzchen!” she called.

Elsie Ruby can never remember the next part clearly. It’s as if a fingerprint left a smudge on her brain. She was dancing to the jagged, broken language, Little Digger pressed to her chest. She may have allowed the hoe to dip forward, and it may have smacked the branch, which unsettled Lambert, standing upright, immersed in his own drama. The branch broke, and here is where Elsie Ruby’s memory becomes clear, etching the events in pain.

The narrow feet slipped, the hands grasped, the chin caught a branch and his head bobbed in reaction to force, his limbs flailing until his body hit the ground. Then, all was silent, though the pear tree blossoms were falling faster than they should.

Elsie Ruby snatches up Grimm Machen and throws it into the ditch with the persimmons. She eyes the dead body, then ignores it. It’s the ring she wants, and the vest yields it without a fight. As she slips it on her finger, she wonders if she could have just asked, then she remembers. She’s poor but not beholden.

Elsie Ruby runs sobbing to the Farris house that is sitting peacefully on the hill, the bringer of terrible news. She is never blamed, for she is a child and Lambert, though trapped in a child’s body, was a man.

“He was always hard-headed,” Lev Farris would say, “Too smart for his own good.”

Two years later, Lev would die of a hemorrhage while having his tonsils removed by Wendell Estes, the barber surgeon in town. Mom Farris, who’d nearly died with the stillborn Hilda, held up after Lambert’s death and Lev’s as well. But then came the war, and two boys went off to fight Germany and one to fight Japan, and her mind left. Thomas didn’t return and Frank returned a cripple, but Elsie Ruby married Howard and became a real Farris at last. All the sisters stayed in Harshbarger Mills except for Hilary. Vida Mae, who made regular visits to a spiritualist, said Hilary would travel the world looking for her dead twin.

Howard and Elsie Ruby lived with Minnie until she died, and Elsie Ruby tended her like a true daughter. It wasn’t much of a life, and everyone agreed she and Howard deserved the house. Lavinia was long dead, and Sister married to a Mr. Porter, fourteen years older, from Olive Hill.

The government took most of the orchard for the new interstate. The persimmons and the pear tree were the first devoured by the orange jaws of a giant machine. When the pear tree was uprooted, Elsie Ruby stood at the edge of the arbor and sobbed so violently that Howard was alarmed at her grief. Yes, he remembered Lambert, but barely. He folded her in his arms and muttered a scripture, he thought it might be from the Bible. He used the sale of the orchard to build the rancher, while Frank, always with a rolled cigarette in his mouth, watched from his wheelchair. He was animated during that time, joking with the carpenters. They’d been boys about town when he’d signed up for Uncle Sam.

Then, poof! She was a widow, and a new generation was in charge --- three grown children who didn’t understand a thing about life or struggles and thought a pickle barrel was something she’d read in a book. She now lived in a world where there are no secrets, where everything was discussed endlessly and loud.

Elsie Ruby busts the last clod near a beefsteak tomato and heads indoors. Her daughter will be coming later. She takes off her sunbonnet, runs a comb through her hair and changes into a wraparound. She likes her clothes loose after gardening. She selfishly hopes her daughter won’t be bringing her daughters. Their names are Ashley and Gretchen, but she can’t tell them apart. But she knows they hate to visit, and she hates their visits, too.

She’s just finished tying the side sash when she hears a clamor at the kitchen door, and an admonishment from Vanessa. “Remember to watch your language around Grandma.”

“Why? She can’t hear a thing,” says one of them.

“You be surprised,” mutters her daughter.

Elsie Ruby’s hearing is excellent; it’s the glaucoma that’s a bother. She started cupping her hand to her ear when these girls were small and ran shrieking around about her house. She now cups a hand around her ear in anticipation. The old have their tricks, too.

“Hi, Gramma,” says Gretchen. This must be the oldest, she’s the one who talks. The other just stares. Both are wearing jean short- shorts with pulled threads where material should be and their tops plunge to their navels. Gretchen’s lips are oiled and shiny, while the other has eyelashes that look centipedes stuck to her lids.

What has happened to her family? Howard fought in the war. Lev was town mayor.

Her daughter pulls an ottoman close to her chair and begins an animated monologue about the Harshbarger Mills Garden Club. They’re decorating around the historic covered bridge. Elsie Ruby nods frequently, but it’s the conversation the two girls are having that interests her.

“This place smells like cat sh*t,” says the one with centipedes on her lids.

“Would you girls like a cookie?” she asks sweetly, cupping her ear.

“No, thank you,” they chorus, and Gretchen mutters, “They’re probably old as her as her c*nt.”

Her daughter’s face reddens, and she motions toward the door. Then, she begins to talk louder about the covered bridge. The Garden Club is hauling in ornamental stones.

Elsie Ruby watches her granddaughters exit. With every step, their hips bob from their shorts. She doesn’t want to live much longer, but if she does, Elsie Ruby hopes to see her granddaughters get their comeuppance. Someday, they’ll stumble upon a word with hidden malice. It won’t be a curse word. Vulgarities, after the shock, hold no meaning. This word will knock them blind to all but the depravity of their secret selves. Maybe they’ll say it. Maybe someone else will, but the effects will go deep, slicing them open, causing them to wonder if they can ever be forgiven, even if they never speak the word again.

Elsie Ruby, 1912-1999 (2)

“Elsie Ruby” is from the collection Harshbarger Mills. ©

Harshbarger Mills by Joan Spilman is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Elsie Ruby, 1912-1999 (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Wyatt Volkman LLD

Last Updated:

Views: 5376

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (66 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Wyatt Volkman LLD

Birthday: 1992-02-16

Address: Suite 851 78549 Lubowitz Well, Wardside, TX 98080-8615

Phone: +67618977178100

Job: Manufacturing Director

Hobby: Running, Mountaineering, Inline skating, Writing, Baton twirling, Computer programming, Stone skipping

Introduction: My name is Wyatt Volkman LLD, I am a handsome, rich, comfortable, lively, zealous, graceful, gifted person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.