Half (excerpt from the novel James Loves Ruth)
by Jacinda Townsend
Toilet paper was a hot commodity in the new world, and what James gathered from friends was that he'd feel doomed while out searching for it, but that wasn't at all what he discovered, there in Springhurst Kroger. The shelves held rolls and rolls of it, actually, in a seemingly endless wall of white spools that represented some eternity of bodily function. The main issue, in fact, was that there were no individual rolls, or even packages of four. In the new world, a man could no longer buy toilet paper unless he bought it in bulk.
That was the political, the commercial, issue. James' personal issue being that he didn't need so much, now that he was alone in his house, without Annie and Ruth. He hoisted a 24-pack onto his shoulder because his daughter was coming home from his wife's apartment for one of her first joint custodial visits, but what would he do once he removed the one or two rolls Annie would need for the weekend? He'd take the big package of it and hide it away in the guest bathroom at the foot of the stairs—no, he'd tear into the plastic, remove all the rolls, and distribute them sink by sink between the house's three and a half baths; he'd store them away where he wouldn't have to see them, where they could not accuse him, each time he looked, of being a self-renewed bachelor.
Toilet paper was the one thing he needed from the supermarket, and he proceeded directly to self-checkout, where he went through the complicated transactions of holding his breath and unpocketing his travel-sized hand sanitizer. To stay cool, he locked the 24-pack in his trunk before driving the few minutes to Ruth's apartment, which was situated in a surprisingly elegant hidden village off Brownsboro Road.
She'd said she'd be waiting for him in the parking lot, and she was, sitting on the trunk of her Volvo, oblivious to his arrival. James got out of the car and studied the back of her head, the tight, neat French braid she'd put there. Her hair was more carroty, even, than Annie's; when he'd first met her, he'd looked for the lone brown strand per fifty and found none. She'd never been able to tolerate sunlight, which had been a joke among their White friends in college. There had been Ruth, smearing SPF50. buying sombreros at beaches. After college, when they were first living together and then married, she locked the front door in broad daylight. She set the emergency brake in the car even when she was just parking in their driveway.
All of it—all of Ruth’s secret and unpredictable foci—had grated on James during their marriage. But now, with some distance, he saw that she hadn’t meant him any harm: fever was just her way. If it could be said that everyone on earth was secretly fighting a battle inside, Ruth was fighting five hundred. She couldn’t be helped, and it had taken him all these years to realize. He saw her, from behind and then, as he approached, from the side, saw she had her thousand-dollar Canon strapped across her chest. She wore a sharp, dark lipstick he’d never seen, and a walnut suede skirt that matched the darker glaze she’d put over her blaze of hair. She looked down and fiddled with her camera’s telegraphic lens, her elbows bowed out from her body as wings from a delicate moth. He’d never wanted her as badly when they were married as he wanted her now.
He got closer. Tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey,” he said.
She did not rise. “Annie has homework this weekend,” she said, wearily.
“Well hello to you too.”
She picked up the camera, took aim at him, rotated her lens. Dropped the camera back to her chest. “Have a good time,” she said. “I’ll pick her up Sunday.”
James nodded. If he opened his mouth, or even just his throat, to murmur assent, he’d open some seventh seal of misery that would pour out and flood the world.
The final straw between them had been a piece of bullshit having to do with his computer password. It was a joke that wasn’t funny, one he never should have put on his laptop in the first place. But he knew there were deeper issues, ones Ruth was simply refusing to disclose. He was so small in his lack of self-insight, he supposed, she hadn’t deigned to offer him truth. She’d simply filed, and in typical Ruth fashion, never looked back.
She’d been the one to plant all her belongings in a giant U-Haul and flee the family home, but not before asking for it back. From her new luxury apartment in East Louisville, she filed motions for the promise of half his pension. She wanted alimony. She wanted sole decision-making power over Annie’s educational future. His lawyer, upon reading her initial petition aloud to James, had nicknamed her The Bulldog.
James made an exercise now of remembering her as she was in their first little house, the one they rented right after they got married, the single-story bungalow she filled with plants and more plants. She’d started out with a huge cactus on the front porch, almost as a kind of joke, but then she’d filled the front yard with cacti as well, and then added rhododendrons and dragon trees. She put a towering ficus in the corner of their living room nearest the television, and a chili pepper plant on the kitchen windowsill. She put small, square pots of thyme and sage on the porch columns.
After Annie was born, she filled the backyard, and she filled Annie’s nursery, even, with greenery, and it seemed that every time Annie napped, Ruth spent the hour or two tending her various gardens rather than talking to him. Finally, there came the day when he yelled out at her to put down her watering jug and come in—hurry!—because PBS was rerunning The Black Power Mixtape.
“Plants won’t water themselves,” she’d yelled back in at him.
He heard this for the ruse it was. Ruth had always eschewed the political, refusing to attend college anti-apartheid rallies with him, waving voter registration volunteers out of her way when they approached on street corners. She didn’t seem to understand this part of Blackness, though he’d come to think of it as a flaw as endearing as it was regrettable. But the tone. Her tone. It was the tone that had made him ask, “Why are you turning this house into a fucking arboretum, anyway?”
He heard the plastic clatter as the watering jug fell to the porch. She came and stood in the open back door. Her neck had turned red. “I just want to nurture something that’s not pooping or screaming at me,” she said. Her nose turned red and she started crying, sobbing in big gulps of air. “I want to raise something that’s not going to have to have therapy later because I looked at it the wrong way. Is that okay with you, Sir James?”
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“What feelings. I don’t have feelings anymore. There isn’t time.”
As Annie had grown, Ruth had let the plants, one by one, wither and die, and when they left the rented house and moved into their own, they had only to take with them the old front porch cactus that had been the original plant. In those five years Ruth had somehow transferred her neuroses cleanly and neatly into parenting, which is why James wasn’t surprised when she said, now, “I need to know what time to pick Annie up on Sunday. I mean exactly. It’s what all the divorce books say. You need to give me an exact time.”
“What—is Annie performing surgery?”
"Good fences make good neighbors," she said. She was still seated on the trunk of her car, which made her taller than him, and felt like some sort of power move on her part. She scratched the end of her nose with the heel of her hand. She didn't give a shit about his feelings. It was quite possible she never had.
He winced. Visibly and, he hoped, purposefully. "Fine. I mean, here's a time in history when no one has anywhere to be, but whatever. How about 3:00?"
“That’s so late to be starting homework.”
“I can supervise homework. It’s still in my job description.”
Ruth transmitted a look of catlike satisfaction. “Thank you,” she said. “Her math book’s in her bag.”
Annie’s backpack, blue with its purple Tecumseh camp logo, was on the ground beside the car, and he hoisted it over his shoulder, then bent down and picked up her clarinet case. The school had already canceled the spring concert, and the entire state of Kentucky was waiting to see whether the governor would call school for the rest of the year. Annie cried, daily. She was first chair clarinet this year, and had finagled her way into playing a solo at the eighth-grade graduation. James hoped it would happen at the same time he knew his hopes were futile, crushed under epidemiological impossibility. “Annie,” he said now, and the child descended from the passenger seat of her mother’s car, where she'd been sitting with the door open to the coming spring. When she was fully out, Ruth hugged her, but Annie held stiff against the goodbye, her own arms limp at her sides.
"Go, Mom," she said. Her neck was turning red. "See you Sunday."
Months earlier, James had made an appointment with his lawyer; even days earlier, before Governor Beshear's executive order, he would not have known he'd have his daughter with him. He hoped Annie would not understand the nature of the errand at the same time he knew she would—when she'd been a small child, hiding under the dining room table, listening to their serious adult conversations so that they had to speak in code, they nicknamed her "Washington Post." James told himself now that after all, thirteen was old enough to understand that marriages end and things dissolve. It might even be preferable that she was with him. Annie would be blindsided by nothing that was about to happen.
On his way downtown, James cracked the car windows to let in the spring air. The unusually fierce winter had worn their minds to threads, but now, driving down Brownsboro towards 64W, he could already smell the promise of honeysuckle. He remembered himself as a kid, pulling the flower’s stigma to suck nectar from the middle. He was so far from that now. He was a man growing old, trimming his ear hair, losing his sense of smell, drying out of testosterone.
He’d heard from Melani that morning—Ruth was rejecting his settlement offer. She should have been especially agitated when they met up to get Annie, but she hadn’t been. True, the relative quiet of the state shutdown had thrown cover over the small, frenetic bird in Ruth’s mind. But her calm made him wonder what she knew that he didn’t. She’d always held, in the tuck of her elbow, in the set of her mouth, a certain ether of unoffered information; Ruth was a chambered nautilus of mystery. She had a line of freckles under one eye that made her look, perpetually, as if she’d been crying, and when she answered his deeper questions—did she miss her dead mother, was she devastated that Annie was failing science class—she’d roll off casual responses that made him unable to decide what she wasn’t telling him.
Ruth moved in a space of puzzlement she’d never let him crack, so he married it. Hoping to one day be close enough, he could break in and burglarize.
Unlike other women he’d dated in college, she had no stories about her past—no lovers, no weird aunties, not even a beloved pet. Her parents had died when she was six years old, she’d told him, entwined together on the floor, on their way out of the Beverly Hills Supper Fire. James had vaguely remembered the huge tragedy—165 dead—but as Ruth relayed her parents’ own story to him, just a janitor and a housewife out for a rare night on the town, a night they’d saved so much money for, what had been a major news event turned Technicolor real in his head. “Dad used to be the last person in every building,” she’d told him. “I went to work with him sometimes and it was so spooky, the way he had to shut off all the lights. And then, for him and Mom to die like that? Well.”
Ruth told him how her grandparents had collected her parents’ charred bodies and then bounced her between the two sets of them—Baileys on school nights, Carrs on the weekends—in the tiny town of Knob Lick. Really, she said, when she saw his eyes widen at the end of her story, it was an unremarkable childhood. But he found her to be completely affable, in the way you’d expect of an orphan, and this quality of hers, he found magnetic. A few weeks after they’d started dating, he’d sat outside her dorm room for hours, hoping to casually run into her on her way to the shower. He knew she’d be in a towel—it wasn’t that he wanted to see her naked. He wanted to experience the raw, unvarnished truth of her, her bare feet, her wet hair, all the power in every one of her sixty-six inches. He hadn’t initially loved her, but he’d respected her presence in a way that frightened him, and he wanted to feel her power. “What are you doing here, you creep,” a girl had finally said, and he’d left the hall. But it was a disappointment. Ruth moved in a space of puzzlement she’d never let him crack, so he married it. Hoping to one day be close enough, he could break in and burglarize.
He hadn’t. And now, Melani Sutton was telling him, he would not. He could scratch Ruth off his bucket list. They were in Melani’s office, at her law firm, which was so close to his own, in a fifteen-story building that clotted the sun from the street below. James was startled to find himself caught up in the legal system as another lawyer’s client, dismayed to understand, at last, what it was to be a defendant. Everyone else in her firm was abiding by the state shutdown, and there were no other signs of life, the only working lights a trail of recessed ceiling bars leading to her office. James had situated Annie and her things in a chair in the outer hall, where she now fingered the shiny metal keys of her clarinet. They could see her through Melani’s office window, and he watched the light trained right on the crown of his daughter’s head, how it set aflame the orange highlights in her auburn hair. She arched her fingers to hold a long whole note before flying through a crescendo of sixteenths, and James felt a prod of resentment against her musicianship, her ability to float so far above the cloying world, trailing thirty-second notes and fermatas behind her. He resented her clarinet playing, he knew, because he himself had never had such a thing.
“This is standard,” Melani was saying. Her voice was unnaturally high. A cartoon voice. A voice on helium. “But she wants to change her name back to Cottam.”
He didn’t understand—he’d married a Ruth Bailey. Ruth Elizabeth Bailey, he thought he’d married, but now even her middle name wasn’t holding true. It was on a piece of paper Melani was sliding toward him. “Ruth Louise Cottam.”
“It’s her maiden name,” Melani said, slowly, as if James were speaking Portuguese, as though he’d just revealed a startling loss of his faculties. James needed to relieve his bladder, but he was the client now. He was pinned, by lack of lawyer-client privilege, in place.
“Cottam?” James asked again, and Melani cocked his head, stared into James’s eyes. She was assessing his pupils, he knew. He couldn’t bear to look back into her eyes, and instead watched as the air conditioning trapped a wiry strand of Melani’s hair in its current.
In the car on the way to the house, he texted Ruth: Cottam? He’d made the forty minutes to East Louisville and was in his driveway, opening his garage, when she texted back. There is much you don’t know about me. Relax. Nothing between us matters anymore. He felt her enmity, all the way across the city of Louisville, as one might register an airborne toxin.
She hadn’t cheated on him with a man. She’d cheated on him with a self, and that was so much more treacherous. Ruth, as it turned out, wasn’t Ruth. Which meant he, who had loved her so hard for seventeen years, was not himself. If he’d gotten her this wrong, what did he know about himself? Ruth had offered herself to him in her youth as a solid, if chronically anxious thing, a constant wall of sorts, against which he could lean his life. But it had all turned out to be as a photographer’s stop bath, an era of herself only temporarily arrested.
There’d been a Christmas card a few years earlier, dispatched from a W. DePaulo, on 1365 Cielo Drive in Sacramento, California. The intended addressees were Mrs. Ruth Hurley and Family, so he’d opened it, feeling that it was, in fact, mail addressed to him. Within, he found a scrawled note—Ruth, I found your address. Scanned this photo. I dream of speaking to you. The photo featured young Ruth—red-haired, freckled, undeniable Ruth—flanked by two other children: a dark-haired girl who might have been a friend, and a boy who had Ruth’s same sandy hair, her same set jaw, her same, so obviously Black, nose.
“Who’s DePaulo?” he’d asked her, when she came home.
“How should I know?”
But it had rolled off her tongue in such a casual manner that he’d pressed. “These kids,” he said, picking up the stack of mail on the counter, riffling through until he found the card. “One of them’s you.” He removed the photo, held it out to her. “Look.”
“Who?” she said, snatching the card from his hand. “Not me. I don’t know.” She ripped the photo into two clean halves, which she tossed in the pedal bin atop the week’s garbage. James knew not to protest. She was like a clam. If he stuck an arm too deep into her past, he might lose it.
That night, they’d made love for the first time in months. Ruth had barely looked into his face, he remembered, even as he was unbuttoning her blouse, kissing her; she’d switched off the bedside lamp and backed herself up against him on the mattress, winding in wild, quick movements, as if she were a different woman.
And now, he understood: she was. She was a trick floor, pulled out from under his feet. Ruth had evolved in some way he hadn’t. She’d run in another direction, past where he was standing: she’d asked for half the house: she’d unmoored from his port and sailed clear.
She wasn’t who she’d been, and it was for the best that he let her go. But Annie? Losing Annie would kill him, in the long run. He watched her carry her backpack and clarinet into his house, and an aneurysm of grief burst somewhere in his right ventricle and traveled up to drown the left side of his brain. Annie. Annie. He was losing his Annie. He was losing all the Saturday mornings he called her downstairs and took her to the Bakehouse for muffins and juice, all the witching hours in all the nights she shook herself awake and stormed into their bedroom to say that the alligator under her bed had returned. He was losing every Thursday’s family game night and this year’s Troop 397 daddy/daughter dance. He was losing his undivided two weeks in her presence at Christmas vacation. He’d live on for a year or two, perhaps, sustaining some surface level of joint-custodial cheer, but eventually his half-portion of childlessness would close in on him like a trash compactor, crushing him in its lonely jaws.
Even on this custodial visit, Ruth was like a poltergeist. Annie had played scales her first hour of settling back into home, and she was then putting her clarinet away, packing it up, cleaning its neck. He realized that were Ruth there, sitting with them in the living room, she would have made commentary. “You did a good job,” he said, to fill the silence.
“Dad. I never do a good job. I mean, didn’t you hear me?”
“Well, I was sitting right there in the next room, so I’d say yes, I did.”
Annie sighed into the living room. “You’re my dad. You have to say I did a good job.”
“What if I told you that I wasn’t your dad?”
At this, they both laughed. Annie had Ruth’s fragile, sun-resistant skin, but she had James’s face—his wide, African lips, his eyebrows that stopped mid-arch to trail off to nothing. There was no question.
“Seriously, though,” he said. “You’re fine, Annie. You’re a good kid. Relax.”
Annie refused dinner but she drank an entire two-liter bottle of root beer, and they watched a movie that had just come to Netflix. An hour in, Annie fell asleep on the couch. She hadn’t brushed her teeth or washed her face, and this gave James a perverse pleasure: she was his kid, after all, and the solidity of that would last her through an entire childhood of Ruth’s neuroses. He got a blanket to cover her and went upstairs to bed himself.
Between his sheets, he felt his soul bob and weave about his stomach, as if it were a boat. He pictured his essence as a skiff that had broken apart on the shore of a small island, only to be duct taped back together. A destroyer that had been shot at in war, drifted across hostile seas to this point where now, thanks to his wife, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, he guessed, it would be sunk.
Jacinda Townsend is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Saint Monkey was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Her second novel, Kif, will be published by Graywolf Press in fall of 2022, and her third novel, James Loves Ruth, is represented by Alice Spielburg. Townsend grew up in south-central Kentucky and took her first creative writing class at Harvard, where she earned her BA, and later received her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In fall, 2021, she begins teaching in the MFA program at the University of Michigan.