fiction by Pamela Perlman
From her seat on the plow, Ruby could watch either Erasmus’ tail end or lift her eyes to the torches of corn across the field. With either view, the smell was the same, so she opted to look at the grain; nothing in the posterior of a plow-pulling pony could explain what was puzzling her.
What did it mean to be in love?
Erasmus plodded along the furrow, his stamping hooves signaling he’d rather be chomping the sweet hay waiting in his trough. Black earth and bean stalks split by the blade rose apart, then fell back together, returning to the dirt. Always reminded Ruby of Moses parting the Red Sea. She giggled at the thought of Erasmus holding a staff, cleaving the earth with a prayer. The harvest this fall had been good, but not miraculous.
“Ruby. Rooo-beee!” Her sister’s hen soprano soared from the house half a mile away. Fine out on the farm, but at Wednesday night prayer meetings all the regulars with knowledge gave Opal’s pew a wide berth.
“Ho, Erasmus. Supper time.” Ruby relaxed her hold on the reins, but Erasmus was ahead of her, his ears perked; he turned the plow toward the barn before she signaled. The boys would be coming in too, the sun kept their time without need of Opal’s summoning. Ruby sat straighter in the cast-iron seat cradling her bottom and tried to palm sweat from her face before John caught sight of her.
Pap had been thrilled when her brother Thomas arrived home in June with his sturdy college roommate John Calvin. Pap always needed help on the farm, offered to pay John the same as he paid her brothers. Ruby and Opal worked free; Pap said they couldn’t work as hard and the boys needed money to buy themselves things that Pap bought the girls. Ruby didn’t agree with the philosophy but there was no arguing with Pap about money or love.
Her hands unhitched Erasmus but Ruby’s eyes searched the fields. John stood inches over six feet, taller even than her brothers. Over the last three months as he worked the tobacco, his brown hair had bronzed so it gleamed like King David’s golden helmet. When she spotted him coming out of the rows, she flung Erasmus’ harness to the ground instead of hanging it on the peg then raced to wait beside the pump.
She stilled herself for the moment that had become their daily ritual -- Ruby waiting as John arrived first from the field, letting Pap, Thomas, Henry, and Arthur meet up and confer over the crop before coming in. At the start of summer, she’d shied away from John but after a week or so, he hollered for her to wait up, cranked the pump handle for her, and asked what Erasmus liked to eat, or how to get to the ice cream social, or offered to help with her summer writing project.
“Hey there, Ruby May.” John sloshed water over his face and hands, wetting his white linen shirt to mold against his frame.
“How’s my gal today?”
Now, she was his gal. Ruby’s hands flew to hide burning cheeks. “Fine. How’s the tobacco coming in?”
“Hardest work I’ve ever done.”
She laughed in the way she’d overheard Thomas’ girlfriends do. “Well, shootfire, you never did hard work before. Hauling paper in your daddy’s law office.”
“Harder than you think, Ruby,” he said, but with a smile and a splash of water toward the slice of tan between the bottom of her dungarees and the top of her work boots.
Her skin shivered like Shep shaking pond water off his fur coat; she felt that splash not just on her shin. But Ruby didn’t squeal like she would’ve last summer; she waited til the goosebumps reached all the way to her ears, then cocked her head, another imitation of an older girl. “Probably got a load of paper cuts and a bad back just from that, don’t you?”
“Land sakes, Gal.” John’s eyes gleamed with what she thought of as flirtation. “Come on, we’re late for dinner and I hear Opal’s frying chicken.”
The cool slip of water sizzled her skin with certainty. Today was the right day. Ruby glanced toward the fields, then scanned the distance to the house: no one in sight. The ruddy sun burnished the back fields with fire, but a hint of autumn breeze ruffed the hair on her arms. Summer was about gone and if she didn’t tell him now, she might never. She was determined John felt the same anyway. She wouldn’t feel so strongly about him if he didn’t. Love is the bond of perfectness, Colossians said.
Ruby smoothed her fingers through her hair, hitched her denim waistband, straightened the cotton blouse. “John?”
He turned back with a raised eyebrow.
He turned back with a raised eyebrow.
“Come here with me to the barn.”
John furrowed his brow, then scanned the empty yard. “Ruby, I don’t think –”
Ruby grasped his hand and felt the bones and ligaments tighten around her fingers and then relax. “Just come here for a minute.”
After another second, John shrugged and let her guide him. Inside, hazy motes of tawny hay dusted the air, transforming the barn into Aladdin’s cave. Ruby traipsed between wooden posts hung with leathery folds of tobacco waiting to be stripped. The air carried both the tang of green plant and the mellow husk of cured product. It smelled like home. Finally, she found the spot she needed: a post behind her back and the sun slanting its fading light through gap-toothed walls.
“John,” she said, twirling a curl of coal black hair between two fingers. “Well, I’m sure you already know what I want to say, but I thought we should speak of it directly.” Ruby drew herself to her full height, several inches below John’s. The perfect several inches, she thought.
John smiled but with a question. “I already know, do I? I’m tired from working in the heat all day and kinda hungry, so you may have to help me, kiddo.” He smacked a circling mosquito away from his neck.
She didn’t like that kiddo word. It reminded her of those troublesome Katzenjammers in the Sunday paper. She shook her head to rid the air of that word and persisted. “John. I love you.”
His eyes widened then he quickly turned them away from her, glancing up toward the hay loft to examine the light leaking in through the clerestory. Finally, he returned the warm, nut-brown sweetness of his gaze back to her face. “Ruby.”
John sat on a low bale of hay with a grunt then gestured for Ruby to sit beside him. She felt sure that now, finally, he would kiss her and clasped her hands together to still their trembling.
When Scarlett told Ashley she loved him, he whisked her into his arms and kissed her good. Ruby tilted her head at what she figured was just the right angle to be kissed, but John didn’t move as he spoke.
“Ruby May Crenshaw. That is the nicest, kindest, best thing I have ever heard.” His sun-burned bottom lip crushed up into a thoughtful expression, his eyes glistened with a sheen of water. “You ever say that before?”
“I have not. But I do love you, John Calvin McCabe. And I know you love me, too.”
John sat on a low bale of hay with a grunt then gestured for Ruby to sit beside him. She felt sure that now, finally, he would kiss her and clasped her hands together to still their trembling. Instead, he spoke. “Ruby. You’re 15.”
He nodded, solemnly. “I’m 21. That’s – ”
“Seven years. Pap was eight years older than Momma.”
“Ah. Ok.” John nodded, rubbing his hand against the yellow stubble on his cheek. “What say we go into dinner and tell your sister and brothers we’re in love?”
Ruby’s eyes shone with triumph until John added, “Course we gotta start by telling Pap.”
“Oh! No.” She shook her head as if caught in a sudden net of wasps.
John ducked his head, hiding a rueful smile. He caught the twist of hair Ruby was fiddling and pulled the skein through his fingers. “If you only knew how beautiful you are.”
Though this sounded good, Ruby felt a twinge of sharp grief in her gut telling her to argue with John but she didn’t know where to start.
“Soon,” John said, “you’ll have so many suitors Pap will be on shotgun duty for years. You’ll forget all about me.”
Ruby tried to follow his words, but her mind was wrapped around his fingers in her hair. “I love you, John.”
“I’m so honored. And who could help but love you? You’re beautiful and sweet as pie.” He allowed the silk of her hair to fall from his hand and a deep sigh escaped from what sounded like the depth of his soul. “But may I ask you a favor, Ruby? Will you go on and live your life for a while, go on and finish school, and I’ll come back and see you when that’s all done. If you’re still here, if you’re still plowing the field behind old Erasmus, I promise I’ll take you with me.”
This gave her a point to argue. “But you love me now.”
“I sure do. And I’ll love you then.”
Ruby examined the light in his kind eyes, then rested her head against his shoulder. It wasn’t a kiss but still she felt she might faint or drift up into the air with the hay motes. “I’ll love you always, John Calvin.”
His lips touched her forehead light as a butterfly kiss. He stood and offered her his hand with a slight bow. “Fried chicken, m’lady?” She took his hand, shivers chasing themselves across her arm, and stood a bit unsteadily. John leaned into her tilting shoulders to steady them, his chin resting for a moment against the crown of her head. “Don’t forget, Ruby. Don’t forget.”
Roger Wheatley stood at Pap Grider’s pump in the barnyard past time to haul his tired bones to home, but Wheatley had wanted to finish plowing one last field. He’d cut across Pap’s pasture, knowing Pap wouldn’t mind if he stopped to water his mule. Pap was a tough son of a gun, tougher now in the years since his wife Pearl had passed, but he never begrudged a neighbor a boon.
Wheatley pumped a bucket and let his mule drink while he admired the soldierly rows of corn, the gossiping birds, the hum of contented activity surrounding the Grider homeplace. He was back on the mule when Pap’s gal Ruby, the one whose dark hair and bright eyes would soon bring out Pap’s shotgun, emerged from the barn, her eyes flaming like the western sky. Wheatley nodded but Ruby was blind to him.
She sleep-walked past the pump to the house and let the screen door clap behind her. Then the summer help boy down from college emerged from the shadows of the red barn looking as piewhacked as the girl and followed her wandering path.
In a small country town, there were times to talk and times to keep your own counsel. Wheatley tucked his chin to his chest with a soft grunt, secret locked, and turned to home. His own pretty wife would be waiting with a warm supper on the table.
Pamela Perlman is a native and resident of Lexington, Kentucky. Her first novel, After the Race, was published by Rabbit House Press in 2020. Her short fiction has been published in Nowhere Magazine, AvantAppalachia, and Fleas on the Dog. She has twice been honored as honorable mention in the Kentucky's Next Great Writer contest sponsored by the Carnegie Center for Literary and Learning.