“Welcome Home, Kiddo” by Brett Pribble

02Mar15

Ruth Crater didn’t call into work sick the day after her father died. She slipped on heels and a miniskirt and ambled through the rain to her office, which was high in a tower of glass and light—and miles away from the arid heartland where she was raised. Normally, she did nothing when the pricks on the fifth floor catcalled her, but something unlatched inside her, and as she strolled past them, she paused and swayed a little, before hopping into the elevator and flashing them the finger.

Her office was dim, but lightning flickered outside the floor-length windows, illuminating the conference reports scattered across her desk. She opened her desk to an amber earring, squeezing it between her fingers. “For good luck,” her father said, after bouncing her on his knee and patting her nipples.

She tossed the earring in the trash while the staffers beyond her door breezed by like ghosts. Beneath the discarded earring was the eulogy she wrote before leaving home long ago. She’d waited years to read it. It felt like fire in her hands. She smiled and folded it into her purse.

In the elevator, the women gossiping were nothing more than canned laughter. She marched outside and sat on a bench under the leafy crown of an elm tree as a line of empty taxis sped past. Her boyfriend, Corey, pulled up in Ruth’s corvette. He was never late, but on days when Ruth wasn’t herself, he made it a point to be early. She waved to him, and he climbed out and took her briefcase with one hand and held her hand with the other. Pausing, he asked, “Want me to drive today?”

“No.” She positioned herself behind the wheel. “That would only make things worse.”

They didn’t speak. Morrissey songs played on the radio while skyscrapers faded into frosted trees and blue pastures. Corey reached into a plastic bag and offered her a Twizzler. She shook her head.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She squeezed his thin bicep softly and touched his cheek. Touching him calmed her. He looked like a castaway in his striped shirt, a boy’s shirt. There was no evidence of savagery in his countenance, no signs of violence in his pocked and brittle hands, hands he used to paint murals on their living room walls and portraits of her as she rested on the patio. As a boy he had plowed fields in Spain with his callous father, leaving him watchful and shy.

“Sorry if I’m distant,” she said. “I’m just bracing myself for Jesus Land.”

Dusk set in around the black and purple trees. As the highway narrowed, she focused on the darkness between a semicircle of stars. Her father had taught her the constellations. He lumbered into her room with a telescope and pulled her out of bed. Up on a hill he pointed to bears and scorpions in the sky. “And there’s The Big Dipper,” he said, his breath barbed with beef jerky. When he slid his hand between her legs, she searched for butterflies and snowflakes in the sea of white lights.

“Who will be there?” Corey asked.

Ruth laughed. “Whole damn family, I suppose.” She patted his thigh. “Don’t worry. It won’t last long.”

In another hour they pulled onto the long gravel driveway that led to her parents’ house, a once stately residence of brick with tattered shingles and vines snaking around the archways. They crept up the porch and the lamps flickered on like jack-o-lanterns. The door swung open, the figure in the doorway shadowed except for smiling yellow teeth. It was her brother, Paul. “That you, Ruthie? Praise be to God.”

Corey inched back. Ruth grabbed his arm. “Hi, Paul. How’s mom doing?”

“Not so well, to be honest with you.” He shook his head. “She’s a tough one though. Don’t worry. How are you faring?”

“I’m managing.”

“I guess you would. Praise be,” he said and winked. “And who’s this fella over here?”

“This is my boyfriend, Corey.”

“Pleased to meet you, guy,” Paul said, extending a thick, hairy arm.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Corey replied.

They shook and the bones in Corey’s hand popped. Ruth stepped between them to break it off. “Come on, Paul. Let’s see mother.”

In the cold living room, a peach-shaped lamp emitted orange light through a dense shade. Flakes of tissue paper were scattered below. Her mother slept on the couch. Empty beer bottles wet the floor. Paul put his arm around Ruth’s shoulders. “Welcome home, Kiddo.”

“Mom?”

Mrs. Crater sprung up. Curly grays jetted every direction from her head like electric moss. She wobbled over to Ruth and buried her face in her shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re here. Your father would be happy.” She lifted her head, leaving snot on Ruth’s blouse. “Forgive me. I’m a mess,” she said before scurrying off.

Paul led them into the kitchen, and they sat around a wooden table. Used paper plates sat piled next to a sink filled with oily silverware, eggshells, and popcorn seeds. Ruth touched Corey’s hand beneath the table. In the corner, a Rottweiler bit at its back and sides. Taking a break from gnawing at its pulpy flesh, the canine barked at her.

“Damn it all,” said Paul. “Shut up, hound. This here’s family.” He grabbed the dog by the collar and dragged it out onto the back patio.

“It’s fine,” said Ruth.

Paul popped his head through the open door from outside, his hands gripping the dog, his face flushed and twisted. “It’s not fine.”

She’d seen the same face when she was fifteen, sitting on their doorstep in the rain after his bike was stolen at school. Looking up into heavy clouds, he begged the Lord to cripple his enemies. But his anger always gave way to apathy, and rather than confront the schoolyard bullies he stopped attending class. Alone in his room, he read verses from Job while silently cursing the world, never noticing, or never bothering to grant attention to his father’s late night excursions into his sister’s room, the frail moans that resonated from her door.

Ruth dug her nails into the underside of the table. “Let it go, Paul.”

Sitting back down at the table, he rested his head in his hands. “It just doesn’t feel real. Just the other day he asked me to help him work on the roof. We were going to fix the shingles.”

“It’s certainly strange,” she replied.

“At least we know he’s in a better place now,” said Paul.

“Yeah. I guess,” she said.

Paul slumped into his chair. “He did everything right. Built this family on his back, you know?” He gritted his teeth. “This wasn’t how it’s supposed to be.”

Leaning back in her chair, she replied, “Well, Paul. If there is a reason for it, I’m sure it’s beyond our understanding.” She lowered her eyes. “It’s all one big lovely mystery.”

Corey put his arm around her. “It’s okay. Times like this can be confusing.”

“Nothing confusing about the Lord,” said Paul. “Dad’s in Heaven. That much I know.”

Ruth bent closer to him, narrowed her eyes. “I’ll agree with you about one thing. He’s somewhere better than here.”

Paul quivered. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked before taking a long breath. “If you’re hurting, Ruthie, I can help you. God can help you.”

“Really? Because he’s done a damn good job helping me so far.”

Paul slammed his fist, and Ruth put her hand on his.

“Sorry, Paul. I’m just really out of it. This whole thing has been very trying.”

Relaxing his shoulders, he shook his head. “I just can’t believe he’s gone.” He gripped her hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Mrs. Crater staggered into the kitchen with a breadbasket. Her hair was pulled back into a bun and she’d plastered on cakey, white makeup. “If I’d known you were bringing company, Ruth, I’d have prepared supper.” She smiled at Corey. “I’m terribly sorry. You must think we’re terrible.”

“Everything is fine, ma’am,” Corey replied.

Mrs. Crater passed around loaves of bread and served glasses of brandy. Sitting between her children, she asked the circle to join hands. They all lowered their heads, and Ruth pulled her hand away from Paul’s sweaty grip. The stiffness in Mrs. Crater’s voice made the prayer sound like an incantation.

Please deliver John, our beloved John, into heaven.
Dear Lord, he was a caring father and kind husband.
Deliver him, oh Lord, deliver our precious husband.

Ruth swallowed two stiff glasses before biting into the stale bread and shivering. “Excuse me,” she said, standing up. She walked out onto the porch and breathed in the night’s emptiness. Above a stretch of gnarled trees, the moon loomed behind a blanket of fog like a blind man’s eye. Ruth pulled the eulogy from her purse. Scribbled in spastic ink were the words she planned to deliver during the following morning’s service, words she’d waited to say for years. She would tell them what he’d done.

Pale flowers were drawn in chalk on a slab of cement next to her. She picked up the chalk and drew an outline of a human body, its arms and legs twisted outwards like a murder victim. Closing her eyes, she lay facedown inside the sketch. The cement tasted of ash and chilled her jaw and cheek. She realized she was not alone. The Rottweiler crouched in the far corner of the yard. Silently licking its wounds while monitoring her ominous sprawl, it seemed to have gained an understanding of her. It solemnly yawned. She closed her eyes and listened to the crickets’ static requiem.

She felt herself sink below the cement, deep into the black earth, through miles of soil and bone, past molten rock. Men and women engulfed in flames danced on pools of lava. She sank through them. Inside a circle of fire, her father performed magic tricks for the family. He reached into a top hat and pulled out a kitten while her brother and mother absently clapped and drooled. Then it was Ruth’s turn. He extended the hat to her. She reached in and grabbed his lathery cock. The fire vanished. He clutched her hair and yanked her face onto his crotch. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he said. She gagged on his girth and flailed her arms, but he held her down—jammed it into her throat. He moaned something, but she could not understand him.

“Ruth, are you all right?”

She lifted her head and opened her eyes. Slowly, she made out the yard, the dog in the corner, the glare of the kitchen lights inside the house. Corey stood over her. He held out his hand and lifted her from the ground.

“Are you all right?” he asked again, holding her.

“I think so.” She shook her head. “I had a little too much to drink.”

Corey led her by the arm through the grass to a crooked tree where pink and red stars winked between the branches.

“When my sister got leukemia, I sat by her bed every night. She was nine,” he said. “Her skin was pale, like she was dead already, and she bruised when anyone touched her. She bruised all over, always coughing and holding her stomach.”

He let go of her arm and shuffled his feet. “At the funeral my mother cried, but I didn’t. I could not cry in front of my father. He was wearing shades, but I knew he was staring at me. His eyes,” he said, “his eyes were black.” Ruth wrapped her arms around him, and they stood still together beneath the somber sky, the stars slowly disappearing, as if being sucked into a black hole.

“It’s okay to talk,” he said, “about anything you want. We all go through things.”

She looked down at the eulogy still crumpled in her fist. “Things happen.”

He nodded and they stumbled back inside. Paul led them to Ruth’s old room. He’d decorated it so that it’d resemble the way she’d left it: old Bowie posters tacked to the walls, a comforter with velvet lips stretched across the bed. Above teal colored dressers and a plastic banana that opened into a phone, red bulbs were screwed into a lantern. Her heart raced.

Left to themselves in the dark, they crept into bed and formed a tangled fusion of arms and legs. Rattling metal and the spectral hiss of warm steam resonated from the heating vent, and buried beneath the clinks and clanks were muffled wails, the murmurs of ghosts—the pop and crack of her bones, or maybe that was simply her eardrums imploding, folding back inside her skull, registering her sorry cries that as a child no one heard, or cared to hear—beyond the door. She shifted her fingers through Corey’s hair. His scalp was soft, delicate.

The walls palpitated. She rolled over to Corey and yanked him on top of her. Shutting her eyes, she could feel her father’s cold hands squeezing her thighs. A cool rage swelled within her. She slid her hand under and up the back of Corey’s shirt. His shoulder blade curved nicely into her fingers. It was sharp, a fleshy knife.

The closet door creaked, and she shoved him off her and sat upright. Through its crevices, she saw what she fantasized about seeing every night when she lived at home: her body dangling from a rope, her neck snapped, her face blank stone. Corey began to speak, but she put her hand over his mouth. “It’s okay,” she said. She grabbed his hair and thrust his face between her legs.

“I don’t—” Corey mumbled.

She pressed his face harder into her. “Do it.”

He tried to please her, but his mouth felt coarse. She pulled his hair and struck the wall with her fist.

Corey struggled to breathe. “What do you want?”

“Shut up,” she said and forced his face between her legs again. She dug her nails into his back, drawing blood, as tears slid down her face. Corey gasped from the pain. Then she pushed him away and lay askew, whispering obscenities to anyone who could hear her.

Corey shook his head, his face red and swollen. “I don’t understand.”

She rolled over. Her jeans were on top of a mound of clothes on the floor. The front pocket, containing her crumpled eulogy, bulged upward like a denim fist. She covered her eyes with her hand.

The next morning, Paul banged on the door.

“Yes,” Ruth said, opening it.

“You’re really something, Ruthie. Night before your father’s funeral and you’re sinning in his home.”

Ruth stepped back. “You could hear us?”

“Not really. You were just a ‘lil bit loud.” He turned his back to her. “Just not right.”

“Wait. You could hear us? You could hear us?”

“Sinning in his house.”

“Better get to the funeral, Paul. We’re going to be late.”

He stormed off.

The couple took her car to the graveyard. Pulling up, rusty cemetery gates opened onto a trail that curved through a forest with black overhanging trees. They parked and walked up the trail. The oaks stood caked in snow, and hidden between twisted branches were ornate tombstones and monuments. Roman crosses sprinkled with decaying rose petals, marble triangles engraved with the laments of bereaved parents, angels with their arms and wings spread open.

The forest wailed all around them. Branches seemed to move, but didn’t. The snow appeared to sink beneath them, but remained still. Even a solitary owl perched high above shifted its head as if to speak to them, its ominous eyes searching the shrubbery for a fresh kill. Eventually, they reached a clearing that gave way to an open field.

At the edge of the field was a mortuary. Clusters of well-dressed individuals idled around with Styrofoam coffee cups. Ruth laced her fingers in Corey’s, and they marched ahead. They encountered a woman in her mid-fifties wearing a gaudy lime green suit. She looked at Ruth like she was an intruder. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“We’re here for my father—John Crater.”

“Oh,” the woman replied, straightening her hair. “He’s right over there, dear.” She pointed at the mortuary and turned to Ruth. “He was a wonderful man, truly. I’m terribly sorry about your loss.”

“Thank you,” said Ruth.

“Really,” said the woman. “He was wonderful man. A model of decency. You should be proud.”

“Thanks,” Ruth said again and moved away from her, pulling Corey in the direction of the funeral home.

As much as she tried to avoid them, Ruth was bombarded by flocks of guests: church members who had worshipped with John for years, farmers who’d bought fertilizer from him, misty-eyed neighbors who wished to show their “deep concern.” Ruth shook hand after hand, the wrinkled fingers and leathery gloves chafing her skin. She grew sick to her stomach and clutched her throat.

Inside the desolate church, a solitary Jesus statue hung crookedly behind the podium. She drifted between two rows of metal chairs that faced an open casket and joined a line of people waiting to whisper to its expired lodger.

When she reached the casket, she looked away, but ultimately surrendered to the invisible hand pulling her towards her father. He lay in a suit fancier than any he’d worn during his life, and his once brawny figure had shriveled into the carcass of a pubescent boy. Only his swollen head remained the same size, his eyes sewn shut with little black stitches. Ruth bent towards him and bit her tongue.

Her stomach spinning, she sat beside her mother in the front row, and Corey astutely seated himself in the empty chair beside her. A few minutes later the pastor spoke about the enduring legacy John left behind, especially in the lives of those in attendance. Afterwards, the family’s neighbor, Mr. Bodkins, droned on about the virtuous life John had led. The swirling in Ruth’s stomach intensified. She gripped the leg of her chair to steady herself as the well-dressed weasel bestowed compliments on her father. Her toes itched inside her shoes, and her hands went numb. She reached into her purse and pulled out her eulogy. She studied its incendiary lines with the precision of a poet.

When Mr. Bodkins finished, a wave a relief washed over her. But then Paul took the stage. He opened a bible. “First Peter, chapter two, verses nineteen to twenty-one,” he stammered. “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” Paul scanned the audience. “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

Ruth’s legs quivered as he shut the book.

“My dad made me the man I am today,” he said. “Raised his children better than any man could. Taught me the gospel. Without him, I wouldn’t know right from wrong.”

Ruth shivered violently, as if she might collapse into a seizure, and squeezed the paper in her hand. Corey wrapped his arms around her, but she shrugged him off. She wanted to leap from her chair and tell the grieving attendees just what a moral man her father was. She clutched her knee and braced herself, but Paul continued:

“He always made time for me. Always made time for his family.” His eyes welled up. “Your will is great, Lord. I don’t profess to understand the fullness of your love.” He lowered his eyes. “But sometimes your love is cruel. Sometimes your love is cruel.”

Ruth’s thoughts spun, surged. The room shook, and the statue of Jesus fell from the wall and crashed before her. His head cracked open and a stream of blood splashed up onto her face. It tasted like sulfur on her lips. She glanced down at the eulogy clenched tightly in her fist and tried to read its lines once more, but her throat pulsed so hard that she wrenched herself from her seat and ran for the hallway.

Paul leapt off the stage and ran after her. He found her slumped over crying in a side room. Her hair dangled around her head like a dirty mop. He put his hand on her shoulder.

“It’s okay, Ruth. I miss him too.”

She continued sobbing.

“Don’t worry. I can help you.”

She paused and exhaled. Turning towards him, she suddenly sprang forward and punched him in the face, knocking his front teeth and leaving his lips split open like sliced cutlets. He staggered backwards bewildered, still numb from the blow and the quickness of her brutality.

“You want to help me,” she said, glowering at him, “then never speak to me again.” She gasped for air and balled her fists. “I’m not crying because he’s gone. I’m just sad that he didn’t take you with him.” She gritted her teeth. “Could you hear that?”

He trembled and wiped blood from his mouth. “Ruth?”

“Could you hear that?”

His face twisted. “Yeah. I could hear ya,” he said. “Always could.”

She tossed the eulogy at him and walked through the backdoor out onto the field. Shafts of sun still dripped through the branches overhanging the cemetery. Corey ran to her side.

“What happened?”

“Leave me alone.”

“No. Talk to me.” He grabbed her arm.

“Don’t touch me.”

His grasp slipped to her wrist.

She looked at his hold and then pushed him down into the snow.

She continued down the trail until she came upon a grave connected to a statue of a robed angel playing the harp. She sat beneath its wings. Streaks of light shined through the marble strings of the angel’s harp, which held in the sky looked like heavenly prison bars.

Brett Pribble teaches writing courses in Orlando, Florida. He’s afraid of sharks and often isn’t sure whether or not he’s dreaming. He was previously published in Saw Palm and The Molotov Cocktail.

Read Brett Pribble’s comments on Max Detrano’s “Loyalty Comes Free.”

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Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
“Welcome Home, Kiddo” tackles a tough subject many of us would rather know nothing about even if it might be happening next door. A topic so infuriating and shameful, even when you’re not the victim, it can also be difficult to read about. Yet, Brett Pribble’s rendering of this story allows us to be drawn into Ruth’s world, to gain firsthand experience of unspeakable events, and feel the pain she suffers. Pribble successfully makes an unreadable subject readable, keeping us eagerly engaged throughout the story without fail.




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