Daddy's Little Girl

Beth Staas

Ruth groped toward the stairs in the darkened hall. She descended toward ghostly objects-a plant, telephone stand, hall tree.... Suddenly a door opened, framing a stout woman in the light. The woman paused, then moved toward the tiny figure, frozen in mid-step. "Why darlin', how come you're still awake? Her voice was high and sing-song. Are you hungry?"

Taking the girl's hand, she lead her into the kitchen where Ruth wordlessly consumed three graham crackers and a glass of milk. This foster home remained as Ruth's earliest memory. She was two-and a-half years old.

Memories of subsequent homes made less of an impression. What she remembered most were visits from an exotically beautiful, fragrant stranger. Mamma would sweep in from Charleston or New Orleans, en route to brighter lights. Sometimes she permitted Ruth to sit on her lap, where the little girl gorged her senses, knowing it would have to last.

Then the miracle happened. Mamma arrived on her eighth birthday with a darkly handsome man who pinched her cheek and tapped her behind. They were married and had come to take Ruth home.

Ruth speedily packed her clothes-blue jeans, T-shirts bought at the Goodwill, hand-me-down dresses, and two pairs of shoes.

"When we get to Texas we'll buy out the stores for you," Floyd told Ruth. His teeth showed large and white as he smiled.

Ruth believed him. She imagined how they'd shop the stores in Texas where he said everything was bigger than life.

Home turned out to be a ramshackle house in Baytown near the Gulf of Mexico. The heat pressed down like a soggy cover until it dulled the senses, and the heavy smell from oil refineries grayed the skies and penetrated everything.

"You'll get used to it," Mamma said. "Soon you won't even notice. C'mon, let's take a walk through the shopping mall and you can practice talking Texan."

Ruth darted into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face, then yanked off her shirt and jeans and slipped a pink sundress over her head. Her sneakers would show Mamma how badly she needed shoes.

It was cool in the mall. Ruth walked sedately between Floyd and Mamma, keeping step without holding hands, waiting for the shopping to begin. They were busy talking over her head. Timidly, she tugged at Floyd's shirt. "When do we buy out the stores?"

Now Floyd was supposed to say, "Right now, you betcha."

She waited for the answer.

She tugged again. "Are we going..."

The blow on the side of her head sent her reeling.

"Didn't they teach you manners in that place where you been?"

"But I was only..."

"Don't be sassy." Floyd's voice was deep and gruff.

Ruth looked at the people walking by, some turning to stare at them. She could only bow her head in shame.

They continued around the mall in silence, passing clothing stores with enticing displays of bright dresses; past a shop making popcorn, the scent drawing a line of buyers; past banks, ice cream shops, jewelers, past them all until they came full circle from where they'd begun.

"Well, little Missy, what d'you think of Texas?" Floyd's voice was again cheerful.

Ruth looked up to make sure he was addressing her. "It's nice," she whispered.

"Ready to go home?"

"Yes." She was afraid to say more.

It was dark when they got back home. The bedroom doors were left open to get what little breeze stirred. Lying stretched out in only her panties, she listened to the muffled sounds-heavy shoes dropping onto the floor, the tinkle of water in the toilet and voices. Then the bed springs creaked and Ruth could hear Mamma and Floyd panting and moaning. She had heard sounds like that in the foster homes between the older girls and the Mister. Mamma and Floyd were married so it was okay. But she sighed with relief when they were done so she could go to sleep.

Soon Mamma was pregnant with her delicate hands and feet softly swollen, her belly watermelon hard. The passionate night cries changed to pleas and coaxing, then to louder outbursts. "Don't-not yet..."

"Is he hurting you, Mamma?" whispered Ruth one morning when they were in the kitchen alone. "D'you want to sleep in my bed..."

The sharp reply said Mamma was caught by surprise. "Don't talk about your father like that, little girl."

"He's not my father. My father is..." She stopped because she didn't rightly know.

"Your father is the rat who walked out on us." Mamma stood with hands on the top of her buttocks, her belly thrust aggressively forward as she arched her back. "You'd better behave yourself or we'll send you back where you came from..."

Ruth put her hands over her ears and ran up to her room.

Closing the door, she sat on the bed trembling. She was too big to cry.

She stared at the calendar with the circled June 10th-her birthday. Mamma had told her that there would be no party. She was too big for such foolishness, even more than birthday number nine, which had gone unnoticed. No matter. She could pretend her own party. It would include everyone in her classroom. Afterward, the most popular girl would ask to be her special friend.

Ruth got up and went to the mirror, comparing her face with Mamma's. Some day she would be beautiful- for what? To capture a man of her very own?

Her mother had once shown her the picture of a man holding a baby. It was the father she had never seen. He was handsome, but different from Floyd. Instead of dark hair and tanned skin, his blondness seemed to radiate the sun like Sunday school pictures. If she could find him, she was sure that he would hug her. She liked to imagine the scene. She'd be in a grocery store and the man in the produce department would be her real father. Or she'd be sent to the principal's office and the man in the swivel chair would turn and reveal himself as her real father. Or she'd be in the doctor's office and the man in the white coat would have a nametag.

John Barnett, her real father. The man who left her only his name.

Megan was born two weeks after Ruth's tenth birthday. Within a month the nightlong sounds resumed, alternating with infant wails as though one sound triggered the other. Soon her mother was pregnant again.

Ruth watched as her mother's natural grace once more turn awkward. Her hands and feet began to swell again. But now there was more. Her arms were also swollen, puffiness punctuated by red marks that turned black and blue, then faded to the color of mustard.

"How come you're bumpin' into so much, Mamma?"

"It's clumsy carrying a baby in this heat. Wait till you start. You'll see." Then Mamma began wearing long-sleeved maternity tops, even in ninety-eight degree heat.

Sissy was born a month before Ruth turned eleven. With the swelling gone, Mamma was even more beautiful, the shadows around her eyes adding mystery to their deep midnight blue.

Floyd's weekend drinking was now daily, and he began coming home late from work. Instead of eating dinner, he'd sit in the eerie silence of the living room, dozing until past midnight while the house stayed suspended in wary vigilance. After he went to bed, the night sounds would start, a mix of Sissy's thin cry, Megan's louder wail at being awakened, and Mamma's timid protests followed by rhythmic thumping, grunting, and finally silence.

The bruises on Mamma were all over her body now, even her face. Ruth surprised her once while she was standing at the bathroom mirror, prettying up for when Floyd came home from work, carefully applying makeup to cover a welt on her cheek. "Mamma, maybe we should go away..."

"Where to? It was hard enough with you..."

So there it was. Everything was Ruth's fault. Mamma'd finally said it out loud.

She stood staring at her mother for a long time. Then she turned and walked slowly to her room in the stifling attic. There was homework to do-English, history...

But her mind wouldn't focus. Sitting at her makeshift desk, she picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper. Ruth Barnett, she put at the top. Then she began to write. Once upon a time there was a little girl... After twenty minutes, she stopped, folded the papers and deposited them in a shoe box on her closet shelf, feeling curiously comforted. She showed no one, and no one asked what she was doing huddled next to the window, scribbling in the reflection of the lights below.

At school she became a watcher, feasting on someone else's childhood, wrapping herself in shyness that kept questions at a distance. In high school there were a few boys, but after Floyd called her a Goddamned slut, she stopped going to the movies with them.

"Leave him, Mamma," she begged, "...before he kills you."

Mamma shook her head. "He just needs to quit drinking..."

"Then go until he does."

"I can't. Your sisters..."

"Then bring them. We can work..."

"Doing what? Just look at me!"

"He got you that way! Has he knocked you brainless too?"

"Now you listen to me, little girl..."

Then Floyd got laid off and even the daytime hours became unsafe. Ruth would come home to a house menacingly silent with Floyd in front of the droning TV, his drink on the floor beside him. Mamma would be in the bedroom or kitchen. Sometimes she'd deny anything had happened. Sometimes it was so bad that they'd wait until Floyd went to bed, then drive to the emergency room where Mamma'd swear that she'd been hurt in a fall.

Ruth watched the calendar. In three weeks, she would graduate. In four, she would be eighteen. If Mamma wouldn't come, she'd go alone.

Monday was an early dismissal for graduates, a good time to begin making plans. Floyd would be at the unemployment office, her sisters still at school. But when she arrived home, the front door was locked and all the windows closed except for upstairs. The car was gone. Mamma had said nothing about going out.

Impatient, she circled around the house, banging windows, hoping to find one rickety enough to give way. Nothing. She hit on the frame, then peered through the window, trying to penetrate the gloom of the laundry room. There was a pile of clothes on the floor in front of the washer. Mamma had left before finishing. How unlike her.

She moved toward the next window. As she did, she heard a thin sound like the whimpering of a puppy.

She stopped and listened. Then moving ever so carefully, she continued around the house, looking, banging, then moving on. Finally she was back at the laundry room.

"Anyone home?" Her voice made the window vibrate.

The air was shattered with a mournful cry. "Ruthie! Roo-thie girl!" The pile on the floor moved. Then in agonizing slow motion, a human silhouette took shape and sat up, the hand reaching out in supplication.

"Help me, Baby..."

Mamma's battered face was unrecognizable. Her dark hair was matted with blood, her swollen mouth making her nose an inverted dimple. One blackened eye was closed, the other, almost. She tried to stand up, fell back, then dragged herself up to the laundry tub. Hanging on to the washer and drier for balance, she tottered to the window.

"Mamma, let me in."

"I can't go the steps, honey. Something in my belly..."

"Then unlock the window."

Mamma reached up and after several tries, unfastened the lock. She stepped back to leave room for Ruth, then stumbled and collapsed once more on the floor.

Ruth squeezed through the small opening, landing with a clang on the top of the dryer and dropping onto the floor. "You've got to get to a hospital right away. You're hurt bad this time. Where's the car?"

"I don't know. Floyd went somewhere." She started to cry.

"I'll bet he did. One step ahead of the police..."

"That bastard hurt me good. He kicked me on the floor..."

"Never mind. We can call a cab." She put her arm around her mother's swollen waist. "Lean on me."

Just then they heard the garage door open.

Mamma gave a terrified whimper. "He's back."

"I'll cover for you." Ruth grabbed an armload of laundry from the folding table and threw it over her mother. "Stop crying. He'll hear you."

She sprinted down the hall and into the kitchen just as Floyd came from the garage. His slow, deliberate movements said he was very drunk. "What're you doing home so early? Where's your Mamma?"

"How should I know? Where were you?"

"None of your damned business." He walked into the living room, peering into the closet and behind the couch. "You're hiding her. Where is she?"

"Why? What happened?"

"Don't get smart, Sister. Get outa my way so I can look upstairs."

She could hear him plodding up the steps, then his heavy footsteps overhead moving from one bedroom to another as she picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.

He was sitting at the kitchen table when the police arrived. When Mamma was brought from the laundry room, he wept real tears. Ruth had seen that before. "You'll never get another chance to do this again." Ruth was giddy with indignation. She was also wrong.

After recovering from surgery to repair her damaged liver and ruptured spleen, Mamma went back. There were lots of reasons. He was truly sorry. She had nowhere else to go. The girls needed her.

"You want to live like this?"

"Wait 'till you grow up. You'll see things different."

"Mamma, I am grown up."

"Well then, you know."

"All I know is that Floyd's going to kill you."

"He's a good man. He just drinks too much."

Ruth walked out of the room and closed the door behind her. She didn't wait for graduation. Finding a job as a receptionist in a medical clinic, she rented a furnished room and moved. Her diploma arrived in the mail with a letter saying that she'd ranked in the top ten percent of her class.

Soon she was made secretary then administrative assistant to the chief internist. The furnished room was replaced by a three-room apartment. She met medical students from Galveston and dated a few. She started going with Robert, a technician at the lab, and was falling in love. Her fantasies became a drawer full of manuscripts, re-read and revised. Mamma would call at odd hours to report that Floyd was now working, that he had begun to go to church, that they had new furniture, a new car. The nightmare was over.

It was close to midnight and the phone once more jangled her awake. An unfamiliar man's voice-wrong number. She hung up and curled back under the sheets.

It rang again. "Is this 231-87...?"

Ruth sat up. "Who is this?"

"My name is John Barnett. Do you know who I am?"

There were no explosions, no fanfare, no band to play a salute, to herald her dream come true. The room was still dark, but the intensity was blinding. "How did you find me?"

"I looked but your mother re-married... Ours is a rather common name..." The words were rushed as though he expected her to hang up again. He mentioned places, dates, and memories too intimate to be lies. "Can I come and see you?"

"Yes. Oh, yes! Papa..." Her lips caressed the word. "You'll be surprised-I'm grown up now." She laughed nervously. "Of course, you know that. I'm almost married..."

"I can fly in. Can you get to Houston to meet me? If not, I can make arrangements..."

"No, that's okay. My boyfriend has a car. I know he'd like to meet you." She swallowed. "The sooner, the better."

He would come in two days-on Saturday.

What did he look like? She had stolen two pictures from Mamma's album, portraits in army fatigues. There was softness in his smile. The dialogue had been rehearsed forever...

"Papa, it's been twenty years."

"Yes, my child. But I've come to make it all up to you, to carry you away to my mansion."

He would stroke her hair, hold her close. It wasn't his fault he'd been gone. He'd been summoned to a calling and didn't dare tell anyone. It was the army, the diplomatic corps, the CIA...

Or there might be a different scene where she would face him in a rage, tell him about her mother, about Floyd. He would stand tall and strong while she beat at him prettily with small clenched fists. Then he'd put his arms around her and their tears would merge.

"I've come to make it up to you. Won't you let me? I've so longed for you, my own little girl, my Ruthie..."

Or, he would be a poet, a journalist. He'd written ten books under a pseudonym intended to keep the adulation of fans away. She'd melt in his arms and he'd carry her off to a home with a pool and servants.

She wasn't able to sleep the rest of that night or the following. Her pulse was so rapid; food stuck in her throat so she drank Instant Breakfast and got heartburn.

"How d'you feel?" Rob's voice was clinical.

"I don't know." She leaned back and closed her eyes.

At the airport, they found a parking spot, entered the terminal, located the gate and sat down in the waiting area. When Rob took her hand, she realized she was trembling.

The flight deplaned at ten minutes past one.

He was surprisingly thin and only a few inches taller than she was. His clothes were baggy and cheap. He was the man in the picture.

"I always called you Papa whenever I thought of you."

"I'm glad you did."

They stood apart, looking at one another. If his expression revealed anything, Ruth was incapable of reading it.

Rob broke the silence. "Ruth hasn't had lunch. Maybe you two could-"

"It depends on Ruth..."

"There's a restaurant on the upper level where we can watch the planes coming in." Her voice echoed in her head.

An escalator took them up and they were seated, each occupying one side of a small table. The room was almost deserted except for two men in suits, dangling their legs over barstools, talking of world events. Rob had discreetly disappeared down the hall.

A waitress came and stood expectantly, pencil poised. They ordered sandwiches and sat in silence until she left.

"You look like your mother."

"She's changed. You wouldn't recognize her."

"She was a strong woman. Always knew her own mind. I can tell you're like her. Just by the way you hold your head, how you sit..."

"Papa, why did you leave?"

His eyes shifted around the room as though to see if anyone was listening. "I was young-not ready for responsibility. Then there was you. You cried a lot. Colic, I think..." The words were once more rushed, as though expecting to be turned away, not allowed to finish.

"That's all? It was just too much?"

"You have to understand how things were then..."

Twenty years summarized over a civilized lunch while executive-types sipped their drinks across the room, their booming voices echoing the bullshit being spread over her table.

"But this is now."

Then all of a sudden it didn't matter.

It was getting dark when Rob headed the car back to Galveston, the radio's country-western turned up loud.

It was dark when Ruth got home. She moved through the room in the shadows, running her hands over the chair, the lamp next to it. Then she sat down at her desk and opened the file-drawer, caressing the folders packed with manuscripts. "Poor baby. Poor, poor Ruthie."

Then lifting her chin, she switched on the light, took out a fresh sheet of paper. And once more, she began...

© Beth Staas

Beth Staas has been published in more than two dozen nationally circulated periodicals. Her novel, The Two Percent Miracle, is now in paperback. A second novel, An Audience of One, is coming out early next year. Currently she teaches writing at a community college in Aurora Illinois.

Submit your comments on this story to our MoxieTalk discussion group by clicking here!   You can also send your comments directly to the author using the form below.

You can do both by typing your response below, submitting it and then copying it, going to MoxieTalk, and pasting it into the form there for posting a message.

Please include your e-mail address if you would like the author to be able to write you back.

[FrontPage Save Results Component]

Copyright 2002 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved