by Charlie C. Cole
Ruby danced wildly between the guests at my brother’s wedding reception. Engaged to Cousin Dewey, Ruby had wavy red hair hanging down her back, adorned with a tiara of woven daisies. She wore black denim overalls with a lacy white peasant blouse. She was barefoot and pregnant as a gibbous moon.
The bride’s father, a no-nonsense sort, cornered Dewey and Ruby. “Save the shenanigans for your own wedding. I paid for this. I’m getting my money’s worth.”
“You win,” said Ruby with a sarcastic salute. “I just need the ladies’, and we’re on our way.”
“Someone’s in there,” I offered, being the groomsman on duty. (There was no lock.)
“The men’s room then. Dewey, watch my back.” Before anyone could protest, she’d ducked inside, calling out, “Finish your business, gentlemen; there’s a lady present.”
“Who she’s talking to? It’s empty,” I said.
Dewey, wearing his Sunday best, minus shoes and tie, shrugged. “Us. I let her do her thing, and everything just works.” It was as close as he’d get to an apology. “I’ll get the car. Guard the door?”
“She doesn’t strike me as needing protection.”
“Only from herself, man.”
Ruby poked her head out minutes later, wiggling wet fingers. “You’re out of paper towels.”
“Give me two minutes,” I said.
“I’m good.” She dried her hands against her pants. “It’s funny because that’s what I wanted to get for a wedding present, a case of paper towels. Who doesn’t need that? Dewey opted for money. He wasn’t nearly so traditional when we started dating.”
“Dewey’s waiting outside.”
“Forgot we’re being on our fannies. Not the first time.” She looked me over, clucking, “Your date’s one lucky girl.”
“You could be my backup if anything happens to Dewey. Consider it.”
“Lovely offer. I doubt I’m up for it.”
“Think it over. I will.”
The following spring, out of obligation and curiosity, I attended Dewey’s wedding.
“No hard feelings?” asked Dewey, when I caught him in the receiving line.
“You should ask my brother. Family’s family. Good and bad.”
Ruby had the time of her life that night. I was pressured into a “dollar dance” with her, where one pays toward a bridal fund for the honor. We slow-danced. She put her head against my chest and offered explicit details about things she’d done on prom night that would have embarrassed a gentleman.
Ten months later, we found each other at the buffet table at a family holiday party in a church hall. I was alone again. Ruby had Quentin, her toddler, and was pregnant. Her skin glowed obscenely. Honest to God, her breasts were fuller.
She looked me over, closer than was polite, and put her hand atop mine, cooing, “I’m so glad you’re here. The place is full of teetotalers. Dewey told me about your secret high school adventures. I knew we were more alike than you let on.”
“Dewey has a big mouth.”
“Let me help.” With her back to the room, Ruby stirred my coffee with her forefinger then put said finger in her mouth, like a taste test. “Someone needs more sugar.”
“That’s one opinion.”
Dewey was at boot camp, gone seven weeks. Ruby had arrived with Uncle Ollie, a volunteer EMT whose Plektron had “toned.” He’d left us for an automobile accident, leaving the baby’s car seat on the front stoop. Someone volunteered my assistance for the damsel in distress.
While we were driving, there was a shooting star so bright I saw an afterimage when I blinked my eyes. All excited, Ruby started smacking my thigh and asked me to pull over so she could make a proper wish. Reluctantly, I did.
“Pit stop’s over,” I said almost immediately.
Right away, Ruby brought her hand on my knee, gentle but intentional.
“Ruby, I can’t. We can’t.”
“I made a wish. It’s tonight’s first star; it has to come true.”
“Technically, it’s not a star.”
“You told Aunt Peg you’d take care of me.”
“It’s not like we’re going to do anything with little Quentin sleeping in back. Besides, you’re practically family.”
“Just kiss me,” Ruby insisted. “I’m getting rusty. For Dewey’s sake.”
Time passed. Dewey was stationed in Colorado Springs when Ruby joined him. The marriage collapsed. Quentin, it turned out, wasn’t his. Sadly, Ruby’s second baby didn’t make it to term. Months later, they had a drunken brawl. The police were called. Ruby refused to press charges and ran off to California in search of Quentin’s biological father. One tipsy night, Dewey called me.
“How come I can’t have what your brother has?” Dewey asked.
“A mortgage and two car payments?”
“He knows how to pick a woman. They’re still together.”
“I think it helps that he can afford her,” I half-joked.
“Who knew Ruby would go so dark? She could hit below the belt in a fight, that’s for sure.”
“She said you two made out in your car. I didn’t believe her, though.”
“They say what goes around comes around. Maybe I had it coming. I need a clean slate going forward. I want to apologize for upsetting your brother’s wedding reception.”
“Would you like his number?”
“I can’t. Prom night, when your brother’s wife, girlfriend back then, lost her shoes, your brother was wasted, so I walked her to her car. We ended up fooling around. It only happened once. She promised never to tell, but I always worry.”
“You’re talking to the wrong guy. You were in high school. Besides, we all make mistakes.”
“I just want someone to hear me say sorry. What about you?”
“I got nothing,” I said, though it wasn’t exactly true. Ruby was the best dancer I ever knew and the best kisser. Yeah, we kissed, but we also stopped. I’d never be brave enough for the whole crazy package, good with the bad, though I’d given into temptation once.
Here’s to you, wild thing, wherever you are. Be safe and make good choices and remember me fondly.