She hasn’t been dead four months and I’ve already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze. I even ate the green peas. Used to I wouldn’t turn my hand over for green peas . . .
Ruby Stokes has died too young and left her husband, Blinking Jack, behind. With alternating entries from each of them, A Virtuous Woman recounts the tale of their years together in an “exquisitely realised piece of writing” (Elizabeth Buchan, The Mail on Sunday).
From their very different backgrounds—Ruby a daughter of wealth, Jack a penniless tenant farmer—to their relationships with their landlord and his family, and the strength they drew from each other in the face of hardship, this story of a marriage is “full of fantastically gritty metaphors . . . A book that will change your dreams” (The Observer).
“Gibbons again flawlessly reproduces the humor and idiom of rural eastern North Carolina.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
Hometown:Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 5, 1960
Place of Birth:Nash County, North Carolina
Education:Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
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She hasn't been dead four months and I've already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze. I even ate the green peas. Used to I wouldn't turn my hand over for green peas.
My whole name is Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, stokes the fire, stokes the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell! I've got a nerve problem in back of the face so I blink. June nicknamed me for it when she was little.
My wife's name was Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes. She was a real pretty woman. Used to I used to lay up in bed and say, "Don't take it off in the dark! I want to see it all!"
Ruby died with lung cancer in March. She wasn't but forty-five, young woman to die so early. She used to tell me, she'd say, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander. I imagine I'll stop smoking about the time you stop drinking." June's daddy, Burr, told me one time people feed on each other's bad habits, which might could be true except for one thing, I'm not really what I would call a drinking man. I hardly ever take a drink except when I need one.
But Ruby died and they laid her out and crossed her hands over her bosom, and I said to them, "I never saw her sleeping like that." They said but that's the way everybody was laid, so I said, "Fine then, I'll let her be."
I did lean over in the coffin though and fix her fingers so the nicotine stains wouldn't show. Ruby had the creamiest soft skin and I hated to have brown spots ruin her for people. Suppose you went to view somebody who'd died being shot or stabbed somewhere so you'd notice. Don't you know they'd fill in with some kind of spackle and smooth it over to match him? Sure they would! Same thing only different with Ruby's two ashy-smelling fingers.
God, you ought to've seen her in the hospital, weak, trying to sit up, limp as a dishrag. She'd lost down so much, looked like she'd literally almost shook all the meat off, all that coughing and spewing up she'd done. If you want to feel helpless as a baby sometime, you go somewhere and watch such as that. Seemed like every time she'd cough a cold shudder'd run up and down me.
I sat with her long as they'd let me that night, then I had to leave. I stuck my head up under her tent and said to her, "'Night 'night, Ruby. I'm headed back to the Ponderosa with Burr. I'll see you first thing in the morning." Then she put those two ashy-smelling fingers up to her mouth like either she was blowing me a kiss or telling me to hush a little. And while I was looking at her and trying to figure out which one she meant, I realized she wasn't motioning love or to hush to me. She was wanting a cigarette, asking me for one. I thought, Well I will be damned. And I said, Hard as that woman worked to get over too good a life then too bad a life, what a pity, what a shame to see this now.
I hated to but I had to call it selfish, not like the Ruby I knew. But I suppose when you're that bad off and you're not here, not gone either, I suppose you can get to the point that you are all that matters to yourself, and thinking about yourself is the last thing left you can remember how to do. So you're bound to go on and forgive it. And after it all, after it's all said and done, I'll still have to say, Bless you, Ruby. You were a fine partner, and I miss you.CHAPTER 2
By Thanksgiving I'll have everything organized. I tie a package of pork with some corn, beef with some beans, and so forth, so all Jack should have to do is reach into the freezer and take out a good, easy meal. This should help him.
When I was out on the back porch working on that this morning I thought about how somebody, especially somebody who doesn't know us, would say, "That's the most morbid thing I've ever heard of." But there'd be others who'd say, "That Ruby sure is smart to make sure her husband's well-fed when she's gone." I don't know. I can't do much, but I can do something. There's not a whole lot a woman can do from the grave.
If we're careful this winter he'll have enough food to last three months, probably more. Then maybe he'll feel up to planning a garden, carrying the whole thing through by himself. But somehow, when I see him a year, two years from now, he's letting himself in Burr's house, hungry, lonesome, apologizing for interrupting supper for the third time that week, saying as long as he's there and there's a plenty he might ought to help him eat it. I don't know why I try to picture his life any other way, any independent way, when he's counted on me for so long. I know I'd give anything to be able to will what I wish to happen. Wouldn't any woman who loves her husband?
Another thing, I wish I could go back to the day I was diagnosed and change everything about it, not just the news, but the way Jack took the news and the way I handled him. He's so good to me, but when he said what he did that day I wanted to turn on him, against him. Sometimes we all could use a lesson in keeping quiet. Hard as it is, sometimes we need to hold back. He should've. I should've.
We came home from the doctor's office and I sat down with some coffee. He sat down with me, and I said, "What do you think's going to happen to me?" You know how you turn to somebody you love so they can help you. But all he said was, "Shoot woman! Not a damn thing! Anybody mean as the old squaw'll outlive everybody."
What'd he think? Did he expect me to laugh, slap my leg and say, "Ain't it the truth? I'm not dying. I'm not even sick!"
But I didn't. I cried. I cried and heaved and sobbed and wouldn't let him touch me. When he wanted to know what was going on I told him I didn't need his cheering up, that I was upset enough without him insulting me. He yelled at me, "Insulting?" And then he asked if I wanted him to call the undertaker and have him cart me off ahead of schedule or if I planned to just leave then and crawl out into the woods and wait for it to happen. I told him how far off the mark he was, how I wished he could get something right for once. Then I saw his face change, and I saw how badly I'd hurt him.
See, there's something raw and right there on the surface with him. Sometimes, I swear, he's just like a child. You have to be so careful. You can't ever just throw words out. They have to land somewhere, and they land on him and there he is so raw from the way he was raised, and then it's too late.
I kept to myself the rest of the day, kept all my thoughts to myself. And I hate to say it, but sometimes I just wanted to yank him and say, "Didn't you know cheering me up would do more harm than good? What possessed you to do the wrong thing when I needed the right thing the most? I don't ask for much from you. Can't you see that anything less than not exactly right hurts worse than I already hurt? You've got to cure me or either love me so strongly that I feel some of this pain pass from me. Those are the only things you have any business doing right now."
See, this is how Jack can be. I gave up a long time ago sending him to the store for something. You'd be better off sending a monkey. I'd ask him to walk down to Porter's store and pick up a few things and then I'd hand him the list and he'd step back like I was handing him a snake. He'd say, "I don't need a list." He wouldn't even look at it. He'd say, "Just tell it to me."
So I'd say, "Okay, a short loaf of white bread, margarine, cheese, and cornmeal," and nine times out of ten he'd walk back into this house with a long loaf of wheat bread, butter, cornmeal, but no cheese. And if I'd try to say anything, he'd harp on that cornmeal, going on and on about how he didn't mess up entirely. I'd try to say, "I know you got the cornmeal but I needed the other things too," and he'd hold his hand up like a teacher saying she's heard quite enough. You let that happen and your nerves will tell you not to send Blinking Jack Stokes out to the store anymore.
Sometimes when he'd come home missing an item or two he'd give me what he had and then he'd pull a little paper sack from his back pocket and say, "Sweets for my sweet." And there I'd be needing cheese or cornmeal or something to make supper, but I'd have a sack of candy. I couldn't fuss at him. All I could do was sit down at the table and take out a piece of the candy and suck on it mad and wonder about a man who runs out of cornmeal money buying peppermint for his wife. Candy couldn't help me then, can't help me now.
I think about Jack that day I was diagnosed and it all comes back clear as you please, my grandmother in the hospital. When she finally became too ill to be looked after at home my parents helped Big Daddy find a nursing hospital for her. She'd always lived right next door to us, and I got so lonesome for her that daddy let me spend weekends there with her.
Big Daddy'd always get there first thing Saturday morning. He'd pull a chair up by the bed and say, "How are you today, Sophie?" She'd never answer him. He'd take her arm and pat and rub it back and forth, back and forth, and then she'd jerk it away like he'd burned her. Then he'd realize he was rubbing the place where she'd had so many shots. But he'd take that arm and do the same thing every single visit, same thing, not thinking. Then he'd take his hat off and place it in his lap, reverently, like he was in church, not his church but some unfamiliar church he felt a little awkward in. She'd moan, trying to lift her head up to say something to him. Then he'd start talking, saying something about her nice begonias or her nice game hens or how nice her herb garden looked with the dew on it that morning or how fine a job Eloise was doing keeping everything just like she liked it. And then one time she got her head up off her pillow and she turned her full face to him and said in the hatefulest tone you can imagine, "Shut up! Go straight to hell! Leave me alone!"
Big Daddy looked like she'd shot him, and he turned around to me to see if I could help him, tell him how to react or jump in there for him. I didn't know what to do. She'd always been such a calm woman. But I'd know what to do now, and she knew what she needed then, but if you have to tell somebody then it doesn't count. It just doesn't. It's like sending yourself flowers on a birthday and signing the name of the man you love on the card.
If I could, I'd go back there and tell Big Daddy to lift her shoulders off of that bed and hold her and forget every last thing he'd always thought was best to say in times like these. See, he'd thought that bringing the things from home up close to her would make her feel better, as if she'd ever be back there, back on the beam. But she knew that those game hens scratching around in the yard were a whole life away from her. And he thought that by filling up that damp-smelling hospital room, and her mind, with all those things that we could all pretend everything would be fine, everything's going to be just fine. But she was dying! And it's not fair pretending. It's a bigger cheat than having to die.
If you want to see a man afraid just put him in a room with a sick woman who was once strong. See, I know now that this world is built up on strong women, built up and kept up by them too, them kneeling, stooping, pulling, bending, and rising up when they need to go and do what needs to get done. And when a man sees a woman like that sick and hurt, especially the kind of man who knows a woman's strength but can't confess it, when he sees her sick or hurt it terrifies him, like he's witnessing a chunk of the universe coming loose and he knows he doesn't have what it takes to stick it back together. And that man will feel guilty and foolish then too because he never made himself say what he always knew.
So a man, especially one like my grandfather, will see things coming apart and all he can do is rush to it, rush to it and hide the broken, chipped off, wrong piece. He'll slip it under something to pretend, or hope to pretend, it's not there, not one bit different from when a child hides a special toy he's broken.
That's all my grandfather was guilty of, fear, faith in his words, but that was a high crime in her eyes. That's all Jack was guilty of that day, but I've lived with him a good while and I believe I understand him. Sometimes it might take an afternoon or evening of being here in this kitchen alone, thinking, but I can usually come to see his reasons through his ways. And half the job of finding peace is finding understanding. Don't you believe it to be so?CHAPTER 3
Ruby was the first and last woman I ever loved, outside of my mama, not meaning it to sound like she was one bit like mama though. Mama was a tough, hard woman, skin like cat tongue. You didn't run to be up next to her, if she'd have let you. It was her that'd say to come here, and she'd stand me between her knees and scrub the backs of my ears with a old rag and box lye soap, and she'd run a comb through my hair so hard I'd swear my head was bleeding. No, she wasn't the hugging kind of mama. I imagine it was all the Indian in her made her like she was.
I don't know how she and my daddy got up together. It wasn't something they sat around our house and went over. I have to see him proposing to her something like, "You need to marry me." And then he probably pulled her over up next to him and took her to a Holiness preacher for him to marry them. My daddy always was a Holiness man, always trying to shove Jesus down I and mama's throats. He drug me to church and tent revivals with him until I got too big to be beat into going. He'd start on mama on a Sunday morning and she'd walk outside and slam the door in his face talking, same thing every Sunday the sun rose.
She passed when I was fourteen, food poison. Turned out to be a bad piece of meat, but we thought first it was just the stomach flu. By the time daddy found out about the meat she was sick as a dog, just got sicker and sicker and couldn't anybody do a damn thing about it. There I was a boy and watching her and wanting to ask daddy, "Where's He now?"
It was something natural-born freakish about it, how the day she died it came the biggest snow we'd ever had, snow, then sleet, then snow on top of all of it. I remember carrying her out of the house and putting her in the wagon and the snow pure wanted to come up past I and daddy's knees. Then it was like pulling teeth making that mare drag that wagon with the wheels not hardly turning. Daddy had to borrow the money to bury her, borrowed about as much as we were worth.
After she was gone I missed her, hard as she was, I did miss her. I'd close my eyes in the bed at night and think about her, about her being part Cherokee, high cheekbones, and I'd see her dressed like one, feathers, and she'd be walking across a hot bed of coals, not flinching a bit, just like she used not to flinch when she'd scald a chicken, dip it in the cast-iron pot outside and it steaming, and pluck it faster than you could yell, "You better let it cool!" But she didn't mean to let it cool. She'd pluck it and it'd be ready to go. But not Ruby. No, that wasn't Ruby. She never even liked the dishwater over a certain degree and she always kept her a tube of lotion up on the windowsill over the sink.
I'd always have to think of my mama whenever Ruby made a pie, which was every Sunday morning until she got so weak she couldn't hardly crawl out of the bed. She'd always hold that pie up on one hand and turn it round and round very slow and put a crimp in the crust with a butter knife. Mama would've been put off by Ruby's pies, too much, too good. She wouldn't have said a word though if she'd walked in on Ruby crimping one. She'd have just gazed at that pie and walked out. Sometimes now, even with me being as old a man as I am, sometimes I want to ask mama why she couldn't ever have made I and daddy just one pie, just a plain one. But I just guess a hard woman like my mama didn't think about dessert. That's all okay now. I lived a long time with a soft woman and her soft way of doing things. I excuse the pies I didn't have because I was satisfied by Ruby's so many times.
I know people generally think if you act like Ruby, do like she used to and all, I know they think you bound to've had it easy all along, not like mama, not like a man either that walks around with his fists up all the time because he knows he'd better. But think that about Ruby and be dead wrong.
Burr's ex-wife, Tiny Fran, despised Ruby for carrying herself like she was somebody, and I said to Burr one time, I said, "You know, it shows a bad weakness in a woman when all she can do is find fault, be ridiculing." And all he was able to do was say, "I know it. Tiny Fran's hard on everybody but herself and Roland." Roland's her old jailbird boy.
But see, the thing about Ruby is, her mama and daddy might've been able to give her a nice, easy road to go down when she was little, but the minute she could she lit out of there and hit a skid, big skid named John Woodrow. Now I just have to shake my head at how it didn't kill her, that taking that wide turn off that easy road.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A ? Virtuous ? Woman"
Copyright © 1989 Kaye Gibbons.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
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