Penny, Barbara, Ruth, Irene by Amy Grote
Amy Grote’s “Penny, Barbara, Ruth, Irene” is one of three winners of the 2022 CRAFT Amelia Gray 2K Contest, guest judged by Amelia Gray.
“Penny, Barbara, Ruth, Irene” is self-assured from the very first line, covering years of time and a real cast of characters without once breaking stride. I love a story that can move like this, drawing me close for the memory of a moment between two would-be rivals and then dropping back into the present day for a memorable and evocative ending. It’s funny, too, and sharp-witted, at one point evoking an oyster in a way which reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s description of a woman’s face “as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” —Amelia Gray
After three gin martinis, my mother-in-law spits out her teeth. “You’re a cannonball with a credit card,” she hisses. Her dentures glisten like pearls in her palm. Never, she likes to remind me, did she foresee her sweet son marrying a nonbeliever. A child of God, her boy. Raised right. As proof, she hands me a photograph of him standing outside a clapboard church. The structure punches up through prairie grass like a white fist, its centered steeple giving me the middle finger. He was fifteen then, his first hormone-rich summer spent kissing girls named Penny, Barbara, Ruth, Irene. Girls whose ancestries are beaconed with shining alabaster faces.
These days, Barbara is a substitute teacher. Irene is a stay-at-home mother to twin boys named after Greek gods. Penny works at a bank. “That’s fucking fitting,” I whisper, waiting for my mother-in-law to scoff, her hot, sour breath catching in her throat. Barbara stopped shaving her legs and moved with her best friend to Minneapolis. The lone disappointment of the girls in town, I’m told. This leaves Ruth. The favorite. Long necked like a heron in a tangerine organza gown in a photo taken the night of prom. Awfully pretty. “And awfully busty,” my mother-in-law informs me, glaring at my bony chest.
I know Ruth. I met her the first time my husband introduced me to his family. She was tall, narrow hipped, lips gray as an oyster shell. All that remained of her beauty-queen days was a towering hairdo, a pile of backcombed curls that hovered above her shoulders like a rolling fog. As the children’s choir sang hymns, she motioned for me to follow her outside the clapboard church. We squatted against the back door. She fished out a pack of cigarettes and a flask from a cheetah-print handbag. We took turns: one swig, one smoke, the slender voices of the children’s choir sweetening the chilled air. A soft flurry powdered our heads. “Got fired today,” she said. Something about a dye job gone horribly wrong. “A total accident, by the way,” she swore, admitting her client had been Irene, whose cornsilk tresses now mirrored the yellow skin of a rubber chicken.
If she could get her truck-driver boyfriend, Carl, to acquiesce, she would hitch a ride with him to California and find work. “Problem is,” she said with a fat sigh, “he’s refusing to let me bring Feathers.” It was unclear if Feathers was a child or a pet. I didn’t ask. “So you know,” she added, “I got a modeling contract at eighteen, then a trip to New York City with a guy who was gonna put me and this town on the map.” She was quiet after that. As the snow thickened at our feet, we glued our gazes to waxen tufts of switchgrass, still and looming like ghosts listening in. “It’s hell out here,” she said at last, standing up. She locked her arm with mine as we strolled into the church in a kind of somber silence, in recognition, perhaps, of a mapped-out future gone to rust.
In the pews, I huddled next to my husband, my limbs thawing beneath raging brass lanterns. Behind me sat Ruth, nodding off. A mighty Amen! jolted her awake. With an unlit cigarette pinned between her fingers, she rushed to make the sign of the cross. As we all stood up to leave, she pointed to my chest, then shot me a wink. “Guess Abe ain’t a boob guy after all.”
I can’t help but think of Ruth when my mother-in-law visits, even when she plops her spatula-wide feet on the coffee table. I sit beside her and turn on the television. We watch two women sporting stilettos and frosted lip gloss compete for a man’s attention. One pulls the other’s ponytail with both hands like a bell ringer. The other remains stiff and unbothered. The man conceals his ripening glee by scratching noodles of cursive text tattooed across his neck.
I half expect my mother-in-law to sit up and cackle, if only to admit that she hungers for Ruth to pull my hair, for Ruth and me to fight for the affections of her raised-right son. But I like Ruth. She sometimes blooms in my mind the way a flower might, her life a delicate and slow unfolding confined to the edges of my curiosity. I wonder if she ever made it to California, palm fronds whisking the sky, the ocean curling at her feet.
Born and raised in Kern County, California, AMY GROTE resides in Los Angeles and holds a degree in English from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently in the throes of editing her first novel, a young woman’s retelling of her grandfather’s experience as a migrant farmworker in California. “Penny, Barbara, Ruth, Irene” is her first publication credit. Find her on Instagram @amygrote.
Featured image by Marcin Jozwiak, courtesy of Unsplash.