City of Refuge

By Fulmer, John | The Hudson Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

City of Refuge


Fulmer, John, The Hudson Review


On the way back from the awards banquet, the man from the Optimists Club drove too fast-just like her husband-and Ruth, who was tall and sat forward in the seat, swayed as though she were top-heavy. She had a new Martin guitar clamped between her knees, tucked in a fold of her long denim skirt. She wrapped both hands tightly around the guitar neck and tried to think of something to say. No one had spoken in five minutes and the car was stiff with silence. She took deep breaths, but quietly, afraid the man might hear and asked herself why she'd let this stranger drive her home. A stray hair tickled her cheek-Ruth, a Pentecostal, kept her long hair in a bun-and she tucked it back. "Well," she said finally, in a voice so cheerful it scared her, "feels like we're almost there."

The man didn't even grunt in reply, and Ruth, bewildered with shame, blocked out the silence, concentrating instead on the car, this new driver and how different they felt. Her husband drove her everywhere-she couldn't remember the last time she'd ridden in an automobile without him-and everything felt strange, unbalanced. She knew the road home by heart and could anticipate the sharper curves, but this man drove with a different rhythm. And way too fast. The tires screeched as the car rounded a tight turn, and Ruth's new Seeing Eye dog, a golden retriever, whimpered in the back seat. During their training period Ruth had been told time and again that their bond was special, that only five percent of the blind could use guide dogs. This one had been trained to be unobtrusive, but it didn't matter. Ruth had never been fond of dogs. All that not-too-bright barking and sloppy affection. They were like children: loud and demanding. Plus this dog smelled and that ruined the new car scent.

"Don't get around this neighborhood too much," the man boomed out, startling Ruth. She adjusted her sunglasses as though his lungpower had knocked them askew. She was convinced the glasses, with their large, bubble lenses, overwhelmed her face. In fact, her husband, in fits of low-grade malice, called her "bug eyes." But Ruth had been told a thousand times the glasses made her look like Jackie Onassis, and the women in her church gushed over her high cheekbones, always telling her she could've been a model. But that was vanity, and she had to remind herself that what her husband saw might be a truer picture, that perhaps her beauty could not be modulated correctly, was something disconnected, like the man's enormous voice. Perhaps, Ruth thought, this was the kind of odd joke favored by God: She'd never see the finished product in a mirror and this man-he was a Biloxi car dealer named Rex Bouchard-- was destined to be boisterous, even in the privacy of his automobile. Ruth had often heard his carnival-barker TV ads. Rex called himself "The King of South Mississippi Car Deals," and he was loud. Very loud.

And Rex smelled too. Greasy, fat and meaty. Like Quincy's Steakhouse, where the Optimists, at their annual charity event, had presented to her the dog and guitar for her work as musical director at True Holiness Pentecostal Church. Ruth rarely made the smallest demands, but once handed the Martin, she'd insisted on holding it, and its case now lay in the trunk. As Rex rounded another curve, her awkward posture and chokehold on the guitar neck added to her unsteadiness; but to lean back against the soft leather seat and feel completely the air-conditioning-so strong it raised goose bumps on her arms-seemed dangerous, even sinful. Ruth had never felt a/c so cold, and Rex's new Lincoln had a cloudy ride unlike the family car, a Ford Taurus with worn shocks. Her husband was a mechanic at Firestone, but he'd never gotten around to replacing them.

Ruth found the silence unbearable but had known something like this would happen. The whole ceremony smacked of pathos, a bone tossed to the blind, and she'd almost bowed out at the last moment. The dog was fine, really, but she'd coveted the guitar, something neither her husband nor her small church-they rented space in a strip mall-could afford. …

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