Disgraced

Not a single Howard knew what to do upon the revelation of Ruby’s pregnancy. Her older brother Isaiah threatened to kill the man who stole her honor. Her father simply remarked, “That’s a shame.” Her mother pulled Ruby’s hair incessantly and beat her across the cheek.

“Hail Mary,” Mrs. Ethel Howard exclaimed, “She’s sixteen! We’re disgraced!”

Ethel secluded herself in her bedroom early that evening, transforming the tiny mantle into a chapel where she prayed for her daughter’s sin. She was a devoutly religious woman who found it no trouble to locate enough crucifixes for a shrine. Although Ruby didn’t believe herself a sinner; in fact, she was puzzled as to all the hullabaloo.

For the time being, the Howards condemned Ruby to her bedroom. Nobody knew what to say or do, except Isaiah Howard, who cried in vain and cursed at God. He prodded as to whom Ruby’s illicit paramour was, but no matter the question she’d answer, “It was God,” like she was a Virgin Mary reincarnate. He readied a knife for the secret lover if the man dared show at their doorway, consequently losing his sanity in plotting who it was, suspecting every male over the age of eighteen in town.

Ruby protected her lover’s identity solely for the fact that she loved him. They planned to elope in the future once this burden was past them. There was no alternative that occurred to Ruby other than to run away; it seemed true love called for it. There is nothing more romantic than the feeling of privacy with another, so who needs an extravagant ball filled with townspeople she cared nothing for? Somehow they’d flee to New England and there they’d raise their family.

The Howard household was a small one in the middle of Iowa. Mrs. Howard took immense pride in what humble belongings she possessed, and despite the needs of the family, forbade to work a job. She didn’t believe godly women should be career-oriented.

They used a wood stove to heat the home, and before each dinner repeated the same prayer. They lived off bounties of corn and whatever garments Ethel sewed. Tonight she paced the kitchen as her husband added wood to the fire.

“Where did I go wrong?” Mrs. Howard asked. Her husband shrugged. “I told and told you that her going out so much at night would turn out bad,” she went on. “But you insisted, ‘Oh, let her be young! She’s a teenager!’ Look at her now! No better than a whore…”

“What are you thinking?” he inquired.

Ethel pondered. “Once she shows, everyone will talk. We could always…send her away before that.”

“You mean kick our daughter out?”

“Will you hush! Oh, I feel faint again!”

So she bellowed for Isaiah, who knew by routine to fetch smelling salts to pacify his mother’s temper.

“Mom, will Ruby go to Hell?” he asked.

“That’s what you’re worried about?” she chastised. “How will we explain this to Pastor Martine?”

They were loud in their clandestinity. Ethel ranted to her husband as the man smoked his cigar. What to do with their daughter? He wasn’t considering the shame involved. What man would marry an impure girl? Not one, if you asked Ethel. It’s enough for a girl to not be a virgin, but to have a child? Honor is all a girl has to offer.

Ruby pressed her ear against the wall, eavesdropping on her parents’ discussion. She was aware they spoke in such a manner for her to overhear. It was impossible not to. She contemplated running away, but to where? Her lover had a place, but the landlady was stringent. The thought terrified her that she had no one in the world.

“What if she gets rid of it?” Isaiah asked.

Ethel slapped her son. “I don’t want to hear that come out of your mouth,” she said.

“The boy has a point,” Mr. Howard said.

His wife was stunned. “So our daughter becomes a murderer on top of a harlot?”

He poured himself whiskey on ice. Liquor was the one luxury Mr. Howard ensured his money could buy. He feigned apathy; however, when it boiled down, the Howard reputation was the only thing he had on which to hold. Ethel had certain Christian values to uphold, but he had a last name to preserve.

“No, not as you imagine,” he told his wife. “Some women aren’t lucky when expecting—some women don’t carry full term…”

A devious smirk crept on Ethel’s expression. Listening, Ruby laid her palm on her stomach, her eyes widened. Her mother beckoned her into the room.

She tiptoed in, her stomach twisting in knots.

“I can’t look at her!” Ethel said, turning to the cross hung on the wall. At the sight of his sister, Isaiah wailed and his tears put out the fire in the wood stove. The room deadened by the sudden darkness, and Mrs. Howard had to waste the wick of her prized votive candle, the image of the Savior pasted onto its front.

Ruby’s father explained how too much parsley, coffee, cinnamon, or even crab, coupled with vigorous exercise, can induce hardship on a pregnancy. And he was sure there were many others factors to research…

“Are you asking me to…miscarry?” Ruby said.

“It’s more natural than…” her mother couldn’t say the word.

Partly appalled, party humored by the morbidity of it all, Ruby guffawed. “I’m not doing that to myself,” she stated.

Her mother tried to rebut, but Mr. Howard cut her off. He negotiated with his daughter until the two resolved on stowing her in a convent until the child was born and orphaned. Actually, her father commanded this, and when his daughter refuted he interrupted her with, “It’s decided.”

There was nothing Ruby could do or say, so she trudged into her bedroom and slammed the door. In her mind she wouldn’t become a nun. It wasn’t even a possibility despite her parents’ threats. She would kill herself before that happened, and she was always a girl dead-set on her will.

The following morning, at sunrise before anyone awoke, Ruby snuck out her window and trekked on foot to her lover’s apartment. He lived in an apartment complex downtown, where folks steered clear and never dared get lost. Ruby supposed dawn the best time, for night would have its own dangers for a girl.

The couple had met in the city when Ruby was shopping with her girlfriends. She was fifteen at the time but puberty had come and gone. At twenty-five, he was much older than her, and handsome in the manner heroines in soap operas fall for the pauper. Ruby’s friends scattered when he swaggered towards her, and the next thing she recalled was downing malt liquor and coasting the freeway.

He rented a shabby room crumbling apart at every corner. His window, shattered by some burglar last month, was boarded with wooden planks. His neighbor to the east was a dumpster, and to the west an old lady from Guatemala whose carpets reeked of cat piss. Ruby didn’t feel comfortable or clean whenever there, but it was the only solace the couple had. There were only so many hiding spots, and motels became too costly. 

When Ruby found his flat the door was wide open, so she stepped inside. The sound of rustling and grumbling echoed through the tiny rooms, and Ruby followed it to its source. In the bedroom the landlady stood, rumbling through a drawer with a wild look in her eyes. Ruby asked what she was doing.

“Who are you?” the landlady growled in a thick Italian accent.

Ruby explained who she was and the landlady rolled her eyes, laughing as if Ruby had said something preposterous. “He ran off this morning without even a note!” she scoffed. “And neglecting this month’s rent!”

“That’s impossible,” Ruby said, believing she misheard. He had promised they’d go to New England, that he’d care for his child.

“He’s gone, sweetie,” the landlady told her. “I plan to pawn what he left behind.” She found underneath two boxers a pair of cufflinks, and stuffed them into her shirt pocket. “Hon, you alright?” she asked Ruby, whose color had faded.

Ruby clutched her stomach, and for the first time in her life, surrendered to morning sickness.

After the mess was cleaned, the landlady brewed Ruby some green tea. Ruby sat at the table where she and her lover had sat so many times before, sometimes chatting, sometimes kissing, sometimes more. Recalling this, she felt sick again.

“What’s this?” the landlady said from another room. She ambled into the kitchen staring at an envelope. “Your name Ruby?” she asked.

Ruby stood, ripping the envelope from the landlady’s hand. It had Ruby’s name on it and she tore it open. Inside was a wad of cash, and Ruby hid it before the landlady saw.

Politely Ruby excused herself and backed out of the abandoned apartment. The landlady offered cake in the office if Ruby wished to stop by.

Equipped with sudden money that Ruby hadn’t a clue where her lover obtained it, she knew his intention. But she couldn’t visit her family physician. It was too risky; she was a minor and everything would report to her parents. So she found a clinic some miles from the complex, camouflaging herself within farmlands so passing vehicles wouldn’t recognize her. She doubted any would, but it was a small town, everyone talked, and she was supposed to be in hiding. If they spotted the sixteen-year-old Howard girl out by herself in the earliest traces of morning, it was bound to spread.

The receptionist documented her name and that Ruby had awful stomach pains recently. Ruby paid the costs of the appointment with her lover’s allowance rather than reveal her family’s insurance. The doctor’s office was small and grey, and a television set on the wall blared international news. Ruby bit her fingernails to stubs in the waiting room until a nurse directed her into a back room, where she was bid to stay put until the doctor arrived.

She thought it was strange, sitting on wax paper, on a cushion torn at the seams, how quickly and definitely one is isolated. She believed she had her family, her brother, her lover, yet really she only had herself and she wasn’t quite sure she liked it. She didn’t want to be independent if it led to this much abandonment, this solitary if it caused so much loneliness. And the one factor she loved, the thing that imbued so much passion for life—it disappeared and planted this alien egg inside of her. She was worried that life would continue on this way until she died. That it was a long series of disappointment and tediousness.

The doctor was a heavyset man with thinning hair, awfully short but with an air of superiority. He was half a man but he had money, and that generated inches to his height. He studied his clipboard and mentioned, with a voice resembling a cartoon character, something about stomach ailments.

“Yes, doctor,” Ruby said timidly, “But actually…”

He interrupted her. “Are you sure it’s not…your monthly predicament?”

She wondered if he truly knew so little of the female body, and why he couldn’t say “menstruation” aloud.

“Doctor, the problem is I haven’t had it.”

“How old are you? Most girls go through the change in junior high…”

“I’ve had my period, but not recently.”

“That’s perfectly common, my dear. Perhaps it’s just your body.”

Ruby lost her patience. “I’m pregnant, doc.”

He lifted his spectacles higher onto his nose, trying to determine Ruby’s age. “Congratulations, my girl! Your husband must be overjoyed.”

“I don’t want it,” she told him. He didn’t understand, so she repeated, “I want to get rid of whatever’s inside me.”

Stunned, he shot back, “Miss, I am a godly man, and I am offended you’d even bring this to me. I am a doctor, but before that I am a Christian…” He went on and on chastising her until she grew bored and, by her own means, left. She gripped the stack of cash in her palm until her knuckles turned white. An impulse sprang to toss it in the air and let it snow onto the parked cars. Maybe it’d benefit someone’s day, but not hers. Yet she kept it, because it smelled like him, and it was all she had left in the world.

She plodded to the only home she had, where thankfully her parents kept asleep. Clearly they worried for their daughter, yet not enough to know she snuck out that morning. She wobbled into the kitchen, brewed herself a pot of coffee, sprinkled in cinnamon, and took it to her bedroom. On her bed she tucked herself into a quilt her mother had crafted, one embroidered with the family crest, and she couldn’t find the tears to cry. Soon she overheard her parents awake, but they remained in their bed discussing her.

Alone in her room she waited for an emotion to set in, some feeling that’d inspire her next move. She searched and searched the depths of her mind and nothing spilled out. There was a hole where all self-esteem should be. She figured this—whatever it was—inside of her should rouse some maternal instinct, some connectivity that’d drain this loneliness, but the nothingness disappointed her more. She couldn’t be more than a few weeks, yet she prayed that she’d feel a kick, a heartbeat, something. When that never came, she touched herself down there and felt numbness.

There was a knock at the door. Swiftly Ruby hid her riches underneath her mattress and, gulping, told whoever it was to enter. It was her brother, Isaiah, his face red, his eyes swollen. A stray tear had crystallized on his cheek.

She stared at him, waiting for him to speak, thinking how pathetic he was. She thought he was a sorry excuse for a man. He did everything his mother told him. The damned fool probably memorized scriptures in his spare time.

But he surprised her by collapsing on his knees at the foot of her bed, his hands clasped in prayer. No, not prayer. Begging, pleading.

“Ma and pa want to send you away,” he told Ruby. She shrugged and he added, “I won’t let them.”

She laughed. “Are you going to write to the Pope?”

He seemed aggravated and impatient. “This ain’t a joke, Ruby.”

She reckoned she’d humor him, so she listened.

“Hear me out. You didn’t tell anyone the father, yes?”

Ruby nodded.

Sighing, he leaned closer, moving his hand to touch his sister’s. “We tell them it was mine. We say it was incest.”

Instantly she jumped back from him. “What?”

“Our parents won’t know how to deal with the scandal,” he said. “They’ll allow you to get the operation.”

“Or they’ll still send me away, and pretend as if nothing ever happened,” she said.

“Then we tell them I’ll come out publicly as the father.”

He was weeping. She realized he was actually considering this.

“You’re out of your mind.” She rose to leave, but he followed and blockaded the door. He was desperate.

“I know a guy in Des Moines who’ll do the procedure for cheap,” he said.

“Keep your voice down,” she told him, reaching for the doorknob, but he held it in his fist. She knew he wouldn’t pull anything on her, yet a tiny recess in the rear of her consciousness was ready to scream. She had to think fast.

So she fell onto her bed, head in her hands faking tears, and Isaiah rushed to her side, rubbed her back, and cooed into her ear. A scheme in her head, she yielded to his desires, explaining that she supposed they had no other option. And in the tradition of masculinity, he believed every word his troubled, beautiful sister said. She inquired to whom the man in Des Moines was, how Isaiah had met him, where the man lived, where he’d perform the operation, how much it would hurt, and was he a real doctor. 

Isaiah answered loyally. He told Ruby he’d tell their parents at dinner; she asked that he wait until tomorrow, so she could collect herself. He reduced the notion to feminine wont, but like any true gentleman, let her have her way. Mr. Howard beckoned for Isaiah from outside to help with some yard work, and Ruby rushed him out of her room.

Until that night she watched the secondhand strike each minute, locking herself in her bedroom. Her parents were too humiliated to want to look at her, and Isaiah was too convinced of himself to spoil his plan. When midnight came and went, and the Howards climbed into bed, Ruby snatched her lover’s money and crept into the kitchen. There, on the wall by a cross, was a woven basket where the Howards stored the keys for their only car. Unsettled, Ruby took the cross and hid it in a drawer—then she swiped the keys. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t come up with this before.

When she got in the car—revving the engine on and freezing, anticipating a light to turn on from her parents’ bedroom—reversing from the Howards’ property, she still couldn’t feel anything. There was the stack of cash in the glove department and her freedom on the highway to Des Moines. Yet there was nothing but emptiness that flooded her heart, that overwhelmed like a black hole, and all her thoughts were space junk waiting to disintegrate. She drove and drove, but the feeling never left that the only thing awaiting her across county lines was a dead end.

photo: “Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck, NY,” Arnold Genthe (1914)

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