Chapter 23: Pockets
Susan climbed out the passenger's door of Ralph's delivery truck and stretched to relieve the ache in her lower back and the stiffness in her neck. The delivery truck certainly rode rougher than Lilly, but perhaps all the soreness was just a reminder that she was getting old. Across the yard, the faithful old green truck sat in its usual parking spot, yet the front door remained shut. That was disappointing; she'd hoped her children would be home when she got there.
"I'm gonna take me a cold bath," Ralph announced before they even reached the porch.
She smiled and nodded. "I'll see what I can get going for supper." Though truly, nothing sounded better than a bath. Even with the truck windows down, their clothes were plastered to their bodies and when she wiped the sweat from her neck, her hand came away gritty. The dirt from those back mountain roads had left granny beads on her neck like the one's on Ginny's after a day of hard playing, and Susan couldn't help but smile at the thought.
She followed Ralph into the house. He emptied his pockets on the side table and went straight to their bedroom for a change of clothes, while Susan stood just inside the door looking around. It was good to be home, even if only for a couple days.
The house wasn't as clean as she would have liked, but she was just glad it was still standing. When she walked into the kitchen, she noticed the truck keys laying on the table and wondered if Kody had driven it only when necessary as he'd been instructed. She hoped not. It would do him good to get into a little trouble and having access to Lilly had been a good opportunity to do just that.
She tied on her apron and began looking through the cupboard for something to cook, but judging by what she found, it looked like that was going to be quite a challenge. As she'd suspected, all those times she had tried to show Ginny how to cook had been in vain. That girl's attention was always everywhere but where it was supposed to be. And it was clear she hadn't raised a son who could cook for himself, either. She sighed as she accepted that the first meal she would cook on her own stove after all these weeks would be fried bologna sandwiches.
After getting a fire going in the firebox, she wandered out of the kitchen while the stove heated up. She walked back through the front room and to the kids' room. Not surprisingly, neither bed was made and there was a pile of dirty laundry in the floor. The pile of laundry wasn't overwhelmingly large, though. She supposed that was because, ever since Ralph had bought her that wonderful motorized wringer washer, Ginny had regarded it as something of a toy. Susan was always having to tell her to shut the lid because she liked to watch the agitator swish the clothes and suds and water about, and she absolutely delighted in running the wet clothes through the wringer.
Susan walked back to the kitchen to get the detergent then returned to the bedroom and gathered up the dirty clothes. When she stepped out onto the back porch, she was greeted by the mild, pleasant fragrance of ivory soap. Ralph was finished with his bath and was just changing into his clean clothes.
"What's for supper?" he asked as she began filling the washer's tub.
"Fried baloney sandwiches. 'Fraid there wasn't much in the cupboard."
He snorted. "I coulda told ya that much. That girl of yours is hopeless when it comes to cooking."
Susan clenched her jaw. "I'll work with her on that."
She poured some detergent into the tub then began tossing in garments so thoughtlessly that she nearly tossed in a pair of Kody's pants without checking the pockets. Fortunately, she caught herself. She knew all too well there was no telling what one might find in that boy's pockets - things that might even lead to the demise of her beloved washer.
After verifying that the front pockets were empty, she slipped her hand into the back pocket and felt a thick piece of paper. She pulled it out and glanced at it, and immediately held it close to her. Maybe she could slip it behind the top of her apron before he noticed.
"What's that?" said Ralph.
"What you got in your hand. What you just took outta them pants pockets."
"It's just -"
She didn't have a chance to even say. He'd already walked around her and jerked the old photograph from her hand. His green eyes were angry, and they darted from the picture to the pants. "Them ain't mine, and they're too big to be yours or the girl's. Where did that boy get this picture?"
When she didn't answer, he grabbed her by the wrist. His hold grew tighter as his voice rose. "'Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church'...Ain't that what it says in that book you claim to love so much?"
She didn't answer, not out of defiance, but simply because she didn't have the words.
"Well, ain't it?"
She managed an affirmative nod.
"So why can't you just do as I say?"
"Ralph," she choked when the words finally came to her, "I couldn't. They deserve at least a picture."
"Oh my god," he said, realization dawning on his face. "There's more."
"No!" she cried. "That's all there is. That's the only one."
He shoved her wrist back down to her side and went back in the house, letting the screen door slam shut behind him. She followed close behind but by the time she reached the kids' room, Ralph was already going through the chest of drawers, clothes flying. "Where are they?" he demanded.
"I told you. That's the only one."
Having emptied the kids' chest of drawers, he turned to continue pursuing the nonexistent pictures elsewhere. He looked at her with disgust as he shoved her out of the doorway and passed. Susan closed her eyes while she listened to the sound of drawers being thrown open in her own room. She took a deep breath and stepped across the little hall to see all of her clothes lying in a heap on the bedroom floor.
When he'd cleared the bottom drawer, he stood and turned to her, that same look of absolute disgust on his face. "Tell me! Tell me where you hid 'em!" She stared back at him with eyes like a cold December night; she refused to tell him again that there were no more.
He got down on the floor and looked under the bed. When he sat back up on his knees, his eyes found the hope chest and Susan felt her heart jump up into her throat. Ralph stood and walked around to the foot of the bed, then squatted and opened the lid of the hope chest, the old hinges groaning in protest.
Before she could even form a coherent thought, all her fabrics, thread, and yarn had joined the pile of clothes in the floor. And when she looked up from the pile, she found Ralph standing in the middle of the room, holding the shoe box. "What's this?" he asked accusingly as he sifted through the box of worthless papers and objects that held no value to anyone in the world but her.
"Just little things I hang onto," she said weakly. "Nothing, really."
"So this is where you hid it. I told you to get rid of it but you defied me and kept it secret."
She looked away.
He stormed out of their bedroom, shoe box in hand, back into Kody and Ginny's room; he swiped the old photograph he'd left on their dresser and returned it to the box. Susan followed him through the front room and into the kitchen, her stomach in knots.
"Ralph, no!" she pleaded as he opened the firebox door.
He raised his brows and mused, "Oh, it's nothing, is it?" as he shoved the box of memories into the fire.
Susan's throat tightened and her eyes burned with tears hotter than the flames swallowing up her treasures, but she dare not let him see that he'd made her cry, that he'd hurt her. She couldn't - wouldn't - give him the satisfaction.
Ralph shut the firebox door and walked over to her, pulling her chin up and forcing her to look him in the eye. He let out a mirthless laugh. "When will I ever mean to you what he did?"
"You do," she whispered.
He turned from her and struck his fist against the table. "Damn it, Susan! The hell I do!"
"I do love you," she insisted.
"Then why can't you let him go?"
"Ralph, I couldn't just toss out the only thing my babies had left of their daddy."
He shook his head. "It was as much for you as them. Always has been, always will be." He put his hands over his mouth and began pacing the kitchen. Susan felt uneasy and she wanted to argue but knew it wouldn't do any good; he would only ever see what he wanted to see.
"The things I've done for you," he said as he paced. "The things I carry with me every day of my life, all for your sake."
Susan's heart quickened. "Ralph -"
"But no more. Not any more," he muttered as he picked up the truck keys and left the kitchen.
Susan followed close behind him and put her hand on his shoulder when he reached the front door. "Ralph, what are you doing?" she asked as calmly as she was able, though her wide eyes gave away the dread that had overcome her.
"What I should've done years ago," he replied icily as he jerked her hand from his shoulder and continued out the door.
She shook her head in disbelief and followed him out onto the porch, watching helplessly as he stalked across the yard toward Lilly. "And risk bringing yourself down, too?" she called as he was opening the truck door. "Ralph Nelson, don't you think that's a damn fool thing to do?"
He stopped for a moment and thought, then looked at her and shook his head. "I already don't have you. There ain't much else in this life for me." And with that, he got in the truck, shut the door, and backed out, headed for town.
Susan stood on the porch and watched the dust cloud in the road until it disappeared, then went back inside. Her stomach was still in knots, but aside from that she just felt numb. Of all thoughts rushing through her head, of all the worries weighing on her heart, of all the things she could have felt, numb.
Ralph had threatened before. Every time she threatened to leave he threw his counter-threat in her face, but he'd never acted on it. And of course, she never left, either. She had always known it would only be a matter of time, but she'd prayed that this day would never come. Running her fingers over the coarse fabric of the thread-bare wingback chair, she knew there was only one thing she could do. And so she sat down, and she waited.