Conjugation

John Ruemmler Click to read more...

John Ruemmler has written two published novels, “Brothers in Arms” and “Smoke on the Water”, both set in Virginia.  His stories have won a few prizes but far too little acclaim and even less money.  John lives in Charlottesville with with his lovely and long-suffering wife, two brilliant children and a handful of beer-swilling buddies. 

In their first conjugal visit, Ray couldn’t perform, so they talked.  The trailer had no windows and one door from which the lock mechanism had been removed, the hole stuffed with a rust-colored rag.  On the dresser beside the bed was a clock radio and across the room, a sink with a mirror.  The walls were so thin they could hear the footsteps of the guard on the gravel just outside.  But for a chair to throw their clothes over, that was it for furnishings.  The bed was a single; lying on their sides, squeezed close together, they barely fit.

You smell different, he told her, like a schoolteacher, and she’s cut her hair too short.

Well, Kelly said, sassing him right back, you’re a sight for sore eyes, too.

He had bulked up pumping iron.  But for the fact that he’d screwed up badly once again, she wasn’t sure it was him lying there, and she told him so.

You changed, she said, adding: You’re hard as a rock.

Except where it counts, he said.  It surprised Ray how quickly she’d shed her clothes.  She had come all this way just to let him have sex with her, and yet she didn’t blame him when he couldn’t perform.  He owed her big-time.

I didn’t mean that, she was quick to say.  You got a new body.  It’s . . . swollen.

She turned on the radio to static but quickly found a crackly country and western station.  Weeping guitars, a rock ‘ n’ roll beat, satin-smooth harmonies – Ray groaned in disgust.

What’s wrong?

What passes for music these days, he said.  Remember when country singers looked bad and sang good?

From nearby came the cries of a man and woman furiously coupling.  With the radio turned low, they could almost hear them breathe.  The rhythm picked up, the bed rattled, and something heavy fell to the floor.

Here come the Oh Gods, Kelly Said, and sure enough, the man called out to the Almighty.

Kelly glanced over and caught him taking in her breasts, which weren’t bad for 32 years of hard living, two kids, no time for aerobics and no money for the day spa.

Cursing freely, the couple in the next trailer were building to a climax.

He’s in for murder, Ray joked.  I hope she makes it out alive.

She turned up the radio.  The DJ announced a contest.  One thousand dollars to the lucky caller who could name the song and the artist in the next 97 seconds.

What would you do with a thousand dollars? she asked.

Blow it on weed, unless you got hold of it first.

You ain’t nothing if not honest, she had to admit.  Instead of lecturing him, Kelly recounted family stories, Junior’s Pee-wee football heroics, Brittany’s sleepover at the Science Museum, her mother’s back surgery.  He hadn’t asked about any of it, but she had learned that he didn’t always know how to ask.

So what do I have to be worried about? she asked.

Well, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t sleep with my brother, he joked.  She slapped him on his bicep.  The muscle felt like bronze.  How hard was he inside? she wondered, how could she find out without asking?

Momma sends her . . . whatever it is mother-in-laws send when they told you so.

It’s a good thing she ain’t into voodoo, he joked.

She’s a good Christian woman, Ray, you know that.  She prays for you.  She watches the kids so I can come see you.  She don’t complain.

I know, I know.  She thinks I’m a devil, is all.

She never said that.  She thinks you follow the devil, but she also thinks you ain’t smart enough to lead.  It’s a compliment, if you think about it.

Sometimes it seemed that their brand of teasing was all that carried them through fourteen years of marriage, two separations, and now his eighteen months in the penitentiary.  They could always laugh.  Back in the early, crazy days before kids, the only time she could talk sense with him was right after he climaxed.  She had about twenty minutes, she figured out after a difficult year of marriage, to make her case before he got up, put on his jeans and wandered out the door.

Sorry ‘bout not bein’ in the mood, he said.  It’s this . . . scene.

She held up a hand, then waved it in a slow downward arc.  It’s ain’t the Marriott, she agreed, twisting his wedding band on his finger, an old intimate gesture.

A loud knock at the door.  Five minutes!

You ain’t trying to take my ring off, are you?

Just makin’ sure it fits.  She kissed him on the cheek, he kissed her back, and in an instant he was on top of her and the deed was done.

That was like high school, she said, chewing on his ear lobe.

Not my high school, he lamented.  Can you come next month?  He sounded desperate, even to himself, and feared the timbre of his voice.

It’s two hundred miles, Ray, she whispered.  It’s gas money.

I know.

I used up all my days off.  I’m supposed to be sick in bed right now.

And I’m supposed to be dead, baby.  Miracles happen.

Not to people like us.

It’s a miracle you’re here right now.

What simple declaration – and the conviction he’d put behind it – touched her, turned her.  She laid her hand across his chest and felt his ribs.  Here lay the old Ray, tender and foolish, and easily broken.

I’ll be back, she said, reaching for her bra.

You know where to find me, he said.

On the drive home, she tuned in some old-time music and of all songs, Patsy Cline singing “Crazy.”  She had to laugh before she started crying.

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Discussion

7 Responses to Conjugation

  1. Beale Davis says:

    Great story! Gritty, real. Touching without being maudlin. This author either spent some time in jail or he can really write!

    • Kate says:

      LOL to the previous post! I think his latter suggestion of “he can really write” is the more appropriate. I’ve read his other material & can honestly say “He can really write!”

  2. I’ve been mulling over why this story is so affecting. Really amazing how much the author has managed to convey in so few words. It’s a terrific piece of writing. The story grabs from the very first sentence. I’d never really thought about how isolating, strained and awkward a conjugal visit might be and here, in this beautifully understated story, the sights, sounds, and smells of loveless confinement are made vividly real. I find myself drawn to Ray, the prisoner who is aching to be loved and to Kelly, the loyal wife who has driven 200 miles to bed down with a stranger. I feel the compression of time, the reality of the clock radio keeping score, the certainty that every word counts. Ordinary details of their marriage are artfully shared and along with it the certainty that this couple will endure. “She laid her hand across his chest and felt his ribs. Here lay the old Ray, tender and foolish, and easily broken.” I know them and I’m rooting for them. Bravo to this writer.

  3. Pat says:

    I was sorry when the story ended….I’d like to read more about this couple. Thanks for the short, touching and intriguing tale.

  4. Carole Spearin McCauley says:

    Yes, excellent story, believable and moving.

  5. john says:

    oh yeah, ’tis a good read but how can i get the full novel “brothers in arms”

  6. This is an excellent piece of flash fiction as far as content. It grabbed me in the first line and held me until the end.

    The descriptions in this piece tell the story more than anything. They were vivid without appearing that the author tried too hard to set the scene. He also used as few words as possible in the exchange between the two characters while still managing to convey the nature of their relationship. This is so important in flash and not so easy to do.

    While it didn’t end in a big surprise or twist, the ending was perfect for the story….love at its best and saddest.

    Sherri

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