Order

Michele Ruby Click to read more...

rubyphoMichele Ruby lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she teaches fiction writing at Bellarmine University. Her stories have appeared in The Adirondack Review (Fulton Prize finalist), Inkwell, The Louisville Review, Lilith, Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Phoebe, Denver Quarterly, New Delta Review, Harpur Palate, Dos Passos Review and other journals. A collection of stories was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award. She has an MFA in fiction from Spalding University, and is currently wrestling with a novel.

She rushes to the diner after class, changes in the car. Her first table is a man alone in the back booth. His dark hair is parted precisely. Crisp white shirt. Polished shoes. Movie star eyes. He orders a salad, dressing on the side, a sirloin medium well, mashed potatoes. Don’t let them touch on the plate. Oh, I won’t.

He comes in every Tuesday, then every Tuesday and Wednesday. Sits in the back booth. After a month, he is coming in every night. She knows what time he will come in, what he will order. The same, Frank? The same. Finally, he asks her what she does when she isn’t waitressing. I’m a student. Of what? Of hospitality. Well, I give you an A.

She is already making A’s in her restaurant management program. Mondays, he picks her up after class. They go to a movie, sit on the aisle. He buys her popcorn, which she eats, but he doesn’t.

They marry on Frank’s birthday, as if their marriage is his birthday present. He picks out her dress, which is a simple sheath in a blinding white. She looks like a bride but feels like a nurse. Her family argues politics, gets drunk, hangs spoons from their noses. His parents drink club soda and leave early. No one throws rice.

He alphabetizes the pantry. She leaves her sweater on the back of the chair, her keys on the counter, her books open on the couch.

He grew up in the military. Maybe that explains some things. He tells her to put her books away. She salutes.

Every night, salad, dressing on the side. Sirloin, medium well. Mashed potatoes. Early on, some potatoes fall on the steak as she is spooning them onto his plate. He won’t eat the steak; she gives him hers. Puts it on a new plate. One night, she stays at school to see about an internship at Bistro Bistro. On her way home, she passes Chopstix and has a sudden craving for Chinese food. On an impulse, she picks up General’s Chicken. Frank stalks out, goes to the diner where they met, orders salad, dressing on the side. Sirloin, medium well. Mashed potatoes. Nothing touching.

She wants children. He doesn’t. Too noisy. Too disorderly. Her nephews make a mess when they visit. They play bean bag toss with a bag of rice. It breaks when it hits the lamp. Grains of rice take up residence in the computer keyboard. Children. Besides, I have you. You’re child enough. You want to run a restaurant, don’t you? You can’t raise children and do that too.

She suggests that he see someone. Why? he asks. There’s nothing wrong with being neat. Order is a good thing. Why don’t you see someone about your sloppiness? He lines up four ballpoint pens to the right of his blotter, four yellow pencils to the left. They look like soldiers.

Frank orders things online. He buys two of each item. She likes to touch before she buys, especially books. At the bookstore, she buys a book about obsessive-compulsive disorder. The book says Frank is an arranger, someone who gets anxious if things are not even, symmetrical, perfectly lined up. The compulsion to line things up isn’t considered a problem until it occupies so much time that it interferes with the sufferer’s daily life. But she is the one suffering. Frank’s compulsion is interfering with her life. Isolation is one consequence of the behavior. If she leaves Frank, he will be the Lone Arranger.

It’s a misnomer, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s not disorder. The whole point of it is to order the world. Obsessive-compulsive hyper-order. OCHO. Eight, in Spanish. An even number. But life is messy, even the good parts – sex, ice cream, wind in her hair.

It’s so little to ask, Frank says. Pick up after yourself. Put things where they belong.

She gets up in the middle of the night and moves things. Now there are three photos on the left of the mantel and only one on the right. She is already breathing more easily. She puts two different candles in the candlesticks. She moves the empty bowl to one end of the coffeetable. Each thing she moves is a weight off. Before she goes up to bed, she moves everything back.

Opposites attract. She and Frank. Why doesn’t he see a kind of symmetry in that?

The book urges family members to state what they want, rather than criticizing past behaviors. She wants loud, messy sex in a nest of sheets, on a bed that no quarter could possibly bounce from, in a room without twin alarm clocks, twin chairs, twin lamps.

The book suggests a support group. She imagines Frank entering the room, where the chairs are in a rough circle. He lines them up. No one is facing anyone else. If there is an odd number of chairs, he removes the offending last chair. Too bad for the seventh or the ninth sufferer, now outcast. Someone who wasn’t a fellow arranger might scoot his chair back. Or forward. Or sideways. Frank wouldn’t last seven minutes. Or nine.

She puts the book in the bookcase, out of alphabetical order. It’s a paperback, but she shelves it with the hardcovers. It is too deep; its spine doesn’t line up with the others. Good.

She is now the assistant manager at Bistro Bistro. One of the waitstaff calls in sick at the last minute, so she steps in. She takes a man’s order. Rhubarb pie. Corn on the cob. A side salad smothered in bleu cheese. Serve them in that order, the pie first, then the corn, then the salad. Are you a vegetarian? No. Just in the mood. Next time he comes in, he asks for her, orders roast chicken and iced tea. Stir it with your finger. She does. That’ll sweeten it, he says. Dominic.

Frank is never pleased. Nothing is ever neat enough. Or neat long enough. Now she takes a horrid pleasure in skewing his knife and spoon, placing his fork just beyond the edge of the napkin, letting the salt shaker go solo on the table. Not all the time. Just when she’s feeling vengeful. Or guilty.

Order is military, but command is sexy. Her husband orders her. Her lover commands her. Dominic.

Her husband orders her to clean out the cabinet where the stacked pots tumble out every time the door is opened, a clanging announcement of her poor housekeeping skills.

Her lover commands her: Meet me in the library. Third floor stacks. At 463.23. The yellow dress. Shoes. Nothing else. She is commanded.

She stacks the pots in the cabinet, larger ones on the bottom, smaller ones nestled in the larger ones. Their matching lids stand vertically against the side wall of the cabinet like sentinels. As soon as she extracts the bottom pot and its large lid from the cabinet, the order will begin to dissolve. Soon, they will tumble out again, and Frank will order her to straighten them, as if that will straighten everything out. The task is too large for her.

She imagines the courtroom, the judge, the divorce attorneys. Frank will have all the necessary documents, in order, in neat stacks, corners meeting perfectly. She will have mislaid some crucial paper. Not on purpose. Not to annoy him, although she knows that’s what he’ll think. I’m not the problem, she’ll shout. We used to love each other, she’ll think. She’ll be sobbing by then, sobbing and shouting. She will reach over and sweep Frank’s papers off the table, scattering them like confetti, like rice, like a celebration of their failures, and the judge will declare her out of order.

Discussion

3 Responses to Order

  1. Cara Scott says:

    This story is all about order. I love that it is even written in an orderly fashion. It sounds like Frank is speaking. There are no superfluous words or descriptions, only what is necessary. Just how Frank likes it. This is especially evident in sentences such as those in the first paragraph: “Crisp white shirt. Polished shoes. Movie star eyes.” I think it gives the story more power.

    Frank and his wife (I don’t think she is ever named) play their opposite parts perfectly. I like how you can tell when his wife starts to get annoyed with his ways, and the story takes on a more desperate, almost sarcastic tone after that — “The Lone Arranger” made me laugh.

    I am impressed that you managed to fit such a complex and l0ng-lasting story into so few words. That really speaks to the strength of the words and phrases you did use, and how effective they are. I’ve never seen so short a story that narrates an entire marriage, and this one did such a good job at it.

  2. Griffin Cook says:

    “But life is messy, even the good parts—sex, ice cream, wind in her hair.” A great line, and very true. Having known and lived with someone who has obsessive-compulsive disorder for years, I understand the struggles of living with someone who demands neatness when once in a while a little bit of chaos seems like fun. Demanding order and neatness in a world of disarray is a fool’s errand.

    The concluding line is especially powerful. We see that despite Frank’s constant struggles with himself and the nature of the world, his wife was the one with the true moral indiscretions, and that perhaps she is really the one with the problem, or out of place in his life.

  3. Mary Norris says:

    What a brilliantly told story! It captivated me until the end, and I relished the language, style, and voice. Kudos!

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