Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Excerpt from Girl Who Grew A Galaxy
CHAPTER 1: A Star is Born
A galaxy of odd planets spins around Ruby Bloom’s head, slick and regulated as a game of snooker.
The big purple one is Anxiety. It grew in the slipstream of Guilt, a smooth, loud planet with two moons: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Agoraphobia. The black one is Envy. It’s crusted with ice and solid as tungsten. The pink spotted one, a loud sparkly affair, is Fantasy and it careens wildly about like a ball after the break. There is a shiny amber globe that catches passing light; a small marble named Longing that is the brightest of all the orbs.
When Ruby drinks tea it’s through a straw that runs carefully between a paranoid asteroid belt and the constellation Apathy. Her shirts have wide v-necks so they don’t snag celestial bodies while she’s getting dressed. And any boy she's ever kissed reports mysterious bruises and slight burn marks around their hairline.
The galaxy prevents Ruby from getting real sleep and hinders the wearing of hats so she must settle for thin ribbons and barrettes on special occasions. It is this chaotic yet delicately balanced universe stuck fast around her dark head that alienates Ruby from the rest of the world because for maintenance reasons she must remain isolated.
The universe didn’t start with a big bang of cosmic proportions; instead it grew out of trauma that occurred in the middle of an otherwise quiet childhood. It began the day Ruby Bloom, age seven and a half, killed her grandfather.
Grandfather’s hands were enormous with fingers that could barely bend from their own girth. The day he was to visit, Ruby put on her green gingham dress, the one with the tulips embroidered above the hem. After lunch, a loud station wagon turned at the bottom of her oil-splotched driveway, rattling and shaking like a wringer washer on three legs. It screeched to a stop and Grandpa unfolded himself from the front seat. Beside him the car whinnied and growled into geriatric slumber. He pushed out his barrelled chest and pulled his elbows in towards each other across his wide back, stretching out his stiff limbs. A sand-rough sigh climbed up his ribs and dove off his lips and the ribbon tied around Ruby’s head fluttered in the resulting breeze.
Grandpa’s hair was silver grey streaked with inky black. He wore it pulled back in an old man ponytail that curled at its thin end despite being pin straight up top. To Ruby his teeth seemed as big as playing cards. They were oyster-belly white, even though he woke up in the middle of the night to smoke the same way other people got up for a drink or to pee. Even now there was a cigarette clenched between his lips and a deep furrow in his brow. He pushed up the sleeves of his dress shirt and reached into the back seat.
Grunting, he hauled an awkward metal bundle out the back window, the same window that wouldn’t roll-up and had to be duct-taped closed for the winter. She saw flashes of red and chrome before he tucked it behind his capacious back.
He swivelled on a worn heel to see his granddaughter in her green dress, leaning up against the garage. She pushed herself off the metal door again and again like a metronome in knee socks. The two regarded each other and Grandpa clicked his tongue twice against the larger teeth near the back of his mouth, wiping at the sweat that gathered in his wrinkles from these small movements.
Ruby was hardly half his size. Her chin could have rested on top of his silver rodeo buckle if not for the gut that hung over his waistband like a deflating beach ball. Thick brown hair cut by her shaky-handed mother in their small kitchen swung just below her ears, a little lower on the left side than on the right. She was a quiet child with a penchant for tree climbing, and as a result had band-aids crossed like bones on a pirate flag over each of her pale knees covering the angry red tattoos left by old bark and rocky earth. Ruby’s eyes were brown stitched with dark red flashes. Her bowed lips made her look as though she was blowing kisses even when she frowned, as she did now.
He thought she looked like her grandmere, a tiny porcelain doll version of the vicious-tongued woman whom the very thought of, even two years after her death, made his legs feel as if they might crumple up and blow away, like dry sand castles on a windy day. When imagining his wife laughing like a pot of thick soup bubbling over, or the way she stashed tissue up her sleeves for the children’s runny noses, his heart contracted, muscles overlapped like fingers on praying hands. Looking at Ruby now in her peculiar little dress, he rubbed at a distant ache in his chest.
Ruby loved her grandfather. He was an animated man who cast a giant’s shadow. His hair was slick with pomade and pulled back so tight off his angular face that his forehead shone like the hockey rink after the zamboni’s slow parade. He wore wide red suspenders and shiny black shoes, even on Saturdays. His skin reminded her of the brown paper bags her mother brought the groceries home in. When he picked her up, she'd nestle in the crook of one arm, still ropey with muscle carved from years of shovelling rock, first at the mine and later at the quarry. She liked the way his cheeks wrinkled up when he smiled real big, like an unmade bed still warm with slumber. She loved the way his milky eyes caught the sun like the reflectors on her tricycle. His hair reminded her of a half coloured picture and made her want to run and get her box of broken crayons to fill the grey blanks in black.
Grandpa bent on one knee, a gesture that brought him almost to eye level and earned her trust. Any adult who would risk staining their good ironed pants on the oily asphalt couldn’t be all that scary.
“Veins ici, petite kwe,” he crooned in his half French, half Indian drawl. “I want to see my little chere.”
She walked into his outstretched arms and was encircled by the viscous perfume of sweat and sweetgrass. It reminded her of being carried up to bed in her grandmother’s quilt, only half asleep but pretending to be passed out. She knew that he knew she was only pretending to be asleep, grateful for the small miracle of a strong grandfather who could carry her up the rickety, splintered stairs as if she were still a toddler with sausage limbs and wispy hair.
He swung her up into his arms and with the hitches and haults of advanced age, stood straight. Ruby watched the sweat trickle down the back of his neck and stain his cotton shirt. She noticed the sky above his head was very blue and that the grey clouds had gathered together like old ladies conferring over a pot of stew making a murky halo around her grandfather’s dark head. She thought of the three witches stirring that smoky cauldron at the start of an old story her father had read to her. .
“Why so serious all the time, kwezanz,” he asked with mock concern. “You plannin’ big things in your lil’ noggin, eh?”
She shook her head, never breaking eye contact; her blunt cut bangs swung above her eyebrows, pursed lips blowing kisses at the women in the sky.
“Hmm. I think you’re always thinking, you,” he looked into her eyes like there were words written there, leaning in close until his broad nose touched hers. “Me, I think you’re thinking big things that are gonna take you far from this place.” He pointed with his lips, tilting his head slightly to indicate the street, the arena, and the small broken town around them. “And I think your gonna need a good horse to take you there.”
He turned at an angle, lowering the shoulder closest to Ruby’s face so that she could see what lie between him and his old car. And there it was, the most beautiful bike she had ever seen. It was red and shiny with a big black banana seat and crinkled ribbons poking out of the rubber gripped handlebars like plastic fireworks. The kick-stand was orange with rust and was too long for the frame so that once deployed, it caused the whole structure to tip. The paint job flickered with gold sparkles and the word ‘Stingray’ was written in masculine cursive down the crossbar, the ‘y’ cut short by paint chips so that it read ‘Stringrav’.
Gingerly, her grandpa brought her feet to the asphalt. She didn’t make a sound, her mouth a little round ‘o’ of excitement, her eyes never leaving the bicycle. He grunted, trying to stand again, her weight having strained the oil-poor mechanisms of his stubborn bones. She walked over and picked it up from its side, struggling when the tires slid at crazy angles. Steadied now, the bike resting against her immature hip, she looked up at her grandpa. He blocked out the whole sun so that it barely streamed through the frosty parts of his hair. She didn’t hug him. She didn’t jump up and down. There was no balletic outburst of excitement sometimes mistaken for the pee-pee dance. Instead she thanked him with his own language, a gesture that meant more to him than a thousand kisses.
Then she swung her leg over the seat and, on tippy-toes in her shiny Mary Janes, socks slumped at her ankles like loose skin on a puppy, she started down the driveway.
He stared after her, the back of her dark head bobbing as she hopped from one foot to the other and tried to steer., wobbling down the slow incline of the driveway on her slightly too big bike. He had picked it up that morning from the Dusome boy who ran the gas station across the Bay, the one who owed him money from poker; bad gamblers those Dusomes- good sports, but bad gamblers.
“All worth it,” he whispered, still rubbing vacantly at the pressure in his chest, watching his favourite girl turn onto the cracked sidewalk.
“Now, you don’t go far there. I’mma go get your mother. She inside?”
“Uh huh,” Ruby couldn’t break her concentration. It was hard work trying to steer and inch the bike forward with her toes at the same time. She wasn’t sure where her mother was, but she couldn’t be too hard to find. Ruby’s mother followed an unwritten schedule of domesticity that bound her to the house and the garden on weekends.
She wove down the sidewalk in a drunken manner, moving from one side to the other, rubber tires brushing up against the curb at the edges of the neighbours’ lawns. She gripped the handlebars so tightly her knuckles were mottled white and pink; the spiked pedals digging into her worn soles. Soon enough she gained momentum, straightened out and coasted.
After rounding the first corner the wind shifted and her hair was blown back off her sweaty cheeks and forehead. Ruby was sailing. She cut across paved stones like leagues of the St Lawrence River. She remembered the stories her grandmere used to tell about Voyageurs who blazed across the country the hard way.
“They half breeds too, eh,” she said as she stitched bright patches onto a grandchild’s worn rugby pants. “They crushed their insides carrying ‘eavy boats ‘trough the bush. They ripped the muscle of their arms rowing ‘trough waves and storms. But they were free. Imagine that freedom. No roads. No ‘ouses. Only sore guts and a bag of sayma for de’ pipe tucked into a sash.”
The children crouched close to the pot belly stove to escape the cold breezes seeping in through the old rattley windows and listened to their tiny grandmother.
“Remember your great grandfathers were Voyageurs. You come from a tough bunch, you.” She looked over the little square glasses she wore for sewing and cards. “No wonder you keep putting such big holes in yer pants, eh.”