Literary Orphans

Palisades
by Caitlin Corrigan

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The rain lashed the tinted windows and Ruthie listened for the rumbles of distant thunder above the happy hour sounds. She watched Jim weave through the crowd and something about the careful, stepping way he made his shoulders narrow, then wide again, reminded Ruthie of her oversized blue umbrella rolling back and forth across the backseat of Bobby Alonzo’s Omni. She hadn’t needed it since; that was the last rainy night they’d had in weeks. The night of the hit-and-run. The night Bobby sunk his car in the Hudson.

Jim set the beers on the pockmarked table and sat himself down with the same even-handed care. He wasn’t a bad looking kid. Two years out of college and working a bank job across the Hudson with a place of his own here in Union City. Flushed cheeks and a little alligator sewn on the breast of his pale yellow polo shirt. A lightweight and a Reagan guy, but nice looking and clean and Ruthie liked the way he ordered the same beer she did, Miller Lite, the way he deferred to her when they leaned against the jukebox and he filled her palm with quarters, still warm from his pocket.

Ruthie patted her hair and shook her shoulders to the Donna Summer song she’d picked out. Toot toot, Donna sang, beep beep. Ruthie hooked her thumbs beneath the edge of her tube top and pulled the nubby fabric back and forth. She lit a cigarette and tipped her chin towards the ceiling, let Jim put his eyes on her long, freckled throat. More than anything, what she liked about Jim was the way shefelt when he looked at her: dirty, worldly, and glamorous.

Jim reached for his glass and held it in the air.

Ruthie picked hers up and they clinked. She took a small sip of her beer and watched Jim watch her. “Some rain.”

Jim nodded. “It’s been a long time coming. There’s been a low pressure system building to the south for a few days now.”

Ruthie raised an eyebrow. “That so?”

Jim’s cheeks flushed a darker shade of pink. “My uncle is a meteorologist.”

“Yeah, Jenny’s dad.”

“Of course. Cousin Jenny!”

“He showed me his weather station whatever at Jenny’s graduation party last summer.”

“Wild! I was supposed to go that!” Jim sipped his beer and raised his eyebrows, a gesture Ruthie took to indicate wonder at the way life had brought them together for a rainy blind date instead of a summery celebration catered by Channel 4 meteorologist, Chuck Fleming.

Ruthie smoked and looked around the bar, feeling less excited by Jim now that he’d mentioned their common connection. She would be 19 next month, and she felt that every other person she would meet for the rest of her life would be somehow connected to some other person she’d already met. At the bar, a pair of sisters who’d grown up down the street were talking to two guys in dated bell-bottom jeans. A corner table held a group of girls who’d finished high school a year ahead of Ruthie and Jenny. For all she knew, Bobby Alonzo was here somewhere too, monologuing loud and drunk about how his Omni was stolen from the parking lot of the Food Mart, a lie Bobby had told his insurance company, his family. The police. A lie he would have told Ruthie, too.

“I forgot my umbrella,” Ruthie said.

Jim’s mouth opened like a fish. “Are you ready to go?”

“No,” she said. “I just realized.”

“If the storm doesn’t pass by the time we’re ready, I’ll pull the car up to the door.” Jim smiled, looking pleased with himself.

Ruthie leaned in and stubbed out her cigarette. “Come here,” she said.

She thought of the way Bobby had looked at her after they had hit that girl. They fishtailed away from the blind curve, climbed higher into the steep cliffs of the Palisades. Ruthie saw it, the way Bobby’s face had changed in an instant from horrified to smug. He’d rolled his shoulders and relaxed behind the wheel. Here’s what we’re going to do, Bobby said, and Ruthie listened.

Jim ran a bar napkin against the edge of the table, then scooted in his chair and set his elbows down. This close, his teeth shone straight and white. The corners of his lips were moist with flecks of spittle.

Ruthie crossed her arms beneath her breasts and pressed her body to the edge of the table. She rolled her neck slowly, then looked straight at Jim. “Tell me a secret.”

Jim laughed and started to rock back in his chair.

Ruthie reached for him under the table, her fingers settling above his knees. “Something you’ve never told anyone,” she said. “Good or bad.” She squeezed and inched her fingers higher.

Jim’s face clouded, and Ruthie saw it there, his secret. He recovered, painting on his eager smile and jiggling his thighs beneath Ruthie’s touch. She had asked him only to buy herself time, to see if she could work herself up to telling her own secret, but now she saw that she might not want to know what he had to say.

Tell me a secret.” Jim rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding around. I’m so gullible. Jenny used to make me believe the craziest things when were kids.”

Ruthie laughed. “Totally kidding.” They sat back in their chairs. Ruthie patted her hair again, fluffing out the wings on either side.

“It looks nice,” Jim said after a pause. “Your hair. It looks nice like that.”

“Thanks,” Ruthie said.

The girl on the curve had long hair too, a yellow mass of it that Ruthie saw first while Bobby skidded around that sharp turn in the rain. The hatchback jolted in three successive bumps. Ruthie saw it now as scenes in a movie that would play for the rest of her life. Dark curve. Blonde hair. Bump bump bump. Then Bobby’s voice, the only sound, blocking out even the pounding of the rain: Here’s what we’re going to do.

“You know, it’s almost better this way,” Jim said.

“What way?” Ruthie stroked her hair, letting Jim’s compliments pull her away from the image of the girl’s hair splayed out in the road. She saw it in the side view mirror that night, and now she saw it all the time. Mermaid hair.

“This way,” Jim said, gesturing with his beer. “We can actually get to know each other instead of standing around making small talk and eating cocktail wienies.” Jim’s cheeks reddened and he took a big sip.

There was no point in bringing up the strange look Ruthie had seen just moments before; Jim would deny it and Ruthie had decided she didn’t want to know. She realized this was her skill, whether she liked it or not. To see and not see, to let something be blond hair or simply a trick of the light. She had read about the girl in the paper. She hadn’t talked to Bobby since. The girl was 16. The paper said she was coming home from a babysitting job, that she’d probably left her bike because the roads were too slippery. Her parents wanted to sue the family. Why didn’t they offer her a ride? Ruthie read the stories for seven days straight, then stopped. No witnesses. Nothing about the Omni.

A crack of thunder sounded and the lights in the bar went out. Donna went silent. The bar pulsed with nervous laughter.

Ruthie laughed, too. She leaned forward and let Jim’s hands run up the sides of her arms. In the dark, she let herself look one more time at Bobby’s hatchback in her mind, the way it inched slowly into the water, the door open and Bobby hunched over in the rain, pushing and grunting on the back bumper. Afterwards, he was breathing hard and his eyes were wet, but she couldn’t tell if it was from the rain or not. She told him not to worry about it. She told him she didn’t even see any blood or anything. She told him she felt like walking home because it wasn’t even raining that hard. She was 18 years old and the world was impossible enough without being a nag on top of everything else.

The lights came on and Donna cooed hey mister, do you want to spend some time?

Ruthie reached for another cigarette and smiled at Jim. “Oh yeah,” Ruthie sang. “Yeah.”

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Caitlin Corrigan is a writer, teacher, and performer who recently completed the MFA program at Rutgers – Newark. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, NANO Fiction, Tin House’s “Flash Fridays” feature, and elsewhere. She can be reached at www.caitlincorrigan.com or on Twitter at @corrigancait.

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–Art by Marina Ćorić