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Having drifted through thirty-three years of life, Ruby Murphy has put down roots in a rootless place: Coney Island. A recovering alcoholic who is fanatical in her love for animals and her misanthropic friends, Ruby lives above a furniture store and works at the musty Coney Island Museum. One day, Ruby is on the subway heading into Manhattan when the train stalls between stations. An elegant blond woman with a scarred face strikes up a conversation, and a misunderstanding between the two women leads to an offer ...
Having drifted through thirty-three years of life, Ruby Murphy has put down roots in a rootless place: Coney Island. A recovering alcoholic who is fanatical in her love for animals and her misanthropic friends, Ruby lives above a furniture store and works at the musty Coney Island Museum. One day, Ruby is on the subway heading into Manhattan when the train stalls between stations. An elegant blond woman with a scarred face strikes up a conversation, and a misunderstanding between the two women leads to an offer Ruby decides she can’t refuse. The woman needs her boyfriend followed, and she thinks Ruby is the woman to do it—and do it right.
Ruby’s life has been flat and painful lately. The Coney Island Museum isn’t doing much business, Ruby’s live-in boyfriend has moved out, and her best friend Oliver is battling cancer. Ruby agrees to follow the woman’s boyfriend, Frank, a man who works at Belmont Racetrack and seems to hang out in odd places with bad company. Ruby soon finds herself pushed headfirst into horse racing’s seamy underbelly. This is a dangerous world where nothing is as it appears, and people and horses seem to have limited life spans. When Ruby finds herself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, she begins to have second thoughts.
Only now it’s far too late.
Ruby hasn't a clue how to conduct an investigation. But she's such an enthusiast for life's little oddities that the whole world looks new in her eyes, and everything that comes out of her mouth sounds fresh. To her urban poet's sensibility, there's a deathly beauty to Coney Island, whose shuttered rides ''look like dark metal birds, their wings taped to their sides.'' Although she shares the narrative with several of her bizarre friends and neighbors, Ruby is such a ravishing original that it's love at first sight. — Marilyn Stasio
1 / A Scarred Blonde
I'm eyeing a willowy blond woman's red wallet when the F train stops abruptly, causing two large Russian ladies sitting across from me to lose control of their grocery bags. As the Russian women make loud guttural exclamations, frozen pierogies spill out of one of the bags and all over the mottled floor. The larger of the ladies grunts, laboriously bends forward, picks up the stray dough pouches, then passes these over to her compatriot. The smaller woman produces a hankie from the folds of her formless dress, carefully wipes the pierogies off, then puts them back inside the bag.
Meanwhile, the willowy blonde has gotten a better handle on her wallet. She's closed the top of the tote bag it was peering out of. Not that I would have filched it anyway. I'm not that kind of girl. Anymore.
"We are being detained due to an incident at Smith-Ninth Street," the conductor announces ominously. "We hope to be moving shortly. We apologize for the inconvenience."
A nice enough sentiment, only it's piping through the subway car's speakers so gratingly distorted it sounds like a chicken being slaughtered. A sound I recognize because my neighbor, Ramirez, who, I believe, is a Santeria practitioner, does strange things to chickens. Not that I've witnessed this. But unfortunately, I've heard it. And the death cry of poultry sounds a great deal like this F train's speaker.
I cup my hands over my ears. I look back over at the Russian women to see how they and their pierogies are faring. The ladies look profoundly pissed off. Which is evidently a requirement. To be a Russian living in Brighton Beach, you've got to cultivate a kind of permanent sour puss, like your borscht is revisiting you after three hours of digestion. According to my friend Shapiro, all the Russians in Brighton are in the mob. These ladies look upstanding enough, but for all I know, they're cold-blooded panty-hose-clad killers.
There are few other passengers on the train. Coney Island, where I live, is either the end or the beginning of the line, depending on the direction you're traveling. For two stops after I got on, there were just four of us—a young Dominican girl, her kid, and an old black guy with a bucket full of crabs he probably caught off the pier at Tenth Street. All heading away from Coney Island and its environs.
At Neptune Avenue the Russian ladies got on. The blonde with the red wallet joined us at Avenue U. She floated in, sat down, and immediately focused her attention out the window like she was being paid to study Brooklyn's bawdy exterior and report its particulars to some newly founded Commission for the Preservation of Mundane Details. She looked out of place here in the hinterlands of Brooklyn. She had a graceful long neck topped by a small head, making her resemble a vase with a tiny flower bud popping out of its top. Her lone blemish was a sizable scar beginning at the right corner of her mouth and running along her jawline toward her ear. Her blunt haircut appeared designed to cover the scar, but each time she moved, the hair moved also, revealing the face's secret. In spite of this, the woman radiated a sort of poised and subtly sexy thing that I resent. I am neither poised nor subtle.
I look out at the endless tombstones of Washington Cemetery, standing up like teeth packed tightly in a tiny mouth. The scarred blonde also seems fascinated by the cemetery. Her intense focus is making her right cheek twitch a bit, like there's a glitch in her nearly flawless programming. Eventually, she glances around the subway car. Since I'm probably the only person on the train who doesn't look like a threat to her, she rests her eyes on me and smiles faintly. As if indicating that, in case of emergency, she and I will pair off. I return the faint smile even though, in a pinch, I'd probably team up with the Russian ladies, the crab guy, or even the Dominican girl and her addled tot before I'd want this woman watching my back.
"Running late?" the blond woman asks.
Although she's got her head turned toward me, she's not really looking at me, and at first I think she's talking to herself.
"Me?" I say after a beat.
She nods, arching one of her delicately plucked tan eyebrows.
I shrug. "Yeah, I guess."
"I'm quite late myself but I don't care," she volunteers, looking at me, her eyes like big blue saucers.
I grunt noncommittally and stare out the window.
After a second, I check my watch and start stewing over the fact that I'm going to be late for my piano lesson. Though I'm sure Ramirez—my only neighbor apart from the furniture store on the ground floor—would be grateful if the Juilliard School of Music blew up, taking with it my piano teacher and me, and any possibility of my ever practicing again.
I'm a horrible pianist, but I don't care. Two years ago, when I moved back to Brooklyn after living in Houston, Texas, I decided, at age thirty-one, to take up classical piano. There was no reason for this. I don't come from any sort of piano-oriented background. My mother is a Brooklyn-born former CPA turned dog breeder now living in Scranton, Pennsylvania. My father was a furniture mover until he was struck by lightning and died ten years ago. I grew up in Sunset Park until my folks got divorced when I was eleven. My sister stayed with our mother in Brooklyn. I went to live with my father. He and I roamed the country. He couldn't find a town to be happy in, and we moved nine times in the six years I lived with him. At eighteen I went off on my own to Tampa, Florida, where I met and moved in with an Englishman named Tony who was fifteen years my senior. Tony and I stayed together through four stormy years and five increasingly horrible apartments, the last of which was in a deranged little neighborhood out at the very end of Queens, New York. The house was built on stilts perched over a bay that, in a drunken spat, I shoved Tony into. He'd never learned to swim. I nearly let him drown before finally jumping in and saving him. We called it quits after that.
I moved to Colorado and got a job as a home health care aide taking care of old people. I took up Buddhism. And I drank. By the time I was twenty-seven, I was a seriously accident-prone drunk with a limp so bad I got fired from my low end go-go dancing job. I started hitting detoxes and rehabs. The last one, in Houston, took. I have no idea how I got to Houston. But I woke up there in a detox one day. Among my fellow patients was a pianist named Tom. He'd been a child prodigy and had gotten into pills to calm himself before piano competitions. He was not yet twenty-two by the time he landed in rehab, but was firmly addicted to Valium, Nembutal, and a few other choice pharmaceuticals. He spent much of his confinement there at the rehab playing the crummy Kawai upright in the day room. He was not a very communicative man but didn't seem to mind when I hunkered down in the corner and listened to his exquisite Bach. Where most people would have been happy to simply fall in love with Bach, I had to learn to play Bach. After spending two years in Houston, sharing a tiny studio with my friend Stacy—a beautiful, extremely pierced gay boy I'd also met in rehab—I finally saved some money, moved back to Brooklyn, got a job, bought a 1914 Steinway upright, and started taking piano lessons.
The minutes are ticking by and the train is still motionless. I get tired of staring out the window and I look around. The scarred blonde catches my eye. She smiles, then moves closer to the two seater I'm occupying.
"Do you think we'll ever get out of here?" she asks, using one of her long arms to motion at our surroundings.
"Sure. Eventually." I shrug.
"I shouldn't be in a hurry," she says, "I shouldn't ever hurry again."
"Yeah. Hurrying is overrated," I agree.
She laughs. A tinkly sound like a fingernail flicking at a champagne glass. "I'm late for an appointment. I never should have come out here this morning. But I couldn't help myself," she says.
"I had to visit my father," she says sternly, frowning a little, making her scar frown too.
"That's nice," I say.
"Not really." The woman frowns harder. "He was a demanding and unkind man. Thankfully, he's dead. I went to visit his grave." She motions out the window, toward the expanse of Washington Cemetery, then turns back to scrutinizing me. "What is it you do for a living?" she asks in a peculiar non sequitur.
I don't like the question. And I take a moment to mull over a good answer. I drop my voice to a whisper and lean closer to her. "Don't look now, but you know those Russian ladies in the three seater across from us?"
The blond woman nods.
"I'm a private investigator. I've been hired to see what they're up to. And let me tell you," I say, "it isn't what you'd expect."
In truth, the only job I have these days is sitting behind the counter at the Coney Island Museum, a sorry but quaint little place nestled atop the building that houses the sideshow. Not many people pass through Coney in the off-season. The only things going year-round are the carousel—with its cantankerous boil-addled keeper—and one rusty bunch of bumper cars. Few souls venture upstairs to the museum to gawk at the lonesome baubles we have in there. Once in a while some eccentric comes in desperately needing a copy of Sodom by the Sea or Good Ol' Coney Island, the out-of-print books chock-full of old Coney history. Occasionally, a pack of kids will come stake the place out. But there's nothing of value in the museum to anyone who's not a Coney Island freak. The thugs inevitably lose interest and usually end up back out on Surf Avenue. Sometimes they badger the bumper car lady who sits in her glass booth, year-round, as the endless loop of the taped barker intones, "Bump bump bump your ass off."
My little lie has caused the blonde's blue eyes to grow to the size of dinner plates. She steals a quick glance at the Russian women then looks back at me. I see another question forming in her mind, but just then the train lurches forward.
"About motherfuckin' time," the Dominican girl says to no one in particular.
The Russian women both grunt and rustle their shopping bags. Crab Man picks up his crab bucket and puts it on the seat next to him. The train pulls into the next stop.
Three Chinese ladies get on.
The train passes the Smith-Ninth Street stop uneventfully. There's no trace of whatever incident kept us moored in the wilds of Brooklyn for so long.
I've got ten minutes before I'm supposed to meet my teacher, Mark Baxter—an eccentric and highly temperamental Juilliard student— in that fine institution's lobby. I hate being late. I hate giving anyone or anything a reason to be irritated with me. Even as a raging drunk I was punctual.
It's nearly rush hour now and each stop brings a fresh wave of irate citizens. By the time we get to West Fourth in Manhattan, the car is crammed and I have to struggle to make my way out onto the platform, shoving through a pack of maniacal kids being haphazardly herded by a tiny Spanish woman.
I rush up the stairs to change to the A train but an extremely wide man is laboring in front of me, climbing one millimeter at a time, grunting with each step. I try darting around him but can't. I'm barely containing my raging impatience when I feel someone tapping my back. I wheel around, ready to punch them out.
"I'm sorry," the scarred blonde says, "I need to have another word with you." She says it in an intimate tone, as if we've been having a long-term relationship and we need to work through some problems.
"I'm late," I say.
"I'll pay for your time," she says.
"I'm late for an important meeting," I say.
"Then let me accompany you," the blond woman says, her delicate, scarred face hopeful, her voice reasonable.
I envision her hunkered down in the corner of Mark Baxter's practice room at Juilliard, listening as I botch Bach and slaughter Bartok.
"I don't think that would work," I tell her. "What is it you need?" I plaster myself to the side of the staircase so as not to get jostled by the masses.
"I'd like to hire you," the blonde says, completely oblivious to the frustrated people trying to push past her.
"You're a private investigator, right?"
"Uh...well...uh, yeah, I'm not licensed or anything. People just kind of give me little odds-and-ends-type jobs," I say, appalled that she's calling me on my crafty little lie. "But listen, I really have to go," I add, as I move out of the way of a pack of angry businessmen.
"I'd like to hire you," she repeats, firmly and loudly, putting a hand on my forearm and causing two teenage girls to stop and look from the blonde to me and back.
"Uh..." I stutter. "Why don't you call me and we'll talk about it," I say, deciding I'll be passive aggressive about the whole thing and just give her a fake phone number.
As I forage for pencil and paper in my bag, she adds: "I feel certain you would be the perfect person for this job."
The abject ridiculousness of the situation starts appealing to me. I sigh and write down my actual phone number and hand it to her.
"Call me, but I really have to go now." I turn away, but now my curiosity is peaked.
"What is it you want me to do anyway?" I ask, flipping back around.
The woman's face tightens. Her scar throbs.
It's a man, of course.