In Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin Mary Clearman Blew deftly braids together memories of the past with the present, when the Rivermen have imploded and a severely bruised and disillusioned Ruby returns to her hometown to find everything she ran away from waiting for her. In lyrical yet muscular prose, Blew explores women dealing with the isolation of small towns, the enduring damage done when a community turns against itself, the lasting effects of abuse on the vulnerable, and our capacity to confront the past and heal. Throughout, Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin is underscored by the music that forms inextricable bonds between Blew’s fascinating characters.
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The hiss of the Greyhound's air compression brakes wakes me from what might have been sleep. The pain in my abdomen is much worse. Lights flash past the bus windows, hitting my eyes like blows after miles of rolling through darkness. It must be past midnight; we must be arriving somewhere, I don't know where, but maybe it's Versailles, in northern Montana, because I remember buying a bus ticket to Versailles. I think I remember. My mind hasn't been right for days.
Versailles. Pronounced Ver-sails. Brazos used to say "Ver-sigh." Brazos, damn him. Thinking about Brazos is making something real for me that I don't want to be real.
The lights stop moving as the bus pulls up in front of the Greyhound station. People behind me and ahead of me get to their feet, stretching and looking around for belongings. I want to hunch over in my seat and close my eyes, but that's not possible. The bus driver has jacked open the hydraulic door at the front of the bus, and I must drag my backpack from under my seat and get off like everyone else.
After the air conditioning in the bus, the night air feels warm and smells of diesel fumes and lilacs. It's lilac season in Versailles for sure. Nowhere, at least where I've been, do lilacs bloom so late into the spring, and their perfume is like a promise that won't be kept. Same old sidewalks, same old worn-out brick storefronts, and same old bar signs still flashing their neon cocktails and cowboys, so it must not be past closing time.
How many years have I been gone? Ten? I'm not sure of anything, and apparently my body has led me back here after my mind went blank, but surely the girl I used to be stole the last of Gall's cash and bought an airline ticket out of Anchorage, Alaska, to Spokane, and then another ticket, on the Greyhound, for the slow ride and many stops with people getting off and other people getting on, people with somewhere to go, down through eastern Washington and across Idaho to the high prairie of Versailles, Montana.
I can't just stand here pretending I don't feel the pain in my side while other people's luggage is dragged out of the belly of the Greyhound and stacked on the sidewalk. A man in a Seattle Seahawks sweatshirt finds his suitcase and gives me a look as he walks past, seeing a woman by herself at this hour and not a pretty woman but a scary-looking woman with long tangled hair and dirty clothes.
I shoulder my backpack and limp down the street. Hardly any traffic at this hour. Hardly any air current, not even a muddy whiff of the Milk River. Businesses closed and locked behind iron security bars I don't remember. Trees in their iron cages hanging their leaves over the sidewalks, drained of color and etched into a single dimension by the overhead lights. A recessed door opens in a concrete facade, and somebody stumbles out and leans on a parking meter, regaining his balance. A burst of guitars floods across the sidewalk before the door closes, canned country music, lyrics I know — break all the windows, sweep the glass away — and I realize I'm walking past the Alibi Bar and Grill, right here where it always was, and I'm seeing the last face I saw before I left Versailles ten years ago, Isaiah's face.
Isaiah stands in front of the door to the Alibi. He's still nineteen years old. He holds out his hand — Ruby, come with me.
Who the hell are you? She's coming with us, says Gall, and with his words, Isaiah disappears.
The drunk leaning on the parking meter is gone, too.
Weather in Versailles, on the Montana highline, is more extreme than anywhere else in America. One July the thermometers hit 117 degrees above zero and the following January dropped to minus 56. The hot summers and freezing winters buckle the highways and erode the prairies that stretch around the town in every direction and encourage people to stay put and let their faces erode along with the prairies. Why do I know this? Because the girl I used to be knew it. The girl I used to be left Versailles one night in the back of an old Volkswagen van with a couple of rich kids from Boise, Idaho — Gall Margarus and Brazos Keane — who had recruited themselves a drummer and started their own band, and that girl never came back.
Now I'm back, with my guilt and my riddled memories, and I think about opening that door into the Alibi and climbing on a bar stool, filthy as I am, and hoping somebody will buy me a drink. But my feet are making my decisions tonight, and my feet keep walking to the end of Main Street and then up the grade toward the plateau, past the closed and shuttered auto dealerships with their pennants hanging limp over the rows of used cars, past the darkened strip malls, past the corner where somebody tried to start a Thai restaurant that now has gone to weeds. All the traffic lights are on automatic blink.
At the top of the grade my feet give up, and my knees buckle under me. I try to tell myself I've stopped to look back, but really I'm doubling over to get my breath, alternately shivering and sweating with my backpack slipping off my shoulders, and now I'm curled up on the pavement with my arms around the backpack, which seems to help.
Here on the crest of the plateau I feel the air current, the warning of rising wind. Night clouds race through a glitter of stars. Below me a stream of lights maps the main grids and thoroughfares of Versailles, the bridge over the Milk River, and the highway that runs north to Medicine Hat, Canada. Behind me, farther along the plateau, the lights of the airport. To the east lies the faraway glow that is the tiny town of Broadview; to the west are the security lights around the shopping mall and the security lights around the baseball field at the college. At this hour the town's ugliness hides behind the glow of lights through the darkness.
No. The pain hasn't gone away. I'm crouching in the weeds with my arms around my backpack and my throbbing abdomen, and I'm retching, not that I've eaten for hours, but my mouth is full of black bile, and I'm floating on the screaming spasms.
But the sky to the east is lightening, its stars fading. I've lost track of time, but the early dawn of late spring must be near. And Isaiah is back. Isaiah is smiling, glad to see me, and he takes my pale hand in his dark hand and helps me to my feet. Isaiah is nineteen years old, and I am sixteen again, and Isaiah leads me into a residential area called the Orchards because somebody once tried to plant cherry orchards here. Streetlights in the Orchards are far apart, and cottonwood trees reach across the rambling graveled streets to touch each other's new leaves, and darkened houses sit behind their flower beds and lawns with hardly a porch light burning, nobody stirring to wonder who is passing.
By now the sky has lightened to gray, the stars are gone, and so is Isaiah, but I have stopped at a familiar gate in a white picket fence. Behind the gate a graveled walk leads to a shadowed porch. Somewhere from the back of the house a light shines, and the faint sound of a piano ripples into the dawn. Someone is playing a Debussy étude, a piece I once played on that very piano, and my fingers start to move, as though the pickets of the gate are piano keys.
The thread of the étude draws me through the gate and around the house. I'm shivering now, my teeth chattering, but while I can hear the piano, I can crawl as far as the giant blue spruce in the backyard.
The blue spruce is even taller than I remember. Its boughs sweep the lawn and rise toward the last stars. I drop to my knees and crawl through the protecting boughs into the warm hidden space of needles and the scent of resin, and I feel as safe as I did when I hid under here as a child.
I push my backpack against the trunk of the spruce for a pillow, and I draw up my knees and shrug my arms for comfort inside Gall's old T-shirt. My mind is ragged, but from the ticket counter at Anchorage International through the dingy old Spokane airport and the dingier Greyhound bus station, the endless ride in the dark, and then the long walk up the grade to the Orchards, a memory in the muscles and bones of my body has brought me to the blue spruce, where I listen to the pianist repeating the Debussy étude and wait for Isaiah to find me in the dark.
I waken to the pain, which has its own spinning motion and its own high and relentless sound. Also relentless is something warm and wet on my neck, and I squint against brutal shafts of sunlight through the spruce needles to see a bundle of white fur squirming with happiness at finding me. He pauses in his licking to fix me with black button eyes while his stump of a tail wags in rapid-fire staccato. He is Jonathan, so named because he is an American dog, still alive and still remembering me after all these years.
"Jonathan?" calls a woman's voice. Then the lower boughs move, and a deeply lined face materializes in a frame of spruce needles as though from another age. Hazel hawk's eyes, an arched hawk's nose, and a cloud of hair I remember as iron gray but now is pure white.
I can't answer. I would scream if I tried.
Strong cool fingers on my forehead. "Ruth? You're on fire."CHAPTER 2
The room in the Budget Motel in Anchorage is wallpapered with a repeating pattern of antlered elk emerging from low firs under a cloudless blue sky. It's important to know how many elk in the room, exactly, and I keep counting and losing track of my count. Somebody keeps interrupting me, calling my name, and I turn away to keep counting, but the voice is relentless, and sooner or later I must open my eyes on a window whose white blinds deflect none of the hard light striking the chipped metal table with its closed drawers or the blank screen of a television hanging from a ceiling mount. I don't want to see any of those things, so I close my eyes and will myself back into the room with the elk.
The voice will not go away. The pillow under my head is thin; the texture of the sheet is coarse. I force my eyes open to sick green walls, the foot of a bed, and a flimsy white blanket that covers me to the chin. A needle is taped to a vein in my arm, and a tube leads from the needle to a pouch of liquid hanging from a rack.
Why do you have two names? Bill the Drummer once asked me. Which would you rather be called?
Doesn't matter. Ruth or Ruby, whichever, I told him.
At last I turn toward the voice. The pianist sits in one of the cracked vinyl armchairs with her back, straight as ever, to the window. Her face is shadowed, but light falling from the window casts a white nimbus over her hair.
"Are you thirsty, Ruth?"
I nod, and she pours water from a carafe into a paper cup.
When I try to sit up to drink, I feel a sting in my abdomen, and I realize the high-wire screaming pain is gone, leaving only the stinging sensation and some tenderness. I've lived with the pain for so long that its loss is an absence of the familiar — Gall, whatever they've done with you, wherever you are, will you be the pain I feel now? But I sit up on the pillows and sip water and set down the cup and run exploring fingers down under my hospital gown and feel a tiny dressing, like a Band-Aid.
The pianist waits with her hands folded in her lap. My head is clearing, and I remember her name now. She's Mrs. Pence, she's my old piano teacher, and she can sit still longer without speaking a word than anyone I've ever known, which always used to surprise me, considering what happened when she opened the piano and began to play.
I manage a question — "Are you still teaching the Debussy étude?"
"Sometimes. When I have a student with enough talent. How long were you listening?"
How long. I have no idea. Everything up to now is murky. Walking past the Alibi with Isaiah — no. I couldn't have been with Isaiah. Isaiah won't still be nineteen years old; he'll be close to thirty by now. I must have dreamed him. Walking, carrying my backpack — what's become of my backpack? — headlights streaming past me on the grade up to the Orchards. A piano being played in the early dawn, drawing me to the pianist's backyard and the shelter of the old blue spruce.
"What time is it now?"
She nods at the digital clock beside the water carafe. "A little after seven."
"In the morning?" It must be morning because the light in the window is clean and transparent. Then I realize it must be the next morning. I've lost a day.
"The paramedics had quite a struggle, getting you out from under that spruce. They tried to ease you out to the stretcher, but you were in such pain — the spruce boughs flailing and Jonathan running back and forth and barking —"
I've never heard her speak at length about anything but piano technique and interpretation. And I suppose the paramedics are still laughing with their buddies about finding a grown woman hiding under a tree. Did it happen? I do think I remember someone turning the pain into red lightning when he tried to straighten my legs. Did I scream?
"My dear. How long have you been in such anguish?"
A week. A month. Always. Telling myself it was just a stitch. "I kept thinking it would go away."
"Well." She stands and smooths her good gray linen skirt. "Your appendix was almost ruptured. It's a wonder you didn't die of it. But they've pumped you full of antibiotics, and the surgery was laparoscopic, so you'll be on your feet by this afternoon, and they'll probably discharge you this evening. I'll be back for you."
Why is she coming back for me? Another question with no answer. When I hear the door close behind her, I pull the sheet over my head, turn my face away from the window, and let myself sink under the dark currents to search for the elk. For some reason it's important to find my way back to the elk.
Instead, I go time traveling. Tonight, for once, the Alibi features live music in the lounge. Three young guys on the bandstand play while one or two couples leave their drinks to dance on the tiny dance floor. For all the live music it's a slow night in the restaurant, so in between carrying trays of dirty dishes to the kitchen, I can hang out in the archway between the restaurant and lounge and listen.
Not that I'm into their music. I'm a smart-ass sixteen-year-old, and I know everything worth knowing, and this summer I've been listening to Nirvana and Eminem. From these guys' clothes and their long hair, I hoped they'd be into rock, but no, they're playing covers of country songs, mostly popular shit like "Unbroken," George Strait and that, the overly produced crap I hear blaring from other people's car radios, but occasionally something older and better. They're pretty good. The lead guitarist is damned good, in fact. At some point in the unforeseeable future, I'll learn that he's had classical training but turned his back on it to start his own garage band in Boise. Now the band's been all over the West, and they've got their name on a poster in front of the bandstand, The Idaho Rivermen, and they're headed for fame and fortune.
I can tell they love some of the older, crossover classics when the lead guitarist, also the vocalist, sings "Hickory Wind" in a sweet sad tenor. He's wearing blue jeans and a dark-blue satin shirt unbuttoned halfway down, and he's got long tawny hair and a jawline my fingers want to trace. I will hear the hickory wind in my head for a long time after tonight.
I'm too young to wait tables or serve cocktails, and there's an invisible line between the restaurant and the lounge I'm forbidden to cross. Dave the bartender doesn't have much to do on this slow night, and he's keeping an eye on me. He knows I'm underage and Brad Gilcannon, my policeman foster father, will give him hell if I'm late getting home. Brad's already unhappy with me. Brad hates that I've quit school, hates that I'm busing dishes in the Alibi two nights a week, hates that I spend so much time with my piano teacher, and he holds as strict a line on me as he can. Still, Dave may not realize how young I really am. Even at sixteen, I'm a tall girl.
When their set finishes, the guys in the band head for the men's room. The drummer and the rhythm guitarist come back and sprawl in a booth so close to my invisible line that I smell their sweat and beer fumes. Maybe that was their last set for the night because Dave the bartender wipes his hands on his pants and gives me a dirty look as he serves them a round of beers.
The lead guitarist brushes my shoulder on his way back from the men's room and looks down to see who he's bumped into.
Hey, darlin! He's a head taller than I am and so lean and rangy that his blue satin shirt hangs from his shoulders. He smiles, and I melt, and he puts an arm around me and leads me to the booth where the other two guys have started on their beers and are talking about breaking down their gear and loading it in the van.
Dave looks up sharply and comes around the bar, wiping his mustache. He's had one or two himself on this slow night.
Ruby, you're outta line, you know you're not supposed to be in here!
Hey! She's fine!
Dave looks around at his last paying customers and then at the guys from the band who have paychecks to spend.
Just so you don't order nothing for her.
The boys tell me their names. Brazos Keene, the rhythm guitarist; Bill Jamison, who everybody calls Bill the Drummer; and Gall. Gall Margarus, the lead guitarist and vocalist. I tell them I'm Ruby. Gall keeps his arm around me, and I feel heaven in his warmth through his blue satin shirt.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ruby Dreams of Janis Joplin"
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