Daddy's Little Girl
Ruth groped toward the stairs in the darkened hall. She descended
toward ghostly objects-a plant, telephone stand, hall tree.... Suddenly
a door opened, framing a stout woman in the light. The woman paused,
then moved toward the tiny figure, frozen in mid-step. "Why darlin',
how come you're still awake? Her voice was high and sing-song. Are you
Taking the girl's hand, she lead her into the kitchen where Ruth
wordlessly consumed three graham crackers and a glass of milk. This
foster home remained as Ruth's earliest memory. She was two-and a-half
Memories of subsequent homes made less of an impression. What she
remembered most were visits from an exotically beautiful, fragrant
stranger. Mamma would sweep in from Charleston or New Orleans, en route
to brighter lights. Sometimes she permitted Ruth to sit on her lap,
where the little girl gorged her senses, knowing it would have to last.
Then the miracle happened. Mamma arrived on her eighth birthday with a
darkly handsome man who pinched her cheek and tapped her behind. They
were married and had come to take Ruth home.
Ruth speedily packed her clothes-blue jeans, T-shirts bought at the
Goodwill, hand-me-down dresses, and two pairs of shoes.
"When we get to Texas we'll buy out the stores for you," Floyd told
Ruth. His teeth showed large and white as he smiled.
Ruth believed him. She imagined how they'd shop the stores in Texas
where he said everything was bigger than life.
Home turned out to be a ramshackle house in Baytown near the Gulf of
Mexico. The heat pressed down like a soggy cover until it dulled the
senses, and the heavy smell from oil refineries grayed the skies and
"You'll get used to it," Mamma said. "Soon you won't even notice.
C'mon, let's take a walk through the shopping mall and you can practice
Ruth darted into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face, then
yanked off her shirt and jeans and slipped a pink sundress over her
head. Her sneakers would show Mamma how badly she needed shoes.
It was cool in the mall. Ruth walked sedately between Floyd and Mamma,
keeping step without holding hands, waiting for the shopping to begin.
They were busy talking over her head. Timidly, she tugged at Floyd's
shirt. "When do we buy out the stores?"
Now Floyd was supposed to say, "Right now, you betcha."
She waited for the answer.
She tugged again. "Are we going..."
The blow on the side of her head sent her reeling.
"Didn't they teach you manners in that place where you been?"
"But I was only..."
"Don't be sassy." Floyd's voice was deep and gruff.
Ruth looked at the people walking by, some turning to stare at them.
She could only bow her head in shame.
They continued around the mall in silence, passing clothing stores with
enticing displays of bright dresses; past a shop making popcorn, the
scent drawing a line of buyers; past banks, ice cream shops, jewelers,
past them all until they came full circle from where they'd begun.
"Well, little Missy, what d'you think of Texas?" Floyd's voice was
Ruth looked up to make sure he was addressing her. "It's nice," she
"Ready to go home?"
"Yes." She was afraid to say more.
It was dark when they got back home. The bedroom doors were left open
to get what little breeze stirred. Lying stretched out in only her
panties, she listened to the muffled sounds-heavy shoes dropping onto
the floor, the tinkle of water in the toilet and voices. Then the bed
springs creaked and Ruth could hear Mamma and Floyd panting and moaning.
She had heard sounds like that in the foster homes between the older
girls and the Mister. Mamma and Floyd were married so it was okay. But
she sighed with relief when they were done so she could go to sleep.
Soon Mamma was pregnant with her delicate hands and feet softly swollen,
her belly watermelon hard. The passionate night cries changed to pleas
and coaxing, then to louder outbursts. "Don't-not yet..."
"Is he hurting you, Mamma?" whispered Ruth one morning when they were in
the kitchen alone. "D'you want to sleep in my bed..."
The sharp reply said Mamma was caught by surprise. "Don't talk about
your father like that, little girl."
"He's not my father. My father is..." She stopped because she didn't
"Your father is the rat who walked out on us." Mamma stood with hands
on the top of her buttocks, her belly thrust aggressively forward as she
arched her back. "You'd better behave yourself or we'll send you back
where you came from..."
Ruth put her hands over her ears and ran up to her room.
Closing the door, she sat on the bed trembling. She was too big to cry.
She stared at the calendar with the circled June 10th-her birthday.
Mamma had told her that there would be no party. She was too big for
such foolishness, even more than birthday number nine, which had gone
unnoticed. No matter. She could pretend her own party. It would
include everyone in her classroom. Afterward, the most popular girl
would ask to be her special friend.
Ruth got up and went to the mirror, comparing her face with Mamma's.
Some day she would be beautiful- for what? To capture a man of her very
Her mother had once shown her the picture of a man holding a baby. It
was the father she had never seen. He was handsome, but different from
Floyd. Instead of dark hair and tanned skin, his blondness seemed to
radiate the sun like Sunday school pictures. If she could find him, she
was sure that he would hug her. She liked to imagine the scene. She'd
be in a grocery store and the man in the produce department would be her
real father. Or she'd be sent to the principal's office and the man in
the swivel chair would turn and reveal himself as her real father. Or
she'd be in the doctor's office and the man in the white coat would have
John Barnett, her real father. The man who left her only his name.
Megan was born two weeks after Ruth's tenth birthday. Within a month
the nightlong sounds resumed, alternating with infant wails as though
one sound triggered the other. Soon her mother was pregnant again.
Ruth watched as her mother's natural grace once more turn awkward. Her
hands and feet began to swell again. But now there was more. Her arms
were also swollen, puffiness punctuated by red marks that turned black
and blue, then faded to the color of mustard.
"How come you're bumpin' into so much, Mamma?"
"It's clumsy carrying a baby in this heat. Wait till you start. You'll
see." Then Mamma began wearing long-sleeved maternity tops, even in
ninety-eight degree heat.
Sissy was born a month before Ruth turned eleven. With the swelling
gone, Mamma was even more beautiful, the shadows around her eyes adding
mystery to their deep midnight blue.
Floyd's weekend drinking was now daily, and he began coming home late
from work. Instead of eating dinner, he'd sit in the eerie silence of
the living room, dozing until past midnight while the house stayed
suspended in wary vigilance. After he went to bed, the night sounds
would start, a mix of Sissy's thin cry, Megan's louder wail at being
awakened, and Mamma's timid protests followed by rhythmic thumping,
grunting, and finally silence.
The bruises on Mamma were all over her body now, even her face. Ruth
surprised her once while she was standing at the bathroom mirror,
prettying up for when Floyd came home from work, carefully applying
makeup to cover a welt on her cheek. "Mamma, maybe we should go
"Where to? It was hard enough with you..."
So there it was. Everything was Ruth's fault. Mamma'd finally said it
She stood staring at her mother for a long time. Then she turned and
walked slowly to her room in the stifling attic. There was homework to
But her mind wouldn't focus. Sitting at her makeshift desk, she picked
up a pencil and a sheet of paper. Ruth Barnett, she put at the top.
Then she began to write. Once upon a time there was a little girl...
After twenty minutes, she stopped, folded the papers and deposited them
in a shoe box on her closet shelf, feeling curiously comforted. She
showed no one, and no one asked what she was doing huddled next to the
window, scribbling in the reflection of the lights below.
At school she became a watcher, feasting on someone else's childhood,
wrapping herself in shyness that kept questions at a distance. In high
school there were a few boys, but after Floyd called her a Goddamned
slut, she stopped going to the movies with them.
"Leave him, Mamma," she begged, "...before he kills you."
Mamma shook her head. "He just needs to quit drinking..."
"Then go until he does."
"I can't. Your sisters..."
"Then bring them. We can work..."
"Doing what? Just look at me!"
"He got you that way! Has he knocked you brainless too?"
"Now you listen to me, little girl..."
Then Floyd got laid off and even the daytime hours became unsafe. Ruth
would come home to a house menacingly silent with Floyd in front of the
droning TV, his drink on the floor beside him. Mamma would be in the
bedroom or kitchen. Sometimes she'd deny anything had happened.
Sometimes it was so bad that they'd wait until Floyd went to bed, then
drive to the emergency room where Mamma'd swear that she'd been hurt in
Ruth watched the calendar. In three weeks, she would graduate. In
four, she would be eighteen. If Mamma wouldn't come, she'd go alone.
Monday was an early dismissal for graduates, a good time to begin making
plans. Floyd would be at the unemployment office, her sisters still at
school. But when she arrived home, the front door was locked and all
the windows closed except for upstairs. The car was gone. Mamma had
said nothing about going out.
Impatient, she circled around the house, banging windows, hoping to find
one rickety enough to give way. Nothing. She hit on the frame, then
peered through the window, trying to penetrate the gloom of the laundry
room. There was a pile of clothes on the floor in front of the washer.
Mamma had left before finishing. How unlike her.
She moved toward the next window. As she did, she heard a thin sound
like the whimpering of a puppy.
She stopped and listened. Then moving ever so carefully, she continued
around the house, looking, banging, then moving on. Finally she was
back at the laundry room.
"Anyone home?" Her voice made the window vibrate.
The air was shattered with a mournful cry. "Ruthie! Roo-thie girl!"
The pile on the floor moved. Then in agonizing slow motion, a human
silhouette took shape and sat up, the hand reaching out in supplication.
"Help me, Baby..."
Mamma's battered face was unrecognizable. Her dark hair was matted with
blood, her swollen mouth making her nose an inverted dimple. One
blackened eye was closed, the other, almost. She tried to stand up,
fell back, then dragged herself up to the laundry tub. Hanging on to
the washer and drier for balance, she tottered to the window.
"Mamma, let me in."
"I can't go the steps, honey. Something in my belly..."
"Then unlock the window."
Mamma reached up and after several tries, unfastened the lock. She
stepped back to leave room for Ruth, then stumbled and collapsed once
more on the floor.
Ruth squeezed through the small opening, landing with a clang on the top
of the dryer and dropping onto the floor. "You've got to get to a
hospital right away. You're hurt bad this time. Where's the car?"
"I don't know. Floyd went somewhere." She started to cry.
"I'll bet he did. One step ahead of the police..."
"That bastard hurt me good. He kicked me on the floor..."
"Never mind. We can call a cab." She put her arm around her mother's
swollen waist. "Lean on me."
Just then they heard the garage door open.
Mamma gave a terrified whimper. "He's back."
"I'll cover for
you." Ruth grabbed an armload of laundry from the folding table and
threw it over her mother. "Stop crying. He'll hear you."
She sprinted down the hall and into the kitchen just as Floyd came from
the garage. His slow, deliberate movements said he was very drunk.
"What're you doing home so early? Where's your Mamma?"
"How should I know? Where were you?"
"None of your damned business." He walked into the living room, peering
into the closet and behind the couch. "You're hiding her. Where is
"Why? What happened?"
"Don't get smart, Sister. Get outa my
way so I can look upstairs."
She could hear him plodding up the steps, then his heavy footsteps
overhead moving from one bedroom to another as she picked up the phone
and dialed 9-1-1.
He was sitting at the kitchen table when the police arrived. When Mamma
was brought from the laundry room, he wept real tears. Ruth had seen
that before. "You'll never get another chance to do this again." Ruth
was giddy with indignation. She was also wrong.
After recovering from surgery to repair her damaged liver and ruptured
spleen, Mamma went back. There were lots of reasons. He was truly
sorry. She had nowhere else to go. The girls needed her.
"You want to live like this?"
"Wait 'till you grow up. You'll see things different."
"Mamma, I am grown up."
"Well then, you know."
"All I know is that Floyd's going to kill you."
"He's a good man. He just drinks too much."
Ruth walked out of the room and closed the door behind her. She didn't
wait for graduation. Finding a job as a receptionist in a medical
clinic, she rented a furnished room and moved. Her diploma arrived in
the mail with a letter saying that she'd ranked in the top ten percent
of her class.
Soon she was made secretary then administrative assistant to the chief
internist. The furnished room was replaced by a three-room apartment.
She met medical students from Galveston and dated a few. She started
going with Robert, a technician at the lab, and was falling in love.
Her fantasies became a drawer full of manuscripts, re-read and revised.
Mamma would call at odd hours to report that Floyd was now working, that
he had begun to go to church, that they had new furniture, a new car.
The nightmare was over.
It was close to midnight and the phone once more jangled her awake. An
unfamiliar man's voice-wrong number. She hung up and curled back under
It rang again. "Is this 231-87...?"
Ruth sat up. "Who is this?"
"My name is John Barnett. Do you know who I am?"
There were no explosions, no fanfare, no band to play a salute, to
herald her dream come true. The room was still dark, but the intensity
was blinding. "How did you find me?"
"I looked but your mother re-married... Ours is a rather common
name..." The words were rushed as though he expected her to hang up
again. He mentioned places, dates, and memories too intimate to be
lies. "Can I come and see you?"
"Yes. Oh, yes! Papa..." Her lips caressed the word. "You'll be
surprised-I'm grown up now." She laughed nervously. "Of course, you
know that. I'm almost married..."
"I can fly in. Can you get to Houston to meet me? If not, I can make
"No, that's okay. My boyfriend has a car. I know he'd like to meet
you." She swallowed. "The sooner, the better."
He would come in two days-on Saturday.
What did he look like? She had stolen two pictures from Mamma's album,
portraits in army fatigues. There was softness in his smile. The
dialogue had been rehearsed forever...
"Papa, it's been twenty years."
"Yes, my child. But I've come to make it all up to you, to carry you
away to my mansion."
He would stroke her hair, hold her close. It wasn't his fault he'd been
gone. He'd been summoned to a calling and didn't dare tell anyone. It
was the army, the diplomatic corps, the CIA...
Or there might be a different scene where she would face him in a rage,
tell him about her mother, about Floyd. He would stand tall and strong
while she beat at him prettily with small clenched fists. Then he'd put
his arms around her and their tears would merge.
"I've come to make it up to you. Won't you let me? I've so longed for
you, my own little girl, my Ruthie..."
Or, he would be a poet, a journalist. He'd written ten books under a
pseudonym intended to keep the adulation of fans away. She'd melt in
his arms and he'd carry her off to a home with a pool and servants.
She wasn't able to sleep the rest of that night or the following. Her
pulse was so rapid; food stuck in her throat so she drank Instant
Breakfast and got heartburn.
"How d'you feel?" Rob's voice was clinical.
"I don't know." She leaned back and closed her eyes.
At the airport, they found a parking spot, entered the terminal, located
the gate and sat down in the waiting area. When Rob took her hand, she
realized she was trembling.
The flight deplaned at ten minutes past one.
He was surprisingly thin and only a few inches taller than she was. His
clothes were baggy and cheap. He was the man in the picture.
"I always called you Papa whenever I thought of you."
"I'm glad you did."
They stood apart, looking at one another. If his expression revealed
anything, Ruth was incapable of reading it.
Rob broke the silence. "Ruth hasn't had lunch. Maybe you two
"It depends on Ruth..."
"There's a restaurant on the upper level where we can watch the planes
coming in." Her voice echoed in her head.
An escalator took them up and they were seated, each occupying one side
of a small table. The room was almost deserted except for two men in
suits, dangling their legs over barstools, talking of world events. Rob
had discreetly disappeared down the hall.
A waitress came and stood expectantly, pencil poised. They ordered
sandwiches and sat in silence until she left.
"You look like your mother."
"She's changed. You wouldn't recognize her."
"She was a strong woman. Always knew her own mind. I can tell you're
like her. Just by the way you hold your head, how you sit..."
"Papa, why did you leave?"
His eyes shifted around the room as though to see if anyone was
listening. "I was young-not ready for responsibility. Then there was
you. You cried a lot. Colic, I think..." The words were once more
rushed, as though expecting to be turned away, not allowed to finish.
"That's all? It was just too much?"
"You have to understand how things were then..."
Twenty years summarized over a civilized lunch while executive-types
sipped their drinks across the room, their booming voices echoing the
bullshit being spread over her table.
"But this is now."
Then all of a sudden it didn't matter.
It was getting dark when Rob headed the car back to Galveston, the
radio's country-western turned up loud.
It was dark when Ruth got home. She moved through the room in the
shadows, running her hands over the chair, the lamp next to it. Then
she sat down at her desk and opened the file-drawer, caressing the
folders packed with manuscripts. "Poor baby. Poor, poor Ruthie."
Then lifting her chin, she switched on the light, took out a fresh sheet
of paper. And once more, she began...
© Beth Staas
Beth Staas has been published in more than two dozen nationally
circulated periodicals. Her novel, The Two Percent Miracle, is now in
paperback. A second novel, An Audience of One, is coming out early next
year. Currently she teaches writing at a community college in Aurora
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