Picking Up the Pieces

by Jeanne K. Svensson
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Ruth came stamping down the back steps into her father’s kitchen, her hair frizzed out from her normally tight bun, the top button of her housecoat sticking up alone above the unironed lace collar. “Dad, have you been upstairs?”

Ruth’s husband, Bob, looked up from his newspaper. “You know he can’t walk that well. Aren’t you going to sit down some time and take it easy?”

Ruth glared at Bob, then at the top of her father’s head. He was bent over the table, methodically breaking a ginger snap into tiny pieces. A tall pile of cookie bits was carefully arranged on the napkin by his plate. She snorted.

“How can I take it easy? Things are always missing in this house.” She felt around in her big front pockets and turned back towards the staircase.

Bob put the paper down and patted the chair next to him. “Come on, Ruth. A cup of tea. You need it.”

“What I need is a surveillance system. You hear that, Dad?”

Ruth’s father took another cookie without looking up, and broke it carefully in two.

Bob sighed. “Ruth, would you cut that out? They’ve said he can’t understand us. There’s no point shouting.”

“Since when do doctors know everything? I can tell by the way he’s sitting he’s up to something.”

“Relax, will you?”

“I don’t need this, Dad! Four boys was enough, and I don’t want another one!”

“Ruth!”

Ruth’s shoulders sagged, and she walked over and sat down heavily in the kitchen chair. “Why couldn’t we just put him in the home? I don’t like living here.”

“You know why.” Bob picked the newspaper up again, and a pencil.

“But I could get my job back.”

“Not like this, you couldn’t. Give it time.” He drew a cross through an ad and turned the page.

Ruth sighed. “I’ll never get better here. Everything’s a mess.”

“It’s not forever.”

“It feels like it.”

Bob folded the paper up and tossed it onto the top of the stack in the corner basket. He turned to Ruth. “Listen. I’ll find a job, and we’ll get our own place. Sell this one, fix your dad up with the money. It’s going to be okay.” He reached for the teapot and poured a cup of tea. “Here you go. Milk and sugar, just the way you like it.”

Ruth stirred her cup, and watched her father slowly pick a cookie piece off the top of the napkin pile and put it back on his plate. He put another piece down next to the first one and turned it so it fit right, then reached for another. She frowned and squirmed in her chair. “But Bob. There must be money. Mom was always so careful!”

“We’ve been through this, Ruth. We’d have found the papers by now.”

“I’ll bet he’s done something with them. You’ve done something, Dad, haven’t you!”

Ruth’s father took one more piece of cookie from the pile and put it down to make a whole, crackled gingersnap on his plate. He started to hum.

Bob stroked Ruth’s arm. “He hasn’t done anything, hon. Calm down.”

“But look at him! What’s he up to?”

“He’s just playing with a cookie.”

“He’s always moving things!”

“He’s harmless.”

Ruth hit the table with her fist so the cookie pieces hopped.

“I know why Mom gave up! You drove her crazy, didn’t you, Dad! Moving things around behind people’s backs!”

“He doesn’t hear you, Ruth.”

“She knew what you were like! You couldn’t fool her!”

Bob pushed her pointing finger gently down into her lap. “Ruth, did you take your pills this morning?”

“I’m not taking that poison! I’ve got my own methods!” She shoved her chair back from the table and stood up.

Bob got up with her. “Honey . . . .”

“I’m fine!”

“Let’s go upstairs and get your medicine.”

Ruth’s chin rose. “I’m going up, all right! There’s something up there I’m almost finished with. Something I’ve got complete control over!”

“Well, good, then. Here we go.” Bob put an arm around her shoulders. She twisted free.

“I’m not leaving those cookies where he can reach them.” Ruth pushed up her long sleeve and grabbed the open cookie tin from the center of the table.

“Up there! On the top shelf!” She thrust the tin into Bob’s hands.

Bob stretched, and slid the tin onto the ornament shelf high above the kitchen sink. “Done, O.K.? Now, how about your medicine and a nice, hot bath?”

Ruth glared at her father.”Don’t you get into any mischief, Dad. I’m coming down later, and I’ll be checking on you!”

She turned and stamped up the stairs. Bob shook his head and followed her.

Ruth’s father sat with his hands on the table, staring at his plate. The clock on the wall ticked. The refrigerator hummed. A fly buzzed over from the stove and landed in the sugar bowl. Then the water pipes creaked under the floor, and the downstairs phone gave a little click.

Ruth’s father reached quickly past his reconstructed cookie for the napkin pile, pulled a jigsaw puzzle piece from beneath the crumbs, and dropped it in Ruth’s teacup. He poked at it with her spoon until it sank. He watched the small bubbles rise to the surface of the tea, then hopped down from his place at the table and pushed his chair over to the sink. He cast a swift glance towards the staircase, climbed up on the chair, and helped himself to a ginger snap.

One Response to “Picking Up the Pieces”

  1. Terry Ervin says:

    Good ol’ family dynamics at work. ;)

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