Ruba wandered into Michael’s bedroom. “I want to help,” she said, without knowing what her brothers had in mind.
They all three heard the baby cry from the kitchen down the hall.
“Ruba can be the librarian,” Fletcher said.
“I don’t know,” answered Michael, furrowing his brow. “She’s a girl. Too young anyway.”
“I’m old enough.” Ruba was sure.
The baby’s voice disappeared.
“She’s old enough,” Fletcher agreed.
“Are you sure? It’s a lot of responsibility. We’d be depending on her a lot.”
“I’m dependable,” said Ruba. She clasped her hands in a show of certainty.
“She could start as a volunteer. Would you be willing to start as a volunteer?”
“We’ll have to talk about it. I’m sure it’s fine, but Michael and I are going to talk it over. We’ll get back to you in the morning. If it works, I’ll have you sign our volunteer contract.”
“Don’t worry about it. Its no big deal,” Fletcher assured Ruba, glancing over the frame of his glasses. “I’ll draw one up this evening. It’s Standard Procedure.”
They heard their mother laugh coincidentally from the other room where she spoke on the phone.
“It’s just a formality,” said Michael. The oldest and most handsome of them all. He was nine years old.
The brothers gave Ruba a job at the front desk.
They set up a card table in the downstairs basement on the carpeted portion of the room, underneath the kitchen, just in front of two family cars. It was convenient because they could hear their mother’s feet upstairs, and thus anticipate her movements.
Other kids from the neighborhood started coming over every day, slow at first, it picked up and then evened out. Ruba kept a tally of attendees. At the height of their success they saw twenty kids on the regular. The same eight boys made up the core of their clientele. The Regulars. Sometimes there were new kids, some girls too, and mostly all eight didn’t come at once.
Ruba kept a list of names for fun.
She made drawings on the desk downstairs, and Fletcher laminated a badge that said ‘Librarian.’ Ruba wore it religiously. At the end of every day she reported earnings and statistics to Michael, the Executive Director.
She did not keep any of their wages, but Michael had never paid her so much attention before, nor had she even felt so included in either of her brother’s schemes. She only ever went to the store with their mother anyway.
At dinner their mother said:
“It seems like a lot of the neighborhood kids are coming over; that’s fun.”
Ruba pushed the peas around her plate trying very hard not to telegraph what might get her fired.
It was one cent a minute with a five minute minimum and extra for the more popular or, what Michael called, “Rare” magazines.
Ruba turned in a daily report that measured the popularity of different issues. There was a pay to play policy in order to discourage loitering.
The ones no one wanted were discounted. Sometimes given away to their most loyal customers, though Michael insisted that on such occasions Ruba cut out the privates.
She had a drawer of breasts to her right. Some vaginas too. Whenever opening the draw she had a strange and mystical experience that sometimes made her sad.
A kid could take a magazine into the basement bathroom if he liked, but that was extra and most kids didn’t want to do that anyway because sitting on a toilet alone with some pictures seemed —
And everyone outside was always counting.
If more than one person looked at a magazine at one time it was extra per person.
And again at dinner (weeks later): her face a fierce white, lips drawn straight and thin, you could hardly see anything but a tight line of lipstick. The wrinkles around their mother’s mouth from where she used to smoke, creased, jagged, angry lines. “Mrs. Prosper called me today. She threatened to call the school.”
The boys moved cutlery. Banging forks. Each studied his plate.
“Pierce has been coming around an awful lot.”
“We’ve been working on a project together,” Fletcher blurted out, face beet red.
“You bet your ass you have.” Judith dropped her fork on the plate. It made a deliberate clatter.
The dog raised its head from where it lay on the kitchen floor, and studied Ruba with serious intensity. It was the expression of the dog that left Ruba most perplexed, for suddenly she felt shame.
Even their father, whose eyes seemed always out of focus, stopped eating.
A week later, a naked woman appeared on the fridge without explanation. In sepia tones she sat, dark hair falling in waves about her bare chest, preening nipples, skin the color of cream, one arm bent up theatrically, revealing a bushel of dark mossy hair beneath the arc of her shoulder. She sat on an armchair at a dressing table, her cheek resting on the hand of her bent arm with a wistful faraway glance. In her other hand she held a Chinese fan that concealed the meeting point of her thighs. Otherwise her full bottom sat snug in the folds of an exotic kimono that lay over the other armrest. The image was a postcard and on the back there was an advertisement for The History of The Body in Amsterdam. Ruba spent hours stealing glances at the figure, wondering where she’d come from and how their mother had not seen her.
She was pinned to the fridge with a magnet that also pinned a corner of Michael’s report card. Below the grocery list. To the right of a drawing that Ruba made at school.
This woman would remain on the fridge for the rest of their childhood.
Caroline Picard is an artist, writer and curator based out of Chicago, where I run The Green Lantern Press. I write regularly for Art21, Artslant, and art ltd., Magazines. Recent fiction, articles and comics were published or are forthcoming in Diner Journal, Necessary Fiction, The Coming Envelope, Artifice, MAKE Magazine, and Everyday Genius; I have two contributions in vols 1 & 3 of The Graphic Canon (Seven Stories Press, 2012). Other books include Psycho Dream Factory (Holon Press, 2011) and The Chronicles of Fortune (Radiator Comics, 2015).