The fire at my grandparents’ home changed the dynamics of everything. Rooms were rearranged to accommodate Grandpa Wilson, plans diverted, schedules rescheduled. And with the arrival of Cousin Ruth, the upheaval was a little off-putting. I was shuffled to the smallest room in the house, a cramped storage room in the back that was reconfigured with a bed and a night table and little else. It was comfortable, but always dark as there were no windows. There was a small plywood shelf above my bed where I kept a few comic books and a flashlight. But otherwise, it still smelled like a storage room, of mold-stained cardboard boxes and old trampled-upon sawdust.
Cousin Ruth moved in the second week of July that year. She just graduated from high school, didn’t have anything on her agenda, and dropped in unannounced with a suitcase full of clothes and knickknacks and her high school diploma. She said she was staying until Grandpa got better, or until the situation leveled out some. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and seeing as she was family, my mother offered her my old bedroom.
We had to buy a special bed for grandpa since his burned up in the fire and we didn’t have any a spare. My folks set it up in the living room, being that was the only room that had any bit of space. We moved the couch to the front porch, rearranged some of the chairs and carried the old coffee table to the basement. It wasn’t pretty, but it suited its purpose. Grandpa was an early riser and an early-to-bedder, so there wasn’t much time for television after supper. We went to bed when he did, which was usually around 7:30. Some nights I’d sit out on the couch and draw sketches, or watch the lightning bugs skitter around the lawn. Grandpa snored, and loud, so I oftentimes walked to the edge of the driveway, feeling the cool air and taking in all the natural night sounds. It was a confusing time, hectic, so those times were as peaceful and restoring.
Cousin Ruth was actually my mother’s second or third cousin, and Mom babysat her years back. She was a bit of a wild child, said Mom, but mostly polite to her elders, and was always willing to pitch in to help around the supper table. Mom always said she was the nicest of the lot on that side of the family, so the two of them got along well enough she could offer the girl a room in exchange for chores.
How do I describe Ruth without sounding like I’m pandering? She was short, but not as short as I was at fifteen. Dark naturally curly hair. A lot of go-to-hell in her eyes when she was teasing, and a tomboy who was looking less and less like one with every passing day. Fulsome breasts for a girl her size, and she didn’t make any attempt to hide them under bulky brassieres. She was quick to laugh, had legs that tanned up in 15 minutes, and she wore no makeup. Her laugh was husky… or maybe smoky would be a better word now that she was leaving her tomboyhood behind. And eyes the color of a shot glass full of Dr. Pepper. Big eyes, Lord, that were always shining, always exploring, always revealing her every mood. A flirt? Maybe, but I don’t think it was intentional. She knew she was pretty in a farm-girl sort of way, knew that the potential for beauty was there, she just had to pluck it out with a comb and a little eye paint and lipstick. I think her heart was pure, her intentions were well-meaning, and if you didn’t like the way her words set upon your shoulder, she’d tell you to go to hell. With a laugh.
I was entranced by her. Is that the word? Mesmerized? Smitten? She was a cousin, but only second or maybe third, so that opened up the family lineage some. And when a boy is fifteen, he is smitten by just about any pretty girl who sits down beside him at the dinner table, with laughter in her voice and a natural swish in her skirt.