“The Quiet Couple”
by Paul Saevig
Kyle was a tackle on the football team and Ruthie worked in the school library at lunch. They lived across the street from each other on Amerige and went together from second grade on. Kyle was six foot four and weighed two forty. At four feet ten, Ruthie could sit on his hand when he held his arm out straight. They graduated in 1941 and after seven months as a telephone lineman, Kyle left to join the Navy and Shore Patrol. Ruthie knitted socks for soldiers and had their first baby in March 1942.
She knitted eight hundred twenty-six by the time he came home in January 1946. His only souvenir was a Colt Model 1911A1 Government Model .45 ACP he’d never fired on the job.
They went family picnics every Saturday at Hillcrest or Irvine Park, and at home, Kyle put together plastic model planes. Ruthie preferred to read. After church at First Methodist Sunday mornings, Kyle listened to pro football games with his brother and dad. Once in a while the men hiked up above to hunt rabbits and Kyle went along but blasting the animals to smithareens with their guns and rifles only seemed gruesome. He never liked to shoot and only kept his Colt Model 1911 for the fall-out shelter he built in his cellar.
Ruthie liked to visit her mother who was almost deaf. The old lady knew the Bible forwards and backwards.
Sometimes Ruthie sat in Kyle’s lap and they sang along with songs on the radio. Her little ribs and chest made her feel like a bird in his arms. When his mother died from tuberculosis, Ruthie held Kyle’s head close while he cried.
They had two more girls. Kyle could hold his arms out and they all held on like wet clothes on a line. He liked the meat loaf Ruthie made for him, and sometimes Pineapple Upside Down Cake. On some nights, she slept on his chest and belly.
One night there was a rainstorm and the power went out down on Nicholas. Soaking wet, Kyle climbed a pole with his spiked boots. When lightning struck, it knocked him thirty feet out and into a mulberry bush. When the ambulance came, he was unconscious.
Ruthie visited him several times every day at the hospital by the library downtown. He had burns, but not too bad.
“I can’t remember things,” he said.
“It’ll get better.”
When he came home, he couldn’t do his old job any more. He worked on models instead.
A man at church heard Bastanchury Water was hiring. Kyle got the job.
Years passed and when Kyle’s dad died, he got the old house. He and Ruthie bought a home for their own family on Golden with a real nice view. Ruthie inspected oranges at a packinghouse downtown to earn money for their daughters’ college.
After work, Kyle stopped to drink beer now. Pretty soon, he was buying six packs at Charlie Hale’s Spadra Market. Ruthie’s sister was married to a drunk who went up to the sanitarium in Sierra Madre every year or two. Ruthie collected Kyle’s empty bottles to turn in and emptied his ashtrays. Sometimes he didn’t shave all weekend.
One night their oldest daughter asked Kyle if she could go to a beach party with a Mexican boy from school. He hit the table so hard with his fist, the wood cracked and a bowl of potato salad bounced onto the floor. Then he went to the bar by Charlie’s market and didn’t come home till after 2 AM.
A month later, a policeman named Tommy brought Kyle home at midnight. He and Ruthie knew the officer from school.
“Put him in the shower and run it cold, Ruthie,” he said. “Can you take him to see Dr. Pettis next week?”
She said she would.
Kyle apologized with tears in his eyes in the morning. They skipped church and drove up to Brea for fresh air. That afternoon they had meatloaf with scalloped potatoes, orange Jell-O and butterscotch tapioca with baby marshmallows for dessert.
Dr. Pettis told Kyle to drink no more than two beers a day. He had high blood pressure, too.
In a month, Ruthie and Kyle went to their high school reunion. Ruthie noticed people staring at her and Kyle. They left early.
That week, Ruthie went to a wedding shower for a girlfriend’s daughter on Ocean View. She saw some friends she hadn’t seen in a while.
When she came home, she opened the service porch door and saw Kyle sitting at the kitchen table with dozens of empty bottles in front of him. When she walked in, he yelled, “Where’s my God-damned dinner?”
She started to say there was sliced turkey in the refrigerator with cranberry sauce and yams, but he slapped her hard across the nose. Blood spurted, she saw stars and her vision went dim.
At the hospital, they told the doctor she tripped over the cat. She had an orbital fracture in one eye, another black eye, with teeth loose and a split lip. The doctors and nurses treated her with their lips pursed.
Kyle came to see her in the morning and brought a bouquet of posies he picked. He held her hand and agreed to spend a while drying out in Sierra Madre, which he did.
Now Ruthie had headaches and certain foods didn’t taste good any more.
Kyle dedicated himself to his job and drank Calso water for a while. His hair was thinning and he decided to get a crewcut. Neither of them said anything about what happened in the kitchen but they got twin beds and slept that way. Ruthie took a job in the packinghouse office typing and filing.
For a while things went slow. Their oldest daughter went to the JC and met a nice kid from Whittier. He wanted to become a draftsman. He played football and boxed groceries at the Market Basket on Commonwealth at Nicholas. Kyle liked him.
The kid, whose name was Lonnie, started coming over to work on cars with Kyle, and stayed for dinner. Sometimes they took in a football game. Anaheim High was a championship team, and even had a big game at the Coliseum in LA. Kyle and Lonnie went up.
They parked in a Negro family’s front yard below Santa Barbara Avenue and walked three blocks to the stadium. When they came back, another driver bumped Kyle’s rear fender.
He jumped out, checked for a dent or scratch, and yelled at the man and cursed him while Lonnie watched.
A man in another car told the boy, “Take your dad home, son. He’s asking for big trouble.”
Lonnie slid behind the steering wheel and said, “Let’s go! Come on!”
He drove them back on Manchester and Imperial while Kyle sulked.
When they got back, Kyle hurried to the refrigerator and yanked open the door. Ruthie happened to be standing a few feet away and tried to block him.
‘Oh, not tonight, hon,” she said.
Instead of answering, Kyle grabbed her shoulder and pushed her across the room. She slid a few yards and hit her head against the door. When the ambulance came, her shirtwaist was soaked with her blood. Her daughters helped her and Kyle was gone. This time she needed twelve stitches near the crown of her head. They had to shave a spot.
Tommy the cop found Kyle two hours later, parked under the trees at Hillcrest Park. He sat on his car hood and smoked cigarettes, staring west across Spadra.
“You got a big problem, mister,” Tommy said. “I could run you in right now for assault, leaving a scene.”
“You gonna?” Kyle asked him, in a voice without much life in it. He didn’t look at the other man, either.
“I should. I don’t know. What’s eating you, anyway, buddy?”
Kyle didn’t answer right away. Then he said:
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you better figure it out, pal. Or you’ll be in trouble bad.”
“Is Ruthie OK?”
“Not sure. Cut her head. Lot of blood.”
“I don’t deserve her, Tom,” Kyle said.
“Oh, Jesus Christ. What is this? ‘The Edge Of Night’? You never used to drink. What happened?”
The cop looked at his watch and turned around.
“You ready to go home?” he said.
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“You’re gonna have to explain yourself.”
Kyle nodded. He would.
More police were waiting at his house. They drank coffee and Kyle told his story, what little he understood of it. Tommy left. All the cops had played football together.
The cop in charge stubbed out his cigarette.
“All right, Kyle. This is your lucky day. One more free pass. There won’t be another. Understand?”
“Yeah,” Kyle said, and he sounded meek.
“Ever heard of Alcoholics Anonymous?” the other cop said.
“Only in passing. I’m no alcoholic.”
“Doesn’t matter. Will you start attending meetings?”
“To learn how to Cha-Cha-Cha, you idiot. To learn not to drink.”
“All right,” Kyle said.
“Let’s go,” the first cop said and stood up.
Kyle was true to his word. He went to meetings in La Habra so his friends wouldn’t see him. Then he started going to meetings at a church out on Gilbert. He learned a lot. Sometimes he was bored, other times disgusted. He liked a lot of the people. He didn’t drink.
He and Ruthie never talked about that day he pushed her. Not exactly. They went for a drive sometimes. They shopped at the Broadway and went to movies. Ruthie didn’t cook as much now, or knit. She still read a lot. Book of the Month Club. Kyle got interested in the American Civil War.
Their youngest daughter, Sylvia, was a live-wire who acted in plays, debated against kids from other high schools, and marched in the drill team at the new high school. Ruthie and Kyle went to watch whenever they could. She was tiny, too, like her mom.
Kyle and Ruthie were forty-one years old. Her birthday was June 30, and Kyle had been sober for a year. They decided to drive up to see Hearst Castle. Their girls would stay at her sister’s.
Kyle and Ruthie got an early start and decided to take Highway One. What an adventure. This was like being teenagers again. They played the radio and sang the songs. Ruthie even scooted over to sit next to Kyle on the front seat. The sun, the blue ocean, the fresh salt air!
In Goleta they stopped for burgers and fries with chocolate malts. Ruthie couldn’t stand ketchup any more, and ate half her burger, let Kyle finish it. He’d started smoking Kool cigarettes recently, instead of Camels. Ruthie thought that was kind of silly, but didn’t say anything. When they walked back out to the car, Kyle picked her up and carried her like a child in his big arms, the way they used to do. They laughed. She liked to feel his crewcut.
The long stretch by the ocean without any gas stations or motels was a kick.
“What if the car broke down?” she said, tongue-in-cheek.
“You mean if the engine fell out?” he quipped.
“What if a pack of hungry lions stopped us?”
she asked him.
He just laughed.
They loved Mr. Hearst’s castle and a night in Cambria, but they were homebodies and started back home a day early.
When they hauled in at 1 AM, they could hear music from the street, pulsating, hypnotic. Kyle went in by the service porch and said in a loud voice, “What the hell is that?”
He meant the acrid smoke. It was marijuana, and Sylvia stepped into the kitchen. Her eyes were wide with fear and she wore one of the new bathing suits, a “bikini”. The pupils of her eyes were dilated. Her friends had already scattered.
Kyle stood stock still for a second and the muscles in his neck, arms and chest hardened. He struggled to keep his balance and take a breath of air. Sylvia froze and her features tightened with terror.
Before he spoke, Kyle growled. Drawing out his words, he asked the girl, “What’s going on, Sylvia?”
She had just barely enough time to raise her arms in defense when her father sprang from his knees to lunge toward her.
Ruthie stepped to his side, pressed the barrel of his Colt M1911 against his throat and fired.
The red mist of his blood covered every surface in their kitchen including their bodies, while Kyle slumped to the floor.
Ruthie’s ears rang, and Sylvia’s. Without haste, they came together in an embrace.
Tommy was the first police officer to arrive. He threw up at what he saw, recovered, and gasped:
“I’m sorry Kyle ended his own life this way, Ruthie. He was one of my oldest friends. He couldn’t see a way out. I’m so sorry. May I have the gun, please?”
She handed it over.
In the years to come she never remarried or knitted again. She got an apartment on Union by the record store and had grandchildren over whenever they could come. Tommy the cop died two years later on a fishing trip in Baja when the boat sank in a storm.
Ruthie volunteered to shelve books at the library on Pomona, went to movies at the Fox with friends and volunteered at St. Jude, too. Every year she donated a big box of books to the library. She sang in her church choir and baked cakes for their sales. Whenever her high school class had a reunion she went, and sometimes served on the committee. People said it was a shame, what happened to Kyle.
Ruthie would have agreed.