The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Tiny Points of Life

Paper Walls

The walls were made of paper. So she could hear everything.


The unbidden movie now playing on the screen of her imagination was as disgusting as it was implausible. She lay awake, staring at her white, waxy ceiling, just waiting for it to end.

She wanted to pound on the paper wall behind her bed. She wanted them to know that she was just right there on the other side, held hostage by their angrily amorous feelings for each other.

But she did not.

Ruth never did that kind of thing. She had never been that kind of person. She endured problems, even problems like this one, until they simply went away.

Ruth’s sister, Desiree, would have pounded once on the wall and if that didn’t do the trick she would have stomped right out into the hallway in her little underthings and kicked the offending neighbor’s door in. Desiree solved problems like their mother.

Ruth, on the other hand, followed her father’s lead. Exceedingly nice. Exceedingly polite. Good things came to those who waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The Cordial family was an odd assortment to be sure. Ruth’s mother never stopped talking or looking for fights. She had a list of enemies a mile long. She was the tough-as-nails neighbor with an ironic name.

Ruth’s father, a machinist who spent his days listening to conversations between bits of metal, rarely said anything. He was beloved by just about everyone, even those who barely knew him. All of her parents’ friends were really her father’s friends.

Desiree was a police officer for the Chicago Police Department and mostly took what she wanted from life. As a rookie, Desiree set her sights on the assignments she wanted and always got them so fast that she was frequently the subject of gossip around the department that maybe she was bartering her way to the top.

When Desiree saw the man she wanted, a young architect named Malcomb, she hauled him off a bar stool by the short hairs and married him within six months of learning his name.

Desiree wanted a nice home. So now she lives in a nice four-bedroom-wrap-around-deck-two-car-garage-two-fireplace pad up in Cedar Heights with a nice big lawn.

Desiree wanted three children, a boy and two girls, and zip, bang, boom, Praise Jesus, now she’s got those too.

Desiree was just like that.

And then there was Ruth. Quiet Ruth. No man. No kids. No real friends. Working as a quality inspector at Sweet Toot’s Confection Connection. Trying to sleep in a tiny room with paper walls that shook with the force of her neighbor’s conflicted affection for his guest soprano, and yet unwilling to clear her throat about it, let alone pound out an objection on the wall.

She would wait.

The man in 10B was new to the building. Ruth had seen him just yesterday out in the hallway. He was pulling a rolling basket of groceries as he searched every pocket for a key to his door.

He was a crumpled cigarette of a man with a sour expression on his face and a balding white pate. He muttered to himself as he walked, like he was holding down two sides of a whispered argument that no one was winning. The air around him smelled of garlic and smoke. A carton of Marlboros poked out of the top of the bag. Ruth had surmised almost instantly that she would not like him.

But she had said hello anyway. The man did not respond. Didn’t even look at her.

Another nut, Ruth had thought, shaking her head.

She was surrounded by nuts.

The grim woman across the hall in 10C, who laughed uproariously at some program every night between nine and ten, and then argued about money with someone on the phone between ten-thirty and eleven, turning the hallway blue with profanity.

The man in 10E who wore the same plaid pants and striped shirt every single day, without exception.

The man next to her in 10F, which, whenever he opened his door, smelled like dying fish and cheap cologne.

And now the nut in 10B.

She did not know any of them beyond a passing nod every now and then, as chance would have it. She couldn’t say that she had ever actually met any of them. They all stayed in their separate little spaces. Ruth did too.

The night was long and restless. Morning came early without any regard for the quality of Ruth’s sleep. She pushed herself up and sat on the edge of her bed, sturdy brown feet on the floor, staring out the window ten stories above a dingy white carpet of day-old snow.

She listened. All was quiet on the other side of the paper wall. It seemed that the cigarette man and his angry lover were sleeping soundly. She wanted to turn up her clock radio as loud as it would go, or throw shoes at the wall, or sing something by Smokey Robinson at the top of her lungs. Just to see how they liked it.

But she didn’t.

When the cobwebs had mostly melted away, Ruth forced herself up and made the bed, carefully fluffing the pillows and tightening the bedspread as though to impress eventual guests, even though she knew that there would be no guests. Not tonight. Probably not ever.

Ruth never had guests. Guests were friends. Guests were lovers. Guests were even one-night mistakes from some poorly lit lounge where the bartender yells out last call and you think, oh what the hell and introduce yourself to the man putting on his coat. Ruth had never made her bed as a child, nor all the way through high school. Then, once she graduated, got a job at Sweet Toot’s and moved into Apartment 10D, she decided that she was going to be the type of person who had friends and lovers and one-night mistakes. She started making her bed in the mornings on the force of the lie that she just might have company of some sort or another.

She waited. And waited.

Now the lie she had once told herself in the mornings had become purely habit, a kind of vestigial optimism reduced to a set of rote arm movements over the place she slept. Or tried to sleep.

She showered and dressed and ate some cereal. She put on her coat and gloves, closed the blinds and headed off to work, locking the door behind her and yawning powerfully. The doors lining the hallway to the elevators were all closed. Her fellow tenants were either already gone or sealed inside their compartments like bees in honeycomb.

It was cold outside. Ruth muttered her little prayer as she crossed the parking lot to her car, a brownish beat-up second-hand Chevy that liked to cause her problems on cold mornings.

“Please Lord, let it start. Just let it turn over.”

She opened the car door, looking back across the parking lot to her building. It towered over her, a perfectly square box with one hundred and forty-four holes punched in it. Ruth counted up and sideways until she found her little space in the box. She did this every morning just to make sure she had remembered to close the blinds and turn off the light.

She had. But there was a tiny little itch in the back of her mind anyway. Like she had forgotten something.

“Please Lord, please Lord…”

Ruth climbed in and turned the key. It was close. Too close. For a minute she thought for sure that she would have to take the bus, which would have surely made her late for work. But just at the last second the Chevy backfired and, once again, sputtered to life.

She drove to work, steam coming out of her mouth, listening to the radio. Had it been up to her, she would have preferred that the heater work and that radio be on the fritz. But it had not been up to her. So few things were.

The box of business cards was still in the passenger seat where she had forgotten them. Sweet Toot’s had decided to reward each of its Quality Inspectors by having 200 business cards printed up for each employee and presenting them as a special Thank You at the last annual review. The 200 cards came packed in a small box. The card stock was barely thicker than ordinary paper. Besides that, the size was all wrong; they were much too large and square to fit any regular wallet.

Worst of all, they misspelled her first name: R-u-t-t.

Ruth did not know what she was supposed to do with business cards anyway, even if they had been the right size and had spelled her name correctly. She pictured herself handing them out to people on the bus on mornings when her car would not start. The idea of it almost made her laugh. The little box had been rolling around in her front seat for a month. 

A raise would have been much better than a box of unusable cards. She should have said something. She should have spoken her mind. She should have reminded them how to spell her name. Reminded them that it damn well matters. Ruth shook her head slowly in a disappointment tinged with anger and self-loathing.

At least it was the morning jazz hour when she drove to work. Ruth liked jazz. They were playing John Coltrane. She liked The Train, as her father called him.  My Favorite Things. She turned it up a little and then turned it up again, trying to buoy her mood so that she could meet her job with the full head of steam that she would need to get through her day.

And it would certainly take a full head of steam to get through the day. Sweet Toot’s Confection Connection was still in the Push Zone, or sometimes just The Push or The Zone, which is how Sweet Toot’s management chose to refer to that stretch of calendar between January 10 and February 10, when the demand for chocolate candy spiked in anticipation of Valentines Day.  Sweet Toot’s shipped out more boxes of chocolate candy in The Push than the next six months of the year combined. To handle the demand, Toot’s always added another shift in all departments, including another shift of quality inspectors, and it never really seemed to make any difference. It was always a mad scramble.

So every day in The Zone took a lot of energy. If you didn’t have the energy, then you couldn’t keep up. If you didn’t keep up, you got written up. Get written up three times in a year and you were out. Simple as that.

Lots of people showed up to work at Sweet Toot’s highly caffeinated from lattes or energy drinks, slipping into their baggy whites—the sterile garb all employees were required to wear inside the production room – nervous and jittery and looking like they wanted to break into a full out run to their workstations. Ruth could not handle the caffeine. Even just a little bit in her system kept her awake at night. Not that it would have made any difference.

They were now only half way through Push Zone and Ruth already had two strikes against her. One of them was fair and one of them completely unfair. The unfair strike stemmed from an instruction that she inspect a batch of Nummy Nougat Squares that turned out had already been inspected by a second-shift inspector. The second-shift inspector lacked experience and had put the boxes in the wrong bin. Ruth had inspected sixty-five boxes before she realized the mistake. By that time the second-shift inspector was gone and Ruth was left holding the bag, having wasted a lot of time. Virgil Pearce, her supervisor, had given her a look from the platform above the production floor.

Strike two, said the look.

Totally unfair, but that hardly mattered now. She had two strikes. She needed to be perfect for The Push. After that, the pace would lighten a bit and keeping up would not be as difficult. But for the next two weeks, there was no room for mistakes.

Giant Steps started in after My Favorite Things. Ruth turned up the radio some more and cut through a neighborhood to avoid the construction that the road signs had been promising for the past mile. The houses were squat, brown little things, each identical to the next except for what might be hiding inside, arranged in decorous rows that were separated by snow berms piled up against thin wooden fences. There was something inexpressibly sad about them. Like they were waiting for something that would never come.  Ruth turned up the music, bouncing in her seat a little to stay warm, and hummed all the way to the freeway.

She parked in slot 7J in the North Lot. Slot 7J in the North Lot had been Ruth’s assigned parking space since the first year of her employment. The space was exactly dead center of Column J, which itself was almost in the middle of the rows that were lined up like ridges bearing colorfully bruised metal fruit stretching out across the North Lot.

Ruth climbed out, slammed the car door with the requisite authority to keep it closed, and trekked across the North Lot for the Production Building. John Coltrane was still in her head, psyching her up for another day in The Push.

Inside, she put her coat and gloves and purse in her locker, clocked in, checked out her baggies from the supply clerk and suited up, piling her hair on top of her head beneath what resembled a white paper shower cap.

Out on the floor, a small army of people, all in identical white baggies, were busy assembling thousands of boxes of chocolates in thirteen different sizes and assortments. The fruits. The nuts. The crèmes. The nougats. The mallows. The wafers. The milks. The darks. The whites. Small box. Medium box. Large box. Jumbo.

The machinery in the room was uncomfortably loud, even with her earplugs in, and the air smelled so intensely of sugar and cocoa that it gave Ruth a headache just breathing it. She used to love chocolate before this job. Now she couldn’t stand the stuff.

Not that Sweet Toot’s was supplying the world with a premium chocolate product anyway. Far from it. The ingredients were strictly bottom shelf. Toot’s distributed only to the lowest-end box store retailers and sent nearly half of their supply overseas to Africa and Asia. The thing Toot’s had on the competition was price, volume, and a longevity that had given it a recognizable name. On every box, no matter the size or the assortment plan inside, was the large pair of lips that had been the Sweet Toot’s logo from the very beginning, back when William and Suzanna Tute hung out the Welcome sign in the window of a narrow storefront in Springfield, Illinois. Along the bottom of every box were the words:

Sweet Toot’s Confection Connection. Smooth, Creamy, 51% Pure Chocolate.
America’s chocolatier since 1956.

Ruth walked out to Inspection Station 4, looking up at the platform; a big flat rectangle on a concrete pole with a set of metal stairs sloping down from one end. Virgil Pearce and his big, bald, head were on duty. He had his back turned, looking over the railing on the other side, down at the drizzle pads. She was disappointed. Ruth had wanted Virgil to see that she was on time – a little early, in fact.

A figure in baggie whites was bent over the table at Inspection Station 4, counting and making notes on her sheet. The scheduling craziness being what it was during The Push, Ruth had no idea who her alternate was supposed to be this week. When she reached the table, Ruth tapped the person on the shoulder. The baggies made everyone look so much alike from behind that it was almost like tapping herself on the shoulder. The alternate turned. It was LaVonda Roberts.

They knew each other, but not well, having exchanged only maybe two dozen words in passing each other back and forth across the production floor, and then a little chit-chat last Spring over a lunch break.

“I hate this place,” LaVonda had said back then. “I’ll be gone before the next Push, you watch and see, Sue. You watch and see.”

Ruth had not bothered to correct LaVonda about her name. To this day she supposed that LaVonda, who despite her intentions was obviously still working the Push, only now on the second-shift, still thought Ruth’s name was Sue. Ruth marveled at how little the Sweet Toot’s employees, sealed away in their white suits, really knew one another.

LaVonda hardly registered Ruth’s presence before she snatched her count sheets off the table and abandoned Inspection Station 4, pushing past Ruth and heading off across the production floor toward the exit.

Ruth watched her go. Then she picked up where LaVonda had left off, starting her way through a fifty-stack of medium Lovers.

A Lover was short for Lover’s Delight, which corresponded to an Assortment Plan of 30% nuts, 30% crème, 30% nougat, and 10% fruit, each to be half milk chocolate and half dark chocolate. Ruth sat down on the stool, filled out the top of a count sheet with her name, employee number, the time, date, station number, and Lover’s Delight as the first APB – which stood for Assortment Plan Batch – inspected on her shift.

One by one, Ruth opened up the rectangular boxes from the stack in front of her. All of the boxes she inspected in a given shift were to equal one-tenth of the total production of that APB for that shift. At the height of the Push, Toot’s was producing ten thousand boxes of Lover’s Delight, its most popular Assortment Plan, every shift. The target inspection ratio, therefore, meant that one fifty-stack at a time, Ruth would look at a thousand boxes of Lovers, plus an equivalent ratio of at least four other Assortment Plans, before she clocked out for the day. Falling behind was discouraged.

She already had two strikes.

Lid off, she lifted the padded white paper cover.  Counting the chocolates—each keeping quietly to themselves in their little paper holes – she then verified that the actual assortment corresponded with the Lovers Delight assortment plan. She made a note on the count sheet, returned the padded paper cover, returned the lid, placed the box on the return cart waiting at the near-end of the inspection station, and then picked the next box off the fifty-stack and started again.

In twenty minutes she was through the entire stack. She rolled the return cart across the floor over to Production Bin 4B and stacked all of the boxes onto the shelf for wrapping and sealing. Then she loaded another fifty-stack from Production Bin 4A onto the return cart and rolled the cart back across the floor to Inspection Station 4.  She loaded the boxes up onto the station table, started a new count sheet, and pulled the top box of Lovers off the stack.

Giant Steps and My Favorite Things were playing on a private loop as she worked, Coltrane’s notes skittering around her head like undisciplined children on a green field in summer; like Desiree’s kids out in the back yard when Ruth sat for them while Desiree and Malcomb spent a week at the beach in South Carolina. Ruth – she was called Auntie Ruth – had stayed at Desiree’s house for that week, taking time off from her job so that she could have a kind of vacation herself. Desiree’s house was so open and spacious that every room – very few of which were truly enclosed—led to an impulse to stand in the center and spin with her arms completely outstretched. The children laughed at this and copied her until they were all dizzy and started falling down onto the furniture, which felt to Ruth like falling into clouds. There was also a large sunroom off the kitchen looking out over the back yard. Ruth spent much of her week in that sunroom, sitting on the over-stuffed sofa with lemonade in her hand and watching the children chase each other giggling and shrieking through the sprinkler. On the coffee table in front of the couch was a large leather book of family photographs. It was like a photo journal of everything Malcomb and Desiree had ever done together and every place they had ever visited.

That week had only been two summers ago. It felt like ten years had passed.

Ruth worked steadily until her lunch break. She looked up to the platform on her way back across the floor. Virgil was up there leaning against the railing like he liked to do. He was looking down right at her. Their eyes made contact. He nodded, as if to acknowledge that Ruth was there and on pace. Ruth nodded back.

It was important to be on pace when you got to the lunch break. If you were behind the pace at the time you took your lunch, it could be very difficult to make it up before the end of the shift. Ruth had done it before; made up lost time. She had done it more than once. And each of those times she had worried that the third strike was coming. It wasn’t easy.

In the summer months, Ruth usually ate her lunch out in her car with the windows rolled down and the radio on, which was infinitely preferable to eating in the din of the cafeteria, where each production zone had assigned tables. She was assigned to Table 9. In the winter, when it was too cold to sit outside in the car, she usually ate a sandwich in one of the chairs lined up along the back of the room and read a book until it was time to get back into her baggies and head back out onto the floor.

Today presented something of a problem, which she did not realize until she had opened up her locker. She had forgotten the book she was currently reading at home. That had been the little itch in the back of Ruth’s mind as she stood looking up at the towering rectangle of her apartment building, praying that her car would start.

The book. She had forgotten the damned book.

The book was another improbable romance potboiler by Josephine Banks. She had written at least a dozen and Ruth had read most of those. This one, Overdraft, was about an accomplished international spy who falls for bank teller in Long Island. Ruth had gotten up in the middle of the night and fished it out of her purse in hopes of reading herself to sleep. Not only had that strategy failed to overcome the sounds angry lovemaking that had kept her awake, she had forgotten the book on the nightstand. Now she had nothing to pass the time over lunch. The prospect of sitting in the back of the cafeteria for an hour was not appealing. Nor was eating off the cafeteria menu.

Ruth grabbed her coat and gloves out of her locker, purchased a sandwich, chips and a soda from the vending machine and headed outside to her car. It wasn’t summer, but maybe it would do for today.

The temperature had risen a good ten degrees, which was welcome, but the sky was still an oppressive, cottony white, like someone had laid a paper sheet over the world that diffused the sun into a fine mist that sprayed evenly over everything.

Ruth walked across the North Lot over to Row J and then down to her car in slot 7. She climbed in and closed the door. She ate her lunch with gloves on, alone, surrounded by empty cars.

Ruth turned on the radio.

The interviewer was asking questions of a woman with a low, raw voice – a smoker’s voice – with a New York accent. From the sound of it she was an older woman. They were discussing relationships. She had a sense of humor. She was irascible. She did not suffer fools.

The interviewer reminded the audience, for those just tuning in.

Ruth was astounded. Josephine Banks.

What were the odds of that? Having forgotten the book, she had stumbled upon an interview with the author. What were the odds?

But that was not quite right, was it? It was not so coincidental after all. Coincidence belongs to the realm of unconnected events and chance collisions in time. But Ruth had stumbled upon the interview with the Josephine Banks precisely because she had forgotten the book. It was, she thought, like someone, somewhere was trying to tell her something.

Ruth turned up the radio.

You have a new book coming out.

Yes. ‘Cutting Paper Hearts.’ My publisher says it will be out on Valentines Day. Which is appropriate, I suppose, since the protagonist is employed by a greeting card company.

So this character actually writes the messages in the Valentine’s Day cards we see in the store.

Yes. He ends up as a suspect in a series of murders in New York in which his little love ditties somehow end up stenciled onto the bodies of the victims. As the case unwinds, he ends up in a … a, relationship, shall we say, with one of the detectives working the case.

So then the Valentines Day release date is hardly a coincidence of timing.

There is no such thing, Terri, as a coincidence of timing.

It’s no secret that you were a very lonely child when you were growing up. You’ve written about that.

Yes. As a child and into my early adulthood. I was always alone. Didn’t have any real friends. My parents…well, I suppose we’ve talked enough about them already. I was on my own, emotionally anyway, from an early age.

You have a fascinating account in your biography about how you met your husband and long-time editor, Moe Asner. Can you share that?

Moe. God bless him. Such a good man to put up with this old battle-axe all of these years. I met Moe…well, let me tell it this way. When I was a seventeen year-old girl I had a job as an assistant librarian in the New York Public Library. My job was to shelve books. I shelved a billion books a day. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Very little contact with others. You pick up the books laying around, you put them on the cart, you sort them, you put them on the shelf. It was a pretty good job in the sense that it provided me with some money and I liked being in the company of books. Those were my real friends, those books. On my breaks I had favorite little places where I could curl up and work on my writing.  But it was a very lonely time for me. The world around that library seemed inhospitable and frightening. I didn’t know how to go out into that world and exist. I just didn’t. I felt trapped and very isolated.

And just to set the scene a little, you were seventeen or so which makes this about, what, nineteen fifty…

Oh, 1955. Maybe 1956. And so I’m spending a whole heck of a lot of time cooped up in the New York Public Library and feeling pretty sorry for myself. And one day I’m sitting at this table in front of a big stack of books, I used to kind of build a wall of books on the table to write behind, and I was trying to think of a story to write and nothing was in my head except how miserable and alone I felt. And without really thinking about it, I tore off a piece of paper from my pad and I wrote out a little note.

What did it say?

It said this: ‘I am here. A word. A name, languishing at the bottom of an ocean of tiny, sterile letters, desperate to be spoken. Desperate to be the sound on your lips. I am waiting. Seek me out. Rescue me from this cruel, still oblivion.’

Wow. Okay. Seventeen.

Yes. And then I put my name and address at the bottom of the note. This was back before any of us were concerned about privacy or personal security to such an extent that you did not want people to know where you lived. I opened up the closest book and I stuck in the note.

Kind of like putting a ‘rescue me’ note in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean.

Exactly, Terri. I was on an island. Something about doing that felt so desperate and at the same time strangely liberating.

Why do you think that was?

I was such a timid and shy person that the act of inviting rescue was a kind of self-assertion. It was an affirmation that I wanted to live and that I deserved to be happy even if I seemed to have no ability to achieve those things for myself. And so I kept doing it. Multiple times a day. Every day.

You wrote notes and put them into the books.

Yes. The notes weren’t all exactly the same. Sometimes I slipped in some poetry or some quote that I thought was particularly profound. But they were all variations on the theme of inviting rescue. And they always included my name and address.

And did you get any responses?

A few, yes. The most immediate response was from the head librarian who found out about it and fired me on the spot. She was outraged that I was abusing my position with the library to actually invite what was certain to be morally depraved men into my life. She was very sensitive to scandal and so out I went. But I also heard from a man who found one of my notes in A Tale of Two Cities. He showed up at my home looking for me with a bunch of flowers.

Did you think that was sweet? Were you pleased?

Oh immensely. Yes. But he was a good twenty years older than I was and he had picked the flowers out of my mother’s garden, which was not something one did and lived to tell about it.  He did not even make it up the front steps before my father kicked him off the property. There were a couple of other people that made contact. Including a woman who was very nice. Alice Sellers. She was a secretary at an accounting firm. We became friends and were friends for a long time thereafter. Alice became what I thought of as the success story from that silly little experiment. As I grew older, I began to come to terms with the world and took some greater responsibility for my own happiness.

Did you have any memorable romances?

Romance was never really a part of my life except, ironically, it was the thing I wrote about as much as anything else. I am known as a romance writer although I like to think I am offering much more than that to my readers. Anyway, in those years I had sort of resigned myself to being a writer in the purest sense, committed to rendering life more than living it. I did marry once, to an advertising man, when I was in my early thirties. It was a disaster of a union and it ended ugly. We divorced after only a year and it confirmed for me that I would always be alone.

And then one day…

Yes. When I was thirty-nine years old I was working as a copy editor for Houghton Mifflin. I was sitting the counter at Woolworth’s eating my lunch and reading a book. A man walked up to me. He was in a nice suit and a smart hat. Are you Josephine Banks, he asked. I said I was. He said, did you used to live at 1414 Sommerset Way? I said that yes I had. He said that his name was Moe Asner, and he worked as an editor over at Knopf. Very confused at this point, I asked how I could help him. He sat down next to me and pulled out of his pocket a scrap of paper. The paper had my handwriting on it. He said, ‘I believe this belongs to you. I found it in the middle of Great Expectations.’

What did you do?

Well I didn’t know what to do. I think, to Moe’s great amusement, I just sat there sputtering in disbelief.  Finally, I found the wherewithal to ask when he had found the note. He told me he’d had it for ten years. That was about the time that my first book of stories was published. Moe had read that book and I think he was sort of impressed, given my age, which was only about six years younger than him, but still. He was impressed. And when he found the note, well, Moe made the connection, and he thought that it had to be the hand of fate that he found this note just as he was reading my book. He did his research, confirmed the address, and then tucked the note away. He kind of followed me from afar. He purchased everything I published after that.

Why did he wait ten years?

Well, even though Moe by that time was already a brilliant editor, socially he was very shy. Very reclusive. I learned later just how much courage it took for Moe to approach me like that. It turned out that two days before he had just finished reading an article that I had written for a regional magazine about Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure I can recall what the article was about. Ghastly I’m sure. But Moe had happened upon the article because it was the only magazine on the table to read in the barbershop where he was waiting to have his hair cut. He decided that there were no coincidences in timing and that he would set out to find me. And he did.

Find you as a person or as a writer?

There is no difference, Terri. Not for me anyway. And not for Moe.

What did he think about the note? What did he tell you that day in Woolworth’s?

Criticism I will never forget.


Yes. He said it was much too passive.  You laugh, but that’s God’s honest truth. Too passive. From that moment on, Moe Asner was my editor. Still is. Everything I do still goes through Moe. He proposed a year later. We’ve been married ever since. Two children. Six grandchildren. Three great grandchildren.

That is such an incredible story. And it never would have happened if you hadn’t…

Ruth turned off the radio and wiped her eyes.  Her nose was running. She wiped it clean with her napkin. Her fingers and toes were numb from the cold. All of the windows were steamed to an opaque frosted white. There was nothing of the world that she could see and no way for any of the world to see her. All she could feel of herself, the only proof of her existence, was the ache in her chest, which was like an altogether different kind of cold, pulling her ribcage inward with frozen chains as her heart fought the good fight of expansion.

She looked at her watch. She had fifteen minutes before she had to be back in her white baggies, walking across the production floor to Inspection Station 4. If she knew what was good for her she would be early. She could impress Virgil Pearce up there on the platform and stay ahead of the pace. She already had two strikes.

She wadded up her napkin and stuffed it into the empty bag of chips and then closed it up inside the triangular plastic shell that hade previously contained her corned beef sandwich. She placed the container in the passenger seat.

She looked at it, sitting there next to the flimsy, oversized business cards she had never used.

Ruth opened the box and pulled out a cheap, flimsy card.  Rutt Cordial. Product Quality Inspector. Sweet Toot’s Confection Connection. That was all. Not even the famous Toot’s lips logo.

Ruth leaned over and opened the glove box and found a pen. She turned the card over and wrote the words:

I am here. A flavor. A cordial. A lover’s delight—brown, creamy and only 80% pure—languishing at the bottom of a tiny box of tiny boxes. Desperate to be free of these paper walls.  To taste and be tasted. Rescue me from this cruel, still oblivion. And my name is Ruth, not Rutt.

On the other side, she crossed out Rutt, substituted Ruth, and beneath her name, she wrote her phone number.

She held the card up to the frosted light and looked at it, turning it over and over in her hand. Coltrane’s Giant Steps was back in her head, refusing to be silent. Ruth looked down at the box of cards. She pulled out half the box and stuffed them in her pocket.

She pushed open the car door, slammed it hard to keep it closed, and walked so fast across the North Lot to the production building that it was almost a jog. The truth was, she needed to hurry. The afternoon shift was going to be much less productive now.

The sky above was still oppressively overcast. But the clouds were definitely thinning. And lifting. To the west, as Ruth darted into the building, was a veiled glimmer of sun.

Like the eye of God preparing to peak beneath the lid.

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