THE GROOM by Paul Ruta

I just work here, okay, so it weren’t my job to speak up when I dug the ring out of Prince’s hoof with my pick, packed into the groove there with the mud and manure. I stuck it in my pocket and said nothing cause they’d only take it away from me and they got no right. Anyhow it’s just a plain wedding band, but solid gold I reckon, so it’s gonna be worth something.

Found it fair and square so I keep it in a cigarette pack in a drawer with the rest of my stuff—my jackknife, my wallet of snapshots and all my deep, dark secrets, ha ha. Like I got any secrets everybody on this spread don’t already know. Even the horses know my business but that’s cause I go ahead and tell them everything I got. And why not? We look after a whole couple of barn-loads of retired pacers and trotters and a few off-the-track thoroughbreds and they got nothing to do all day except stand around and listen to my bull and wonder what’s next in life.

After supper I shut my door and set the latch. A thin plank door to a plain wooden room is what they give you out here. Mister Quinn don’t waste paint on the hired help. It’s an old bunkhouse and even though there’s bunkbeds built in we all get our own private room. Less risk of fistfights and homosexual behavior, is how mister Quinn explained it when I first moved in. I guess they’d’ve built it for summertime workers that came to pick tomatoes and whatnot back when this was farmland. There’s no crops to pick now unless you count the million rocks we yank out of the mud like giant Easter eggs every April, when the ground’s good and thawed up. You could build yourself a wall with the rocks we clear out of them paddocks. The bunkie’s freezing at night and it’s still only the middle of November. For jokes we call it the jailhouse on account of there’s nowhere else you can go. It’s worse in winter.

I shut the door and sit on my bed, bottom bunk of course. Not that I seen it, but Annabelle says she sleeps on her top bunk cause she personally feels safer that way with such a crummy old lock on the door that wouldn’t keep out a one-legged rabbit. Bunch of horny old cowboys, she calls the rest of us. I tip out the ring and turn it over and over in my palm. I look at it right up close while the metal gets warm. She’s a beauty. I look and wonder but keep quiet cause you know the walls have ears. I like this secret while it still belongs to me. Nothing lasts forever, good or bad, specially not secrets.

Every day I hold it for longer and longer, though I got to confess it gives me a funny feeling every time I touch it, kind of queasy and tingly at the same time, like I got no business messing around with this thing. I know it really belongs to somebody else—I’m guessing one of the horse owners—and I bet right now they’re trying to remember where they might’ve dropped it. I hope they got a bad memory. But there’s something more about this ring…it’s like a mystery, something to figure out. I take it out of that red cigarette pack every night and look at it glowing in my hand. Pack’s half empty. DuMaurier king size. The finest filter tip cigarette is what the ad says. I don’t hardly smoke except on special occasions.

It’s been pert near a week and finally I work up the nuts to try it on. I pretend like I went and found myself a blushing bride in a long white dress, blonde and perfect with ruby red lips, to have and to hold, and I picture her sliding the ring onto my finger up there at the altar. I like a big church wedding, the idea of that. Mom would’ve liked it too. The ring fits bigger than I expect and I got to crick my finger to stop it slipping past the knuckle. I go to sleep wearing it and I’m hoping maybe the ring has the power to bring dreams of love and comfort like a fresh married man surely has.

I wake up in the morning and I feel my dreams were blank. Just nothing. Then I see the ring must’ve slipped off and I find it hiding in the folds of the sheet. Like it went looking for someone else’s finger in the middle of the night and got lost along the way.

***

Steve says it’s his birthday on Friday night, it’ll be a hoot. We all know it’s not his real birthday, that’s jokes. He says it’s his birthday whenever he wants to party—and that turns out to be every couple of weeks or so, ha ha. He can say whatever he wants cause he’s the barn boss. He’s no different than the rest of us except he been here longer and he’s the one that goes around and tells everybody to stop scratching their ass and get busy. He never has to tell that to me too much, on account of I like the work and I been raised to appreciate the opportunity.

Steve’s not the big boss. That’ll be big old mister Quinn up at the house, though you hardly never see him, even when we have our meals up there. He’s not the type that likes to get his boots dirty, if you know what I’m saying. You see him the day you get hired and the day you get fired and not much in between. We see missus Quinn every single day, in that apron she always got on when she’s dishing meals, and she got this big ladle and says she’ll conk us the head if we don’t eat everything that’s on our plate. Sometimes her sister comes and helps out too and they’re both real nice.

We all pitch in a couple bucks and somebody, usually Steve but sometimes Pedro, goes into town in mister Quinn’s pickup and gets some two-fours of beer for the party along with a barrel of creosote or some baling wire depending on what errand he’s running. After supper we go to the jailhouse ballroom, the seven of us—Steve and us. There’s nobody else to invite except the two young Philippine ladies working up at the house. They never come when we ask so we got tired of inviting them.

We call it the ballroom, ha ha. It’s nothing really, just a room at the end of the hallway with two chesterfields and a table and chairs to play cards at, though I never been one much for poker. First I win, then I lose, and next thing I know I’m all out of nickels. TV’s kind of busted and it’s black and white and only gets the CBC anyways so nobody switches it on hardly anymore except for when it’s Hockey Night in Canada.

When I get to the ballroom after supper on Friday Steve looks at me all serious and goes hey Lyle, did you buy me a birthday present? And I say no, Steve, but I baked you a cake, then the store run out of candles cause you’re so old. We say this back and forth every time, that’s our joke and we laugh. Then he grabs me and rubs me a hard noogie and says go on Lyle, you party animal, go get yourself a beer, there’s a suitcase of Red Cap keepin’ warm on the back stoop. He says warm but he means cold, I know that’s jokes, so I go out there and grab a brew and go back inside, though to tell the truth I don’t drink all that much neither. No particular reason, just never took to it.

Steve’s a tough barn boss, he cracks the whip on us all day cause that’s his job, and then on party night he’s pretty okay once he gets to drinking. He says goofy stuff that makes me laugh and forget about stuff for a while, so I guess it’s only fair he can have some of my share of beer if he wants it.

Somebody’d went and sprung for a forty-pounder of rye so we pass that around and everybody gets a few swigs. So we’re all standing around with a beer and handing the whiskey bottle back and forth, then Owen goes shit, man, I’m all out of smokes, who’s got any more smokes? I put my hand up and say I got some in my room. Owen says well then go get ’em, Lyle, what the hell you standin’ around here for, you scrawny little ponyfucker?

So I wipe my mouth and say okay and I duck out and go to my room and open the drawer and grab the red DuMaurier pack. For a second I forget the ring’s inside and holy crap I nearly give myself a heart attack. I hear Owen down the hallway yelling hurry it up, Lyle, fuck sakes. I’m halfway out the door already so all I can think is to put the ring in the front pocket of my jeans—the left pocket, the one with not too many holes in it.

Annabelle—she’s the girl—she brung her radio and plays that station with all the honkytonking music, Webb Pierce and Ray Price and them. The station’s out of Hamilton so it comes in good but Annabelle turns it up loud till the speaker goes screwy. That don’t matter, we know the tunes already and most of the words.

The fellas all take turns dancing with Annabelle, though it’s not what you’d call proper dancing, not like when there’s a real live fiddle band down at the legion hall. This is more like clomping round on a wood floor and making a bunch of noise in time to the music. Reminds me of chickens pecking round a barnyard. Makes me dizzy to look at. Annabelle hardly gets a chance to sit down—don’t even seem to want to, particularly—and anyhow she dances like swishing back and forth with a beer in one hand and a butt in the other, so she’s all set. The only break is when a slow song comes on and the fellas suddenly disappear like somebody cut the cheese big time, and they go out back to fetch another beer and take a leak off the stoop.

After I’ve had a couple beers and smokes Annabelle goes c’mon Lyle, it’s your turn, dance with me. I think of Annabelle sometimes when I’m alone in my room…and even when I’m scrubbing down a horse she pops into my mind for no particular reason, though she’s not the one I usually dream of. Annabelle yanks on my arm and says c’mon Lyle, dance with me, and I say gee I don’t know.

Then on the radio Hank Williams starts singing “Move It On Over” and that’s one of my favorites so I get up in my boots real quick after all.

Maybe it’s one of them instinct things but soon as Hank sings that line my door key don’t work no more I reach down and pat my hand round the outside of my left pocket, feeling round for where the ring’s at. I don’t know why, just checking to be sure I guess. It’s a deep pocket and takes a minute to locate the ring.

Annabelle sees and goes what’s a matter Lyle, Prince kick you again?—maybe you oughta stop tryin’ to grab his dick. I don’t know why she mentions Prince of all horses, cause he’s sweet as can be and he never once kicked me and he never would kick nobody and anyways he’s a gelding.

Lemme see what you got down there, says Annabelle. She reaches to grab my leg and I spin out of the way, pretending like I’m just dancing to the song. Annabelle laughs and goes hey Lyle, you’re not some kinda fruitcake are ya?

No, is all I can think of to say, and I keep my hand over the spot where the ring’s at.

Annabelle goes well then, how bout we find out about that?

Owen and Pedro grab me from behind and kick my feet out from underneath and next thing I know I’m pinned to the floor. Annabelle straddles me in her tight jeans and big silver belt buckle, and she rocks back and forth on me like I seen naked women do in videos. She leans in and she smells like oranges and rhubarb and I can see she done her hair nice for the party.

She says you’re not some kinda homo, are ya Lyle? She says that over and over, I wish she’d stop, and she keeps grinding and rocking back and forth and I feel myself swell up and get hard down there and I can hardly breathe and I’m not feeling too good.

Then she hops off and sticks her hand deep into my pocket and it’s all tickly as she feels around. She pulls out the ring, jumps up and lets out this big laugh and holds the ring up high like she won a bowling trophy or something. Everybody laughs and points like they never seen such a thing.

Steve goes okay knock it off, and he kicks Owen and Pedro out of the way and helps me up.

Then Annabelle starts singing here comes the bride and everybody joins in except Steve…he’s looking peeved. The song peters out, so they start chirping me with stuff like hey there loverboy, who’s the lucky lady—or who’s the lucky faggot, you freakin’ homo?

I brush the dirt and sawdust off my pants and Annabelle makes a big show of shoving the ring into her own pocket and making this big smoochy face like she’s daring me to come and take it off her. I guess people always need somebody to mess with. Course I don’t like it but I’ll take my lumps so long as they’re good to the horses…and to tell the truth they mostly are, so in my book they can’t be bad at heart. Anyways this is not forever. Nothing is, not even bad stuff. That’s the way I look at it.

I head down the hallway to my room and they’re still ragging on me and I hear the radio start up with that Lefty Frizzell song about the woman in a long black veil and the guy gets himself hung for a murder he never done rather than confess he was in the sack with his friend’s wife at the time. I believe I would defend a woman’s honor like that, too, if I ever get the opportunity.

The second I lay down, my bed starts spinning like when the tornado comes in The Wizard of Oz and I want to throw up but I don’t cause I’m so mad. My mom was a churchgoing lady and under her roof it was not allowed to say you were mad, on account of Jesus won’t like it. You’re not mad, Lyle, she always told me, you’re just upset…it’ll pass. Well, now I’m upset and mad. Upset at Annabelle and them for stealing my ring, and mad at myself cause I know I shouldn’t drink like that and get myself into all kinds of trouble. But they can call me a homo all day long if they want to, it don’t bother me. Sticks and stones is what I say.

I take my boots off and leave my clothes on. They’re dirty from the floor but not wet—you can sleep dirty but you can’t sleep wet. I curl up and push my face into the pillow and my own stink’s sunk right in there along with sour beer breath and cigarettes from the party. For sure it don’t smell like oranges and rhubarb and probably never will. I pull the clammy sheet overtop and the blanket that’s always too thin to keep you warm. Seems the only time you get warm around here this time of year is when you go up to the house for mealtimes…or when you dream of it. Mister Quinn says he switches on the bunkhouse heat not till first of December, that’s the law, so quit your bellyaching. Most nights I like to read for a bit before turning in, but not tonight. I’m bushed. They’re still going at it in the ballroom down the hallway, and the spinning bed means it’s gonna take forever to get to sleep, and when I do I bet I don’t dream of warmth or women or nothing else.

***

Come morning I wake up parched and my head’s pounding inside like it wants to jump out my eyeballs.

It’s still dark and even colder than when I went to bed. I reach over to switch on my lamp and just doing that makes me woozy. I sit up in bed for a minute to let it pass. Then I put on my boots but don’t do them up. I sneak open my door and, so the floor don’t creak, I shuffle down one side of the hallway to the bathroom to pee and gulp some water. Water out of the tap’s so cold I get brain freeze on top of the headache and I got no more aspirins.

Nothing’s happening in the jailhouse except all the snoring coming straight through the doors—they’re thin as a window and you can almost see through them too, ha ha. I get this weird feeling tiptoeing back down the hallway, like the whole jailhouse is one big snoring monster and I’m trapped inside. Like Jonah in the whale. Man, this headache got me imagining things and now I can’t think straight. Nobody’s awake yet, but the horses will be. It weren’t them that was up till all hours stomping around with a jug of whiskey, smoking O.P.s and scoffing people’s stuff out of their pockets. Horses hardly sleep anyways. Always got one eye open so they can see what’s coming.

Fastest way to get yourself canned around here is show up late and let your horses get dirty and hungry. So I lace up my boots and grab my jacket and gloves. Step outside and the wind whips round and freezing rain shoots in like flying needles and stings my face and ears. It’s only a minute to the stables but you got to take her slow cause it’s easy to flip on this lumpy ground in the dark. It’ll soften up into mud by early afternoon, and that’s a whole nother thing.

Inside the stables I switch on some big lights to see—and also cause mister Quinn up at the house gonna look out his window to see if anyone’s on the clock yet. The cats give me a pissy look when the lights come on cause they’re still on the prowl, so they go slouch off somewheres dark. It’s a tad warmer in here, in the stables, insulation’s not so bad or maybe it’s all them horse farts keeping the place warm, ha ha, and anyways my ears stop tingling. I go round with a hose and get everybody’s horses watered. That’s job one. Worst thing you can do in this world is let a horse go thirsty. It don’t matter whose horse it is.

It’s more than an hour before the next guy shows up. It’s Steve the barn boss, no big surprise there. He don’t come round to my end, he just goes about his business and says nothing, like his horses got tired of waiting and went and got fresh water on their own this morning, ha ha. So I keep quiet and go about my business too, cause there’s just as much shit to shovel on a Saturday as any other day of the week. That’s the thing with this job, you gotta give’r every day, but it’s all good.

One by one the rest of them trickle in, Annabelle too, and they all got something to say to each other as they grab their stuff and break out to their stalls and none of them come over and say boo to me.

***

By lunchtime the headache’s nearly gone though I feel blurry and don’t want to talk to nobody. But I skipped breakfast so now I’m hungry. So I go to Prince’s stall and think I’ll grab some oats from his bucket. I say hey Prince, you don’t mind if I steal some of your oats, do you buddy, just a little handful? He looks away like he could care less. Oats smell sweet and they smell better than they taste. You can eat them okay if you chew it up slow and good, your gut gets used to it. I cram a bunch in my mouth.

I lead Prince out and cross-tie him in the aisle so I can clean his stall, and when I’m done I dump my wheelbarrow and fetch my bucket and brushes. Prince keeps himself pretty good—he don’t roll around in his own dirt like some other horses I could name, so no need to hose him down today. His tail looks fine so I figure to leave that alone too.

Steve says the weather’s supposed to dry up soon and mister Quinn says for now it’s still too cold and wet to let horses run around outside catching pneumonia and breaking legs. He told us once if you ever let a horse go outside when it’s not supposed to, and it breaks a leg, first he’s gonna shoot the horse and then he’s gonna shoot you. Later, Steve said that’s a load of bullcrap, fellas, cause mister Quinn would never shoot a horse. We all laughed but to tell the truth I’m not sure if anything’s funny anymore.

I give Prince a quick brush all over then I comb out his mane, slow like, and I tell him about last night, about the Red Cap and rye, about the dancing and the pocket and the ring. Prince listens real quiet. When we’re done I take him back in his stall and he nods at the fresh straw. I give him a big ugly carrot from the bucket and stroke his blaze while he’s chewing and I tell him what a good, good boy he is.

I hear something and turn around. It’s Annabelle.

She knocks on the wood paneling and says knock knock at the same time even though I already turned around and I’m looking right at her. She holds up a plastic bag and says hey Lyle, I didn’t see you at lunch, I figured maybe you might want something to eat, it’s soup. I just stand there like a dime store dummy so she sets the bag on the ground and gives me a funny grin. Beef barley, she shrugs, then walks away.

In the bag there’s a styrofoam bowl and plastic spoon. Soup’s not too warm but tastes good. Lord knows why they make plastic spoons so small, it takes forever to eat.

When I’m nearly done I see something at the bottom of the bowl.

It’s the ring. I hardly believe it. I stare at it for a minute to see if it’s just my imagination.

I lift the ring out with the spoon and I have this idea to put it in my mouth to clean it off. Just then Prince lets out this snort—straw dust gets up his nose sometimes—and he bumps my shoulder and it makes me swallow the ring. I feel it slide all the way down my throat in slo-mo and I can’t stop it. I drop to my knees and retch into the bag. All the soup comes up and finally so does the ring.

I almost black out and I take a minute to catch my breath. Then I pick the ring out of the barf, wipe it on my shirt and stick it in my pocket like I did when I dug it out of Prince’s hoof in the first place. I feel like I’m gonna die but at least I got the ring back and that’s the main thing. I stand up and stagger a few steps and my eyes are watering like I gone crazy. I look at Prince and he looks back like he got no opinion on that.

***

Everybody’s acting normal at supper up at the house. Maybe it’s a tad quieter than usual, I don’t know, though nobody’s much for talking round the table with food in their mouths anyways. The best plan around here is shut up and eat, specially if you’re hoping for seconds.

Soon as I sit down I tense up on account of what happened last night, and I realize the ring’s in my pocket, in the exact same spot as last night, and my stomach goes tight like a fist. No way I can eat now, though the stew does smell good, so I take my spoon and stir it round the bowl and the steam feels good coming up. It’s usually warm up here at the house. Can’t complain about mealtimes. Missus Quinn’s food sticks to your ribs like they say and it’s a nice place to sit and thaw your bones.

I see Annabelle out the corner of my eye buttering her bun, then she leans over the table and plunks it on my side plate. But I’m not even gonna eat my own bun, not even gonna butter it, though it’s a brand new tub of margarine and not full of toast crumbs from breakfast yet. I was raised to be polite so I say thanks Annabelle, and by the way thank you for the soup you brung me…it was real good, I say, and I try to give a wink like they do in the movies. Not sure she notices the wink but she gives a smile that disappears in half a second like she’s embarrassed for anyone else to see, then tucks back into her supper.

She don’t look up when I wrap the buttered bun in a clean serviette and get up to head back early to the jailhouse on my own in the dark.

The second I sit on my bed I feel starving and I unwrap the bun and wolf the whole thing down in like three bites, and I’m still hungry and now I wish I’d ate more supper. I flick the crumbs onto the floor and it’s no big deal cause not too many bugs this time of year and anyways the mice’ll get there first and they got to eat too. Everybody got to eat.

I fish the ring out of my pocket, blow a hot breath on top and polish it up with the clean part of the serviette. I look at the ring in the palm of my hand and it looks perfect and gold like nothing ever happened, like nothing can ever hurt it till the end of the world.

I try and think where’s a new hiding place, cause I can’t leave it in my room after everybody finds out I got the ring back. I don’t relish the idea but I figure I got to keep it on me, though not in a pocket cause pockets got a habit of growing holes exactly where you don’t want them. I take off a boot and look at my sorry old sock. I roll it halfway down, push the ring under the middle of my foot and pull the sock up. I put my boot back on and walk back and forth a few times to see. I can get used to it.

Everybody’s coming back from supper and there’s some ruckus with banging doors and hollering about who’s got any smokes and if there’s a Leafs game on tonight. They’ll simmer down in a bit and anyways we call it an early night around here cause it’s going to be an early morning on Sunday, exactly like every morning.

We take turns with our day off. A couple of the fellas take off for an extra couple hours on Sunday mornings…for religious reasons, they say. They go up the road to the Catholic church there—they say the Presbyterian church is too far to walk—and they go with the two Philippine ladies from up at the house. Owen said he followed them one time and church weren’t where they went, not by a long shot. But Owen’s got a suspicious mind and a big mouth so nobody listens to him. Least I don’t.

Horses never take time off. Horses don’t do sins neither, so they got no use for any Jesus.

Think I’ll read for a bit. I get books from the Sally Ann for a dime then donate them back next time. I don’t usually like books too thick but this one got a bunch of Sherlock Holmes stories in there and I just finished the one where he gets tricked by this Irene lady and then he’s obsessed with her and it’s all he can think about and it just shows to go you that even someone cold and smart like Sherlock Holmes gets squirrelly around women. That gives me some kind of hope, though I know it’s only a storybook.

I take my boots off and set the ring on the nightstand. It glows under the lamp, it’s only a 25-watt bulb, and the gold color of the ring is deep and it seems to breathe, like something mysterious and alive from another world…a little flying saucer type thing. I know that’s just my imagination running away again. Anyways I don’t want to be thinking about the ring just now.

I want to read a bit cause I didn’t get to last night, so I lie down and open my book to start a new story. I just stare at the page cause I can’t concentrate. I read the title over and over again—“The Red-Headed League,” “The Red-Headed League,” “The Red-Headed League”—but my eyes never get to the first sentence. I keep looking over at the ring like it’s calling my name. Can’t help it, it’s driving me wrangy. I give up trying to read. I slide the book back on the table and I get an idea.

I pick up the ring and close my hand around it. It warms up quick and I hold it there.

Down the hallway someone switches off the hockey game—by the sounds of the hollering the Leafs are losing to the Habs anyways—then everybody clomps off to their rooms and soon enough the whole place goes quiet. I open my hand and look at the ring and figure, well, Lyle, let’s maybe try this one more time.

I slip it on my finger, it fits big like before, so I put my glove on overtop to keep the ring from coming off, though a dirty horseman’s glove is all I got. I turn off the lamp, pull the blanket up to my chin and close my eyes real tight to squeeze everything out and make room for dreams.

You don’t always dream what you want, that much I know. So of course I don’t dream of white puffy clouds and a choir of angels, ha ha. And I don’t have visions of a woman I love, who loves me back—who am I trying to kid? I don’t dream of Annabelle neither. Seems I never get what you might call good dreams, then neither are they bad, particularly. Mostly they’re a whole lot of nothing and in the morning there’s a whole lot of nothing to remember.

Tonight is way different. Wearing the ring’s like sticking a fork in an electric outlet, cause tonight my dreams are loud and stormy and twisted. There’s swords and blood and rain and my feet are stuck in boiling mud and I can’t run away and none of it makes any sense. I wake up in darkness, sweating bullets in the cold and gasping for breath. I rip away the glove and throw the damn ring across the room. It hits a wall and rolls across the floor and when it stops all I hear is my own breathing. Then the wind outside picks up and starts whistling through the cracks and pounding on the walls like it wants in, like it’s gonna tear off the roof, like we’re off to see the wizard. At least now I know it’s no use wearing another man’s ring, pretending at something I’m not, trying to catch another man’s magic.

Maybe I’ll bum a ride into town next week, go to the pawn shop there and see if they’ll give me a hundred bucks for it, though I’ll take fifty. Until then, it’s almost morning and I got horses.


Paul Ruta lives in Hong Kong with his wife and a geriatric tabby called Zazu, though by the time you read this they will probably have moved to London. Recent work in Scrawl Place, Ghost Parachute, Litro, Truffle and Anti-Heroin Chic. He reads for No Contact magazine.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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