The $5 School Cake…

© Les Becker, 2010
Taken November 21, 2010 with Nokia N97 Smartphone

When Ruby was a young girl, her school in Northland had a fair once a year, in the spring. It offered the usual school fair “stuff” of the era; games of chance, 4H projects, etc., and students could show off (and sell) their needlework and baked goods.

One year, Ruby won a needlepoint contest – got a trophy and everything. Another year, she and her sister Joycie entered a singing contest. They won 10 cents each for climbing up on the back of a hay wagon and singing “The Little Shirt My Mother Made for Me.”

The real killer year for Ruby, though, was The Year of the $5 School Cake.

She and her sisters each baked up something to sell at the school bake table every year. This year, Ruby had baked a chocolate layer cake. It was a beautiful cake and she was really proud of it.

On the walk to the fair, Ruby fell behind a little, walking veeeerrrryyy carefully to make sure her cake survived the journey intact. She was just coming to the edge of the fairground, far behind her sisters, when a stumbling drunk guy comes reeling towards her, and stops her.

“Hey,” says the drunk. “Whad’ya got there?”

Ruby tells him she’s got a chocolate cake to put on the school bake table.

The drunk says, “Yeah? I’ll give you $5 for it.”

Ruby, not being stupid, promptly handed him the cake. $5 richer, she went wandering around the fair grounds until she found her father at the ice cream stand.

Her father loved ice cream. He looked forward to the school fair every year, just so he could get an ice cream cone. He also loved children, and every year, he bought every kid that came along an ice cream cone too.

When Ruby found him, he asked, “Did you sell your cake?

Ruby said, “Yup,” and told him about the drunk, and showed him the $5.

Now, Ruby’s dad had probably just blown (at 5 cents a cone over 20 or 30 kids) around a buck and a quarter. Ruby, on the other hand, had just gained $5 by scalping her own school cake. All her father could think of to do was laugh.

Ruby has no memory of what she might have spent that $5 on, and it drives her crazy that she can’t remember.

“That was an awful lot of money back then,” she says.

All I can picture when she tells this story, is the drunk – stumbling through the woods and across fields carrying a chocolate layer cake…

Not-So-Random Song-for-the-Day: “The Little Shirt My Mother Made for Me” – Marty Robbins

Magic – Chapter 1: The Lamp

magicCover of the novella, "Magic", by Les Becker.

magiccoverHe walked along the beach, shivering a little in the chilly spring wind that blew off the channel. He was supposed to be ruminating about his next steps in this brand new life, but all he could think about was how nice it would be to sink into the hot tub in the new place. His shoes were full of sand and his hands were freezing, even tucked into his jeans pockets. He looked out onto the choppy water, and his loneliness engulfed him.

He’d always been lonely. He often wondered why he wasn’t used to it by now. He’d spent his entire adult life waiting for the perfect woman, stubbornly not settling; nope – one annoying habit, one sarcastic remark, one little argument, and the girl-of-the-moment lost any chance she might have had to become Mrs John Dunster. The only person still willing to play cupid to his heart was his sister, Felicity, and now he swore under his breath at her for talking him into moving here.

“It’s a new start, John,” she had said to him. “I’ve found the perfect house for you. It’s a nice little town, and I’m here. What a bonus for you!”

“Yeah, now you can fix my life face to face instead of over the phone.”

“Stop it. You need change. Big change. You have no job now, and you have to fill up your time with something. Fill it up with something new.”

And that was the big difference between them. Felicity was always moving faster than everybody else; a new house every two years, a new career every five. The only thing she kept from one new version of Felicity to the next was the same old husband, whom she loved dearly, probably because he sat still and let her run everything.

Felicity’s latest big career change had put her into real estate, and she threw herself into it with her usual passion, flipping houses up and down the coast, and raking in money and prestige all along the way. She was also the first to admit that she would tire of it eventually, and find a new passion. She could never understand how her brother never got bored with geology. When he started teaching at the university, he considered it a huge change from being in the field, or in the lab.

“Yes, but John, it’s still geology! You’re still staring at rocks. Now you’re teaching other promising human minds to spend their time staring at rocks. A career should be challenging. Yours is boring. Admit it.”

John found geology anything but boring. Although it didn’t exactly set him on fire, he found his studies, then working in the field, and finally, his lab work to be comforting. Geology was an interesting pursuit, and it suited him. When he got the chance to teach, he jumped at it. He loved teaching, and when he finally gave up his search for that perfect woman, his students made up for his disappointment. He would have been content to teach until he died. And then the money for his program ran out. He took the settlement offered, and that, along with his investments, and the money his parents had left him, allowed him to stay home for the time being, and mope about his loss.

When Felicity insisted he buy the house she’d found for him, and pull up stakes and move to a teeny-tiny coastal town to start over, it seemed like a good idea. There was nothing left for him where he was, but to stare at the University every time he drove by it, and feel sorry for himself.

Now that he was here, though, he felt more lost and lonely than ever. He hadn’t made any friends, a fact that didn’t particularly surprise him, really, but there wasn’t anything to occupy his time. He wasn’t used to the whole town closing down at six o’clock in the evening. “The whole town” consisted of a barber’s shop, the post office, a gas station, a five-and-dime, a grocery store, a bakery, and a dusty bowling alley sporting three warped lanes. The only venues open on Saturdays were the bowling alley and the bar that operated on the floor above it. He spent most of his evenings after supper strolling on the beach just below his new house.

And that’s where he was, freezing, hands in his pockets when he tripped over the rest of his life. Continue reading “Magic – Chapter 1: The Lamp”

The Waitress, the Whiskey & the Handcuffs: Part I – The Waitress

The Waitress, the Whiskey & the Handcuffs
The Waitress, the Whiskey & the Handcuffs
The Waitress, the Whiskey & the Handcuffs
Part 1 of The Ruby Chronicles

Ruby Daniel is a 30-something widow trying to get by in a small backwoods Northern town in the 1950’s. Her chicken farm is failing, and she takes a weekend job as a barmaid at an illegal drinking establishment run by a crooked police officer, hoping the extra income will allow her to keep her farm and raise her kids.

When her crude and offensive employer plays an embarrassing prank on her, Ruby gets revenge with the help of her mother, whose devious tactics and unrestrained glee in the details of retaliation leave Ruby in awe, and a little fearful of the woman who raised her.

This comedic short story will leave you laughing out loud and cheering Ruby on, as she learns that standing up for herself can sometimes backfire, but revenge really does taste sweet – and an indignant mother is a surprisingly fierce force to be reckoned with…

Part I – The Waitress

In 1957, Ruby was a 30-something waitress/barmaid/short-order cook in an out-of-the-way backwoods tavern down a side road off the highway. She was also the bookkeeper, the housekeeping staff and the bouncer, although she didn’t get paid extra for any of those tasks – there was just no one else to do them. It may not have been fair, but a job was a job, and she had kids to support. She kind of enjoyed the bouncing duties, anyhow.

Ruby never would have used the term 30-something to describe herself. She would be much more likely to say, “Mind your own birthdays,” if asked her age by any of the ne’er-do-wells that frequented the place, which was so far back in the sticks that it didn’t even have a name. Everybody called it The Dump, because if you drove another quarter mile down the side road, the town dump is where you finished up.

Ruby had lived a fairly decent life up to becoming employed at The Dump. She’d married a little on the late side, if 25 could be considered late, but at least she’d married. Her husband bought a small chicken farm up the North Side Road after the war, and asked Ruby to marry him the very same day. Roy had seen her to a few dances over the years, and written from overseas, but Ruby hadn’t really ever considered him to be a serious suitor. His proposal came out of the blue. Ruby asked for a day or two to think it over.

There wasn’t much to think over, really, when it came right down to it. She’d known Roy all her life. She knew he was a hard-working man and she doubted he’d run around. His was certainly the first proposal she’d received, and she wondered if there would ever be another if she turned him down. The practical side of her realized that they were a “good match”, as her mother would say (and did), and there wasn’t much of a romantic side of Ruby to contradict the idea, anyhow. When Roy returned for her answer, she accepted his proposal and cooked him the first of many suppers while they worked out the arrangements.

Chicken farming didn’t turn out to be as lucrative as Roy had hoped. By the time the two kids were in school, he had taken a job driving truck on the city run for Fulton Berries, the only hothouse strawberry growers in the district, so at least he was employed year ’round. It meant Ruby had to run the farm on her own through the week while Roy was away, but they got by all right – until Roy crashed his truck one Christmas and killed himself in the process.

Ruby, ever practical, moved her mother in to help with the kids, and took the weekend job at The Dump before Roy was in the ground a month. The first shift she worked was the first time she’d set foot in such a place, but she got used to it fast. Chicken farming was harder work than beer-slinging. She still ran the farm mostly on her own, and generally missed Roy most when she had to do the slaughtering. It was a messy job, killing chickens, and bouncing drunks was more enjoyable.

The Dump was open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 7 pm until Ruby managed to shovel the last drunk out the door, which was usually close to 4 am Saturday morning, but only about 1 or 2 am on any given Sunday, because nobody dared miss church in the morning. Those that were married didn’t want to deal with their wives (and mothers-in-law); those who considered themselves lucky to have avoided that ball-and-chain didn’t want to deal with the married gents – it was on their farms and in their businesses in town that all the single fellas earned their livings.

The only three men in town to avoid church without guilty consciences on a Sunday morning were the same three that made Ruby clench her jaw and grit her teeth the most when they walked into The Dump. Two were the loudest, and the most obnoxious, and all three were the only ones she didn’t dare try to bounce.

The biggest, loudest, and most boorishly obnoxious of them was a cop – and a district officer to boot. The little spot on the highway called “Town” was too small for a police department of its own, along with all the other little blips up and down the line that also called themselves “Town”, so the district was responsible for policing the whole string of them, all dotted along the highway from the big city in the East to the one in the West, and, with government-like lofty wisdom, those great minds in charge of the district decided that Judd Gulley should be the great arm of the law over several of the little towns between those two points. Judd was also the owner of The Dump, and therefore, Ruby’s boss.

Wally McDonald was Judd’s best buddy, and they might as well have been joined at the hip. Wally had never worked a day in his life, and Judd thought that was just fine. Wally rode shotgun in Judd’s cruiser every shift, and when Judd was off work, he unstuck the cherry from the roof and Wally rode shotgun while the cruiser was just a plain ol’ sedan.

The third guy that Ruby didn’t dare bounce was Wilson Jones. He was “no higher than here,” as Ruby would say, holding her hand level just below her bust, and considered not quite right.

“In the head, that is,” Ruby would say. “Not stupid, exactly, but… well, he don’t even look right, if you catch my drift.”

Wilson was known around town as “The Little Drunk”. He was a logger, and a good one, by all accounts, in spite of his size, and shy as all get-out, probably because of it. He came out of the bush on Friday night, cash in hand, and he’d spend every cent of his week’s wages on booze by the time he crawled back in on Sunday night. He very rarely spoke, drunk or sober, and when he did, he didn’t make much sense. Not quite right.

For some reason, Judd Gulley took a shine to The Little Drunk, and Ruby was told that every third drink she brought him was on the house. Ruby told Judd he was an idiot.

“I know he’s an idiot, but that’s what you’ll do.”

“I mean you’re an idiot, Judd Gulley,” Ruby shot back, but she did as she was told. She wasn’t to charge The Little Drunk for his meals, either, and since she had to cook those meals, that burned her even more than giving him free booze.

Worst of all, Judd kept a room upstairs for The Little Drunk to pass out in on Friday and Saturday nights (free of charge, of course), and it was up to Ruby to keep the linen clean. And dang, if the Little Drunk wasn’t a bed-wetter.

The first time she’d had to change those sheets, she hadn’t thought too much of it. Accidents do happen, especially where drunks lie down, and God knew she’d changed her share of pissy beds in her lifetime. But when the bed was wet the following day, too, she gave Judd what-for. For the life of him, Judd couldn’t understand what her problem was.

“He don’t give the room a chance to air before he stinks it up again, Judd, that’s the problem!” Ruby complained. “That mattress is ruined, if it don’t get a chance to dry before he pisses all over it a third time!”

“Well, whad’ya want me to do about it?! Throw on some cornstarch and flip it over,” Judd laughed. Wally, the skunk, laughed right along with him, and Ruby wanted to bash their heads together. This conversation took place on a Monday morning, the first chance she had managed to run into Judd, right out on Main Street. Ruby stood on the sidewalk, face-on with Judd and Wally in the cruiser, with seemingly every old maid in town chancing by to cluck her tongue. Ruby was livid.

“There’s only two sides to a mattress, Judd Gulley, and the next time Wilson Jones wets the bed, that mattress will be in the parking lot!” And that’s where she dragged it, the following Saturday afternoon, and left it there, soggy and stinking to high Heaven, for Judd to find when he pulled into the parking lot.

“That’ll fix The Little Drunk,” Ruby thought.

But, Judd just laughed, and Wally along with him, and the two of them roped the mattress to the bumper of Judd’s sedan and dragged it further down the side road to that other dump. And when Ruby went into The Little Drunk’s room the next afternoon, she found an honest-to-God straw tick on the bedsprings; something she hadn’t seen since she was a kid. Worse, it was wet, and the smell of urine mixed with dirty straw dang near made her upchuck.

She threw some corn starch on it, opened the window, and an hour later went back up and flipped the tick over. She knew, too, that next Sunday afternoon would see her dragging it out back and emptying the straw, to wash the burlap. But she’d be danged if she’d stuff a new tick. If Judd Gulley didn’t see fit to cut straw, The Little Drunk could sleep on bare springs for all she cared.

If Ruby had known what was going to happen two years later, she’d likely have seen fit to cut straw herself, after all. As it was, she wished she’d had the sense to quit that God-awful job before the Whiskey games started…

The rest of “The Waitress, the Whiskey & the Handcuffs” is available in several formats, at The Les Becker Bookshop.