Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 180 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. Sand, a collection of his short stories, was published recently by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.
Nothing and Everything
By Steve Carr
With her nose pressed to the screen door, Ruthie watched the train pass by, its coal cars rocking back and forth on the tracks. The clickety-clack sound of the wheels was accompanied by a vibration that slightly shook the floor under her feet. The glasses and cups in the cupboard rattled. As it passed, the train kicked up small clouds of dust that momentarily hung in the air like apparitions, and then dissipated. Ruthie sneezed.
“God bless you,” her father said.
Ruthie turned as her father at the kitchen table turned the page of the newspaper. “I wish he would,” she said. She wiped the back of her forearm across her nose. “I hope Jack’s alright.”
Her father looked up from the newspaper. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
She shuffled across the kitchen, her pale pink fuzzy slippers making whooshing sounds on the bare floor. At the sink she filled the tea kettle with water, then put it on the stove. She turned the burner as high as it would go. As the blue flames licked the bottom of the kettle, she sat down at the table, opposite her father. “I didn’t tell Jack but I bought some lottery tickets.”
“That’s a waste of money,” he said. “Money you can’t afford to throw away.”
“That’s what Jack will say,” she said. “But imagine what we could do if I won.”
Her father turned another page of the newspaper. “Imaginin’ will get you into trouble.”
The tea kettle whistled and she got up and took her tea cup from a saucer on the counter next to the sink, then went to the stove and turned off the burner. She poured the water over the used teabag in the cup then bobbed the teabag up and down in the water, watching the brown tea spread out like an invading wispy vapor. She took out the teabag and placed it back on the saucer, then raised the cup to her lips and blew across the tea’s surface.
“Herbert Case has died,” her father said staring at a newspaper page. “His name is right here in the obituaries. It says he died after a long illness.”
“Jack told me Herbert had black lung disease.” She took a sip of tea, and then said,“That’s what workin’ in those mines as long as he did will do to you.”
Ruthie went back to the screen door. The train had passed. An emaciated mongrel was crossing the tracks.
“Herbert Case died while living in that shack down by the river,” she said. “Word has it he spent all his wages on alcohol and gambling. He died ownin’ practically nothin’.”
Her father folded the newspaper, positioned his walker, then grabbed onto the rubber hand grips and stood up. “The few times I met him he was a very nice guy.”
He left the kitchen.
Ruthie pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the top step. On the other side of the tracks ramshackle houses like hers lined both sides of the street. She drank the tea, watching as miners returned to their homes after the night shift. Coal dust covered their faces.
She returned inside and put the breakfast dishes in the sink and turned on the hot water.
Sitting on the front porch, Ruthie flipped through the pages of a catalog. She paused on the pages with kitchen appliances, large LCD televisions, four poster beds, clothes and shoes. She put her hand in the pocket of her hand made cotton shift and patted the raffle ticket. When Lester Case pulled up to the front of the curb in his black Ford pickup and blew the horn, she looked up.
“Is Jack back at work?” he said as he leaned his head out of the window.
She closed the catalog. “The doctor signed the form to let him go back so he started back this mornin’.”
“Four months is a long time to go without workin’,” he said. “You folks plannin’ on goin’ to my Uncle Herb’s funeral?”
“We didn’t really know him,” she said. She waited for a moment before asking, “Lester, I was wonderin’, are you still buyin’ lottery tickets?”
He shook his head. “No, I stopped. Sittin’ ’round waitin’ to hear if I had won, just to lose every time It was drivin’ me crazy.”
“I’ve been told patience is a virtue.”
“I heard that too,” he said with a chuckle. “Tell Jack I stopped by.”
As he pulled away from the curb and started up the street, Ruthie’s father pushed the door open with the walker and stepped out onto the porch. “Was that Lester Case?”
“Yeah, he was inquirin’ ’bout Jack,” she said.
Her father sat down in a rotting white wicker chair and pushed the walker to the side. He lit a cigarette, then took several puffs while glancing up and down the street. The houses needed painting and the lawns were mostly bare dirt. “Not so long ago this neighborhood was kinda pretty. You remember that?”
“To me its always been ugly,” she said. “Pa, sometimes I get so tired of waitin’ I could scream.”
“What are you waitin’ on?”
“Anything, everything,” she said. “I just wish we had more.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said. “There’s always a trade off.”
She tucked the catalog under her arm and stood up. “I better get supper started. Jack will be home soon.”
After going into the house she stopped in the living room and scanned the room. The curtains were faded and threadbare, there was stuffing pushing out of one of the sofa cushions, a broken leg on the coffee table had been fixed using duct tape, and the wallpaper was peeling in spots.
She went into her bedroom and put the catalog under her pillow.
Jack walked into the bedroom with a towel tied around his waist and his hair dripping water. He stood in front of the vanity dresser mirror and stared at his reflection. “It took almost the entire time I was off work to remove any trace of the mines from my skin, and in one day its been undone.” He ran a fingertip removing moistened coal dust along the indentation above his left eyelid. He wiped it onto the towel, leaving a noticeable black spot.
Sitting on the bed with her back against the headboard, Ruthie said, “At supper you said it felt good to be back at work. It didn’t worry you goin’ back underground after what happened?”
“Once a coal mine collapses on you once, it ain’t goin’ to happen again’. It’s like lightnin’ not strikin’ the same spot twice.” He removed the towel and sat on the bed, and then dried his hair with the towel.
Ruthie flipped a page of the catalog lying in her lap. “Maybe you won’t ever have to go into the mines again. I bought a lottery ticket and I got a good feelin’ ’bout it.”
Jack tossed the towel onto a chair, pulled back the covers and climbed into bed. “Your chances of havin’ a winnin’ ticket are the same as seein’ a pig fly.”
Ruthie slammed the catalog closed. “I can hope can’t I? All I want is the same things people with money have. I’d like a home to live in we’d be proud to show off.”
“Buyin’ lottery tickets ain’t the answer,” he said. He rolled onto his side and put his arm across her waist. “As your pa always says, everything comes to those who wait.”
Jack entered the kitchen and sat down at the table. “That was Lester Case on the phone. They found a whole lot of money under some floor boards in his uncle’s shack. Lester is his uncle’s only living relative and he’ll get the money.”
Ruthie slid a fried egg on Jack’s plate. “Good for him,” she said with a tinge of bitterness.
As Pa spread butter on a piece of toast, he said, “Lester has never been good with money. He’ll have it all spent in no time.”
“I’d spend it all too,”Ruthie said. “We’ve been goin’ without for too long.”
Jack quickly ate his egg and toast and downed his cup of coffee. “We have food to eat and a roof over our heads,” he said as he stood up. He kissed Ruthie on the cheek. “Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t win the lottery today.”
“I’ll be here to console her,” Pa said.
Jack left the kitchen, the sound of his boots on the wood floor echoed through the house as he walked through it and out the front door.
Sitting on the sofa, Ruthie had the lottery ticket grasped in her hand. The woman on the television stood behind a glass bowl containing round white balls with numbers on them that bounced around. She reached into the bowl and pulled out one ball, then another, pulling out six balls, and showed the numbers on the balls: 6. 8. 3. 2. 2. 9.
Ruthie shrieked and jumped up from the sofa. “I’ve won,” she screamed.
The emergency whistles from the mines suddenly blared.