The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Wanting Radiance by Karen Salyer McElmurray

He told me stories of his daughter. When she was a girl she’d sit with him while he fiddled tunes, and she’d make him stop to listen to the call of owls. 

“Ruby loved this one hymn more’n anything.” He hummed a line of a song about traveling and a world of sorrow. 

All the evening before, we’d danced around her name. He’d not looked at me when I tried to tell him about things she’d loved. The sound of wind chimes. Music off a radio she’d dance with me to, around and around. I meant to tell him about how we’d been happy enough, but neither of us seemed to know which words to pick for telling about before. 

We were sitting now at a table piled with tools and plates and bottles, and I went to the window again, pulled the blanket back. The outside was brighter, a shape of sun from behind the rainy sky. 

“I need to tell you about that night,” I said. 

“What night?” He was a few steps behind me. 

How I held her as she died, I thought. 

“What night,” he said again. He laid his hand on my shoulder, and I shrugged him off like it hurt. 

“She was shot,” I said at last, and I told him what I knew. The sound of boots on the back steps. The way I’d run inside to her. 

“And she passed like that?” His voice was so old-man sad I wanted to comfort him, but I didn’t know how, and I suddenly felt as angry with him as I was with my own self. We stood at the window watching dusk settle, with the clutter of everything behind us. The shape of boxes. A dime-store picture of Jesus on a wall. 

He scuffed his boot toe in the dirt and told me it wasn’t safe to be out here by myself of a night. Who knew what might come out the woods, he said, but I told him I wanted to be here on my own, with the ghosts of what was. He’d be back for me by good daylight, he said at last. And there was another kerosene lamp he found for me, and the two flashlights he handed me before he drove away. 

I stood looking at gashes and ruts, rocks and spots where boulders lodged. And in between those places, if I narrowed my eyes, I saw lines of earth like lines on a palm. My heart reached out for that earth-hand like I could study the past. Swirls and twists of roots, and fissures where nothing had grown back. Desolation, but the earth told lives. Faces took shape in the shadows dirt made. That face might have been the grandmother I’d never known. And over there. That flat stretch of stones. The tree or two left standing. The land looked like faces if I squinted my eyes just right. Leroy Loving’s. My mother’s face. Ruby. Her name lodged in my throat. 

I had no idea what I’d find, but I looked for it. I opened kitchen drawers, pried a warm beer loose from a plastic-ringed six pack on the fridge’s top shelf, sipped. I poked into cabinets and shelves, then nooks and crannies, finally the hideaway spaces beneath a bed, behind a broke-spring couch. I found papers galore, old warranties on radios and hair dryers, postcards with scrawled signatures. Having a good old time here, sugar pie! Whooeee!! There were ripped-out pages from magazines. Carole Lombard. Elizabeth Taylor and one of her million lover boys. Fifties movie stars with open-toed shoes and nets drawn across their smooth-bunned hair. Way back on top of the stove, folded into the shape of a sailor’s hat, were pages from a magazine. A ripped-out page was part of a story that I read as I sat on the floor with a flashlight. We wandered through streets and streets, past houses that smelled crisply of ginger. We turned and turned, through so many alleyways I could never have found my way home. And at last she led me through a doorway made of amber-colored beads. 

I opened cardboard boxes. Rooted through piles of this and that. I even bowed open the jackets of record albums I found leaning against one wall. Frank Sinatra and Some Enchanted Evening. Guy Lombardo and Sounds of the Big Bands. What I wanted but couldn’t find were pictures of her. Ones back in the day, before I was born. 

I dug through a tool kit from underneath the kitchen sink. Found baby-food jars full of rusty screws and nails. Coffee tins full of snips of wire. A small metal box full of bullets, three of which I pocketed, just in case. I found an old fiddle case full of empty motel-room-size whiskey bottles underneath a wild-animal-smelling mattress and bed frame in the back room. In that same room was a closet, its sliding door off its track so that I had to finagle until the door tilted out and I could yank it aside. The closet was near empty but for a mouse trap baited with a dried-up slice of cheese. I climbed up on a milk crate to have a look on the closet shelf. 

The box was cumbersome, but I lugged it down and sat on the edge of the bed beside it. On top in a scrawl I figured was Leroy Loving’s, two words. Her Things. Her things were tossed in without rhyme or reason. A bunch of beaded bracelets held together with twine. A toy harmonica. A sheet from a diner with the daily specials. Ham and red-eye gravy with green beans. Underneath it all a red velvet box covered in cobwebs. I shook it, hearing what I imagined were dime-store earrings and lipsticks, Ruby-things I knew the way I knew my very own hands. As I eased the lid open, what I saw first were rose petals. Beneath them, a box of tarot cards, a woman in a robe with foxes and gryphons on the front. Beneath the deck, a pair of glossy black-and-white photos. 

A tiny child stood by a tree in some yard. I turned the photo over and back, craving more. I suddenly remembered a mulberry tree. There was the one by the trailer where we’d lived when she was shot, but this one was farther back in my memory than that. Its long, seedy fruits were blackish purple and sweet. Don’t you eat them things, some voice said inside me as I looked at the picture. Mulberries are food for the birds. The voice was older than Ruby’s, my grandmother’s maybe. I remembered hands folding the dough for biscuits, hands holding a just-washed glass up to the clear sunlight from a window. 

The other photograph made my heart do a lurch. It was Ruby, but a Ruby I’d never seen. Instead of my fortune-telling mother, this was nothing but a girl, her black hair combed and a flip of bangs across a forehead.

Underneath the photos, a paper tablet with a cover made of thin planes of wood decorated with glitter, the shapes of moons and stars and planets, and the cut-out faces of movie stars. Ava Gardner. Marilyn Monroe. A half sheet was glued to the front of the tablet and on it was big, clumsy handwriting. A girl’s script, the near-hearts of o’s and the tails of y’s. Underlines beneath words she’d meant the most. Ruby Loving. Her Property. I remembered what my mother looked like, her jotting down spells and potions in her notebook, but this was a girl’s diary, her dreams. It was full of drawings of cats made of circles and lines, drawings of big, fat moons and in between, her loopy handwriting, telling about her days. 

Near the bottom of the box, beat-up pages from an old atlas. I spread them across my lap and looked at the interstate lines going west, which is where all the map pages led. The empty spaces of New Mexico. The single town leading to single town, and there in the flat nothing of it, my mother’s handwriting. A circle and a heart drawn around the name of that town. Willette. And last of all, a couple of letters tied up with a red ribbon. I sat with the letters and the velvet box in my lap a long while, then unfolded one more thing, a single sheet of notebook paper. Four lines only. Come back to me, she said. My heart has gone out and is wandering the earth in search of you. Were you ever here, Russell Wallen? Were you some ghost-man I wanted to be real? My fingertip circled the loops and lines of the name, the shadowy red lipstick kiss. His name.

This selection comes from Wanting Radiance, available from The University Press of Kentucky. Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Gokul Prabhu.

Karen Salyer McElmurray won an AWP Award for creative nonfiction for her
book Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey and the Orison Award for
creative nonfiction for her essay “Blue Glass.” She has had other essays recognized
as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays, while her essay “Speaking Freely”
was nominated for a Pushcart Award. She currently teaches at Gettysburg
College and at West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA.

Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.

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