Pipe-cleaners and Popsicle Sticks: A Ruby Baker Story

 

 

 

 

 

 

             

     Pipe-cleaners and Popsicle Sticks    

   

 

     After the madness, after the vomit in hidden alleyways, after the last-minute dream job offer in Barcelona, after the underground and the wicked Cornish pasties. The double-decker ads and the tormented pub nights and the broiling delight of curry and chips at midnight. After the wet wool coat smells and the eye-gloop mornings and the spiralling heights of The Gherkin and the joys of tea, dark waves of the Thames, white bubblegum clouds and even the loo queue. Oh, the loo queue and a general population you would absolutely toss yourself on the ground in front of Buckingham Palace and die because they're only that bloody brilliant—

      Following three British years where the Englishes blended in my mouth, crisps this and trousers that, finally to shred over the Atlantic one more time, the waters surged and frothed like some evil cartoon foams at the mouth—

 

      After all of that: Here I was, back in Denver, Colorado, back in Fishy's old car. The one that used to be her Mum's, the one we'd driven to elementary school in the pouring spring rain with the smell of fresh squeezed juice and gel pens. She told me it sat in the garage most days collecting dust. She took it out for old friends. Rarely, since most moved away.

     In forty-eight little hours, personal histories twisted in on each other, a finger bent, and time put me back here safe and sound.

 

    Returned. Recovered.

 

     This time fortified with overcooked french fries and a large TV in the cramped back seat that cost an outrageous amount for anything, regardless of if you counted in dollars or pounds.

     I'd turned my phone to airplane mode, now that I was securely back on the ground. Its British body and American SIM, like a body and a mind. In my terrified wistfulness on my last night in London – assisted and fueled by two pints, three gins and the bittersweet separation tugging a final time on my heart – I'd posted an emotional rambling monologue to Facebook, topped with a link to a forty-minute Ted Talk video. #winning

     I'd deleted it in frantic embarrassment early the next morning on the train to Gatwick. Obviously, it made no difference. By the time I strolled past the duty-free shop, everybody I´d ever gone to school with had seen it and was excited to hear I was coming home with another funky hairstyle and no health insurance; when would we be able to get together, talk long over froyo, yoga or a breastfeeding sesh? (Theirs, not mine).

     So I’d shut off the notifications until such a time as my time-lapsed bungle brain caught up with my plane-clammy body.

     Meanwhile, Fishy had work to do. Furthermore, in the way of being my best friend, that implied I had work to do as well.

     While purple-haired Fishy made rounds downtown dropping off her ex's massive comic book collection to Craigslisters, I was to care for the expensive gadgets in the backseat. Being too much to move more than once, yet significantly more important than the vehicle itself, it was decided they would remain put in the old car, and I would go about as a sort of jetlagged human shield. On the off chance that anybody with a crowbar and a terrible thought came close, I guess I was intended to swat them off with the soggy fries or the chewed straw from the greasy meal Fishy had gotten me - to express gratitude for being the best sidekick ever.

     "So did he say you could take this stuff?" I asked honestly after Fishy had picked me up from my folks' home loaded from my parent's green chilli casserole and recuperating from a relaxing first rest in my childhood bed.

 

     Aside from the comic books, Fishy had enthusiastically taken a TV, stereo and chrome espresso machine off his hands. I looked back at the items attentively as she peeled down our road, drinking a milkshake the shade of Pepto Bismol with one hand and blazing a joint in the other.

 

     "Ruby Baker!! He's actually fucking his assistant Rachel something in Mexico at this very moment. On the off chance that he needed this stuff he obviously shouldn't have left me his key."

 

       I whirled my hand in the air as I reached over to change the music. "I mean you don't know that for sure, Fishy."

      "I know what I know," she said. "Here – drink this." Acting as though a milkshake could fix the world, she threw the milkshake into my hand and made a U-turn towards her first Craigslist drop.

 

     Presently in some downtown parking building, I was left to consider my semi-permanent life migration choice while my cheeseburger processed and Fishy enchanted some person in a flat nearby into paying a hundred more for an Iron-man comic than he should.

     From the front seat, I could slightly see a section of daylight past the solid concrete pillars. The car was covered with cans of Arizona Iced Tea, a few half-smoked joints, and the bottle top of windshield liquid. I thought about whether I'd woken up right at that point, in the car, straight from Gatwick. Would I know which nation I was in? Might I be able to differentiate between it from England straight away, from the brands on the trash on the greasy car floor? From the content of the yellow numbers, splash painted to checkered parking spaces in the concrete dungeon of the garage – D24, D25, D26?

      Perhaps I'd made a mistake in returning here. If this were the case, no mistake I had ever made friends and family so happy in recent years. And then I didn’t really have a choice, did I? What with what happened to Richard.

      I tallied the hours on my fingers since I was last in some smug Soho bar, dancing to gypsy jazz, and how frequently I'd peed since then. I attempted to decide if there was any shot that a puddle of gin, the extent of a pinky nail, could, in any case, be tucked inside my abdomen someplace, in some dimple of a digestive tract or something; however, it worked. A liquid leftover relic inside me. The mingling of the internal shores.

      Earlier, as she drove us through the city like a Mario Kart driver, Fishy continued glancing toward me directly asking "What will you do if you see him?"

      What's more, I knew she didn't mean Richard, for the fact that I'd just been to the hospital the previous night coming in from DIA. I knew she implied him-him. Sport-coat-bushy check-dry-lips-beating-hearts him. The late-minute-trip to Colorado Springs during that one spring him-him? What's more, I didn't generally know, so I sunk myself more profoundly into the oversized hoodie I'd found in my old closet.

 

      In the middle of a stop between 17th and Stout, next to the old Equitable Building, Fishy had watched me with worrying eyes. She could see I was in the throes of vulnerability. Tossed around in the middle of my decision like a baby dinghy out of its depths. What's more, there was nothing I could do.

      "It was your moment," she said. "Your moment to go." She was attempting to reassure, and laid a hand on my knee. At that point, the light changed, and she sped off like a London black cabbie.

      When she said it like that though, it sounded like I was already dead and resurrected here, in some kind of heaven that had cup holders and a stale Evergreen air freshener, but still smelled a bit like lip gloss.

      Suddenly in the parking lot, I heard this huge yell. A foghorn yell, similar to some extremely gigantic person at a football match, and I dodged down, looked back through the headrest with a beating, tired heart. But, it was just a delivery guy, directing a truck driver towards the back of a loading bay.

      I slowly turned backwards in the seat and leaned against the glove compartment to watch the men empty the truck. My view was blemished by the colossal TV held up in the back; while my duty as Protector of the TV was grating, at the same time, other than my phone, it was my only source of amusement.

      I saw that portion of daylight inch nearer on the left and thought about whether it fell through the car, and I got overheated, might I be able to sue Fishy for abandoning me here like individuals do to dogs in some cases. I could claim mal-friendship.

      I wouldn't. I loved her so much. The hardest lessons I'd had come through since arriving were the ones of my friend back there. Also, they tormented because the timestamps were so off. The time difference had officially broken some spell – everything now would dependably fall left merely of the rhythm it needed to be. Be that as it may, Fishy would dependably be there for me.

 

       Until I have found another career path and new friends, I knew life would be patchy at best. It would come in clusters. I envisioned the weeks and the months traversing out before me. There were heaps of ways you could think of filling them. The process of filling them. Easy. Generating a life like hot steam. Packing its cells, like on a calendar or an empty spreadsheet. Painting it like a chaotic landscape envisioned in your mind. Or maybe choosing a more complex art medium. Like dancing. Or sculptures made from old gym socks and crepe paper. The world is your Oyster card. Since London, music hasn't been the same. Furthermore, I had all the pipe-cleaners, the popsicle sticks I needed to make it.

      Obviously, I'd need to invest energy in keeping an eye on Richard. He was my younger brother, and I was happy to do it. I cherished him more than any CO2-gagged city formerly ruled by presumptuous Romans. Also, it is incredible to invest everyday energy with my past. Do the boring things. Do laundry and the dishes. Go to Home Depot, purchase light fixtures.

      Be that as it may, whatever is left of it, in the end, would be dependent upon me. The at-home-honeymoon would wear off. What's your life, Ruby? What are you replacing the old one with?

 

     I worried I'd get amped-up on artificial sentimental things. Wishy thoughts of what might make my time valuable. Like one time in London, long after a breakup, when I'd gone to some film premiere party spontaneously, wearing my red lipstick and wine glass like weapons. ¨Give me meaning!¨ I almost cried. Give me impulse-

      I'd unintentionally dropped a hors-d'oeuvre on the foot of a lanky but good looking, kind gentleman wearing a pair of fancy shoes and wicked beard. I made a significant thing of being forward and flirtatious and had pizazzed my way into going home with him, persuasively layering the serendipity on far too thick. By the time we arrived at his flat, my lipstick and impetuous glint had returned to normal pumpkin level. I'd called an Uber from his place before we'd even taken off our clothes. I requested that the driver dropped me at a Kebab shop and had a Shish and chips on a tube the rest of the way home. I'd felt the anti-climax sneer through the light-streaked night window.

     No, Denver this time would be high-quality moments of your new history only. Natural, corn-fed genuine friendships. Ground-up stuff. Regardless of whether it implied living with friends and family for a bit and watching Netflix.

     As the movers pulled plastic wrapped furniture from the massive truck, I attempted to design robust maps and objectives in my mind.

      I'd join an art collective on Santa Fe Street. I'd set a decent sleeping schedule. I'd be there for loved ones. I'd write no less than one little thing every other day. I'd keep up cherishing transatlantic exchanges with my mates and set aside money, once earned, to create an epic adventure the following year. Maybe in 6 months.

     The idea of distance, so recently tiny, now made me feel sick to my stomach. In the weeks paving the way to returning, Fishy had helped me through my questions over short calls. Her voice faltering over the Atlantic– "What is a fucking border? Am I right? You know. Fuck."

 

     My stomach protested around the cheeseburger. I would need to pee soon, and I considered how much longer Fishy would be. I was all the while feeling puffed with feeling from our discussion on the drive here.

 

     "How's Richard now?" she inquired.

 

     "Fishy, I don't know if I should talk about it."

 

     "You probably should talk about it. Talking is good."

 

      I gave her a look. The turn signal clicked loud in the car.

 

     "I simply mean he's your brother. What's more, he's adorable. He resembles a little … baby croissant. Even though he's grown up now. He needs your love as do the rest of us."

 

     "What's more, he has it, Fishy. There are some people you can never stop loving. It will be brilliant if we chat about something different."

 

      Fishy gestured one fearless nod, peering towards a person on foot. A long silence as we travelled down seventeenth street., dim and glass structures steadfast on each side. They’d seriously developed since I’d been away. I'd returned for Christmas to see some new sparkling blue thing shooting fifty stories high. Happy holidays; hereś another new building and 50 more cranes to celebrate. Stay warm, Mile-high!

     At that point Fishy, out of the blue,

 

     "I mean I sort of get it. At times when I go out, I check the door around a million times. But then again you're sitting at the movies, and you think – fuck me loud, I've left my hair straightener on, haven't I? Also, in your mind, you see your apartment up on fire and the neighbour's cat all seared to bits."

 

     "Fishy. He's really sick! It's more than that. He washed his hands until the point that they bled. They discovered him on the floor, he'd burnt all his things. He figured he could sterilise them."

 

      My voice got caught in my throat and my face folded in pain. Fishy turned onto a side road and pulled the car over gradually. She put her arm around me, and we just sat peacefully like that for a while. I knew I resembled a building being destroyed, that one slo-mo minute on delay where the blocks just explode.

      In the wake of ten long minutes, I wiped my eyes, blew a huge long breath out through floppy lips, and apologised.

 

      "You're like a fine wine, Ruby Baker. You just keep showing signs of beautifully maturing every damn day I known you."

 

      I grinned, purple and soaked in sweat and tears. I saw a memory of Fishy in tenth grade English class, keeping tabs with her own made up horoscopes on the backs of flyers for school dances, and then reading mine with her gum-snapping in her teeth.

 

 

                 ´You have a skill for lunch meats, Libra. Remain kind,

                              focused, and you'll pick the right bologna.´

 

 

     That was the year Fishy's Mum passed away. As breast cancer had advanced, we'd increasingly got picked up by her Mum's friend Charlie from school. Whenever there was a faraway errand or a tennis match, and my parents couldn't do it, Charlie was there.

He was short, stocky, always smiling and kept his joints in a small Altoids tin in the cup holder. You could tell he was somewhat perplexed of us, with our orange eye-shadow one day, and pretentious attitudes about the varsity sports team the next.

      However, I'd always loved Charlie. Right when you thought he was only a stern person doing his duty and being honourable, he'd hurl some cheesy joke or story out to us in the back. We'd roll in laughter – still sufficiently youthful to revert to being little girls – and in the rearview mirror, I could see his smile travel every which way.

      Fishy swore Charlie was just a friend of the family. He was simply assisting. Fishy's Dad wasn't great at that kind of stuff. He wasn't great at quite a bit of anything. In any case, I knew Fishy had suspected continuously there was more. At her Mum's memorial service, Charlie had shaken like a leaf in a storm, tears trailing down the ends of his beard. Fishy's Dad was mysteriously absent that day.

      At last, the moving guys were done packing all the furniture into a utility lift. They pummeled down the filthy metal door at the back of the truck, and some person waved goodbye in the empty lot.

      I sat up to turn back around in the seat, and my shift popped open the glove compartment. A heap of papers and flyers and garbage slid out and floundered onto the floor.

 

     "Bugger."

 

      At any rate, now I had something to do. I twisted around ponderously and scooped everything up as well as can be expected, nearly thumping over whatever remained of my drink.

 

      "Fuck… "

 

      In the middle of a collapsed menu for Chinese take-out and an old real estate magazine, there was a heap of glossy photographs. Most were nighttime memories streaked with orange exposure and white rings of light. The vast majority of them were Fishy's Mum and Charlie – a smiling eyebrow taken extremely close, a lawn garden, an immovable look of love and somewhere in the range of 90s design overstaying its welcome into the mid-2000s.

      A heap of dried aspen leaves fell out. The birthday party of a family friend of Fishy's parents that I remember really happening, because Fishy had stayed at mine that night, eating excessive amounts of cheesy popcorn and vomiting in my dollhouse. Another photograph demonstrated Fishy's Mum and Charlie cozy on a loveseat with dark sweaters, laced hands and smiles that could break sound barriers. They were very much into their thirties yet could've been sixteen for how ripe and beautiful their love showed on old film.

      Did Fishy know these were here? Did she keep them deliberately? Or on the other hand, were they just lurking there, forgotten, a shiny answer to those awkward childhood questions?

      I heard a jingle of keys, and my heart pummeled. Fishy was coming up to the car. I crushed the entire heap of photographs and papers back into the glove compartment, pounded it close with my hands and knees as she opened the driver door.

 

     "Would you believe the nerve of these assholes who believe that there could be a more badass villain than MYSTIQUE in all of comic history?"

 

      I mumbled something in solidarity. Fishy put the key in the ignition and paused to take a look at me with doubt.

 

     "What's wrong? You look terrible."

 

     "Just jet-lagged. Probably getting dried out at this altitude."

 

     "We'll get you some Gatorade. Just seven more stops."

 

      We cut into a Seven-Eleven off of tenth and Broadway, winding through the extravagant new apartments like the network of concrete valleys onto Speer Blvd.

      I felt a whirl of guilt in my stomach, reacting with the chewed up fries. Time and place made distances, hauled you out of step with those you were intended to be closest to. In the event that I said something about the photos, I didn't know whether Fishy would shrug a shoulder, say she'd put them there. Or on the off chance that she'd stop the car entirely, madly driving us off towards Charlie's house, which, last I thought, was two and a half hours outside of the city into the mountains.

     "Going to get some petrol as you would say in Jolly Ole England, darling" Fishy said as she turned the car into a station off of Colfax Ave... Getting here, I'd sneak peaks of the South Platte River through condos hugging both sides of the river and reminisced the Thames.

      Fishy joltingly stopped by a pump, bounced out; I watched her fill the tank, run inside to get me two blue Gatorade and a stick of turkey jerky. Its tenderness made me need to cry once more. I felt like a wet bathroom sponge and as a distraction, I grabbed my phone and turned on my data with pure dread.

     Twelve messages and notifications kept running up my screen, each encouraging plans that would be both immaculate and hammering. A drink at The Historian, its cold lager tangled with street tacos. And then a BBQ invite at a house I ran around naked a number of times as a girl. Both in walking distance.

     It was a sickness of stretching. A blending of delight and desperation that made the restless feeling. You didn't regularly get one without the other, did you? Like Life had been designed as a sliding scale, a pulley structure. In bliss, you are always close to sadness, and in pain, you are never too far from pleasure.

 

(But then, in other parts of life, another level perhaps, you were only allowed to pick one, one, one – like people, food, or places.)

 

     I stowed away in a Marks and Spencers off of Oxford Street, a few months prior, making a WhatsApp call to Fishy on poor public Wi-Fi. My voice split in waves up to the satellite and took off down over the Atlantic.

     I'd concealed my face behind some hot tea and opened to Fishy how it felt. My ideal happiness in one life, yet the pulling feeling of another. I told her I'd speak to family and friends and felt like I was running late to meet somebody. Like running late and your phone is sitting on 1%, and you can't tell them that you'll be there soon. They're left on the opposite end to think the worst of it. With no real way to clarify, or comfort them.

 

     "Fishy, I'll be home soon."

 

      And after that, a man behind me kindly cleared his throat; I was obstructing him to make the most of enjoying his Chicken Tikka sandwich and tea; so I quietly moved along in the queue.

 

      In the month paving up to leaving, I'd acted out the entire arrival in words and mental stage-plays, while brushing my teeth or riding the tube. Attempting to ghost out its emotions, brace for the effect early so it would lose its energy when the actual event came.

     I'd returned now, hadn't I? That separation settled, blame pardoned. The world collapsed into equal parts like a bit of A4, 8½ by 11-inch paper, the edges kissing at best.

      Fishy came back to the car, gave me my liquids, squeezed a loving fingertip into my warmth flushed cheek, and I left my reasoning there. We turned east, headed back towards Broadway.

      Fishy turned some music on, fiddling with her outdated iPod and its old, presumably flammable USB cord. A hint of summer sun turned the capital building a blinding sight, blazing passing cars and store windows with a yolk-yellow tint.

      A song went ahead that reminded me that I made out with a tennis player to it; a million miles back in time on this day. The past underlined the present and as we turned up back onto Broadway creeping out of a blinding skyline, it felt, authentically, similar to living in the future.

      At 1st Ave., Fishy sped for a yellow light and lost her nerve as it slipped to red. She pummeled the brakes, sending her new blue Slurpee down the front of her shirt.

 

     "Well look at this shit… "

 

      I assisted with loose napkins and a face towel I found in the back. I touched laughingly at her chest as she kept driving, passing parks and street corners and light-rail stations so soaked with memory that they should have been Historical Society sites. In no less path than Crawley, West Sussex wound up ordained years back, or Horsham justified silent prayers for whatever remains of my life. Yet the feeling when the seatbelt sign dinged off on the non-stop flight back, two days ago? It was a higher echelon of emotion experienced.

     A confusion, however a flawless release.

     Fishy called and rescheduled the rest of her Craiglist appointments. She didn't like putting off any buyers by turning up covered in a blue Slurpee. I personally thought it would help her with the sales.

      She headed towards my home not far on Ellsworth and Lincoln Avenue; singing and dancing her hands on the steering wheel. Shifting my body, I delicately pushed my knee against the glove compartment, enabling the options to choose if it were to pop open in my absence or not.

      In a flood of frantic joy, I needed to embrace my brother and resurrect my childhood in my mind.

      Ten minutes later, we pulled into my driveway.

 

     "Eat something. Something tasty your Mom made. You look like an anaemic fish and chip."

 

      I thanked her for her kind affection, turned to open the door and checked the road for passing cars. I looked across over to my home and—

 

"It's him."

 

      Twenty-year-old-late-night -calls him-him, talking the night away in-romantic tongues-and-the-rock show-downtown him him. He was standing on my front patio, laughing with my folks, my Mom holding a photo frame we'd purchased yesterday at Ikea, my Dad holding a Winsdor Castle tea towel and smiling into the sun. Since everything with Richard, I didn't see them glow like this anymore.

      I popped the car door open, and they looked over. He waved; tiny satellite waves reaching me only one-hundredth of a second after they occurred. All of us, chatting and laughing, in some way, forever caught back in time.

      Fishy giggled, smiling as big as my Dad. "You look like crap. But trust me, he won't give a second thought about it."

      I battled out of the car, swung back to Fishy.

 

      "This doesn't change anything. I'll pick you up later. Eight-thirty?"

 

      I gave her a nod and closed the door, a broad, time-soaked weightless smile appeared on my face.

 

      And I walked slowly across the road.

 

 

 

 

 

More short stories of Ruby Bakerś adventures will be available in digital and print Dec 1, 2018 in SCRIBBLES IN TRANSIT: a collection of short stories. Digital copies start at $2.99, grab yours at Amazon | B&N | Google Play | iBook this Dec 1, 2018

 

 

 

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