What Happened to Ruth


She didn’t talk to people on the subway, but he insisted on talking. She sat there nodding. She was not afraid of talking to people but she was reading the newspaper. That didn’t stop him. His name, he said, was Darrance Copperhead. “They call me Dare.” He had a craggy, strong-looking face with copper-colored eyes. The thought that his eyes matched his name, Copperhead, made her giggle and feel uncertain. She got off at Third Avenue and thought that was it. Her son Roger was always warning her about talking to people. “They could be looking to cheat you out of money or rape you.”


Pin collage by Julia C. Spring

A week later Dare arrived on the subway again and he sat in an empty seat. Then he patted the seat next to him and she thought, well why not, and moved over next to him.

“Why do you ride the subway? What do you do?” he asked. “Is that being nervy?”

“I’ve just retired from working on a magazine.”

“But you are so young.”

She laughed.

He said, “I’m fifty-seven and I won’t ever retire unless I fall off a ladder.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a builder, right now between jobs.”

She was sixty-two but didn’t tell him. She dyed her hair reddish and was not too bad looking, although her arms and face were a little too plump. A high-school friend of hers called her Pumpkin Face. She didn’t mind. “I like pumpkins,” she replied.

On the platform, he reached into his wallet and handed her his card. She looked at the card, his name, contractor-builder and phone number. She would look up his credentials. She had told him she’d just bought a piece of land up state, about an hour from her son. She was tired of the city and her son wanted her close by so he could watch out for her. She knew she would have to talk to her son about hiring this guy but she hated doing that. He was over-protective and bossy. Maybe she deserved that. She was a little careless and devil-may-care.

As soon as she arrived at her apartment she went to the computer. She put in his name and business and it came up with satisfied customers and only one complaint, something about not finishing plastering the dining room walls. But anyway, sounded good. She called him to come look at the land and see what he thought.


He arrived the next Saturday and it was already cool, the 13th of October. He came by train and she met him at the railroad station in her rattletrap Chevy.

She had dressed herself up a little in a new pair of jeans and a knitted sweater with blue stripes to make her feel optimistic, even thinking she might reinvent herself, whatever that meant. It was a sweet, fragrant day as they walked around. She told him what she wanted, a big living room and bedroom, small kitchen and bathroom, a deck. Overlooking the stream. So, what do you think?

He found a spot in the dirt and began drawing.

“I think I would like it on paper with sizes.”

“You got some paper?”

“She went back to the car and found some on a clip board she kept for grocery lists.

They sat on the ground and he drew it carefully as they worked out what the sizes of the rooms should be.

He had brought two suitcases, and in one was a tent which he soon put up near the stream. She told him she was going grocery shopping, to get them something to eat, in the small town that was about two miles away. When there she also registered in a bed and breakfast. She returned with some lunch and they sat on a large rock by the stream to eat.

They talked about where exactly the house should be built and as they finished lunch he asked her if she was married.

That’s nervy.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just a curious type.”

She thought, what the hell. “No, but I was and I have a son. I divorced after forty-two years. He was passive and sullen but anyway he died of a heart attack. How about you?”

“Not yet, but would like to someday.”

“Die of a heart attack or get married?”

The rolling of his laughed echoed in the woods. He took a bite of his cookie and said, “First we need electricity and then we can rent tools and go to the lumber yard and have them deliver.”

Her son came the next day and looked at everything. He wanted to look at her bank account, concerned about the money, and asked Dare if he was finished ordering.

“At the moment,” Dare said. “We’ll have to see how it goes.”

When her son walked to his car, she walked with him. “I looked him up and he had good reviews.”

“What have you spent?”

“About twenty-five, and you know I have a hundred and fifty thousand.”

“What is he charging you?”

“Twenty-five an hour.”

Her son whispered. “Be careful. All that lumber. You can be foolish,” he reminded her in a nasty tone.

She was going to stop telling him how much money she had or what she was spending. She had always been under his thumb. He had such authority, even the way he stood, legs apart, arms crossed, and a frown on his handsome face. He was much taller than she. She hated having to look up to him.

Even when he was a child he bullied her with his crying or stamping his feet and she gave in, not yet hating herself for doing so. She thought she must indulge him but as he grew she became afraid of him, afraid of his will, afraid of his temper and now of his being a busy-body, protecting her. She guessed she should be grateful.

Her son had a wife who was Mrs. Milk Toast, boring, but he didn’t act mean to her. She went to the Baptist church every Sunday and prayed. She’d confided in Ruth when she was a bit drunk that her son didn’t want children because they were too unpredictable.


Three weeks later, coming at lunch-time, she found Dare, his back to her, singing to himself. “As time goes by, you must remember this, a kiss is but a kiss, a sigh is but a sigh, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by. And when two lovers woo they still say, I love you. On that you can rely, no matter what the future brings, that no one can deny.”

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

He startled and turned around. “Definitely. Well, mostly.”

“Did you have lots of lovers?”

“Boy, nosy journalist. You going to publish this?”

She laughed.


“But you didn’t want to marry them?”

“You want to know everything, don’t you? First you tell me. How many lovers did you have?”

“None, just the one I married.”

“I had several but nothing clicked.”

She liked talking to him, not figuring out why, just the discovery, perhaps. New land, new person. She realized she had never had men friends, just acquaintances.


In the next weeks, he finished the walls. Most of the floor and roof. He was working on the kitchen, ordered the electric stove, refrigerator. He left the shelves without doors, and then the floor. He was working long hours. “It’s hard with no help,” he said.

She didn’t answer or know what to say. She asked him to finish her bedroom. Before the other rooms. She wanted to move in, thinking about the money she was spending at the bed and breakfast.

“Yes, and I will do the bathroom too. “

He hadn’t put doors on anything yet. And from the bedroom to the kitchen there were only planks to walk on. Since it was getting cold she said, “Say, Dare, when do I have a furnace?”

“Well, I have to cement the cellar floor. Can’t do that until warm weather.”

A wood stove might do, particularly if he soon closed up the walls. She went to town and bought a Norwegian stove; he put a pipe up through the ceiling plywood, the roof shingles not on yet and having a blue temporary covering. “Let’s walk in the woods and look for fallen trees for firewood,” he suggested.

A city woman, she had little knowledge of woods and there was no path,. They stepped through fallen leaves, muddy ground, and twigs. They came upon a huge fallen poplar tree and he said, “I’ll help you over.” He reached his arms around her waist and lifted her over. She felt her heart taking off … but thought, don’t be silly. Anyway, she was annoyed at his not finishing anything, the electric wires just snaking here and there with some light bulbs. The roof unfinished, planks everywhere. She said, “I will order wood for the stove.”

Her judgmental son came by and said angrily, “This is a mess. Finish up fast.”

After her son left she said, “I brought us lunch.” She didn’t mention her son, thinking that was best. She took the sandwiches and two beers out to the finished deck. “I’m moving in tomorrow,” she said. “It’s too expensive at the bed and breakfast.”


He was slow, which annoyed her, and there was no flooring from the bedroom to the kitchen, still only planks, and the living room, or rather what would be the living room, was just a gap, only cross beams done, and you could see the dirt below and the cinderblock foundation. “It is getting really cold now,“ she said and poured them wine for supper. She liked to cook on the grill on the deck; he turned the steak and she put the potatoes under the coals.

After, they put the paper cups and plates in the new garbage pail.

“I’m finishing the roof tomorrow.”

She was getting low on money. Last time she looked she had only $30,000 left. She had taken him to town to start a bank account in a new bank.

That night was the coldest of all, 25 degrees. He asked, “May I bring my sleeping bag in your bed? It will be too cold in the tent.”

“Of course.”

In the night he unzipped his bag, unzipped hers and somehow, they got undressed from their layers of clothes, throwing them on the floor. Maybe this was the right man, maybe he will stay here, maybe he will finish the house.

As she fell asleep she dreamed she liked the house unfinished and that she had never longed for anything in her life, needed or craved. When she woke, she thought about how she used to live. She did what was to be done each day – get up, go to work, grocery shop, cook dinner, read, watch TV, sleep. Sometimes she saw her friends and hadn’t thought about sexual desire. Now the wallop came. She didn’t want their love-making to end. When it was over, there was always a new craving, a new anticipation, and now she saw the house that way, wanting it unfinished forever, wanting him to stay.


Her son came. “I don’t like this at all. What’s going on?”

“It takes time,” Ruth said.

“I want it finished in two weeks or you are fired,” he said to Dare.

It won’t be finished in two weeks, Ruth thought. She said to Dare. “He can’t fire you. He has no right to talk to you that way. I need some wine.”

They sat on boards next to the wood stove. “To us,” he said.

She began to cry. “He can do something awful. I know him.”

“Like shoot me.”

“No, more underhanded.”

“Come on, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have power. You hired me.”

“You have to believe me, he has evil power.”

“Well, let’s go to bed.” He put his glass down and rushed across the planks. They snuggled in bed and made love and all the world was marvelous, well, for those moments.

The house wasn’t finished in two weeks. Dare had done small things, like trim here and there, and ordered window panes and made a table with a piece of plank, and made a bench near the stove.

“Let’s get married,” Dare said.

“Yes,” she shouted. “The minister can stand on one board and us on another.”

He laughed. “I’m going to make a path to the river so next summer we can swim.”

“You’re making me shiver, seeing ice on the river. I’ll get us lunch.” Ruth went out to buy lunch. When she came back Dare was not there. She called out. No answer. She looked everywhere. He didn’t own a cell phone so she couldn’t call him.

She called her son.

“I’ve had enough. I took Dare to the train station.”

“What are you talking about? Why?”

“I explained to him he had to get out and move far away or I could have him arrested for extortion, preying on an older victim. And that he’d better not get in touch with you.”

“You couldn’t do that. Why did he believe you? Where did he go?” She tried to keep her voice calm, so he wouldn’t know how she cared.

“I pointed my gun at him.”

“I didn’t even know you had a gun.”

“I’m not going to tell you where he is. He made you a disaster and I am moving you out tomorrow. I found an apartment for you to rent and we have a moving van coming at nine in the morning. We will sell this house as is and that will give you more money to live on. Pack your bags and I will be there first thing tomorrow.”

She felt like fainting. She would not do what her son wanted. She would find a place to live far from him. She would move out tonight and go far away. As she went to get her suitcase, lying on her bed she found a scribbled note. “Key West, Comfort Inn.”

She packed the small suitcase, drove to the bank, and drew out all her money, $30,000. Drove three towns south, left her car, ran into the airport, bought a ticket to Key West, and got on a plane that would get to the train station before his train arrived.

Strange, she thought, strange, that I will never see my son again. To give life to someone, even love him, and probably never see him again. But, as the plane drew closer to the earth, she thought, there is no other way.


Author's Comment

I had a friend who died; this is an account of what happened to her – My friend met a man on the subway and found out he was a builder. She hired him but he was awful, though she fell for him and  the rest is fiction.


J. Carol Goodman’s bio: On the way to Kentucky to visit relatives, my sister and I were in the back seat. She was six years older than me. I was five years old. I was an endless talker. After a while my sister said, “If you don’t shut her up I will kill her.” My mother leaned over from the front seat and said to me, “why don’t you tell yourself a story, silently.” That was the beginning of my story career. I constantly told myself stories. Then I went to Bennington College where I majored in writing. From then on I sold stories, received prizes, grants and fellowships.

One Comment on “What Happened to Ruth

  1. Nice cautionary tale though I believe her son had her best interests at heart. Too bad she did not reset their relationship but instead removed him from her life. To make the tale more believeable a comment about building permits, inspectors and actual blueprints would be helpful. He would have to meet building codes for the area. There would also be subcontractors for electricity, plumbing and the foundation which would be poured before the structure went up.

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