At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Storytime: "I Wear the Ring"

I wrote a short story recently, the first one I've ever done through the eyes of a female character. The symbol of a ring as symbolic of devotion to one's hopes, promises, and beliefs is central; the phrase "I Wear the Ring" is inspired by the prologue of Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline. I've reproduced my new story below and hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

I Wear the Ring

         My feet shuffle through the copse of trees in the leafy mid-autumn opulence of brilliant color, and I find myself in the open hollow of the memorial garden. I have come here plenty of times over the past four years since Dad died, but this visit is more pregnant with meaning than ever before.
         Sometimes you follow your parent’s advice out of honor and respect. And then the day comes when you follow that path of wisdom because it is right.
         I come to the grave, familiar from many previous stays. A granite structure with a glossy obsidian headpiece, graced with a Latin cross. I stand there for a full minute before I remember that I am stroking the ring, his ring, the one with the rectangular cut emerald on the necklace I wear.
         I’m still his girl, his proud girl. You see, I wear the ring.

         I remember when he gave me the ring. I was eight years old. I was playing softball in PE class when the teacher lobbed in a pitch that seemed to pierce the sky from my vantage point. Losing track of it in the sun, I wasn’t ready to allow an easy called strike, and so I lunged for what looked to be a blurry white grapefruit out of the heavens. I turned my left ankle as I stepped into the pitch and my contact with the ball was hardly as powerful as I’d hoped. It skittered off the handle of my bat and wobbled down the third base line like a drunken ghost embryo. I dug into the ground and hobbled down to first base, somehow beating the throw by a full two steps. I caught my breath, returning to the bag, awaiting the next batter.
         And it was then that Keith Allen, the third grade class’ resident misogynist and chauvinist pig, kicked the base at my feet and bumped me off the bag.
         “Get out of my space, Ariana,” he hissed, his dark eyes apprising me as if gauging how fast he’d dispatch me if it ever came to a fight.
         “It’s my spot, Keith,” I shot back, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge him.
         Sneaking a look at the distracted teacher, Keith reached behind and slapped me at the base of my skull. “Learn from that, stupid,” he growled before adding, “You hit like a girl.”
         Hit like a girl! The bile rose in my throat, accompanied by blistering anger. What does he mean, hit like a girl?
         Since when, I wondered, was a female’s efforts associated with weakness and fraility?
         I asked Mrs. Honeywell, my classroom teacher about that at the end of the day.
         “Darling,” she said, “that’s just the way people see it.”
         And it might have been the way I saw it, too, sorry to say, except my dad noticed my simmering emotions that evening. So I asked him the same question and followed that up by saying, “Apparently that’s the way people see it.”
         He slammed his fork down, sending the bite of Parmesan chicken spiraling into the air before it came to rest on our farmhouse table in the kitchen. He then looked around.
         “Ariana, darling, did you see that?”
         “What, Dad?”
         “The crap that I was giving about what everyone else thought has magically disappeared!”
         “Listen, Ariana. I personally do not care if most people think that. I don’t care if the President of the United States signs that declaration into law. And I don’t care if Moses rises from the dead and writes it in on the stone tablets as the Eleventh Commandment. It’s stupid, it’s wrong, and it’s evil…” and here he practically spat out that last word, “to say that to a lady.”
         “I’m not a lady, Daddy.”
         “You’re a lady, Ariana. You’re my little lady. You’re why I work at the shipyard all day and come home and heat up Mom’s cooking so we can have dinner when she works the evening shift at the factory. And I don’t care what the world thinks; you can do anything you want and no one is going to shove you around.”
         He pushed his plate aside and rose from the table. “Come with me, sweetie.”

         That night, after we got the punching bag attached to the bracket on the wooden beam, I discovered the joy of tagging a forty-pound vertical torpedo over and over, again and again. My knuckles were bruised and bleeding by the end point of that first session, but whatever pain there might have been was overruled by the beaming joy on my dad’s face. His weathered fingers patted me on the back as he said, “Hitting like a girl is NOT a sign of weakness. You are strong. You are capable. You are worth all that you are.”
         It was then that my dad took me to the safe in their bedroom closet. Unlocking it, he procured a large emerald ring and placed it in my hands. “Sweet Ariana, as sweet as you are, you’re also determined and strong. When I give you this ring, I’m giving you my word that I believe in you, and that you should believe in yourself. When you wear it, you are telling me you believe in your strength and goodness.”
         I looked at Daddy with tears in my eyes. “I will, Daddy.”
         And that night, I went right down to the basement. And I put on the boxing gloves. And I kept hitting.

         It was the impromptu assembly in April of my seventh-grade year that nearly caused me to come apart again. It had been an unusually hot spring for Connecticut, and as such, we girls had taken more liberties with our comfort. To say the administration was not pleased was an understatement.
         “To be quite clear,” said Principal Wilson, her withering gaze burning a hole through the guilty consciences arrayed through the gymnasium, “we cannot have a group of middle school girls adorning themselves as some of you have been doing and reflecting poorly on the character of our school.” She paused dramatically before continuing. “Dressing like sluts and whores in eighty-five degree weather will not be tolerated. Whoever dresses in a way that others find distracting will receive three detentions.”
         It was as if the oxygen got sucked out of the room. The silence was broken when one girl raised her hand to speak. I was shocked to hear her voice; I was even more shocked that voice was my own.
         “At what temperature,” I asked in front of God and everybody, “would such clothing be tolerated?”
         And there’s your first three-detention penalty, people!
         The maddening thing was that when I sat in that detention room, Keith Allen was with me serving a detention of his own. And while I worked on the Pre-Algebra homework that was a blur in my brain, Keith had his iPad out, snickering both at his ability to get around the school’s Internet filter and watch a steamy episode of Game of Thrones.
         Finally having enough of it, I approached Mr. Paulsen at the front of the room.
         “Can you have Keith stop it?” I asked.
         “He’s got his earbuds in,” Mr. Paulsen said gruffly. “No sound seems to be bothering you.”
         “He’s squirming in his seat and being a distraction,” I shot back, “and why is he allowed to practically watch porn during the school day?”
         Paulsen put aside a civics quiz he was grading, not even looking at me. “Listen, Abianna…”
         “It’s Ariana.”
         “Whatever. Boys will be boys. That’s just something that’s part of their life. They’re not causing distractions. Just ignore it. Do you get it?”
         I fixed him with a blazing look that could have sliced through solid granite. “Unfortunately, sir, I do get it.”
         That night I spent two hours doing nothing but hitting the bag in the basement. I was mad as a hornet. Girls are called out for dressing provocatively, but boys can slobber over it and that’s okay?
         It was past midnight when my dad came downstairs, found me passed out from exhaustion, and carried me up to my bed like when I was a baby. He said I had murmured thanks and sleepily had said, “Dad, I wear the ring. I’ll always wear the ring.”
I wish I had remembered it. He told me what he’d done at breakfast the next morning. I remember thanking him before saying good bye and running to the bus.
         Maybe I wouldn’t have rushed things if I knew. But you never know when a heart attack will take the daddy you love away from you later in the day.

          I couldn’t fall in love with a boy after that. The punching bag was my one true love for some time. Mom and I grew closer; tragedy has a way of bringing together two hearts ruined by the pain. But every evening, it was at least thirty minutes slinging haymakers at the bag. Strained tendons, bruised fingers, jammed wrists, and sweat flying in every direction. Yes, I hit like a girl, and I took that as a badge of honor, knowing this girl.
         But nonetheless I felt the need to be more sociable than just knowing a punching bag intimately, so four years later I helped to plan the homecoming dance during my junior year of high school. The come-from-behind football victory earlier that evening had our student body in a buoyant mood, and four hundred strong packed the ballroom for the festivities. The pulsing throbs of the band we hired for the occasion had students everywhere grinding, rollicking, and cavorting when faculty chaperones weren’t looking. Boyfriends and girlfriends in the dark recesses of the room pressed together and left little room for the Holy Ghost between them. With the joy pretty much in hand, I left my friends and headed toward the quiet of the parking lot so I could call Mom and let her know I’d be home later than planned.
         I had just dialed the number while standing by a Hyundai Sonata that I felt rather than heard the approach of footsteps behind me. The stench of Smirnoff and Kool-Aid hit my nostrils just as a pair of hands slid around my midsection.
         “Hello, girlie,” came the drunken slurs of Keith Allen. I could smell his sour breath and hear the menacing inflections in his voice. I could sense the confidence in his fingers as they moved toward my hips.
         And in that moment, I remembered him at first base on the ball field, and we were eight years old again.
         Hit like a girl, I thought. Yeah, that’s right. It’s on.

         The thing about boys is that when they’re cruel and sexist and lurid, they have no context for when girls fight back. I wheeled around as I kicked off my heels in two fluid snaps of my ankles and aimed high. My fist, just as Daddy taught me, collided with Keith Allen’s throat with the velocity of a major league fastball. Staggered, he choked and gasped as I grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against the side of the car. With precise, methodical punches, I bisected his jaw with a roundhouse right, his nose with a left hook, and then sent a right uppercut under his chin, all of which left him open for a bevy of smashes, thumps, and wallops that sounded like a beaver mashing through soft wood.
Wide-eyed and scared, Keith had one move left, and he stiff-armed me in the face, grabbing me by the nose with his thumb and index finger. “You want it rough, huh?” he shouted with equal parts bravado and fear. Unfortunately for the poor bastard, his ring finger was free, and I clamped my teeth down on it hard. I was sure his scream could be heard as far away as New York, but I showed how little I cared by wrenching my head back and then spitting the projectile against the side of the car. He began to wail at the exact time that I whipped my right leg back and brought it rocketing forward with shattering force into his groin. Keith slammed back against the passenger door, but I was on him immediately, opening it and slamming it against his head.
His eyes rolled in the back of his head, but not before I looked him in those white ovals and spat the words, “Hit like a girl, right?”
No one ever found his finger.

         I am back at the grave, tearing my mind away from the past to join my heart at this patch of earth before me. Mom has come to my side with her arm around me as we gaze at the headstone once again.
         I close my eyes and I am back in the basement with Daddy holding the bag as I hop and punch, hop and punch, hop and punch. Hitting like a girl, like the girl I was born to be, a lady of uncommon determination and strength. One who has it in herself to be as strong as ten acres of garlic behind the right guy. But it would have to be the right guy, one who loves me for the woman I am, who sees strength and not weakness.
         I look down at my hands. My knuckles are battered and bruised, with cuts that mark where Keith Allen’s face and body got in the way the night before. But the beautiful trophy that I see outstrips all that. The emerald is there around my neck, and that means that Daddy is right there with me.
         I am who I was born to be, the young lady he knew I was meant to be. And of that there is no doubt. Because I wear the ring.