This story was first published in Arcadia magazine in 2011.
That Sunday morning, I was not full of the Holy Ghost. I was hungry for victory and sick with anxiety at the possibility of failure. The clouds moved fast and with intent, the wind was heavy and strong. Jessica reluctantly agreed to skip Sunday School. Sighing, she followed me down the back staircase of the church and through the fellowship hall, into the garage, past the hearse and out the door into the wide open day.
We crossed the yard—grass like wild hair, a sandbox, a picnic table—and passed through a small boundary of young oak trees into the wide field that marked one end of the Municipal Park. At the other end of the field, Ruby sat in the shadow of a broad walnut tree. She held up a white-gloved hand and wiped a figure-eight in the air like Miss Harrisonville in a parade. If Miss Harrisonville were old and loony, carried a tremor in her hand. She sat upright in front of a wide stump, in a tall-backed chair with a cracked vinyl cushion she had taken from the church basement. On top of the stump lay a warped chessboard, gracefully parabolic like a saddle. Even though Ruby and her chessboard were in the shade, the changing light of the morning made her seem supernaturally still, a witness of tranquility against natural unrest. Clouds gathered and dispersed; mottled patterns swept across the grass.
I thought, with joy in my heart, this is the day that Ruby falls.
The pieces were in place, and Ruby’s little red handbag was open in the middle of the board. It was this gesture, sitting with her handbag open, which bothered me the most. Presumptuous and expectant. It suggested inevitability.
Ruby Knuckles had never lost a game.
She always wore a faded red coat over a blue dress. Every Sunday. Everything had stains. Her skin, a shade grayer than her wilted gloves. She appeared in the Municipal Park every Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. (or at least, she was there at 10:30 when I ran from the church to go see her) and happily played chess with anyone willing to wager the offering that was originally intended for the church coffers. If you won, you kept your quarter (or dollar, depending on who you were). If you lost, it disappeared into Ruby’s red, open handbag. You lived with the knowledge that you had gambled away your offering to an ancient stranger who laughed at you.
Her system gave her a tremendous advantage: she either won money or lost nothing. Yet it seemed reasonable to exchange Bible lessons for the chance to watch Ruby, a feeble octogenarian with the mouth of a sailor, delight in mining quarters from truant Christian children. She was an unabashed trash-talker who once reminded us that Absalom, David’s wicked long-haired son, hung from a tree for days before Joab’s men had the good sense to finish him off.
“He must have been so bored, swinging back and forth. All alone, back and forth. What could he have been thinking, all that time in the tree?” she asked, pressing her palms together. “Surely one of you lambs knows?”
I had seen her reduce her young opponents to crying, helpless infants; she was insulting and mercenary in her ongoing commentary, and she delighted in every one of her victories. She was not what my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Grimm, would have called “a good sport.”
I had had good sportsmanship engraved on my brain since I was old enough to compete—which may explain why I found myself mesmerized by Ruby’s brusque style and her thrillingly colorful vocabulary.
“Playing with you is like fishing with dynamite,” she once said, “It just doesn’t matter where I go, kablowey! I still get all your pieces.”
Another time, I heard her tell an opponent, “I didn’t earn your goddamn quarter, you boob. It was always mine, all the time.”
She had different names for all the pieces, so to understand Ruby’s commentary you had to understand that the king was a deadbeat, the pawns addicts, the rooks cocks, the bishops molesters, the knights pansies and the queens cunts. She also had some conventional understanding of how to describe her moves, so she might say something like, “Not the deadbeat’s pansy! Looks like a goddamn Giuoco Piano,” or “En passant, you stoned sonofabitch” or “You use yer molester like a tall addict.” If she thought one of her moves was particularly clever, she would clap her hands together and rock back and forth, looking around at the audience. She would say something like, “what, am I playing myself here?” and howl, fiercely howl, up into the tree.
What a howl! A spectator might think she had won the lottery or lost the love of her life. Her exclamations did not seem particularly happy; they seemed primitive. They were about victory, not joy. And in Ruby’s world, those two states were unrelated.
I was transfixed. Ruby was a window into a world that I had been taught to politely ignore.
The most remarkable part of Ruby’s game was the graceless delivery of her endgame. While none of us knew her real name or where she came from or how she got to the park every week, we knew her playing style. Every week we waited anxiously for the series of masterful moves that served as the harbinger of her opponent’s defeat. It happened the same way every time. After her opponent had made a move (that move, the fatal one, the stupid one) Ruby Knuckles would look at the board in a wide-mouthed smile, her eyes on fire. Then, slowly, her eyes would seem to dim and her smile slip into a grimace, and in that moment she looked like a confused old woman, helpless. She would shake her head quickly and place a gloved hand on her chin; she would begin sentences but not finish them. “Now, why did I… now what was I doing, shoveling shit?” She gave the very distinct impression that she was about to lose the game and her mind, and every week I fell for it. I was sure Ruby was going to collapse and die right there, and I would start to wonder about her life and pity her. And the seed of victory would take root in my heart. While I was a little sad about losing Ruby, I grew more and more excited at the prospect of Ruby losing. This is the week. This is the week Ruby loses.
I couldn’t wait for Ruby’s next move: it seemed to dictate not only the fate of the game, but also the fate of Ruby herself. To me, she was no less than the game itself, no less than the countably infinite collection of decisions and choices that lead necessarily to unfathomable success or devastating failure. To play Ruby was to determine fate; this belief of mine only led to enormous sadness, since I and everyone I knew had lost to Ruby. Her deep contemplation signaled a very real depth to the game that I could not consider; she held a secret, and I believed that if she lost (to me, preferably, but to anyone would be fine) the secret would rise from the ground and hold us together in its answer. Ruby’s face would twist and change; I would delight; she would cry out in jibberish; I would hope for a translation.
While she ranted, her right hand would move to her left hand, and the left hand, as if driven by its own desires, as if taught by stealth, picked at the fingertips of the right-hand glove. When all five fingertips were loose, the left hand tugged steadily until the right-hand glove revealed her wrist, and then her palm, and then, knuckle by knuckle, her arthritic fingers. Still, her jaw was open and her eyes fixed on the board.
Her right hand would then move mechanically toward her mouth. She could have been an automatic mannequin in a department store window. Her thumb would bend, and that most important digit would disappear, right up to the knuckle. Her jaw would tighten and relax, tighten and relax. She would begin to gnaw.
And in the shadow of the tree, in stillness, if road noise paused, we could hear Ruby chewing on her own thumb.
She would get a little more aggressive, then mutter and stare at the board. After a few absent-minded chews, she would look like a dog with a stubborn bone: her head would twitch and yank and pull violently back and forth. Sunday School offered nothing like this. She would pull and chew. If she had growled it would not have been unusual. Finally, her eyes would brighten again and her thumb would drop from her mouth, wet and sometimes red with blood. That abused right hand would hover over the board and move quickly. She’d made a move. For the majority of games, this move indicated the end. If her opponent could see defeat, a resignation was in order, but Ruby never pressured anyone to resign early. Although the lowering of the hand was Ruby’s way of saying, “Checkmate in 5 moves or less,” she would play the rest of the game as long as her opponent wanted to keep playing.
Once, when her opponent finally tilted his king, she said, “Well wasn’t that just a waste of time. You should have just given me your quarter and we could have done something with our lives.” She laughed and laughed and picked up her open handbag. She held it right over the board until she heard the clink of the coins striking coins.
At that same game, I saw a drop of blood fall from her thumb onto the board. She reached into her handbag, removed a blue handkerchief and dabbed.
Ruby’s thumb, raw and chapped, for all its sacrifices, was not always strong enough to guarantee victory. Sometimes, after her opponent moved and she looked confused and had already chewed on her thumb, and after her opponent’s next move, she would again tighten her face and begin muttering. Her ungloved hand would approach her face. I could barely stand to watch, but I couldn’t turn away. She would bend her index finger, and with her jaws grab on to the lower knuckle and execute the same process she had used on her thumb. If she made it to her index finger, however, her attack—both on her finger and encased in her next move—was more aggressive. She would become more agitated and confused. She would growl at the board and look furious, but after she made her move her face would assume a look of perfect tranquility, and her posture would correct itself. She’d say sweetly, “Goodness knows I forget myself sometimes.” That comment, more than her salty lexicon of exotic, filthy idioms, would disturb me for the rest of the game. You didn’t get that eerie comment unless you made the index finger, but if you did, it was there, waiting for you.
I am proud to report that when I played Ruby Knuckles, she gnawed through most of her hand, all the way to the ring finger, before she looked at me sweetly. Her four knuckles were raw and wet, her wrinkled skin chapped and bleached in the vicinity of her fingers, and I felt on top of the world. I felt on top of the world and was ready to hear, “Goodness knows I forget myself sometimes.” But that’s not what she said. I felt on top of the world, looking at her abused hands, until she said, “It’s a safe world you live in, hon, and it always will be. You… Are… A… Bore.’
And then I hated Ruby Knuckles. With all I had, with every breath, I cursed her as she executed her endgame. I sat and fumed while she systematically knocked me out in three moves, laughing like a little girl and mocking me. She still had two moves to go when I laid down my king and fished in my pocket. I dropped my quarter into her open handbag and stood up to allow someone else a chance to be humiliated by Ruby. I looked at her; she placed her gloved left hand on my forearm. She was leaning forward. “Don’t take it personally, hon, really, don’t. I’d be upset, too, if I had your life to look forward to. Really. Go blow off some steam. Go get high, sugar. And hon –”
I turned away, but she tugged gently on my arm and I turned back. “Thanks for the game, I’ll never forget it.” With that, she tugged at the doily and lifted her hair right off her head. She was mostly bald, and the skin on top of her head delicate and wrinkled. A few errant strands of white hair waved in the space between her scalp and the wig. She winked and tipped her wig toward me, saying, “I bet you won’t either, you goddamn bore.” She placed her wig back on her head, adjusted it, put her right glove back on and sang, “Next!” I fell back, astonished and terrified and still furious. I vowed to see Ruby Knuckles lose a game; who knew what she would reveal beyond her pinkie?
That’s why I enlisted the help of my younger sister, Jessica. Last fall, I taught her how to play chess so I would have someone I could always beat. After three weeks of daily games, she was consistently defeating me and becoming bored. I began reading books and studying moves. She discovered new moves on her own and had little difficulty, or so it seemed to me, seeing the possibilities of the entire game before the end was decided. Ruby Knuckles had been my secret, and if I hadn’t believed that Jessica could defeat Ruby I never would have introduced them. I felt possessive about Ruby; she had given me knowledge that I couldn’t put into words. To allow Jessica to meet Ruby was, I felt, a sacrifice of something very personal; it was an act of unprecedented generosity. While Jessica was at first flattered to be asked to skip Sunday School, she quickly assumed her usual, sanctimonious tone. She loved Sunday School. “Last week, we did Jesus in the desert. You would have been lost in the desert,” she said as we crossed the field. “You would not have been able to resist temptation.”
We were the first people to arrive at Ruby’s table. “Bout time. And here I was, feeling poor.” She winked at Jessica and said to me, “So you brought a baby to the board. Enjoy this moment, sweetie. You’re a quarter richer than you will be in a few minutes.’
I glanced at Jessica, but she stared at Ruby. “Actually,” she said after a moment, already appearing bored, “I give 50 cents in offering every week. I use a quarter of my own.’
Ruby laughed. “Good Lord, you dragged a good one out of the pews. Regular Cain and Abel, right here. If, you know, the good one was a girl.’
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Jessica said, sitting down opposite Ruby. “Cain killed Abel, he didn’t lead him out of church.’
“Maybe it’s the same thing,” Ruby snapped. I looked back toward the church and saw a group of older boys walking through the grove of trees. The shadows of the clouds on the ground danced quickly and deliberately across the field. I was relieved to know that there would be other witnesses to Ruby’s imminent defeat. She took the two queens and hid them behind her back.
A single, large drop of rain fell in the middle of the board. Jessica chose a hand, Ruby’s right, and Ruby showed her the black queen. I was elated. Jessica had a host of brilliant defensive openings. She had her own names for them: the four-leaf clover; the trapdoor; Venus rising; the String Quartet. Ruby and Jessica began playing, laying out the board in the world of their minds. I imagined Jessica could already see it all, could already see the defeat of Ruby Knuckles. The opening moved quickly, and the sky darkened.
As the game progressed, it became clear that this would be the only game today, given the time between moves, both Jessica and Ruby scowling and groaning, and the weight of the clouds. The crowd grew and people jostled each other for different views of the board. We blocked out the sun; or at least, I thought so, until I stepped out of the crowd into the small field and saw that the sky was not only dark but also green. It was a hallucinatory, pure green, dark and suggestive of the kind of eventuality that spoke in whispers to a much larger order than ours. No one else was watching. I heard, from the crowd, “her queen,” but I saw lightning dart across the sky and splinter down to the ground. I heard, “Tit for tit, tat for tat, baby, watch and see,” and fought my way back to Jessica’s side.
If the air was electric in the field, it was electrifying near the board. I looked at Jessica’s head, half expecting her hair to be floating static electricity. Ruby was biting the skin off the knuckle of her middle finger, and I could see blood on her index finger. It wasn’t over, though it looked very involved. I looked at Jessica.
I had to look again, had to make myself believe was I was seeing. She was tapping the middle knuckle of her index finger against the front of her teeth, and seemed just as oblivious to her actions as Ruby was to hers. Ruby said, “well, baby, you’ve fucked me again but I’ll put the goddamn molesters on you,” and took Jessica’s knight. Jessica pushed a pawn, and Ruby moved on to her ring finger. A small smear of blood marked Ruby’s chin, but she didn’t wipe it off. Jessica began tapping the tip of her ring finger against her teeth, still oblivious. Traces of a heavy wind passed through the crowd, traces of very cool air, and the sky heaved. Enormous rain drops fell through the branches, on our heads.
“I’ve got you,” Jessica said.
“You’ve got Pampers, baby,” Ruby said.
“It’s your move.’
“It’s your offering to the lord, Jezebel.’
Accompanied by a panicked wave of guttural noises from the crowd, Ruby’s pinkie, unadulterated, unscathed, unscabbed, untouched, unlicked, unnoticed, innocent, precious, bent and entered Ruby’s jaw. It was beautiful and pure. Lightning cracked overhead; sirens began sounding. Unholy and billowy gradations filled the sky. I heard “hey can we finish this later” and “are those the…?” and “Ruby’s going to lose!’
Ruby snapped up and whipped her pinkie out of her mouth. Jessica froze, her own pinkie touching the enamel on the front of her teeth. “Baby hasn’t seen anything yet!” Ruby shrieked.
And at that moment, someone in the crowd said quietly, “Baby Knuckles, Baby Knuckles,” and the name stuck to my sister forever.
Ruby bit down hard on her pinkie and held up her fist for everyone to see. Lightning passed overhead and lent an unnatural light to the sight of Ruby’s dentures, mounted like a tribute, decaying like a relic, clamped on her pinkie, silhouetted against the dark clouds. A rivulet of blood ran from the knuckle to her wrist and started meandering down her wrinkled arm. She opened her mouth wide to show her gums and let out a hearty laugh. Jessica didn’t react.
“It’s still your move,” she said calmly. “I’ve got you.’
“You’ve got Pampers.” Ruby shook off her dentures and moved her rook. Her teeth disappeared into the tall grass.
“Dammit!” Jessica called out. “What the fuck?’
“The Lord’s finest,” Ruby said, nodding.
As far as I knew, Jessica had never cursed. She was flustered, and the crowd was spreading out; everyone was looking at the sky and listening to the shriek of the sirens. Time seemed to slow as the shade of the walnut tree expanded and blurred. I was fixed to the board, and behind the wind I could hear adult voices, panicked, calling to us from across the field. People were running in every direction. The wind dropped away entirely for a second—Jessica moved her pawn—Ruby bellowed—the wind returned.
I looked up and could see it, the unusual and near darkness tapering to the ground, the contours of chaos hazy and changing. It was on the other side of the church. It looked like it was so close, like it was going to devour the church and the field and all of us, and for a second I tried to imagine this game lasting forever. I had never felt so aware. The weather, the game. Ruby moved. Jessica looked up in panic. I grabbed her under her arms. She didn’t budge. I pushed her over and she fell in the grass. Ruby cackled and said, “Not this time, Pampers!” and Jessica cried earnestly, “But I’ve got you!”
I helped Jessica get up and began pulling her away; her cheeks were wet and she dragged her heels. I yelled to Ruby. “Ruby, run! Run!” She sat and smiled at me and laughed. “Can’t run, hon,” she said, removing the bottom part of her right leg. It was wooden, and she knocked on it. She turned it upside and a waterfall of quarters spilled out before the wind caught them and they flew up, up, up.
“Can’t run, but I can win,” she yelled.
Jessica turned, I dragged her, she finally looked up and began to run with me. “I can win, I can still win,” she cried as we ran away from the church. We raced toward the public restroom, a squat concrete building just off the field. As we approached, I turned around and saw the entire church—the whole building—listing to the side, like a boat on the ocean, and a piece of the roof peeled away like a scab. Jessica looked at Ruby and poked me in the shoulder. Ruby was laughing, upright in her chair. Her handbag had overturned, and another pool of quarters hovered few feet off the ground.
Ruby’s was a balanced and elegant lift-off. She rose slightly, and then her chair tilted suggestively, and she rose and spun, spun and rose. She rotated at impossible angles and stayed firm in the chair; the quarters swimming around her. Her wooden leg circled the chair, her wig spun off into its own trajectory, her dentures darted around her head like a mad bird. Jessica pulled on my arm, and just before we ducked in, we waved. Ruby waved and waved, too, not to us but to the world, and then she was lost in a cloud of dust and our eyes burned.
We crouched on either side of a stinky toilet in the municipal park. Hands over our heads and necks, as we had learned in school, trying to hear behind the screaming wind the voice of Ruby Knuckles, but only hearing trees breaking and the sound of objects crashing into the outer walls of our sanctuary. A loud crack preceded the violent entry of a small, hard object which bounced off three walls, each rebound more furious, in flagrant violation of the physical laws governing collisions. It came to rest somewhere near Jessica. I heard her gasp “I’ve got Ruby’s teeth” before everything went dark. I thought that I, too, was flying, dizzy with victory, that was waving goodbye not to a person but to the whole planet.
Sometimes I ask my sister Jessica, Baby Knuckles, to show me Ruby’s dentures, and Jessica always feigns ignorance. “But I don’t have them,” she says, tapping on her teeth. “But it’s me, it’s me, I was there,” I say, “I was there.” She looks at me like I know something, but I don’t know everything. She laughs and says, “I forget myself sometimes.”