1998: Ruth Eastman Makes a Promise
Christopher Eastman leans across the front passenger seat, framing himself in the window as he waves goodbye. Daniel, giddy in his straitjacket booster seat, waves too, wiggling all his pudgy little fingers. Then they’re off. Christopher’s gold Lexus LS, the car he bought last year after his chain of beer-themed restaurants did so well, sails down the oil-black driveway, the sound of the engine soon lost in the wind that gusts through the tall hemlocks beside the house.
His wife, Ruth, continues to wave back at them, certain that Christopher is watching her in his rearview, that Daniel is straining to look over his shoulder for a final glimpse of Mommy. She continues to wave even after the Lexus has hopped the hump at the base of the long drive, between the squat marble columns, on the way to Christopher’s father’s place for a boys-only weekend of stock-pond fishing and visiting Krauss’s apple orchard. Only after it’s vanished around the bend in the road does Ruth drop her arm. She turns and steps along the front walk, already missing her guys, wondering whether she should have pressed harder to tag along on the trip. What if Daniel gets homesick, or calls out at three in the morning needing her to rescue him from a nightmare?
On the polished-stone landing in front of the house, Ruth stops. Her worrying has caused the knot of congestion in her chest—all that remains of the cold she came down with three weeks ago—to feel suddenly tight. She clears her throat for several moments, then takes her long red hair in one hand, leans over the side railing, and spits into the tentacles of the ornamental razor grass, which sway under the front windows like seaweed anchored to the bottom of the ocean.
And she feels better. Freer. She can’t help glancing behind her, though, with a vague sense she’s being watched, that someone might have seen her disgusting hawking and spitting. But the house sits dead center on a large square tract of wooded land miles outside of town. Eleven acres, for heaven’s sake. Ruth could dance naked on one of the high widow’s-walk balconies, and not even her closest neighbors a quarter mile down the hill would see her.
This thought gives her an unexpected thrill, and a jolt of courage, and she goes inside to change.
Fifteen minutes later, she’s in her own car, her cute emerald Porsche Carrera, speeding along Pheasant Hunt Drive and Tally Ho Lane and Puddle Duck Hiway. The backcountry roads, as she and Christopher like to call them. The tires hum over the asphalt, causing her bottom and the backs of her thighs to jiggle pleasantly. She enjoys the sensation but puts it out of her mind, wanting to delay gratification of any sort until she gets where she’s going.
She’s dressed down, in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and an old mustard-colored barn coat of Christopher’s. A brown-plaid scarf covers her head. Large, black-rimmed shades hide most of her face. She doubts she’ll run into anyone but doesn’t want to risk being recognized. She tells herself, in fact, that the Porsche works as part of her disguise: Her mommy friends and the women she knows at church are more used to seeing her in her Land Rover, out shopping or idling in the parking lot of Daniel’s pre-school.
She drives fast, the woods and hills of this part of the county soon behind her. Whizzing by now, too close to the road, are shabby ranch houses on one side, clusters of rundown row houses on the other. Trucks with monster tires sit in the short gravel drives; plastic jumbo playsets take up the tiny front yards. Ruth hates remembering her childhood in a neighborhood similar to this and doesn’t ease off the accelerator until she’s reached the south side of town, a particularly commercial stretch of Lee-King Avenue, where it’s all convenience marts and strip malls and auto-repair shops. Just beyond the first traffic light, she turns into the parking lot of Frannie’s 4-Star Diner, which has been here since she was a little girl. She parks in the rear, backing into a slot a couple spaces over from the restaurant’s giant blue dumpster.
The new glut hut is behind the restaurant, on the other side of a brown-grass median, where the old Record Zone used to be. Off the main drag, thank goodness. Ruth noticed ads for it in a local arts paper and cruised by several times when she was out running errands. She sees its flat roof above the dumpster.
Her stomach is all nerves, and her chest starts to tighten again. White sunlight floods in through her window, though Ruth notices dark clouds low in the sky beyond Frannie’s. She sits for a minute, lightly rubbing her knuckles along the steering wheel. She glances at her manicured fingertips, noting with shame the stubby nail of her right thumb, which she’s been gnawing. And her rings! She’d meant to leave them at home. Her pear-shaped diamond, her sapphires, her aquamarine. With a frustrated sigh, she swivels them off and hides them in the empty ashtray. Then, after checking her mirrors to make sure no one is in sight, she gets out, locks the car, and walks across the median.
The windows of the two-story building are painted over from the inside, a darker shade of storm-cloud gray than the worn siding. Like the other glut huts Ruth’s visited—the few that have popped up now and then in Turnersburg, the next town over, and the one out by the interstate before Daniel was born—the word Glut is stenciled in red script lettering at the base of one of the windows, the only giveaway of what the building is used for.
Just as she catches her reflection in the same window—proud, for a brief moment, that despite her occasional binges, she’s managed to keep herself relatively fit and trim, desirable even—an exhaust fan above the front door blows an oily-smelling wind into her face. Suddenly ashamed, she lowers her eyes, not wanting to look at herself a second longer. What in God’s name is she doing here after all? She can’t imagine what Christopher would think. For once, why not simply turn around and walk away?
At that moment, the door opens. A lank young man with a triangle of blue fuzz on his chin, and wearing a pleated paper chef’s hat, is saying hello, come in, come in. Ruth is surprised at how friendly and welcoming he seems, and she manages to whisper a thank-you. She takes off her sunglasses and follows him inside.
The first-floor eatery is a surprise too, cleaner than others she’s been to. And more colorful and inviting, like a comfortable neighborhood tavern. A collection of lava lamps crowds one end of a long Formica counter. Overhead, rows of track lighting shine spots of soft color around the room. It strikes Ruth that this, ironically enough, is the very type of ambience Christopher has been aiming for with his restaurants. She makes a mental note to mention this to him before catching herself, knowing she can never say anything about this place to her husband. Again she fights off the urge to leave. Taking a deep breath, she pushes thoughts of home from her mind and instead tries her best to focus on her surroundings.
She notices the smell of fried chicken even before she sees it listed, along with pizza and donuts, on a small chalkboard next to the counter. At least the offerings—always fried chicken, pizza, and donuts—are as expected. This is a comfort to Ruth, and she allows herself to relax a bit as the young man, behind the counter now in a white apron, asks what he can get for her. She orders her usual, three cheese slices and a couple of Boston creams. When she asks if there’s soup, the man’s smile widens. Of course, he tells her, and starts to rattle off items from their specialty menu: gourmet stews, overstuffed sandwiches, dipping sauces—also, a variety of pies, cakes, puddings . . . She interrupts, saying a large serving of plain tomato will be fine.
He bows slightly and disappears through a swinging door into the kitchen, returning minutes later with Ruth’s food on an orange-plastic tray, asking if her order is for the glut.
Ruth nods. What else would the food be for? She can’t imagine anyone, any regular—normal—person, stopping by just to sample the menu.
The young man rings up her total on the cash register, saying very good, ma’am, and telling her she has thirty minutes upstairs, unless she would like to add more time. Ruth says no, and after paying him takes her change, receipt, and tray.
The smell of ammonia stings her nose as she climbs the staircase. At the top, an obese, fiftyish woman in a yellowing housedress sits behind a wooden desk that’s been painted pink. In front of her are a half-empty two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a paper plate strewn with chicken bones. At first, Ruth thinks a wad of grape bubble gum is somehow stuck to the woman’s mouth, but then she sees that it’s the woman’s lips, pursed and swollen purple. Avoiding the woman’s eyes, Ruth balances one edge of her tray on the front of the desk, slides her receipt across it, and asks which booth. The woman mumbles for her to take her pick.
Ruth heads toward the far end of the large, dimly lit room, where a line of private stalls is built into the wall, resembling a row of porta-potties.
On the way, she passes bin after bin of magazines and videotapes. Framed color photos hang on the walls, oversized close-ups of watermelons, cantaloupes, and mangos, split open and dripping juice; a pitcher of fudge sauce being poured over a chocolate triple-layer cake; barbecued slabs of meat sputtering on a grill.
Generic soft rock plays through speakers in the ceiling, but no sounds are coming from any of the stalls. Figuring she’s the only person here, Ruth pokes her head into a few before deciding on one at the end of the row that looks clean and has a tall wastebasket with a fresh plastic liner.
After setting her tray on a shelf that juts out from the left wall, she closes the stall door behind her and slides the latch that locks it. A lower shelf serves as a narrow seat in the dark, cramped space, but Ruth prefers to stand. She picks up her Styrofoam container of soup and blows across the surface. The television screen on the wall opposite the door remains black for a moment, then flickers to life.
The first images are from the movie Tommy: Ann-Margret writhes on the floor as a thousand gallons of baked beans and chocolate syrup spew all over her. Ruth has watched this scene before, and others from mainstream and semi-mainstream films—Nine and a Half Weeks, Like Water for Chocolate, even Willy Wonka—but they’ve never held much interest for her. She pushes the glowing green channel button on the wall beside the screen.
Next, five or six Japanese teenagers in kamikaze outfits gorge themselves on sushi, noodles, and rice. Ruth’s seen more than enough eating contests, live events with drunk frat boys chugging marinara sauce and white gravy; homemade videos of suburban block parties where couples vie against their neighbors, speed-eating mayonnaise and peanut butter out of the jar. At the end of each contest, a big communal tub is wheeled in for anyone who needs to purge. Ruth flips the channel before the sushi-eaters get that far, amazed that anyone could enjoy witnessing such a thing.
Pilgrims-Gone-Wild is a popular theme, and on the screen now a dozen men and women gather around a picnic table at an urban park. Most wear black Pilgrim robes and hats; three of the men sport feathered headdresses and red loincloths. The table is crammed full: crockery bowls spilling over with mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing; pumpkin pies in each corner; two large roasted turkeys on metal trays. The actors don’t have plates. Instead, as the food is passed around the table, they sample it with their own spoons and forks. Everyone nods and smiles, taking small bites, politely handing the bowls along.
Ruth laughs quietly at the ridiculousness of the elaborate set-up. But a familiar shimmer of heat spreads across the back of her scalp, and without thinking too much about it, she picks one of the characters to follow along with. In this case, it’s a woman at the far end of the table with a gray bonnet pulled tight over her head. Ruth begins matching the woman’s spoonfuls with short gulps from her soup.
It doesn’t take long for the feast to spin out of control. One of the men plants his face in a pie and slurps up the filling. Another rips a leg off one of the turkeys. He clamps his teeth into it and tears away the flesh before ripping off the second leg. The bonneted woman rapid-fires her spoon from the serving bowls to her mouth until she’s wearing a beard of dressing and potatoes.
Ruth sways lightly, imagining the whole world caught up in this kind of frenzy, savoring the explosion of flavor as the soup runs down her throat. As soon as she polishes it off, she wolfs down the first slice of pizza before reaching for the second one and, minutes later, the third. All thoughts of her own worries and responsibilities, of Christopher and Daniel, are completely blotted out as she stuffs the food into her mouth and stares at the screen.
The video ends with the woman and two of the men guzzling cranberry sauce and then all the actors circling a nearby trash barrel. Any food that hasn’t been consumed is smeared across their faces and down the fronts of their costumes. Satisfied, nearly full, Ruth switches the channel. She wants to end her glut with something more romantic—a young Italian couple lying in a summer meadow, perhaps, sipping Chianti and feeding each other from a plate of linguini.
She clicks the button several times, teasing herself with nibbles from her first donut, but turns when she hears shouts coming from the main room. Peering through the grate at the top of the stall door, she sees the young man from downstairs. He’s leaning across the pink desk, his chef’s hat deflated and flopping over. The woman in the housedress is slumped in her chair, grinning.
The man wants to know what’s so goddam fucking funny. Wants to know why the woman is sitting on her fat ass when she could be cleaning or helping out downstairs. There’s only one customer, for chrissakes! The woman grabs his wrist, saying it’s not nice for him to talk to his mother that way. She laughs when he shakes his arm free, points his finger in her face, and continues his tirade.
As Ruth watches them fight, as she listens to the young man’s angry obscenities, all the pleasure and excitement she’s been feeling drains out of her. She glances at her half-eaten donut. Its thick, yellow-custard filling has begun oozing onto her thumb, and she drops it into the wastebasket. She wipes her hand with a napkin and turns to get rid of the other donut, planning to leave just as soon as the man goes back downstairs.
Another outdoor scene is playing on the television now, the camera zooming in on a table set for a child’s birthday party. Plates stacked with cookies and brownies. A long sheet cake divided into squares.
Ruth can’t understand how a family’s video diary could end up at a glut hut. Disgusted, she reaches for the channel button but stops short as a flock of children descend on the table. They push and elbow in from every direction, gobbling the food as fast as they can, a blur of black hair and brown skin. Only after the table is cleared can Ruth make out the individual kids: hollow-eyed little boys and girls with bloated tummies and bony, concentration-camp arms and legs. They stagger away across a dirt field as a tall white man threatens them with a stick and then turns smiling into the camera.
How could anyone use poor starving children like this? What sorts of freaks get their jollies watching something so disturbing?
Ruth pictures Daniel, beautiful and innocent, waving to her from his car seat. She shuts her eyes, cups her hands over her ears, and tells herself to keep calm. What was she thinking coming to this sick, horrible place?
The young man is still yelling at his mother, but Ruth can’t wait any longer. She puts on her sunglasses and opens the stall door. The man and woman don’t notice her until she’s halfway across the room, making a beeline for the stairs. He asks if everything is okay. Ruth keeps her chin tucked into her chest and hurries by without answering.
Outside it’s pouring rain. Ruth is drenched even before she makes it to the grass median next to the restaurant parking lot. Her stomach groans as she reaches the dumpster. She leans against it, coughing and taking in desperate gulps of air. Only after she’s convinced she’s not going to be sick does she jog the last few yards to her car.
Hunched over, fumbling for her keys, she hears someone calling her name. A woman’s voice. Ruth doesn’t want to find out who it could be. She gets into the car, dripping water everywhere, and jams the key into the ignition. The engine is barely in gear before she steps on the gas and pulls away. In the rearview mirror, she sees a figure behind her, standing in the parking lot waving, gray and unrecognizable in the rain. A friend of hers leaving the restaurant? She’ll simply have to say she didn’t notice if the person confronts her. And if the person saw her leaving the glut hut? Ruth knows that’s a question she can’t consider at the moment, and she swallows the panic rising in her throat. She steers into the Lee-King traffic, wipers flapping, and focuses all of her attention on the road.
Half a mile along, there’s a backup. Red and blue emergency lights flash ahead. Ruth leans to one side and sees a police cruiser on the shoulder and a tow truck blocking the right lane. She squeezes the steering wheel, still breathing hard, still coughing. After several minutes, the traffic refusing to budge, she pulls the wheel hard to the left, makes a U-turn, and steers onto a side street.
Two quick rights and a long straightaway. Ruth knows these roads well but avoids them. She makes sure not to look over when she passes the tiny house she used to live in with her mother until, when she was twelve, her mother died. For the six years that followed, she was placed in a series of foster homes.
But then it’s all behind her: She’s crossed the county line and is soon climbing into the hills near her house, evergreen woods closing in around her like a welcome home. By the time she’s cruising along Puddle Duck Hiway, breathing easier, the rain has died down. After turning off the wipers, she reaches into the glove compartment for the plastic box of Tic-Tacs she keeps there. She finds it, pops three of the tiny mints into her mouth, and sucks on them for a few seconds before crunching them to bits.
She manages a smile. Tonight will be a hot soak in the Jacuzzi, a glass or three of Chardonnay, a cathartic sorry-for-herself cry. She’ll pull herself together before the guys come home tomorrow.
As she turns into the driveway, though, she sees Christopher’s Lexus parked in front of the house, its metallic finish winking in the sun that’s come out again. What’s happened? Is Daniel all right? She parks close behind the Lexus and hurries inside. Before she can call out to Christopher, his voice comes from the kitchen, echoing through the great room and the main entrance hall, telling her they just got here, that Dad wasn’t feeling too good.
Ruth stands rooted to the floor, her clothes damp and chill against her goose-pimpled skin. She knows she should probably run upstairs and change, should come up with an excuse for where she’s been. Instead, she finds herself walking the hallways to the back of the house.
Daniel is sitting on the edge of one of the big islands, his plump legs dangling. He watches his father slicing an apple into thin wedges. They both glance up smiling when Ruth enters the room, Daniel calling Mommy, Christopher explaining that he hasn’t had time to put a proper lunch together. Cocking his head, he points out that she must have gotten caught in the downpour.
She starts to say something, but Christopher isn’t looking for an answer. He’s back to slicing the apple, telling her how worried he is about his father, how unfair it seems: It’s been only five months since his dad retired as dean of the prestigious Harrison prep school in town—and most difficult to accept, less than a year since his mother passed away. Daniel is pouting, saying Granddaddy sick.
Ruth nods at her son, her eyes filling with tears. Not for the first time, it occurs to her how little she grew up with, how Christopher gave her everything, and how, still, she has to have more, more, more. The glut hut comes to mind, and it’s now this thought she pushes away, vowing to herself that she’ll never visit one again. It’s a promise she’s made dozens of times, but this time is different: At this moment, she’s positive, almost completely certain, that she really means it.
She gives Daniel a nuzzle and Christopher a peck on the cheek, apologizing for how hungry, how starving, her poor guys must be, telling them both to sit down at the table. Mommy’s home now, she says, and before she does absolutely anything else, she’s going to fix them something good to eat.