No Worse than Other Places by Ginny Monaco

They were an hour outside of town when Ruth finally stopped the truck and let the dog out to piss. The old retriever had been up howling into the early hours of the morning and he hadn’t stopped until Ruth pushed him into the cab of the Trekker, packed in beside a duffel bag of her husband’s flannel shirts and a 4-foot model of the Effie M. Morrissey.

On the shoulder of the Yellowhead Highway, she got out and opened the door for the dog.  Ruth picked him up off the seat and set him in the grassy ditch.  He wandered towards towards the river on slow, stiff hips.

The sun was barely peeking through the bottom of the pines and she still hadn’t seen a passing car. Ruth pulled a soft pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her shirt, lit one off a match and listened to the dog splashing around below her. 

She leaned on the dirty grill of the truck and considered her route. It was still half a day to Vancouver. She could drive straight through and maybe get to her sister’s house by midafternoon, but there was no guarantee that Jan or her husband would be there to let her in. She could stop at the diner outside of Prince George and call Jan from there, let her know she was on her way. She needed gas, and food for the dog, too. 

Ruth let her cigarette dangle from between her lips and pulled a worn leather wallet from her back pocket. There was a little less than six hundred dollars inside. She took the driver’s license, the health card, the hunting license and threw them in the direction of the water. She let out a short, sharp whistle and hoisted herself back into the truck, tossing the wallet into the glove compartment. 

She whistled again, and waited. 

Ruth’s truck was the only one in the parking lot and she was the only customer in the diner. She left the dog in the car with the window cracked, and reminded herself to get him something to eat, too.

The waitress and the cook were leaning over the counter reading a newspaper. The girl looked up when the door opened, looked at Ruth, at her truck.

 “Take a seat wherever,” she said. “Let me get you some coffee.”

The diner was wood paneled and painted white. There were tables of two in the middle and large booths with red leather seating on each side. Ruth took a seat in a booth near the door, facing away from the kitchen. 

The mug the waitress brought over was only half full, but it was steaming hot and Ruth took it gratefully. The waitress hovered. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail showing of the patches of acne at her temples and around her hairline. Her nametag said Dawn. She looked at Ruth expectantly.

“Well, you want something to eat, or…”

“What do you got?”

Dawn nodded her head to the chalkboard over the till. “Menu’s up there. You want breakfast?”

“Yeah,” Ruth said slowly. She poked her finger inside a tear in the leather seat, wiggled it around a bit. A piece of the cushion stuffing stuck to her nail. “Eggs. Five eggs. With peameal bacon and a side of baked beans.”

Dawn raised a thin brow. “How you want all five of them eggs done?”

“Scrambled. And some toast?”

“We have white, brown or rye.”

“Don’t matter. Do you have a phone?”

Dawn pointed towards a payphone and took Ruth’s order back to the cook, who was watching them through the order window. Ruth counted out a dollar in quarters and stacked them on the phone. She dialed her sister’s number as best she could remember it. Jan picked up on the second ring, breathing heavy into the receiver and sounding far away. 

“Jan, it’s Ruthie. How’s it going?”

“Ruth? Where are you? Where have you been?” It was surprise and the same tired tone Jan always used with her. She looked out at the truck. The dog must have been lying on the seat because she couldn’t see him in the cab. Ruth sighed. 

“It ain’t been that long, Janet. I been up north with Jim Number Two, working the mine with him. They got me in the trailer answering phones. I told you that. That’s what I been doing.”

The phone line beeped and Ruth dropped in another quarter. Jan sighed.

“You haven’t called in months. There’s a lot I wanted to talk you about. There’s a bunch that’s been going on and I wanted –“

“Hey, I’m going to run out of minutes. I’ll be at your door by dinner. You got a couch for me and the dog?”

“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Wait, what about Jim?”

The phone beeped again.

“Jan. I ain’t got the money for this call. I’ll see you soon.”

Ruth hung up the receiver, pocketing the rest of her quarters. She sat back down in the booth and rested her elbows on the table, head in her hands.

It was Jim Number Two’s truck rattling into the driveway a few hours after midnight that woke her up. She listened to him yell at the dog who started howling back at him. She listened to him tell the dog the shut up. She listened to him slam the front door and his heavy footsteps on the stairs. She rolled to face away from his side of the bed. 

There was the sound of his belt hitting the tile in the bathroom. A minute later the bed was sagging under Jim Number Two’s weight, another minute and she was listening to him snoring. His bare ass pressed into Ruth’s back. 

For a while she watched the wall, listening to the dog lose his mind outside. She propped herself up against the headboard with her flat pillow. It wouldn’t be light for another few hours, but Ruth could still see everything in the room pretty well. None of it was really her stuff – the books, the furniture, the paintings of horses. Not even the dog outside, not really. 

The only thing she had brought into the house was a model ship on the dresser that had belonged to Jim Number One, who she still sometimes thought of as just ‘Jim’. She pushed back the blanket and padded barefoot over to the ship. She lifted it with both hands and set it on the first step. She filled a duffel bag with Jim Number Two’s clothes and set that on the step, too. 

Ruth tiptoed into the bathroom and pulled on the jeans Jim had left on the floor. She tightened the belt around her hips, struggling to poke a new hole in the leather. His wallet bugled in the back pocket. She pulled his flannel over her nightshirt. There was a pack of cigarettes in the pocket and she lit one with a match. The match fizzed out when she dropped it in the toilet. 

Jim Number Two was snoring in the bedroom and the dog was howling outside. Ruth’s cigarette was half smoked when she tossed it into the wastebasket by the sink. She watched it for a moment – the tissues that ignited, the little wisps and curls of smoke.     She closed the bathroom door behind her and gently eased back into bed. She kept watch on the door, the orange glare coming from underneath. She studied the room. There was nothing else she wanted to keep.

When the room started to get hot, Ruth walked to the stairs. The dog, she though. He could come too. She took the duffel in one hand and tucked the ship under the other arm, careful not to break the sails.

Dawn balanced three plates over to Ruth –one for the eggs and bacon, one for the beans and one for the toast. 

“Rye,” she said. “Hope that’s fine.”

Ruth said yes, it was, thanked her and asked for more coffee. When she came back with the pot, Ruth asked for a paper plate or something she could use to take half her meal out to the dog.

“You can bring him in here if you want,” Dawn said. “There’s no one but us.”

Again, Ruth thanked her. She went out to the truck and picked the dog off the seat. The cook and Dawn the waitress watched her carry him up the steps, through the doors and set him down beside the booth. Dawn came over with a bowl, thinking he might like a bit of water.