The Outsider
by EC

Part 5

(warnings: language, adult themes, social commentary, public nudity, spanking, sex between adults)

Chapter 14 - The Sinclairs

Mike and Ruthie returned to his room just as it was getting dark outside. The moment they entered the room, Ruthie stripped off the uncomfortable dress. She was desperate to get her bra off, given that she had not worn one of those restrictive garments since she started college. Once she was naked, she stretched and spun around a couple of times. She looked at the pressure marks from her bra strap in the mirror and commented:

“I’d forgotten how uncomfortable wearing all this shit is.”

Mike stripped as well. He took Ruthie in his arms. For a long time they stood kissing as he ran his hands over her bottom. That she enjoyed, because she did like being hugged and she especially liked it when he touched her bottom.

She could feel his penis stiffening. OK…might as well get that taken care of and get it over with. She reached down and gave his organ a squeeze before pulling away and reaching for her lubricant. She inserted it while he put on a condom. She dabbed a bit of lubricant on the end, then got on her elbows and knees on the bed. He ran his hands over her bottom, gave each side a quick kiss and then stood up and entered her.

Mike thrust vigorously as he grunted and sweat trickled down his body. For him the experience was totally great. She closed her eyes and played along, angry at herself for not being able to enjoy that part of the relationship, but thankful that the lubricant was making the experience bearable.

The students had a chance to relax once they were cleaned up. Ruthie cuddled Mike.

“I still can’t get over how well things went today. You were great. I mean… what you said to my mom about church and all that…”

Mike kissed her forehead and ran his fingers through her hair.

“About church… you know that we made a commitment to your mom…”

“How do you mean?”

“We have to go. Might as well do it tomorrow and get it over with.”

“What do you mean, we have to go? Go where? To church?”

“To church. To my church… there’s two services, and I ‘spose it’d make more sense to go to the earlier one at 8:30.”

Ruthie sat up.

“Fuck that! I’m not going to your church! I’m not going to anybody’s church! I’m done with that shit!”

“OK… so tomorrow night, your mom’s gonna call and start asking: ‘did you go to Mike’s church? Well… why not? Mike told me he was gonna take you. So he didn’t after-all? Then he was lying, wasn’t he?’ Isn’t that what she’s gonna say to you?”

“I ‘spose…”

“So… we’re going to keep that from happening. When your mom asks about you going to my church, you’re gonna tell her ‘yes’ and when she asks you to tell her about it, you’re gonna tell her what it was like, and you won’t have any problems because you’ll be telling her the truth…”

“I don’t care! I don’t want to go to your fucking church!”

“I’m not talking about you converting! I’m just talking about you going there, once, so you can tell everyone that you did. Look. I quit going too… several years ago… ’cause there’s no point in me being there… I mean… when you go you’ll see what I’m talking about. But I do think you need to go at least once, just to satisfy your mom and so we don’t have to keep lying to her. Might as well do it tomorrow and get it over with.”

Ruthie remained sitting up, not sure how to respond. Mike continued:

“How you handle your mom is your business. I’m not gonna get involved in that. But I’m not gonna lie to her unless there’s a damn good reason. This is not a damn good reason. The next time I see her, she’s gonna want to talk about us going to my church, and I don’t want to have to make up a bunch of bullshit. Besides, it’ll get you off the hook with that Cristina who’s looking for you. If you’ve already gone to my church, you can tell her that and it’ll get you out of having to go to hers.”

Ruthie finally nodded, because she wasn’t able to come up with any arguments to counter Mike’s logic. She hated to admit it, but she knew that he was right… it was easier to put in an hour at his church than it was to spend yet more weeks of evasive phone conversations with her mother and dodging Cristina. Besides, from everything he had told her, it sounded like his church was very impersonal and going there would not be a high pressure experience.

* * *

For the second time in less than 24 hours Ruthie put on her green dress, while Mike put on dark pants, a tie, and a sports coat. That was the most formally she had ever seen him dressed. They left very early, driving through thick morning fog to make it in time for the 8:30 service. They pulled up to a large 1960’s-style modernistic church located in a neighborhood that was built about the same time. Only about a third of the parking spaces were taken, most of them by luxury sedans.

Ruthie noticed that everyone attending church was well-dressed. She also noticed that almost everyone around her were older white people. She looked to see if there were any young people at all, but she only saw a few couples in their 30’s and 40’s. She did not see anyone college-aged. Nor did she see any children because, as Mike would later explain to her, during the service children attended separate Sunday school.

The inside of the chapel reflected a by-gone era when there were more people attending and Mike’s church had a lot more money. The ceiling was inlaid with expensive wood and the windows were modernistic stained glass. The décor was totally different from her mother’s church, which had no décor at all apart from a cross and some posters with biblical passages. As the older people entered, they sat down quietly. In the background there was soft organ music.

Ruthie looked around at her bizarre surroundings. The cavernous chapel… the organ music coming from somewhere in the background… and all those old white people just sitting quietly… sort of gave her the creeps. Mike handed her a church program and in a hushed voice explained to her how the service worked, that it would last exactly 55 minutes, it would have three hymns, the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, and the sermon. Ruthie looked at the strange document in her hands, bewildered that a church service could be so carefully preplanned. She vaguely wondered if the service really would follow the program minute-by-minute… but as she looked around at all those old white folks, she figured that none of them was the sort to step out of line and disrupt a schedule.

Sure enough… minute by minute the service followed the program to the letter. Mike was familiar with the hymns and the Lord’s Prayer. He sang and recited from memory, but there was no life or spontaneity in what he was doing. There’s no life in this place at all, thought Ruthie to herself. This is totally dead… like… really dead…

On their way out Mike briefly talked to one of the assistant pastors, explaining that he had not attended services for so long because he had been in Chicago. He introduced Ruthie as his girlfriend. The pastor was friendly enough, but she could tell that he had no real interest in her. And that was it. As they returned to his car, Mike did not bother to ask her what she thought of his church. He knew that she could not have a positive opinion.

Instead he explained his own experiences with the faith his parents attempted to give him when they were more optimistic and Mega-Mart had not yet ruined their lives. For him there had been no sudden break in his faith, no moment of revelation like the moment Ruthie had experienced. During his last couple of years in high school he simply drifted out of the church, especially after his father lost his business. When he was a senior in high school, he still believed in God, but that belief became vaguer and more ill-defined as the year went by. Of course it did not help that God was of no assistance whatsoever as the Sinclairs were losing their pharmacy. Nor was it any help that as Mr. Sinclair’s standing among the local businessmen declined, so did his standing in the church.

Mike commented about the horrible job his church had done attempting to retain younger people like himself. The church did OK keeping young people involved and motivated up through the end of high school, but young singles tended to drop out once they started college and very few ever returned. Younger people either ended up changing over to an evangelical mega-church or, like Mike, they simply drifted away from religion altogether.

“You have to understand something about my church. It’s like my dad’s business, and like a lot of other things in this country. It’s a part of our society that is getting old and dying out. All those old people… once they’re gone, the church will be gone too. It’ll die with them. My generation got pushed out, ‘cause those old people were too worried about themselves to worry about us. I have no reason to go back. And… when we were there today I didn’t see anyone from my high school group. I don’t know… maybe there’s a few left that’ll be going to the later service… but I’ve lost touch so I wouldn’t know.”

As they discussed their respective religious experiences, Mike and Ruthie were able to understand each other on the issue of religion. Mike did not have the explosive hatred towards organized religion that Ruthie had because his church was not such a domineering presence in his life as he was growing up. No one sought to control him or his mind, but when he and his family drifted away, no one made any real effort to prevent them from leaving.

Ruthie realized that Mike was right about having her see his church, because now she honestly could say that she did go, she could talk about the sermon and the music, and give a physical description of the place. She was oddly depressed by the experience, nevertheless. There was nothing really offensive about Mike’s church… there was no exhortation that the world was about to come to an end, no screaming, no talking in tongues, no interruptions from the audience, no mind-control, no megalomania from the preacher. But still, the place totally creeped-her out. It was just so… dead… just a bunch of old people reciting stuff for no reason other than it was what had been recited for the last 400 years. When she talked to her mother about her experience, she’d have to skip the detail about being surrounded by a bunch of half-dead rich white senior citizens.

* * *

The visit to the church put Mike in a melancholy mood and made Ruthie more reflective. Mike offered to show her the two locations where Sinclair Pharmacy used to be, which she accepted. He first took her to a dilapidated downtown area that appeared to have been built between the 1920’s and 1950’s. The buildings were mostly abandoned except for a few breakfast places and some “boutiques” that Mike suspected actually were money laundering fronts. He pointed to a corner building and commented that was the first location of Sinclair Pharmacy, where his great-grandfather and grandfather ran the business from the 1930’s until the late 1970’s.

They drove to a shopping center that had been built in the 1960’s but had been remodeled several times since then. Mike explained that the shopping center replaced the traditional downtown area and that the majority of the local businesses had moved there by 1975. Sinclair Pharmacy was one of the last holdouts to leave downtown: Mike’s grandfather moved the business to the shopping center in 1979.

Like the downtown area it replaced, it was clear the shopping center had seen better days. Only about half of the storefronts were still occupied: there were two pawn-shops, a cigarette discounter, a second-hand clothing store, a pay-day lender, a liquor store, a store that sold surplus packaged food items, and a clothing donation center. Mike pointed out the spot where Sinclair Pharmacy had occupied one of the larger spaces, which now was occupied by the outpatient services for a drug rehab clinic.

Mike observed, “Still a drug business in this spot…but I guess this is where the growth market is and my dad just got it wrong.”

To Ruthie there was nothing unusual about what she was looking at, because there were several similar shopping centers scattered around Salinas, including the one where her mother’s church was set up. However, Mike was able to give her a different perspective because he was old enough to remember what the area was like before it lost its businesses. He explained that before Mega-Mart cleaned out all the local retailers, the shopping center was a very different place, with businesses that actually served the needs of the public. There had been a major grocery store where the clothing donation center was located, a hardware store, a toy store, a gardening store, a book store, a store for school supplies, a pet store, several restaurants, and a mortgage & loan where the payday lender currently was operating.

Thanks to Mega-Mart, the shopping center’s original retailers were gone and the blight coming from their successors was spreading throughout the neighborhood. For example, the pawn shops sold items stolen out of nearby residences by the bums hanging out at the rehab clinic, the liquor store, and the smoke shop.

“The best thing we could do at this point would be just get rid of the shopping center and put in a city park. Even some condos would be better than what’s here now, ‘cause at least people would live there and have to maintain ‘em.”

Ruthie suspected she knew what was coming next. They had seen Mike’s church and they had seen the two places where Mike’s family had their pharmacy. It would be logical that…

Sure enough, Mike suggested going over to his house for lunch. Ruthie was not thrilled at the prospect of meeting his parents, but given everything he had done to calm the problems she was having with her mother, she knew that the least she could do would be reciprocate. She would try to get along with Mike’s relatives as best she could. Besides, she was wearing her best dress… just as good a time as any…

When they got to his house, Mike was surprised that no one was there. He told his girlfriend that they’d wait an hour or so before returning to Santa Cruz. Ruthie was relieved. Mike showed her around the house, which like everything else he showed her was dated to the 1970’s and had seen better days. It was a split-level tract-home sheltered in the front by a couple of large trees. The interior was kept up, but the only thing Mr. Sinclair was doing on the outside was mowing the lawn. The paint was peeling and the roof’s shingles needed to be replaced. There was a much more serious maintenance problem: a tree root had worked its way towards a rain gutter outlet and was pushing into the foundation of the house. Already there was a serious crack in the cement.

When Ruthie commented about the damage Mike answered, “The house isn’t gonna be ours all that much longer. Dad doesn’t give a shit about it, ‘cause any money he spends on repairs would just be money thrown at the lenders. By the time they get their hands on this place, it’s gonna be worthless, and that’s what he’s planning on.”

There was a pool in the back yard, which was being kept up because Mike’s parents still used it. The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and tall bushes, so it was completely private and hidden from the neighbors. It was already sunny and starting to get hot. Mike took off his sports jacket. The couple looked at the pool and then at each other. When Mike suggested going for a swim, Ruthie eagerly accepted. They went into the pool house and took off their Sunday clothing.

Ruthie tread water in the deep end as she watched her naked boyfriend go inside to get them something to drink and eat. As soon as he came back, they set up in lawn chairs enjoying the sun and eating. A few minutes later they were back in the water.

They spent a very long time swimming and relaxing in the pool. Mike pulled a plastic raft into the water. When Ruthie climbed on top, he pushed her from one end of the pool to the other and then spun her around. Finally he left her alone to relax and enjoy the sun and breeze on her bare backside. He floated on his back as she dozed on her raft.

Clearly they had lost all track of time. Mike figured that his parents must have gone to the later church service (which they still attended every so often) and would be back around noon. It already was 1:00 when Mr. Sinclair’s voice called out the back door:

“Mike? Mike? Are you out here?”

“Dad! Hold on! Wait a second!”

Ruthie woke up, rolled off her raft with a loud splash, and pulled it in front of her, but it was too late. Mike’s parents already had seen her. They quickly retreated into the house to give their son and his friend a chance to get dressed. Mike and Ruthie scrambled out of the water, showered off, and put on their clothes. Ruthie was blushing and very nervous. The last thing she wanted to do at that point was face the Sinclairs, but Mike managed to convince her that what had just happened was not the scandal of the century. He reassured her that his parents themselves rarely wore swimsuits when using the pool and that was not the first time that they had stumbled into Mike or his sister swimming naked with friends. Still, it is not every day that the very first time a young woman sees her boyfriend’s parents, she is lying naked in their pool.

Now properly dressed, Mike led Ruthie around the pool and into the living room. She shyly shook the hands of the elder Sinclairs. She was blushing and totally nervous, as she always was when meeting new people she was worried about impressing. Actually the pool incident was something that worked out in her favor. Mike’s parents did not realize that her nervous behavior was normal for her: they assumed that she was mortified over them having seen her in the pool. Because of their mutual embarrassment, Mike’s parents went out of their way to be polite to their guest and make her feel welcome. Under normal circumstances they might not have been so patient with her fidgeting and sideways glances.

Mr. Sinclair did the same thing with Ruthie that Mike had done with Doña Lisette: get her to talk about neutral topics that interested her. In Ruthie’s case it was geology. Ruthie chatted about her major. Mr. Sinclair did not know much about geology, but both of their fields required knowledge of chemistry, which was something in common they could discuss. Mr. Sinclair talked about chemistry classes he had taken in college and asked Ruthie about hers.

From that topic the Sinclairs were able to get Ruthie to tell them about her background. She talked about Nebraska and to a lesser extent about Salinas. She mentioned some of the grants she had received to attend classes. Mr. Sinclair commented, “You know that some of that’s going away next year… with the state as messed up as it is… I hate to say it, but scholarships are gonna take a big hit.”

Ruthie nodded. That wasn’t something she wanted to think about, but losing her funding was a reality she was very likely to face within a few months.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, which was interrupted when Mrs. Sinclair suggested “getting a bite”. Mike later explained that was how his mother handled any uncomfortable moment, by running out and “getting a bite”. Mr. Sinclair obligingly grabbed his car keys and they left the house. Ruthie was immensely relieved to get out of the living room.

“Getting a bite” usually entailed driving around instead of just stopping in one place. Mike’s father drove all around the neighborhood to show Ruthie various places that were of interest to him and his family’s past. He showed Ruthie the schools where Mike and his sister had gone, the church that Mike and Ruthie had attended in the morning, and a house that once had been owned by Mike’s grandfather. They drove a few miles out of town to see a WPA project where Mike’s great-grandfather had worked shortly after arriving in California during the Depression. A major omission from Mr. Sinclair’s history lesson were the two locations once occupied by Sinclair Pharmacy. As much as he liked chatting about the family’s history, Mr. Sinclair never once mentioned the defunct family business.

Ruthie noticed that Mr. Sinclair always talked about things that were in the past. She fully understood that he was a man with no future, just one person out of hundreds of millions who had been pushed aside by globalization and “progress”. The world had changed around Mr. Sinclair and the future would have no place for people like him. And since… the world had no place for Mr. Sinclair, since he was part of a United States that already had passed into memory… was there any point for him to continue with his life? Yes, for the time being there was, because he was holding out until Mike and his sister could get through college. But then… after they graduated and the family lost the house, why would he want to deal with staying alive? For what? Everything that he had known and the society that had created him were gone… leaving him as nothing but a ghost living among the ruins of what had been, but was no more.

As she looked at Mr. Sinclair and perceived the true defeat in his expression, she thought to herself: this guy knows… he understands. At that moment, she felt a secret connection with Mike’s father. It was a connection she probably could never voice or express, but still it was there.

Ruthie felt that Mr. Sinclair already was more dead than alive. The passing of that man’s world was only a tiny manifestation of the impending death of a society, of a nation, and ultimately of a species. She suspected that Mike could not fully perceive that reality because he was too close to his father to view him objectively. Mike also was too much of an optimist, thought Ruthie to herself, still too naïve to understand how truly hopeless the condition of humanity really was. Like his fucking politics was gonna fix anything…

Finally they stopped at “family dining” restaurant. After they sat down, Ruthie’s normal shyness was not a problem when she talked to Mike’s father. Mrs. Sinclair may have had very reserved feelings about Ruthie, but his father really started to like her. She talked naturally to him, which surprised Mike as much as Mike’s handling of Doña Lisette had surprised Ruthie. The difference was that Mike had “performed” for Doña Lisette, but he did not feel any connection with her. With Ruthie and Mr. Sinclair it was different: a real connection that neither could define nor articulate.

When they left the restaurant and were driving back to the house, she reached over and took Mike’s hand. She felt the need to comfort him, but she also felt that she needed reassurance from him as well. And yet, subconsciously what she really wanted was be alone with Mr. Sinclair. He was the one looking into the abyss and who clearly understood that. Ruthie wanted to stand next to him, because she also knew…

By the time they returned to the Sinclair house, it was getting late. Mike hugged his parents and left with his girlfriend, to return to a place where supposedly they were preparing for their future.

There was one more stop to make, one more thing that Mike needed to show Ruthie. He proceeded to the infamous Mega-Mart that had finished off his family’s business. The building stood abandoned and boarded up. Already the parking lot was cracked and full of grass. The company had put up a chain-link fence around the entire area topped with razor wire. Mike knew from his readings that Mega-Mart had no intention of ever selling the land, because the holding company wanted to make sure no one else could utilize it. The United States was full of similar abandoned Mega-Marts, strategic parcels of land that would permanently remain off-limits for anyone’s use, even though the stores themselves were closed and the buildings reduced to decaying ruins. Mega-Town Associates’ official policy was never to sell assets once they were acquired, because the company’s long-term goal was to establish exclusive ownership of the world’s resources. Anyhow, the land itself was a tax write-off, so to leave it unused made perfect economic sense.

Mike commented: “You know… there used to be a pond here… when I was a little kid I‘d come here to go fishing with my grandfather… ducks came through here in the fall… it was a nice place. It was county-owned land, but Mega-Town won a lawsuit and that’s how they got to build on it.”

From the Mega-Mart they drove past blocks of 1960’s houses. Many of them were for sale. Most of the others were occupied by older people, people who had bought into the real estate market back in the days when houses were still affordable in California. All from a bygone era…

Mike turned onto the highway and drove his girlfriend back to Davenport. She turned on a radio station that featured music from the 1980's. After a couple of songs they heard the voice of the famous singer Bruce Springsteen singing “My Hometown”:

Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back to…
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown

Last night me and Kate…we laid in bed talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said:
Son, take a good look around
This is your hometown

Mike said nothing, but Ruthie noticed him tightening his lips and holding back tears. She had nothing to say either, but she put her hand on his arm to try to comfort him.

* * *

After Mike and Ruthie left, the Sinclairs briefly discussed the day and what they thought of their son’s new girlfriend from Salinas. Mrs. Sinclair was not impressed with her.

“She’s cute, which I suppose is what he sees in her. But there’s something about her that’s not right. I can’t put my finger on it, but to be honest, I think she’s kinda creepy.”

Mr. Sinclair didn’t answer right away. Mike’s mother added, “I just wish he’d get back together with Lisa. The Campbell girl was so perfect for him…”

“And I say screw Lisa Campbell. I’m glad he’s rid of her. She was a phony. I like Ruthie a lot better. At least that girl’s got a brain and you can have a conversation with her.”

“Well… I guess. But I’m still not thrilled about her.”

Mrs. Sinclair decided to go for a swim. She took off her clothes in the bedroom and wrapped a towel around herself. She went out to the pool for an evening swim, tossed the towel in a lounge chair, and dove in. She would do her laps… work off her stress, of which she had plenty.

As soon as he heard his wife splashing in the water, Mr. Sinclair went into the garage and pulled up a small door that led into the crawlspace under the house. He took a flashlight and fumbled around in the dark moldy area. He shined his light at several wooden studs, noticing to his satisfaction that the damage by the termites that had invaded their house had progressed.

Yes, my little white ladies, eat. Eat to your hearts’ content. Eat up all those profits they think they’re gonna get when they foreclose.

Mr. Sinclair knew that the termites had been destroying the house for several months. Most homeowners would have been horrified upon seeing the damage, but Mr. Sinclair was elated. The termites were destroying a house that within a short time would no longer be his. The lenders would snatch their prize, only to discover it was worthless.

Yes, my pretty little white ladies… enjoy your meal… I’m not gonna bother you.

Mike’s father shined a flashlight towards a metal gray box that he had screwed into a support beam. He opened it up to make sure its contents were clean and in good condition. He pulled out a .38 mm pistol and made sure that it was dry. He checked the bullets. They still looked good and showed no signs of oxidation. Excellent. He pushed a small cleaning rag through the barrel of the pistol and checked the trigger. He put the weapon to his temple and dry-fired. It clicked just fine. Satisfied, he locked the pistol and ammunition back in the box and crawled out towards the garage.

Mr. Sinclair went through the same routine every Sunday afternoon. He wanted to make sure everything was ready when the time came.

Chapter 15 - Two Thanksgivings

Mike and Ruthie stopped in Santa Cruz for smoothies before driving the final part of their trek up to the university. The stop and having a fruit drink improved Mike’s mood. He did not exactly cheer up, but instead of being depressed he became more pensive. He did not want to remain in Santa Cruz, but Ruthie could tell that he did not want to go back to the university either. She suggested going to a lookout just north of Davenport.

A few minutes later the couple was standing at a railing that was perched on a cliff hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean. Almost immediately beneath them the surf crashed viciously into the rocks. Ruthie commented that the cliff was a result of the subduction zone that extended along the entire west coast of the Americas.

“If it weren’t for the subduction zone, this area would be like the Atlantic side…all flat.”

“Have you ever been over that way? In the eastern states?”

“Just once, and I didn’t make it out to the coast. Just to Washington. There was a field trip for honor students in the district, and I got to go. We got to see all the famous stuff there… the museums… the White House… the Congress, and we met our Representative… and went to see the House Chamber… it was kinda neat doing all that.”

“What’d you think of DC?”

“I don’t know… I mean… there’s a lot of stuff that’s kinda neat to look at and I ‘spose it’d be OK living there if you had power and money… but I can’t picture myself fitting in a place like that.”

Mike smiled slightly and hugged her. “I couldn’t picture you fitting in a place like that either. Nor me. I know I couldn’t handle DC.”

“You’ve been there?”

“A bunch of times. All over the East Coast. My grandparents liked to travel and when it was summer they took us with ‘em. We did a lot of family vacations... driving all around… when I was in middle school and the first couple of years in high school… I saw all kinds of stuff… my grandfather was big on US history so we saw DC… some of the old towns in Virginia… Independence Hall in Philadelphia…A mish country… Yorktown… Manassas… all those history places.”

“Did you like it?”

“At the time, no. I wasn’t interested when I was in middle school, and in high school I was pissed whenever I couldn’t be with Lisa. But now I’m glad I did go and got to see all that stuff. What about you? Where all have you been?”

“Just around eastern Nebraska… a little around Culiacan… and of course the road down there and back… a few field trips around Salinas... that’s about it. You’ve gotta realize my parents aren’t the sort of people that are curious about stuff… I mean… maybe my dad was… just a little… but not like your grandparents. You gotta remember, my dad barely finished high school and my mom only made it through the sixth grade… so with me it was different.”

For a long time they watched the waves crashing against the rocks in the darkness. Finally the cooling air and the discomfort of standing in their formal clothing drove them back to Mike’s car to return to the university.

As they crossed the quad and headed back to Ruthie’s room, a young woman called out to Ruthie. She rolled her eyes and sighed, because it was Cristina Rosales. Mike could tell that Cristina was elated at finally having accomplished her task of tracking down the elusive Ruthie.

Cristina chided Ruthie for being so hard to find, but she responded with the same answers that she had given her mother, that usually she was in the library until it closed. When Cristina talked about church, Ruthie brusquely responded that she was going to church with Mike, making it seem that was something they had been doing since they met.

Mike chimed in. “We just got back from my church, in fact. That’s why we’re dressed like this.”

Cristina didn’t have much more to say. It was obvious that she was not going to be able to recruit Ruthie into her congregation because she already had joined another church. She was disappointed, but she hugged Ruthie goodbye. Mike noticed his girlfriend tensing up as soon as the other girl touched her.

Undoubtedly Cristina would report back to her mother that she had seen Ruthie returning from church with her boyfriend, and that information would be relayed back to Doña Lisette. Ruthie would not have to make up any more lies about church, because her mother would believe anything that Cristina had to say. Doña Lisette mistrusted her own daughter, but the daughter of her friend was a “good Christian girl” and therefore her word could be taken seriously.

As soon at Cristina was out of sight, Mike flashed Ruthie a glance that clearly stated: “I told you…” She responded by hugging him. Yes, he had been right. Thanks to him and his ability to handle Doña Lisette, a major problem in her life was resolved. With the explosive issue of going to church settled, Ruthie could expect to have less stressful conversations with her mother, at least for the time being.

Still, she deeply resented that her mother would not take her word, but would believe anything Cristina had to say. She did not see the irony that she had lied to her mother over the last two months about church and, therefore Doña Lisette had been very right about not trusting her. Even now, she was not telling anyone the truth; it was just that Mike helped her come up with a more convincing cover story.

* * *

Because it was Thanksgiving week, there were only two days of classes before the long weekend. By midday Wednesday Davenport’s student population had cleared out and the campus was almost totally deserted. The afternoon was fairly warm, which gave the couple the chance to do something that Ruthie had wanted to do for several weeks, a series of nude pictures of herself posing around the Davenport campus. Among the places they visited were the center of the Quad, where she posed in front of a couple of the dorm buildings. From there they went to the fountain at the Student Center and recreated the poses she had done for Halloween night, only this time in broad daylight.

From the Student Center they walked along the main street of campus. She slipped off her dress and posed naked, but quickly put it back on when Mike saw a car coming. Because it was likely the driver saw her, they scurried behind the economics building. Once Mike was sure the driver of the car had not stopped, they walked over to Lot Econ-A and Ruthie stripped down again. She sat in her “private spot”, but then walked out into the middle of the parking lot and struck some very naughty poses with a couple of parking meters.

As the afternoon wore on Ruthie became more daring. They returned to the deserted Student Center and went into the main reception area. She stood in the middle of the room and struck a bunch of poses. She sat in the expensive leather chairs and climbed on the reception desk. She got on her elbows and knees and lewdly exposed herself to Mike’s camera lens. She hurriedly slipped on her dress when Mike heard someone coming up the stairs. It was a member of the cleaning staff. The woman gave the couple a suspicious look, but fortunately had not come up quickly enough to see what they were doing.

From the Student Center, they went to the Political Science Building. The building was officially closed, but Mike knew that a side door was always left unlocked for any graduate students who needed to get in after hours. The moment they were inside, Ruthie took off her dress and her shoes. Mike pushed the clothing into his backpack. Completely unencumbered by bothersome cloth, Ruthie walked through the entire building with Mike following her and taking dozens of pictures. As always, she loved the feeling of the cool air on her bare skin. They entered every classroom that was unlocked, and their adventure was documented with at least one picture in each room. Ruthie climbed on desks and wrote naughty messages on chalkboards. She posed by various windows that overlooked campus, leaving no doubt to anyone familiar with Davenport State University where the photos were being taken.

As the photo shoot continued, the couple became more brazen with what they were doing. While Mike stood in the hallway taking a picture of Ruthie as she was coming out of a classroom, they narrowly missed being caught by a professor and a TA who were walking down one of the hallways. Just an instant before she emerged into the main corridor, Mike saw the other two coming up the stairs. He quickly motioned Ruthie to get back into the classroom. She stood against the wall behind the door while the professor approached Mike and peeked into the room. The instructor asked him what he was doing.

“I’m doing a project for the art department. I’m getting some still-life studies of the classrooms.”

The professor suspiciously looked at Mike’s camera.

“Well, unless you cleared it with the front office, you’re not supposed to be in here.”

“Please… I just need a few more shots, and I’ll get out of here.”

The professor thought about it and responded:

“I’m going to my office to pick up some papers. When I’m done, I expect you out of the building. Take your pictures and get out.”

“OK… no problem… thanks…”

Mike stepped back to pretend he was taking a picture of the classroom door, then took a shot of the empty hallway. The professor and the TA disappeared into an office.

Mike stuck his head into the classroom, where Ruthie was standing against the wall and breathing heavily.

“They’re gone?”

“Yeah” Mike opened his backpack and pulled out Ruthie’s dress. “Here you go. Let’s…”

Ruthie ignored Mike and stuck her head out the door. When she saw that the hallway was empty, she ran out towards the stairs. Panicked, Mike pushed her dress into the backpack and ran after her. She stopped on the landing and grabbed the railing. Her heart was pounding, but she was ready for more risk and more adventure.

“Take my picture.”

“Are you crazy? Get your clothes on!”

“No! You take my picture, or I’m not moving.”

Mike knew better than to argue with her when she was in one of her “adventure moods”, so he dutifully took out his camera and took two pictures. As soon as the second picture was taken, she finished running down the stairs. She paused at the door, waiting for him to catch up.

“I’m gonna run to the Rec. Center. You got a decent zoom on that camera?”

“Yeah… but…”

“Then follow me out.”

Mike’s mouth was dry as he followed Ruthie to the door. He was terrified the professor was watching through the window to make sure he was leaving the building. If so, he would be treated to the sight of a very naked young woman running along the back sidewalk. However, he knew that with the mood she was in, Ruthie was going to be reckless and the more distance they put between themselves and the Political Science Building, the better. Ruthie exited onto the sidewalk and ran towards the Rec. Center, her bare bottom jiggling in the bright afternoon sunlight. As best he could, Mike followed her with his zoom lens and took several pictures before running after her.

He caught up with her at a small door that lead into the locker room area of the Rec. Center. He expected it to be locked, but when Ruthie tried the doorknob, it opened. Without saying another word, she went in. There was no way that she was ready to quit. Now she wanted pictures of herself in the campus athletic center.

Mike was not as nervous in the athletic center as he was when he exited the Political Science Building. They did not have to worry about running into any professors, but still what Ruthie wanted to do was risky. She darted into a room with several old workout machines and a bench press. She got onto a step-master and started working the steps. Mike took several shots of her before she changed over to the running machine. At that point he told her that he wanted her to run for several minutes before he started taking pictures, because he wanted her to “work up a good sweat” to make the shots as good as possible. He did want to take convincing pictures, but at the same time he figured that if she was running on a machine she could wear herself out and wouldn’t be running somewhere out in the open where they were more likely to get caught.

Ruthie was gasping and soaked with perspiration before Mike told her to quit running. He had taken nearly 30 pictures of her on the treadmill and had to change the battery in his camera. It seemed that having her stay on the running machine worked, because she calmed down and no longer wanted to streak through the rest of the Rec. Center. They sneaked into the men’s locker room, where he took several more pictures of her in the shower. She dried herself with paper towels and finally was content to get dressed. They returned to the side door and exited the way they came in.

When they returned to Mike’s room, they both took off their clothes and downloaded a total of 320 photographs into both of their computers. A lot of the shots were really good. Ruthie hugged her boyfriend and congratulated him as a photographer, while he congratulated her as a model. The experience had been a real rush, especially for Ruthie. Already she was thinking about the next time, where they could do another photo session that would be really daring.

“You know what I’d really like would be to do this in a city… you know like… out in the open...”

Mike thought about Ruthie’s idea.

“I ‘spose we could do it in San Francisco sometime. Maybe around the Castro District. We can look into it.”

She hugged him again. When she realized he was totally hard, she massaged his penis for a few seconds and then dabbed some lubricant into her vagina. Before they went home for Thanksgiving, she’d reward him for fulfilling one of her fantasies. A moment later she was on her hands and knees on his bed, as he vigorously thrust into her.

* * *

The fun ended a few minutes later when Ruthie’s uncle showed up to take her to Salinas for Thanksgiving. She reluctantly went with him, not looking forward to the prospect of spending four days stranded at her mother’s apartment. Mike was equally sorry to see her go, but at that point each would have felt uncomfortable spending Thanksgiving with the other’s family.

Ruthie’s ride back to Salinas was awkward. She would have preferred to have Gerardo or Rosa pick her up, because at least with those two she could have a conversation. Her uncle was a pure machista from Sinaloa and his 22 years in the US had not changed his outlook in the least. He was much less Americanized than her cousins and held views about women and family relationships that Ruthie found extremely offensive. Among other beliefs was the fact that he did not think women should go to college, which had made the semester very difficult for Rosa. By sheer determination and force of character she was attending community college, but with no support from her father at all.

For Ruthie there was another issue that made her uncomfortable around her uncle. Six years before, when she got off the plane that completed her trip from Lincoln to San Jose, he was the very first person she saw in California. She was totally terrified of what was happening and was in tears, but during the drive from San Jose to Salinas he showed her no sympathy whatsoever. He seemed extremely distant and foreign to her, which was not helped when he became impatient with her for not knowing how to speak Spanish.

Now that she knew how to speak Spanish the two could communicate much better, but he still thought that she was wasting her time and family resources by attending the university. Talking to the brusque Sinaloan reminded Ruthie that, whatever her faults, at least her mother understood how important it was for her to get out of Salinas and continue with her education as soon as she graduated high school. Doña Lisette knew full-well that her own choices in life had been severely curtailed by her lack of education, so she was determined that her daughter have the chance to study and get a better job.

As soon as she was back in her mother’s apartment Ruthie faced the usual grilling about church, but now that she had a church that she was attending Doña Lisette’s questions were much less confrontational. Just the day before, she had received the happy news from her friend that Cristina had run into Mike and Ruthie as they were coming back from the service. She was more curious about Mike’s church than anything else and listened with interest as Ruthie described the old hymns and the structured worship. Ruthie emphasized that her boyfriend grew up in his parents’ church and knew the service by heart. She left out the detail that she and Mike were by far the youngest people sitting in a dwindling congregation. Finally the topic passed and Doña Lisette was satisfied, at least for the moment.

The next day Ruthie and her mother walked over to her brother’s house. Throughout her years in high school, Ruthie usually enjoyed holidays, which always were celebrated at her uncle’s place. It was a chance to briefly escape the quiet dreary life she led in her mother’s apartment and a chance to enjoy decent food. Doña Lisette always liked cheap simple food, but her uncle and his family enjoyed much more elaborate meals. Their backyard boasted a brick grill and a large deep fryer. There were coolers full of Coke, beer, and tequila; and usually a table full of bread, tortillas, Mexican pastries, and ice cream.

On that day the backyard blared with Mariachi music and a cloud of greasy steam was rising up from the yard’s newest addition, a deep fryer specifically for turkeys. Ruthie quickly linked up with Rosa and the two cousins compared notes on their experiences in college. Gerardo showed up with his very pregnant wife. Several family friends showed up and raided the ice chests for beer. The dinner promised to be the usual boisterous affair with people coming and going… and drinking…

Ruthie tried picturing Mike trying to mingle among the crowd and really couldn’t. She didn’t enjoy crowds either, but on holiday dinners normally what she did was stick close to Rosa while the two young women waited for the food to be ready and for Gerardo to slip them glasses of tequila.

Ruthie noted that Rosa seemed very apprehensive. She had noticed that over the weekend at Mega-Mart as well, but did not have the chance to ask her what was going on. It wasn’t until the cousins were sitting alone with plates of fried turkey on their laps and glasses of tequila hidden behind their backs, that Ruthie finally had the chance to get an update on the happenings within the family. Not much had changed in the three months that Ruthie had been away, with one very big exception. In hushed Spanish Rosa pointed out her younger brother Alex:

Ruthie was surprised, because her youngest cousin had been in the back yard all that time and she had not even realized it. His appearance was radically changed from the last time she had seen him, most notably by the fact he had shaved his head. He was with a couple of other very tough-looking teenagers and several girls. Rosa did not need to explain anything more, because Ruthie had seen enough during her years in high school to know what was going on. Alex’s appearance and behavior clearly indicated that he was a “wannabee” for one of the town’s main gangs.

“Dad’s in total denial about this,” commented Rosa. “I mean… he’s looking at Alex’s bald head every day… and he won’t accept that what it means is Alex wants to be a gang-banger.”

“What’s Alex saying about it?”

“…that he’s shaving his head because he thinks it looks cool. Yeah… it looks cool alright… if you wanna be a gang-banger.”

Rosa and Ruthie watched Alex and his friends flash some gang signs. Then the group disappeared around the side of the house. Rosa glanced at Gerardo, but her older brother was distracted by his wife.

“Gerardo was the only one who could keep Alex under control. For whatever reason, Dad doesn’t want to deal with him. But now… you know… with the baby and everything… Gerardo doesn’t have any time to worry about him either… and Dad’s worried about his job… so he doesn’t have any time… and Alex is getting himself jammed up at school…”

“You’ve tried talking to him about it?”

“Talking? To Dad? Are you kidding? Like Dad’s gonna listen to me about Alex? Like he’s ever listened to me about anything? Like he ever will?”

The two women snuck sips from their glasses before setting them behind their backs. Rosa sighed and changed the subject.

“So, what do you think about what happened to Emilia Asfura?”

“Emilia? What happened to her?”

“You didn’t hear about it? It was all over the news.”

“No. I don’t watch TV in Davenport. Don’t have time. So what happened to her?”

“She got shot. It was a hit. Her boyfriend was late with a drug payment or something… and so they sent this guy up from Mexico to shoot her… you know… to send his group a message.”

“Shit… So they know who did it?”

“Yeah, but as soon as he pulled the trigger he went back south. He jumped across the border and called up here from Nogales. They even e-mailed a picture of her… with her face all blown up… you know… to her boyfriend.”

Ruthie did not know how to respond. She had known Emilia from sitting with her in several classes. Emilia had been a student with more promise than most of Ruthie’s other classmates, but towards the end of Ruthie’s senior year she started dating a member of the same gang that Alex was hoping to join. She was a year younger than Ruthie, which meant that she couldn’t have been any older than 17 when she was killed.

Rosa picked up her glass of tequila and drained it with a single swallow. “You’re lucky you got that scholarship and got out of here. You are so fucking lucky. You don’t have to deal with this shit everyday like I do.”

“Then you need to get out too, Rosa. Tell your dad to fuck himself and just get out.”

Rosa paused, but finally decided to trust an important piece of information with her cousin:

“I am. I am getting out… but you can’t tell this to anyone… what I’m about to say to you. Promise?”

“I promise.”

“I joined the Army. I’m leaving for boot-camp right after Christmas. I am getting out of here. I was thinking about doing it anyway, but it was what happened to Emilia that made the decision for me.”

“But… the Army?”

“I’m going in for six years. I’ve had it… with my dad… with Alex… with not having any money… I’ve had it!”

“But…aren’t you worried about going to Iraq? …or Afghanistan?”

“I probably will go there… one of those two places. The recruiter leveled with me about that. But right now I don’t care. I just want out of here.”

Ruthie sighed, because for her the pending departure of Rosa was another piece of rotten news. Rosa was the one person in her family she felt had some common sense and some intelligence, and with whom she could hold a conversation. She would be very sorry to see her go. She also felt that Rosa was making a rash decision out of desperation and had not thought out what she was getting herself into. Yeah, Rosa, right now you might not care about going to Iraq…I bet you’ll feel different about things once you get there….

Rosa looked at Ruthie’s glass, which was still half full of tequila.

“Are you gonna drink that?”

When Ruthie shook her head, Rosa grabbed the glass and drained it with a single swallow. Ruthie knew she would have to spend the rest of the evening looking after her cousin, because it was obvious that she was drunk.

* * *

As soon as Ruthie left campus, Mike got into his own car and drove to his father’s house. He was not thrilled about the prospect of yet another tense Thanksgiving, but he knew that he owed it to his parents to spend time with them. He also wanted to see his sister and get an update from her on what was going on with Mr. Sinclair. His father did not look too good on Sunday when he brought Ruthie to the house.

The Sinclairs were the type of family to whom traditions and holiday rituals were extremely important. While some families facing crises tended to drift away from traditional activities, that was not how Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair chose to deal with the financial collapse brought about by the loss of the family business. Instead, holiday rituals, like flying the flag and wearing a tie every day, were ways that Mr. Sinclair could hold on to portions of his old life and stay connected to the family’s roots. As always, there would be the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, complete with a stuffing recipe and a pie recipe that were unique to the Sinclair family and had been part of Thanksgiving dinners since the family came to California in the 1930’s.

Still, Mike’s time away from home and his education allowed him to observe the deterioration taking place in his family’s house. It wasn’t just the physical deterioration of the residence, but also the psychological toll on his parents. The Sinclairs were not having any open fights, but it was clear that the loss of their financial status had finished off the emotional bond between Mike’s parents. Just like holidays, they went through the motions of their marriage just because there was nothing else for either of them to do. But, just as living without his business was wearing down Mr. Sinclair, Mrs. Sinclair’s morale was declining because her husband was distant and unresponsive. She did not feel that she really could talk to him, nor did she feel there was anyone else she really could confide in. She knew a couple of the neighbors and a few women from church, but they had their own problems. Even if Mrs. Sinclair did feel she could confide in the women in her life, they would have listened out of courtesy, but not really cared what was going on.

To a very limited extent Mr. Sinclair did confide in Mike’s sister Colleen, so if anyone knew what was going on with Mike’s parents, it would be Colleen. Mr. Sinclair had rented a storage unit in Colleen’s name, and little by little was moving various items from the house that he felt were important for the family. When the lender foreclosed, the items in the storage unit would be out of reach because they were in Colleen’s name, not Mr. Sinclair’s. Colleen told her brother that from what she could tell, foreclosure could not be too far off because the storage unit was almost full. Mike could observe that the house had a sterile look to it, the family photos and heirlooms were gone and the only items remaining were furniture and appliances to which his father had no emotional attachment.

There were the usual prayers before the Thanksgiving dinner. Out of respect for their parents and the history of the family Mike and Colleen went along, but they exchanged glances during the prayer… both thinking… what in the hell do we have to be thankful for? Like God’s gonna turn things around for us? Like God’s gonna make Mega-Mart and the blight they brought into our lives just vanish? Like God’s gonna show us some sort of alternative?

As the family ate their silent joyless dinner, Mike wondered how many other families across the US had done the same thing, have a prayer for the final Thanksgiving dinner they would ever eat in their own home… praying to an indifferent God who had turned his back on them... and on an entire nation.

One of the few family pictures still on display in the living room showed Mike and Colleen with Mr. Sinclair and their grandfather standing in front of Lincoln’s home in Springfield Illinois. Mike’s grandfather had died shortly before the Pharmacy closed. In fact, Mike suspected that his father had borrowed some money just to keep the business open a few extra months so that his grandfather would not live to see it go under. Mike remembered that the family had not taken any of their road trips since the pharmacy closed. It would seem obvious that the trips ended because Mike’s grandfather now was dead and his father no longer had much money, but he knew that was not the real reason. Mr. Sinclair changed when he lost his business; it seemed that the life went out of him, his curiosity about the outside world buried under a pile of financial problems.

As he watched his silent moody father, Mike felt that in a way he already was dead. The Sinclairs’ world was disappearing, and Mr. Sinclair was a part of that dying world.

Mike was a product of that vanishing world as well. And yet, much of mentality of the lost hopes of the US middle-class remained with him, especially the anticipation that through personal action he could change where his country was heading… that if enough people resisted, maybe Mega-Town would be prevented from totally taking over. The Sinclairs’ world had included hope, which the past four years had not been able to completely extinguish in Mike… in spite of everything that happened to his parents.

After they finished eating, Mike and Mr. Sinclair spent a couple of hours watching a football game. Football never held any interest for Mike whatsoever, mainly because he always hated the obnoxious thugs who played it. But, once again, out of deference to tradition, he went along, vaguely wondering how many more chances he would have to sit with his father.

Chapter 16 - Black Friday

During the four days she spent in Salinas over Thanksgiving break, Ruthie got very little rest. She spent a good portion of Thanksgiving Day looking after Rosa and trying to make sure she didn’t get a hold of any more Tequila. Ruthie plied her with water and Coke, trying to get her to sober up before she went to sleep. She became very angry at her cousin, not only for being drunk at a family gathering, but also for her decision to join the military. Still, Ruthie realized that dealing with Rosa gave her something to do for the rest of the day, something to keep her occupied and away from her family’s other problems.

At sundown Ruthie figured that her cousin was sober enough that she could be safely put to bed. Rosa stumbled into the bathroom one last time, and then passed out on her bed. Ruthie was both worried and disgusted, never having seen her cousin so drunk before. She lay down on top of the room’s other bed, but had a hard time getting to sleep because of the noise from outside. Besides being bothered by the noise, it was hard for her to get comfortable because she was not used to sleeping in her clothes.

Ruthie knew that she needed to get as much rest as she could early on, because at 2:30 am her mother woke up both younger women and told them to get into one of the cars. They groaned in protest as Doña Lisette shook them awake. Rosa still was hung-over and Ruthie dreaded the day that lay ahead.

A few minutes later, two carloads of Ruthie’s family and an extra pick-up truck joined a long line of cars moving towards the Watsonville Mega-Center. Yes, indeed… Ruthie had been drafted by her mother to participate in the most disgusting holiday spectacle of all, shopping on Black Friday.

Ruthie had gone through Black Friday shopping enough times to know what to expect. There would be a two-hour wait in line in a dark parking lot before the doors opened at 5:00 am, then the mad dash to the electronics section to try to get sales items “while supplies lasted”, then the endless pushing and grabbing in the clothing department, a stop at the Christmas decorations, and finally a stop to buy cartloads of food. The whole day would consist of standing in line and jostling other people. For someone like Ruthie, who tended to be claustrophobic in restricted crowded spaces, Black Friday shopping was pure torment.

The family took their places in a very long line that wrapped around the Mega-Mart. She looked at her cousin’s pale sick face, then listened to several people ahead of her group argue whether or not it was “fair” for a person to leave the line and expect to get back in. She listened to unhappy children whining or crying, and to several arguments in both English and Spanish.

Rosa was in a horrible mood from her hangover, Ruthie was in a horrible mood because she did not want to be anywhere near a Mega-Mart at 3:00 in the morning on Black Friday, and the older women were in bad moods because they felt their daughters were being ungrateful and uncooperative. Ruthie looked around. Already there were thousands of other uncomfortable and irritated shoppers lined up in the parking lot. The mood of the crowd was not pleasant at all.

The minutes dragged by and the line behind Ruthie’s family grew ever larger and ever more restless. Shoppers jostled at the building’s entrance and began pushing to better position themselves to get in quickly. Ruthie started having a bad feeling about what was going to happen the moment the Mega-Mart employees finally opened the doors. She wanted to beg her relatives to give up on the shopping trip, but the only person she felt she could talk to was her cousin. Rosa replied:

“When we get in there, the only place I’m going is the bathroom.”

“Rosa, I don’t like this. Too many people… and they don’t have any security out here.”

Rosa waved off her cousin’s concerns.

“We go through this shit every year. It’s always the same. Nothing’s gonna happen.”

A half an hour later the doors opened and the crowd surged forward. There was a crush as the group pushed towards the entrance. Bodies pressed ever more tightly against Ruthie and Rosa. It became hard to breathe and Ruthie lost sight of her mother. She could tell that Rosa was frightened by the sudden pressure on her body from the crowd. Ruthie was apprehensive as well, but she was not surprised. Her pessimistic outlook had prepared her to expect that something could go very wrong once those doors opened.

The next few minutes were some of the scariest of Ruthie’s life. As the crush of bodies tightened, she found breathing increasingly difficult. She also realized that she and Rosa would be in very serious danger if either of them tripped. The crowd swayed back and forth and her feet constantly were bumping up against the feet of her neighbors. Once Rosa did trip, but Ruthie held on to her arm and with all of her strength managed to help keep her on her feet.

Finally Ruthie and her family made it through the door, but the crush of bodies only seemed to get worse. Shoppers continued to push through the door, but the crowd no longer was moving forward. To her right she heard someone shouting:

“Get off! Get off!”

A group of people next to her fell suddenly. Just as she lost her balance and was about to fall, Gerardo grabbed Ruthie’s arm and pulled her to the left. More people fell and started to scream. Gerardo grabbed Ruthie again and pushed her towards the window. A second later Rosa stumbled against her. Gerardo shouted:

“Keep moving! Away from the door!”

Ruthie grabbed Rosa’s hand and pushed through a cluster of people that slowly were moving forward again, towards the pharmacy. The crowd emerged into an open area of the store and thinned out. Once they got past the danger, many people ignored the disaster and started running towards the coveted sales items. Ruthie and Rosa stepped back towards the window, waiting for the other members of their group to come out. Ruthie saw the top of Gerardo’s head in the mob. Gerardo emerged with his own mother a second later, along with another family friend. He pushed several panicky people aside and extracted the final member of his group, Doña Lisette. Ruthie’s mother was gasping for air and had a thoroughly horrified expression on her face. Her purse was gone and a shoe was missing, but otherwise she was OK. Ruthie hugged her.

Ruthie’s relatives moved past the checkout area, along with dozens of other dazed shoppers. There was no time to think about running towards the “while supplies last” deals, because it was obvious that things were terribly wrong near the main entrance. Security guards were frantically trying to disperse the crowd and get to a group of people who had fallen. The scene became increasingly chaotic as more and more shoppers were pushed through the doors and fell on top of the ones lying on the floor. There was screaming, yelling and cursing. Alarms in the store went off, but the noise only added to the panic among the crowd. Ruthie looked through the window, noticing shoppers still outside pushed against the glass. Those people were only a few feet away from her, but there was not a thing she could do to help them. Anyhow, the only thing on her mind was staying close behind Gerardo and not letting go of her mother’s hand.

The family continued moving away from the front entrance in the midst of dozens of other frantic people. Gerardo shouted at the others to go to the gardening department at the back end of the Mega-Center. The crowd surrounding Ruthie had dispersed, but the screaming coming from the front of the store seemed louder than ever. As they exited into the fenced area containing gardening supplies, Ruthie’s family could hear sirens in the parking lot. Firemen and paramedics came in through the back of the store and rushed past them. They heard loudspeakers announcing that the Mega-Center was closing. That announcement was accompanied by shouts of anger from many of the shoppers who had already made it into the store and had picked up sales items. Ruthie heard several things inside breaking. She correctly assumed the crashes were from disappointed shoppers smashing things they had picked up but would not be allowed to buy.

They exited through the gardening center, after being checked by a Mega-Mart security guard to make sure they were not carrying any merchandise. Ruthie’s family walked around the back of the building, passing the loading docks to return to their cars. Everyone was badly shaken up. It was clear that Rosa no longer needed to use the restroom, because her jeans were soaked. Ruthie’s mother still was missing a shoe. Her aunt had twisted an ankle and needed to be helped as she walked. They were a forlorn group as they slowly made their way in the pre-dawn fog towards the front of the store, their shopping trip a total disaster.

It took hours to get out of the parking lot. The exits had to be blocked off to give priority to emergency services. Ruthie and her relatives noticed ambulance after ambulance leaving. Later Ruthie’s family would find out how lucky they were, given what had happened only a few feet from where they had come in through the entrance. The tragedy started when a Mega-Mart employee was pushed to the floor by the first wave of shoppers entering the store. For several seconds the people coming in managed to step over him, but then a woman was pushed over the employee and fell. Several more people fell on top of her. Eventually more than 100 shoppers and employees lay piled on the floor, eight of whom died and 60 others who were seriously injured. Another man had a heart attack when he was pushed against the front window and his pace-maker quit working. Among the people pressed against the window there were several other serious injuries. Gerardo told his relatives that he was standing right next to several shoppers who fell and that it was only by pure luck he did not go down with them. There was another piece of good fortune. Gerardo’s wife planned to accompany the group on the shopping trip, but at the last moment felt sick and changed her mind. No one wanted to imagine what would have happened if a woman who was eight months pregnant had been with them during the stampede.

It was well past sunrise, but finally the three cars of Ruthie’s group turned onto the highway going south, to return to Salinas empty-handed. Doña Lisette chatted incessantly about the need to be grateful to Jesus for having spared them. Ruthie sat quietly in the back seat, viewing the experience from a totally different perspective. As she sat listening to her mother rattle on about Jesus and smelling her cousin’s piss, Ruthie resolved that she would never set foot in a Mega-Mart again. She always had hated the store anyway, but she “went along” to avoid an argument. Well, now she had a perfect justification for not “going along” anymore.

As much as she’d like to avoid it, she would have to tell Mike what had happened. Undoubtedly he would hear about it on the news and wonder if she had been at the store. She’d have to fess up and admit that yes, not only had she been at the store, she had been right in the middle of the stampede. His reaction would be predictable: he would say that Mega-Mart brought out the worst in people because it was the world’s worst manifestation of rampant capitalism. He was right, of course, because the company’s sales tactics, designed to bring hoards of panicky shoppers to the store to be the lucky “winner” of a wide screen TV that was being sold at a loss, fed on greed. As Mike would always say, greed will turn any person into a demented savage. He now had nine deaths and 60 injuries to back up that statement.

Greed will turn any person into a demented savage.

* * *

Mike and his family never went anywhere near a store on Black Friday. Instead they went for a drive towards the Napa Valley and had a picnic with the remains of the previous day’s turkey. It was a chance to forget the present and pretend that the more pleasant years family’s past had continued uninterrupted. Mike’s sister was, as usual, a bit uneasy, but even she was able to set aside her worries and just relax. The family did not bother to let anything serious enter into their conversation… they kept to light subjects such as the various points of interests in the valley. It was dark by the time they got back.

Upon returning to his room, Mike had a message on his cell phone. It was a call from Ruthie, telling him that she was OK and her family was safe. They had a bad scare at the Mega-Center, but they got out unhurt and were safely back in Salinas.

A bad scare at the Mega-Center? Mike immediately turned on the TV. Sure enough, the headline news was the morning’s tragedy at the Watsonville Mega-Mart. There was footage of columns of ambulances leaving the parking lot and interviews with witnesses. There also were interviews with company officials, whose responses ranged from blaming the shoppers for being careless to praising the “great American consumer” for being so determined to shop, no matter how adverse the conditions might be.

“This incident, while unfortunate, shows that American capitalism is the best system there is and how people are looking for value in their purchases…The American consumer is the most determined consumer in the world…Nothing will stop the American consumer, not even an unfortunate tragedy like what happened today...”

Mike stared dumbfounded at the news report, horrified that the woman he loved had been right in the middle of all that. He called her, but she seemed somewhat irritated:

“It’s like I told you, Mike. I’m fine. Everyone here is fine. I mean… we’re a bit shaken up… but we’re all fine. I’ll tell you about it when I see you on campus. I don’t wanna talk about it over the phone. I’m fine. Really…”

Mike hung up, a bit bewildered. Obviously Ruthie was traumatized and not “fine”. However he knew that it would be better to wait and talk to her in person… as she had requested.

* * *

That night, Mike finally got around to reading Ruthie’s favorite book, “Pedro Paramo”. It was one of the most depressing narratives he had ever read, but from the beginning he could see why the story had been so influential in Latin American literature. And to think, that no gringo, apart from the ones who made it three years into a Spanish major, had ever heard of the novel or its author Juan Rulfo.

More importantly for Mike, by reading “Pedro Paramo”, felt that Juan Rulfo was giving him a good glimpse into Ruthie’s unhappy soul. The hot, desolate, abandoned setting of the story matched her perception of how the future of the world would play out. As for an insight of how she viewed herself, Mike read the following:

“I don’t know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just to know where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest when Padre Rentería told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance … It was because of my sins, but he shouldn’t have told me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you are better off not being born … for me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here.”

“And your soul? Where do you think it’s gone?”

“It’s probably wandering like so many others, looking for living people to pray for it. It probably hates me for the way I treated it, but I don’t worry about that any more. And now I don’t have to listen to its whining about remorse. Because of it, the little I ate turned bitter in my mouth, it haunted my nights with black thoughts of the damned. When I sat down to die, my soul prayed for me to get up and drag on with my life, as if it still expected some miracle to cleanse me of my sins. I didn’t even try. ‘This is the end of the road’, I told it. ‘I don’t have the strength to go on.’ And I opened my mouth for it to escape. And it went. I knew when I felt the little thread of blood that bound it to my heart drip into my hands.”

Mike read through “Pedro Paramo” in a single sitting. It was 3:00 in the morning when he finished. The book’s bleak message of hopelessness deeply moved him, because in that story he saw Ruthie’s soul. He got up and put on a pair of shorts and a jacket. He wouldn’t be able to sleep and he couldn’t stay in the quiet house. He’d have to go out.

Mike walked around the decaying neighborhood, more aware than ever that he was part of a United States that was passing into memory. The middle class, suburbia, the work ethic, small businesses, and the independent spirit that had been central to the United States was fading out, the spirit of its people crushed under the indifferent phenomenon of corporate globalization. Mike was part of that past. Even though he was only 20, he knew that he had been born to live in world that no longer existed. The planet of the future, the world being consolidated under Mega-Town Associates, was not a world that he could, or would, want to live in. Ruthie’s right about that… there’s no hope. She knows…

Mike walked along the deserted sidewalks in the chilly pre-dawn darkness. He passed several “for sale” signs, including ones that had the added description “bank owned”. “Bank owned”… foreclosure properties… the fruits of a credit-based economy.

The majority of the houses that were still occupied had SUV’s sitting in driveways. SUV’s… the past decade’s most prominent symbol of an era of debt, wastefulness, and conspicuous consumption that had finished off the hope that the US could look forward to any future other than a painful decline.

Mike’s thoughts returned to the desolate words of “Pedro Paramo”. Just like the fictional Comala of Juan Rulfo’s novel, the suburb of Mike’s childhood was becoming ever more abandoned… ever more lost and hopeless. He was reminded of a passage from Ruthie’s book:

“From that day the fields lay untended. Abandoned. It was a sad thing to see what happened to the land, how plagues took over as soon as it lay idle. For miles around, people fell on hard times. Men packed up in search of a better living. I remember when the only sound in Comala was good-byes…”

Mike’s thoughts turned to his girlfriend. He reflected that exactly 24 hours before; she had been at the Mega-Center waiting in line with her relatives. Hopefully at the moment he was thinking about her, Ruthie was safely in bed… not standing out in some godforsaken parking lot. He badly wanted to see her… because he loved her more than ever. Through spending a night reading her favorite book, he felt that he really understood her. Her soul was much darker than he had imagined, but in that darkness was the real truth behind life. She understood that life had no meaning, and there was no hope. The only meaning he would find in his own life would come from the time he shared with her.

* * *

Over the next two days Doña Lisette gave her testimony in church, thanking Jesus for the miracle at the Mega-Center and the blessing that spared her and her daughter from the clutches of Satan. The fellow church-goers loudly concurred with “Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!” Of course, Ruthie had to stand next to her mother as she spoke as a living testament of Jesus’ generosity. She held her tongue and played along… forcing a smile and trying to be patient. Her mother needed to have her moment… even if it was her cousin Gerardo, and not Jesus, who deserved the credit for saving them from being trampled.

Ruthie’s relatives did not try to do any more Christmas shopping that weekend, much to her relief. The Mega-Center re-opened on Saturday with the same long lines and hoards of shoppers pouring into the store in the pre-dawn hours. The store hired more security and had better crowd control, so the panic from the day before was not repeated. However, Doña Lisette had no desire to “test the Lord’s patience” by repeating her trip to the store; while both Ruthie and Rosa flatly stated that any new foray to a Mega-Mart would have to be made without them.

Over Friday and Saturday night Ruthie slept in her old bedroom. She had been away from home for only three months, but she felt uneasy sleeping in that room, as though she didn’t belong there. Already she was changing… leaving behind the person she had been in Salinas: she had changed and the room had not.

Still, the bedroom had many memories for Ruthie. For six years it had been both her refuge and her prison, where she spent most of her time hiding out from the gang-life of her neighborhood. It was the place where had made all those discoveries through her reading, where she had progressed through her knowledge of the outside world, and ultimately where she had acquired the facts she needed to abandon her faith. There were other memories, brought back to her by a full-length mirror on the door. She had spent endless hours standing in the nude, looking at herself and sinfully exploring her own body.

She looked through her meager possessions, wondering what she additional items she might want to take with her to Davenport… and perhaps show to Mike. There were a couple of books she decided to put in her backpack, and a few pieces of clothing that she had forgotten to pack in August. Not much else… just a picture album of some photos from Nebraska… might as well take it and show Mike what she looked like when she was in grade school… and her grandmother… and her father…

She slammed the album shut when she saw her father’s face. She tossed it back into the drawer. She did not want to be reminded… at least not now. Then she reconsidered. She took the album out and put it in her backpack. At some point she’d have to face her memories… maybe the best way to do that would be to share them with Mike… or perhaps with Dr. Hartman.

There was another item from her past that Ruthie came across… an old-fashioned wooden bath-brush that her mother had brought up from Mexico. The implement was heavy and made from solid wood, with a smooth wide back. It was totally different from the flimsy plastic bath-brushes normally sold in the US. Ruthie held the brush and ran her palm over the uncompromising surface. She touched the bristles with her fingertips, noting that they were almost new. The bath-brush had spent most of the past four years in a drawer hidden behind her clothing, and had never been used for its intended purpose. Ruthie grabbed the brush by the handle and tapped the flat side against the palm of her hand. She closed her eyes for a moment… remembering how, for about half a year, it was a very important part of her “me time”.

She first saw the brush when she was in the ninth grade. She was cleaning the apartment and saw it under the bathroom sink, pushed behind some bottles of detergent. She knew that her mother must have left it there and forgotten that she had it. For several months Ruthie gave the brush no further thought, but one day she overheard a classmate talking about her sister being spanked over the weekend. Ruthie sat quietly and listened with fascination as the other girl described how her mother forced the girl to pull down her shorts and hit her on the bare bottom with a “big long brush”. Ruthie’s heart beat faster as she listened to the classmate’s casual remarks. She so badly wanted to ask the other girl for details, but she had to stay quiet because she was merely overhearing the conversation, not participating in it.

The next morning, after her mother had left for work, she got up and retrieved the bath-brush. For a long time she stood with it in front of the mirror, touching it to her bottom and masturbating. The thought of being punished on the bare bottom with a brush like the one she was holding was a total turn-on for her. She fantasized about being punished along with her classmate’s sister, being told to bend over with her bare bottom on prominent display and her knees trembling, waiting for the agonizing swats.

Ruthie’s punishment fantasies never included any thoughts about her own mother. Doña Lisette was very strict with Ruthie and frequently grabbed her hair or slapped her, but always struck her across the face. To punish Ruthie by pulling down her panties and forcing her to expose herself was something she never would have considered doing, given her views on modesty. Anyhow, at that time Ruthie hated her mother, so the girl’s fantasies always involved other authority figures… never Doña Lisette.

For several days Ruthie contented herself with masturbating in front of the mirror and taking pictures of herself posing with the brush. Finally, she decided to start punishing herself. She knew that she was a sinful girl who needed a proper punishment. She was full of religious guilt over her constant sexual adventures in the apartment, so if she could figure out how to spank herself…

She tried to give her bottom a couple of swats with the brush. Her aim was bad and she hit herself on the hip instead of the bottom. She tried several positions before she figured out that the best way for her to reach her bottom was to hold onto the arm of a living room chair and bend over slightly, but not all the way. She learned the best grip, one that would allow the brush to hit both sides of her bottom with equal force.

After several mornings of trial and error, Ruthie finally was ready to give herself a proper spanking. She struck hard 10 times, alternating bottom-cheeks and wincing at the hot sting. The pain was scary, but she was totally aroused. She rubbed herself but did not allow herself to climax. She struck her bottom another 10 times… took a deep breath, and then hit herself 10 more times… as hard as she could.

She gasped at the pain and her eyes filled with tears. She looked at herself in the mirror. Already her bottom had changed color and was a deep pink, almost red. She set the timer on the camera and posed for several pictures, with her reddening bottom on full display in the shots.

Ruthie was aroused by what she had just done to herself. The red color on her skin and the warm burning sensation coming from her backside excited her in a way she had never experienced before. She spent the next several minutes enjoying the best orgasm of her life. Finally she calmed down, totally scared of what had just happened. God had seen all of that. Surely she would suffer for her sick behavior. Frightened, she put the brush away, got dressed, and prayed for forgiveness. Badly shaken, she went to school.

A month passed before Ruthie worked up the nerve to spank herself again, but the excitement and guilt from that first self-inflicted punishment never left her thoughts. She hid the electronic card from camera so she would not have to delete the pictures she had taken. During her “me time” she looked at the images and replayed the memory of the swats in her mind. She felt guilty, but not guilty enough to delete the pictures.

The second time she spanked herself, Ruthie was determined to take 50 swats. The second spanking was different, because the pain was so intense that she found it very hard to finish. When she completed the fourth set, tears were running down her cheeks, her arm was cramped, and her knees were shaking. She did not really want to continue, but she realized that she would berate herself if she did not give herself the full punishment. She took a deep breath, positioned herself, and hit as hard as she could. She hoped that, maybe if punished herself hard enough, she’d get over this sick desire.


She looked at herself in the mirror, admiring the deep red color left by the 50 swats. Her bottom was swollen, numb, and much darker from the second spanking. She couldn’t resist taking more pictures. The familiar sexual desire hit her, stronger than ever. She stood in front of the camera and played with herself, masturbating as the flash went off. She set a new goal for herself: to photograph herself having an orgasm.

Over the next six months Ruthie’s thoughts and sexual desires went through the same cycle. About once each month she would spank herself with the brush, take some pictures, and enjoy a series of intense orgasms. Then she would feel guilty for being such a pervert and worry about God punishing her. Eventually, when nothing happened and there was no Divine punishment, the desire for another spanking would build up.

Each spanking was more severe than the previous one. She learned to hit harder and space out the swats to prolong the punishment. She was strict with herself: if a swat landed badly or was not painful enough, it did not count and she would repeat it. As her endurance improved she committed herself to more swats. She was especially proud of herself on her 16th birthday, when she managed to give herself 100 hard smacks. She loved it when she could get welts to form on her bottom. When she went to school after each spanking, she enjoyed the secret sensation of sitting in class, feeling the bruises on her backside.

Ruthie’s exploration into self-inflicted punishment ended as quickly as it began. One morning about a month after she turned 16, Ruthie managed to give herself the most severe spanking ever, 150 hard swats. She knew that her bottom would be badly bruised from the punishment for several days, but that was what she wanted. However, the bruises were meant for her eyes only, she had no intention of letting anyone else see them.

Unfortunately for Ruthie, on the same day that she spanked herself, the school’s female gym teacher conducted a body-mass test and weigh-in for all of the 10th graders. The girls had to line up in the hallway, go one-by-one into the medical office, and strip to their underwear for the weigh-in and body mass index measurement. Ruthie’s heart pounded as she stood in line, but she could not figure out how to get out of doing the test and stripping to her underwear in front of a school official. She was too much of a “good girl” to simply get out of line and run off the school property.

When she entered the medical office, she reluctantly followed the order to take off her shirt and skirt. She tried to keep her back against the wall, but the more she resisted moving to the center of the room, the more suspicious the teacher became. Finally she snapped, “Ruthie, this physical is a school requirement. You will move to the center of the room. Now. If you don’t, you will flunk Phys Ed and you can just repeat the 10th grade.”

Ruthie did as she was told. She gasped and went white when the older woman saw her bottom and whispered, “Oh my God…”

Ruthie’s underwear consisted of normal white panties that covered most of her bottom, but the dark bruises and welts were clearly visible around the garment’s edges. She knew that. Her secret had been discovered, by her gym teacher, no less.

The teacher let her get dressed without doing the weigh-in or body-fat test, but told her that during lunch time she needed to return to her office for a “private conference”. Two hours later a tearful and terrified Ruthie returned and took a seat in front of the school official.

“I need to take a report from you and find out who it was that hit you. You understand that we are required to report cases of physical abuse to California Social Services.”

Raw terror swept through Ruthie. She was panicky and fidgeting wildly. What on earth was she going to say? She couldn’t tell the truth, because that would sound too bizarre. She thought about inventing a boyfriend and blaming him, but it wouldn’t take much to figure out that story was not true. So she made up a lie, saying that it was her mother who had punished her because she had caught her with a CD that she had shoplifted. At first it seemed that Ruthie had just made the situation much worse, because the teacher replied that her mother would have to be ordered to get some counseling. In a panicky voice Ruthie begged the gym teacher not to say anything. She added another lie to her story, claiming that her mother was undocumented, and if she were deported, Ruthie would have nowhere to live.

“Please… please… you can’t get her in trouble! It was my fault! Really! I stole the CD! Please don’t get the INS on her!”

The gym teacher realized the girl was in a no-win situation. It was true that any possibility, no matter how slight, of her mother being picked up by the INS and deported would ruin her life. She was one of the school’s best students, one of the few who did what she was told and would definitely graduate if her life was not disrupted. Suddenly the teacher decided to back down on her plan to file the report. She contented herself with telling Ruthie that if she needed to talk about her troubles at home, “her door was always open”.

The crisis passed, but the panic Ruthie felt that day stayed with her. She was weighted down with guilt for what she had done to her mother; blaming her for something that was not her fault at all, and on top of that lying about her immigration status. In spite of the gym teacher’s assurance that she would stay quiet unless there was another incident of abuse, Ruthie was terrified that Doña Lisette would somehow find out what had happened and what she had said about her.

Ruthie resolved never to spank herself again. It was not hard to keep that promise, because the memory of the terror and humiliation she had felt in the teacher’s office would totally ruin the experience in the future. Besides, Ruthie knew that the gym instructor would be watching her and would tell other teachers to keep an eye on her as well. She pushed the brush to the back of her dresser, buried it under some clothes, and forgot about it for three years.

As Ruthie examined the brush, she thought about putting it back in her dresser, or perhaps finally returning it to its proper place under the bathroom sink. However, in the end, she decided to sneak it into her backpack and take it with her. Like the photo album, the brush was part of her experience growing up and was associated with some of her most intense memories.

* * *

On Sunday afternoon Mike called Ruthie and asked if she wanted him to give her a ride back to Davenport. She eagerly accepted. Gerardo had offered to take her back in the evening, but Ruthie was more than ready to get out of Salinas, after having spent two days at church trying to humor her mother and her friends. When Doña Lisette overheard Ruthie talking to her boyfriend, she told her daughter that she wanted Mike to come into the apartment. Ruthie cringed, but dutifully relayed the request.

Doña Lisette was still excited about benefiting from God’s mercy and still convinced that Jesus had spoken directly to her by saving her and her daughter from the stampede. She was eager to share the miracle with anyone willing to listen, which made Mike an obvious target. Ruthie fidgeted nervously as Doña Lisette recounted, in graphic detail, the stampede and the family’s narrow escape. Ruthie noticed her mother exaggerating some of her facts. For example, Ruthie knew that the real danger had lasted only a few minutes, but to listen to her mother would make one think that they had been crushed and trampled for hours. Ruthie knew that her mother was not lying; that she believed what she was saying. However, as soon as they were out of earshot of Doña Lisette, she’d have to set Mike straight on what really happened at the Mega-Center.

As they drove northward, Ruthie filled in some details and corrected her mother’s exaggerations. She also repeated the promise that she and Rosa had made to each other, that neither would ever set foot in a Mega-Mart again. For a few minutes she sat quietly, watching the vegetable fields pass by. Mike could tell that, in spite of her calm retelling of what actually happened to her on Black Friday, she still was traumatized. He said nothing, thinking it would be better to let her talk again when she wanted to. Finally she did have something to add to their conversation:

“Mike… I uh… kinda have a favor to ask from you.”


“You know your Mega-Town t-shirts? With the pig insult?”

Mike looked at her and nodded.

“Can you get me a couple? I’m gonna guess I’d take a size medium.”

“Sure… you bet! … and you’ll wear ‘em?”

Ruthie nodded. Like her boyfriend, her hatred of Mega-Town Associates now was personal. After what she had just lived through and observed, she too would wear the infamous slogan:

MTA - The Pig is your Mistress! Serve her well!

End of part 5

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