Peggy Craig was sitting on a park bench in Wisconsin, watching Patrick roughhouse with his best friend Sam, when she got a call from Manhattan. She didn’t want to answer it. Ruben was ever the artist: drama followed him like cattle. But as a former artist, she knew that her opinions meant the word to him. God only knew what opinions he was collecting in the city.
She answered him. “Hi Ruben. How are you?”
“Good, good. How’s my favorite sister?”
“You mean your only sister?”
“Yeah, that one,” Ruben said, and Peggy smiled.
She’d heard that joke every time she and Ruben had spoken lately. It still wasn’t funny. Peggy just smiled because she got a kick out of how funny Ruben believed himself to be: how much he willed himself to be. He could be a salesman, if Andy Warhol were the one painting the labels.
“Well things at home are just fine,” Peggy said. “I’m at the park with Pat and Sam.”
“How are they?”
“They’re great,” Peggy said. She took a deep breath in. A slow breath. The kind that Ruben needed to learn how to appreciate. But it was okay; deep breath out; she would walk him through it, just one more time.
“What’s on your mind, Ruben?”
“Katie left me,” he said. “And Susan’s going to leave Malcolm. And I must be going crazy, because I think Rice has a boyfriend.”
Peggy snorted. “Rice the Cowboy?”
“Rice the Cowboy.”
Peggy laughed again. “Well I’m sorry to hear about Katie, and it’s a shame that Susan and Malcolm aren’t working out. But if you think Rice the Cowboy is anything but a by-the-bible heterosexual man among men, then you really are crazy Ruben.”
“Well, that’s the part I called to talk about.” He went quiet. She heard him calculating his words like they were numbers: numbers he would have to dial in the right order to get a response. He wasn’t wrong. “You know I’ll get over Katie,” he said. “If Rice has been hiding in the closet, God bless him, I’ll get all the free manicures I’ve ever hoped and dreamed of. Susan will find a new husband. Mal knows how to get over Susan with drugs, and they might kill him, and that’s how he wanted to die anyways. But I think I’m losing it Peggy. I think I’m honestly losing my mind.”
Peggy watched Patrick and Sam closely. Pat had climbed a tree, and with some help, Sam had followed him. The whole time Peggy talked to Ruben, Pat and Sam had been sitting on the same branch of the oak. She pretended not to see them holding hands.
“Peggy? Are you there, or am I just talking to myself?”
“Come visit, honey. The city is no good for you.”
In Manhattan, Ruben smiled. His cardboard box sat on the work desk, and he held a picture from it. A picture of an oak tree. Ruben ran a hand through his dark, curly hair. “Honey,” he repeated. “I haven’t heard that one from you in a long time, Peggy Craig.”
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015