Chapter Excerpt

She hasn't been dead four months and I've already eaten to the bottom
of the deep freeze. I even ate the green peas. Used to I wouldn't turn
my hand over for green peas.

My whole name is Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, stokes the fire, stokes
the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell! I've got a nerve problem in
back of the face so I blink. June nicknamed me for it when she was little.

My wife's name was Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes. She was a real pretty
woman. Used to I used to lay up in bed and say, "Don't take it off in the
dark! I want to see it all!"

Ruby died with lung cancer in March. She wasn't but forty-five, young woman to die so early.
She used to tell me, she'd say, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander. I imagine I'll
stop smoking about the time you stop drinking." June's daddy, Burr, told me one time people
feed on each other's bad habits, which might could be true except for one thing, I'm not really
what I would call a drinking man. I hardly ever take a drink except when I need one.

But Ruby died and they laid her out and crossed her hands over her bosom, and I said to them,
"I never saw her sleeping like that." They said but that's the way everybody was laid, so I said,
"Fine then, I'll let her be."

I did lean over in the coffin though and fix her fingers so the nicotine stains wouldn't show. Ruby
had the creamiest soft skin and I hated to have brown spots ruin her for people. Suppose you
went to view somebody who'd died being shot or stabbed somewhere so you'd notice. Don't
you know they'd fill in with some kind of spackle and smooth it over to match him? Sure they
would! Same thing only different with Ruby's two ashy-smelling fingers.

God, you ought to've seen her in the hospital, weak, trying to sit up, limp as a dishrag. She'd lost
down so much, looked like she'd literally almost shook all the meat off, all that coughing and
spewing up she'd done. If you want to feel helpless as a baby sometime, you go somewhere and
watch such as that. Seemed like every time she'd cough a cold shudder'd run up and down me.

I sat with her long as they'd let me that night, then I had to leave. I stuck my head up under her
tent and said to her, "'Night, 'night, Ruby. I'm headed back to the Ponderosa with Burr. I'll see
you first thing in the morning." Then she put those two ashy-smelling fingers up to her mouth like
either she was blowing me a kiss or telling me to hush a little. And while I was looking at her and
trying to figure out which one she meant, I realized she wasn't motioning love or to hush to me.
She was wanting a cigarette, asking me for one. I thought, Well I will be damned. And I said,
Hard as that woman worked to get over too good a life then too bad a life, what a pity, what a
shame to see this now.

I hated to but I had to call it selfish, not like the Ruby I knew. But I suppose when you're that
bad off and you're not here, not gone either, I suppose you can get to the point that you are all
that matters to yourself, and thinking about yourself is the last thing left you can remember how to
do. So you're bound to go on and forgive it. And after it all, after it's all said and done, I'll still
have to say, Bless you, Ruby. You were a fine partner, and I miss you.

Excerpted from A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons
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