Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, Ruby Jean Upshaw is the kind of girl who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. By the time she's fifteen, Ruby has a taste for fast men and cheap liquor, and not even her preacher daddy can set her straight. Only Othella Mae Cartier, daughter of the town tramp, understands what makes Ruby tick.
When Ruby discovers she's in the family way, she's scared for the first time in her life. After hiding her growing belly, Ruby secretly gives birth to a baby girl at Othella's house. Othella talks Ruby into giving the child away-and with the help of a shocking revelation, convinces Ruby to run off with her to New Orleans.
But nothing can erase Ruby's memories of her child-or quell her simmering rage at Othella for persuading her to let her precious baby go. Someday there will be a reckoning. And Othella will learn that no one knows how to exact revenge quite like Ruby Jean Upshaw...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By MARY MONROE
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Mary Monroe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShreveport, Louisiana, 1934
Nobody ever had to tell Ruby Jean Upshaw that she was special, but she heard it from every member of her family, her father's congregation, her classmates, and even the people in her neighborhood almost every day. She was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. To some black folks, that was a very high position on the food chain. It meant that she had mystical abilities usually associated with biblical icons. But as a child, Ruby didn't care one way or the other about being "special" like that.
She balked when people insisted that she'd eventually have "healing hands" and the ability to "predict the future" like other seventh daughters of seventh daughters. Ruby didn't care about healing anybody; that was God's job, and those snake oil salesmen who rolled through town from time to time. And she certainly didn't want to be telling anybody what the future held for them. Because if it was something bad, they didn't need to know, and she didn't want to know. The bottom line was—and she told a lot of people this when they brought it up—she didn't want those responsibilities. The last thing she needed cluttering up her life was a bunch of superstitious people taking up her time and drawing unwanted attention to her. Just being the daughter of a preacher was enough of a burden.
And since Ruby was the youngest member of the Upshaw family, her parents watched her like a hawk and tried to monitor and control most of her activities.
"Why do I have to go to church every Sunday?" she asked her mother one Sunday morning when she was just eight. "I want to have some fun!"
"You go to church because you are supposed to, gal. How would it look to the rest of your papa's congregation if his own daughter don't come to church?" Ida Mae replied, giving Ruby a stern look. "Don't you want to be saved?"
"Saved from what, Mama?" Ruby questioned, looking out the living room window at the kids across the street building a tent in their front yard.
"Saved from the world, worldly ways. This planet is full of all kinds of pitfalls out there waitin' on a girl like you. Drinkin'. Men with more lust in their heads than brain matter. Violence. Loud music and sleazy outfits that would shock a harlot," Ida Mae answered.
Ruby already knew all of that. From what she'd been able to determine, it was a lot more fun to be "worldly" than it was to be the way her parents wanted her to be.
"I want to have some fun like the rest of the kids!" she said with a pout, knowing that she faced a no-win situation. Her parents' minds were as nimble as concrete. Once they laid down the rules for Ruby, there were no exceptions.
"You can still have fun and keep yourself virtuous," her father insisted. "Me and Mother ain't makin' you do nothin' we didn't make your sisters do, and look how well they all turned out."
Ruby pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. Before they got married, all six of her older sisters snuck out of the house at night, drank alcohol, slept with men, and wore clothes that would "shock a harlot." That was the life that Ruby thought she wanted, and she had already started on the journey that would lead her to a life of fun and frivolity. And as far as violence, she wondered what her overbearing but naive parents would say if they knew that she was already carrying a switchblade in her sock.
Ruby made good grades in school and she had a lot of friends, but it was hard for her to maintain both. She didn't like to study, and she didn't like having to attend that run-down school four blocks from her house. Those activities took up too much of her time. She appreciated the fact that her classmates and playmates were at her beck and call, not because they liked her, but because they feared her. They all knew about that switchblade she carried in her sock, and they all knew that she was not afraid to use it. She was the most feared eight-year-old in the state.
Beulah, Ruby's favorite older sister, had started Ruby down the wrong path that same year. Beulah was fifteen and so hot to trot that most of the time she didn't even wear panties. Like her mother, as well as Ruby and the rest of the sisters, Beulah was dark, stout, and had the same plain features. She also had the same short knotty hair that she paid a lot of money to the local beauticians to keep pressed and curled. But her being stout and plain didn't stop the men from paying a lot of attention to her.
Several nights a week, Beulah eased into Ruby's bedroom after their parents had turned in for the night. "Baby sister, get up and come with me," she instructed, beckoning Ruby with her finger. "Lickety-split, sugar."
"Are we goin' back to that bootlegger's house that we went to the other night?" Ruby asked, leaping out of bed, already dressed except for her shoes.
"Yep! And I need for you to watch my back in case we run into a blabbermouth, or somebody that want to start trouble with us," Beulah told her. "If I get in trouble, you can run get help for me."
"Then I better bring my blade, huh?" young Ruby asked eagerly. Even though she had never had to use her weapon, having it made her feel powerful and bold. She hoped that she never had to use it. Having her peers think that she was "big and bad" was enough for her. Ruby was confused about life. And it was no wonder, with her parents telling her to do one thing, and her sisters influencing her to do another. But one thing she was not confused about was the fact that she didn't want to hurt anybody, physically, or in any other way. However, she had promised herself that no matter what life dealt her, she would do whatever it took for her to survive, and be happy.
Ruby had as much fun as Beulah did that night. There had been an abundance of beer and loud music for them to enjoy at a nearby bootlegger's house.
By the time Ruby was twelve, she knew more about sex than her mother. Beulah was engaged to a truck driver, but she was also involved with a married man. When she wanted to spend time with him, she usually dragged Ruby along to act as a lookout while she rolled around with the married man in the bed that he shared with his wife. When the man's wife and three young children were in the home, Beulah and her lover spread a blanket on the backseat of his old car, and did their business there. Ruby sat in the front seat. Her job was to make sure no one walked up on the lovers. But every few minutes, Ruby glanced in the rearview mirror. She was amused and fascinated by what was taking place in the backseat. Beulah and her lover rewarded Ruby with peanut brittle and comic books, which she read in the car with a flashlight.
When Ruby visited her other sisters, who were all married by this time, she liked to peep through their bedroom door keyholes and watch as they made love with their husbands. What she couldn't figure out was what all of the hollering, screaming, and moaning and groaning was about. If she hadn't seen what was going on, she would have thought that somebody was stepping on somebody's toe for them to be making so much noise. That was what piqued her interest the most. Even before she had sex, she knew it had to be good. Married people risked losing everything because of sex. Girls risked getting pregnant, catching some nasty disease, and God knew what else, but that didn't stop them from having sex. Something that powerful had to feel damn good.
Ruby couldn't wait to find out. Right after she had watched Beulah and her married lover buck and rear like two horses at a rodeo three nights in a row, she decided that it was time for her to find out for herself what all the fuss was about. She knew enough about boys and men to know that none of them would say no to a piece of tail—her tail especially. Even though she was no raving beauty, she had the kind of body that black southern men worshipped. She was thick from top to bottom—especially her top and her bottom. Her butt was so plump and high and tight that you could bounce a quarter off it. One of the Donaldson boys had proved that during a break from Sunday school studies one Easter morning. But the most impressive part of Ruby's body was her bosom. She had large melonlike breasts that were so firm and perky, she didn't even need the support of a brassiere. She balked when her mother made her wear one anyway.
"Why do I have to wear a brassiere if I don't need one?" she asked her mother the day she steamrolled into Ruby's bedroom with a bag full of those damn things.
"Well, if you don't wear a brassiere because you don't need one, you will sure enough need one eventually. The bigger the titties, the farther they fall, sooner or later." Ruby's mother glanced at her own bosom, which now resembled two deflated footballs. "Don't be stupid like I was." Ruby's mother sniffed. "Had I known what I know now when I was your age, I would have worn two strong brassieres at the same time. Maybe I wouldn't be walkin' around with such a slope of a valley now ..."
Ruby's face burned. The condition of her mother's bosom was one thing that she did not care to hear about. "Yessum."
"You started your monthly last week. You're a woman now, Ruby Jean," her mother said, obviously embarrassed and even a little uneasy.
When her mother sat her down for that "birds and bees" talk last week, she didn't tell Ruby anything that she didn't already know. She had learned everything she needed to know, and some things that she didn't need to know, from her sisters and from other worldly kids.
"Dang, Mama. Why you buy up this many brassieres? I only got two titties!" Ruby complained with amusement. She fished one of the plain new white bras out of the bag. She couldn't understand why her mother had purchased so many this time. The bag contained at least ten bras. "I guess this means I can court with boys now?" Ruby asked hopefully.
"Naw it don't! You still a child. You'll have plenty of time for courtin' boys in a few years."
A few years? Like hell, Ruby thought.
She was not about to wait a few more years to have some real fun. All she had to do was find the right boy.
Chapter TwoRuby had never been outside the State of Louisiana. Her two oldest sisters, Flodell and Bessie, who had married twin brothers, lived in Texas. The rest of her married sisters lived in various parts of Louisiana.
Shreveport was a fairly large city, but segregation and racial violence were rampant. It seemed like every other week Ruby heard her parents whispering about somebody getting lynched. And it was usually for the stupidest reasons. One seventeen-year-old black boy had been beaten beyond recognition and then lynched for brushing up against a white woman's butt when he tried to pass her on the sidewalk. That had all happened right in his grandfather's front yard in front of thirty to forty black people attending a block party. And none of those thirty to forty people had been able to do a thing to help that boy. What the lynch mob didn't know was that the boy was severely retarded and cross-eyed. He was so clumsy and uncoordinated that he couldn't even ride a bicycle. He used to fall on his face just walking down the street. He brushed against people all of the time, the same way he had brushed against that white woman.
That happened a week after Ruby's mother had given her that bag of brassieres.
"I don't care what nobody say, I ain't goin' to put up with that mess from white folks, or nobody else," Ruby said later that day during dinner.
"Hush up," her father snapped. "You need to learn now that you can't beat them white folks. As long as you stay in your place, you'll be all right. Look what them white folks done to that retarded boy—and ain't nobody been arrested for it!"
"White folks don't scare me," Ruby announced. "Nothin' scares me."
That same night, Ruby snuck out of the house and went with Beulah to visit another married man that she was involved with. "He's right handsome, and he wants me because I'm a virgin," Beulah bragged.
Ruby gasped. She was dumbfounded, and she didn't hesitate to let her sister know. "What? No you ain't! I ain't tryin' to hurt your feelin's, but you must be one of the biggest whores in town, girl." Ruby guffawed and gave her sister a hard look of disbelief.
"He don't know that!" Beulah shot back. "And if you ever tell on me, I am goin' to whup you."
"But you told me yourself that a girl bleeds only the first time she's with a man."
A pensive look formed on Beulah's face. A few seconds later, she gave Ruby a serious look. "Listen, a girl can bleed as many times as she wants to, if she knows her business. Them whore women I babysit for sometime, they tell me stuff."
"They told you how to bleed even after you ain't a virgin no more?"
"Men are so stupid! Like that nitwit I'm fixin' to marry next month. He thinks I'm a virgin, and he told me that he wouldn't marry me if I wasn't. Hmmph. I bet there ain't a man alive over twelve that's still a virgin. Them dogs! They got some nerve expectin' so much from us. But do you know what? If virgin pussy is what they want, that's what some of us will give 'em."
"What is this trick them whore ladies told you about?" Ruby was curious and she had every reason to be. She had already decided that when it involved sex, she wanted to know as many tricks in the book as possible.
"You know them big capsules that Mama gives us when we have cramps? Them red and green things that look like they could choke a mule?"
Ruby nodded. "Yeah. I had to take one last month." Ruby grimaced. "I'm glad to hear that them nasty tastin' things is good for somethin' else."
"You open up the capsule and dump out whatever that stuff is they put in it. You drop some chicken blood into one side of the capsule, and then you press the capsule back together. You have to make sure it's screwed back together right, so the blood won't leak out before it's supposed to. Just before the man, uh, sticks his pecker in you, you slide the capsule up into your coochie. As soon as he hits it, it busts open, and the blood trickles out. But before you do all of that, you have to douche with some vinegar or alum to tighten yourself up the way a virgin is supposed to be," Beulah explained. "I read in a magazine that the women in Europe have been doin' this for years, and gettin' away with it."
"That's nasty!" Ruby hollered. "I hope I never have to fool no man into thinkin' I'm a virgin."
"Let me tell you somethin', girl. When you get involved with men, you will have to do all kinds of shit to keep them in line. Just like a dog. Men have to be fed, petted, and trained right. It's our burden to keep 'em happy if we want to keep 'em. As long as we do what they tell us to do—or let them think we doin' it, I should say—they won't be much trouble."
"I already know that. But that don't mean nothin' to me. When I do get a man, I am goin' to do what I want to do, not what he tells me to do," Ruby vowed.
Beulah gave Ruby an exasperated look, but she really wanted to slap some sense into her head. She couldn't believe that she was related to a girl as naive as Ruby. "Girl, you got so much to learn about men. Don't you know that the man is the head of the house?"
Ruby nodded and gave her sister a mysterious look. "That's what you think, but I know better. When I get involved with a boy, I am goin' to be the one callin' the shots. When I get married, my husband can be the head of the house all he wants. But I am goin' to be the neck, and the neck is what controls every move the head makes...."
Beulah was flabbergasted. She was stunned to hear something so profound coming out of her baby sister's mouth.
"My word, Ruby Jean," Beulah said, speaking in such a sharp tone of voice that it almost sounded like she was whistling under her breath. "You smarter than you look, girl. We ain't got to worry much about you. It sounds like you already got everything under control."
Ruby was enjoying Beulah's reaction to her neck comment. That was why she didn't confess that she had overheard their mother saying almost the same thing to one of her female friends.
True to her word, Ruby controlled every boy she got involved with. When she played stickball, or any other yard game on her block, she and her male playmates played by rules that she made up as she went along.
"Ruby Jean, how come you don't play with girls that much? You gettin' too old to be shootin' marbles and runnin' up and down the street like a savage with them boys," her mother mentioned one Saturday afternoon. Earlier that day, Ruby had shot marbles for several hours with a couple of boys from across the street.
"I don't like girls that much," Ruby admitted. "They ain't no fun. And they way too much trouble."
Excerpted from MAMA RUBY by MARY MONROE Copyright © 2011 by Mary Monroe. Excerpted by permission of DAFINA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.