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"Listen, Ruthie" by L Mari Harris

I’m at my first court-mandated anger management meeting when a woman with frosted pink lipstick bleeding into her smoker’s lines leans in against me at the coffee table.

“Honey, I can hear your heart beating.”

She smells like that raspberry body spray my mom loads up on.

I ended up here because I’d been on my phone, fighting with my mom, listening to her tell me to kick Billy to the curb once and for all, while I pushed my cart with one hand down the frozen foods aisle. I’d yelled back she needed to mind her own damned business, and why was she always there for her stupid church friends and not for me? When I’d looked up, a man was standing in front of the DiGiornos and Tombstones, listening, and he looked just like Billy, all squinty-eyed and half-cocked.  So I'd lobbed one of those family sized Stouffer’s lasagnas at him, and the next thing I knew, cops had me pushed up against the pizza doors.

Now, I imagine drawing a box with each breath in, hold, breath out, hold. It’s a trick my probation officer taught me, and it’s surprisingly effective in stopping me from doing stupid shit. Doesn’t seem to help me much with Billy or my mom, but I figure family takes a little longer for the feelies to kick in because they’re so much more work.

The woman shrugs and walks away. I keep drawing the imaginary box.

These meetings are in the Black Oak Baptist basement where Billy and I were married, with those cheap folding chairs that pinch my hips and hurt my back. 

The man leading tonight’s meeting keeps shoving his hands in and out of his pockets and rocking on his feet. He’s going on about how his wife simply packed up their kids and most of the kitchen utensils while he was at work one day. He starts crying when he tells us he came home to a dark house, surrounded by holes in the walls he could throw coffee cups through. The next day he broke down in his boss’s office, where his boss told him to man up and get back to work. The man then laughs like he’s embarrassed to tell us this next part, and he rams his hands back into his pockets. “That’s when I punched him,” he says. “Wife found out about it and doubled down on the divorce proceedings. I was forced to come here, just like all of you.”

“Boo!” I yell from my seat. “Where’s the happy ending of how you got your family back? That’s what I’m here for.”

“Now she speaks,” someone a few rows in front of me says. It’s the frosted pink lipstick lady.

I grab my purse and tear off up the stairs.

I force myself to go back the next week. I have no choice if I don’t want to end up in county for thirty days.

Lipstick lady greets me at the door, like she already knows how this plays out.

Turns out her name is Nadine. Same as my mom’s name. 

Nadine calls these meetings “joy recovery.” Says in the span of a week, she lost her job, her husband told her he was leaving her for her cousin, and her house burned down. Says she was rightfully mad at the world but that was no way to live. Says she’s been coming to weekly meetings for a decade, and now she makes lemonade out of lemons. I’m almost convinced she really believes it.

I tell her she reminds me of my mom, all crow’s feet and chicken skin and the same habit of going down stairs sideways like a crab, one tentative foot at a time. I immediately apologize, that I’m working hard on not saying stupid shit or throwing punches anymore, but it takes time for the desire to turn to belief to turn to action and so on. She smiles like she knows exactly what I’m saying.

Today, she smells like that honeysuckle cologne the Avon lady used to sell, and there are undercurrents of cucumbers pulled from the garden and yeasty dough doubling on the countertop. And that right there is my mom, all of it, and I mean it a complement.

Nadine takes my hands in hers. Her skin is thin and cool, and she has a little mole between her thumb and index finger that I keep touching the edges of.

She doesn’t say a word. Just patiently waits. And there’s something about her that warms me, how she doesn’t pull away as my finger dances around the mole on her hand, how she doesn’t tick off a list of everything that’s wrong in my life.

So I start in the middle: Sometimes I get so mad I punch the walls, and one time there wasn’t a wall, only glass, but I’m not that stupid to punch glass, so I punched a man who looked like Billy, and my fist slamming into him stunned me, how much it hurt, how time stopped and everything was quiet and still, and there was my mom again, and it’s just the two of us again, and we’re sitting in the backyard eating ice cream sandwiches again, and she’s whispering, Ruthie, can you hear it? Listen hard, Ruthie. It’s you. And I did hear it.

For a split second, I really did. 

L Mari Harris’s stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 and Best Microfiction. She lives in the Ozarks. Follow her @LMariHarris and read more of her work at


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