NEIGHBORS and Other Strangers


Stories by

Ruth Moose

Poetry book,160 pages, $13.95 cover price

($12 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)

ISBN: 978-1-59948-348-1

Released: 2012


RMoose_2011Ruth Moose published stories in Atlantic, Redbook, the new renaissanceNorth American Review and many other places. Her stories also appeared in publications in England, Sweden, Denmark and South Africa. Some were broadcast on NPR. She has had Pushcart Awards, a MacDowell Fellowship, an NEA and teaching awards as a member of the creative writing faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. This is her third collection of short stories. The Wreath Ribbon Quilt was published by St.Andrews Press. Dreaming in Color published by August House. Her next collection in the works is Going To Graceland.

Ruth Moose writes wonderfully wise and funny stories about people we know.

–Clyde Edgerton

By turns touching, raucous and wise, Ruth Moose’s stories are whole and vivid in the mind as our own memories.

–Lee Smith

No other writer has produced a body if short stories that so deftly captures the southern
minndset, history, and language.

–Doris Betts

If you’ve ever lived in or even spent a healthy dollop of time visiting a small town, you know the women who populate Ruth Moose’s Neighbors and Other Strangers. Like Loretta. who makes a lemon pie with tofu for the second wedding of her first boy friend. Or Miss Lettie Broom who bakes and burns biscuits like the plans and dreams she can never quite get out of the oven at the right time. Ruth Moose is gifted with an unfailing ear for conversation, a sharp eye for details, a sympathetic heart, and a wit Mark Twain would approve.

–Sally Buckner,
editor of Our Words, Our Ways,
author of Collateral Damage

Ruth Moose’s characters are always people you want to know better. People who don’t set themselves above others, but bumble steadily along in their lives trying to untangle whatever messes they’ve made or unwittingly stepped into.

–Marianne Gingher


Lemon Pie

On Monday Loretta Venters said to her friend Alice from across the street, “There ought to be one day when everybody could be invisible.” She dried her mug with her red apple dishtowel, put the mug on the shelf and hung the towel on its white hook by the sink.

“Why?” asked Alice. She sat at Loretta’s kitchen table with her week’s Find A Word book. She’d already circled the names of American heroes. Now she started warships. Arizona. Missouri. North Carolina. “Too much going on now I can’t see and don’t half understand without making more.”

“It would be better than being naked,” Loretta drank her Apricot Ginger tea. Longevity tea they called it at the market. She didn’t know what was longevity about it. The apricot or the ginger. She liked the orange color in her cup and the bite of spice that hung on her tongue.

Out the window redbud trees in Wallace Post’s yard reddened.

Loretta loved March. She didn’t care what that silly rhyme said about March and lions and goats or sheep and lambs. She just stayed snug in her blue and white checked kitchen. Her kitchen of the apple collection. Wooden red apples, plastic apples, ceramic apples, apple magnets, red apple canisters, apple dishes, apple dish towels, apple pot holders. She was almost sick of apples though over the years they’d been given by people who knew she collected apple “things”. All her birthdays and Christmases and Mother’s Day. Even anniversaries. Sometimes she felt she’d been applied to death. But they did go with her kitchen and she did feel snug surrounded by it all. Snug as nesting bowls. Snug as her red apple tea pot.

“Naked,” Alice circled Wisconsin. “Who’d want to be naked? Even birds have feathers.”

Loretta shut her eyes and shook her head. “All these women write Dear Abby how they do their housework in the nude must be crazy. Why, I’d lean over to clean the bathtub and get something caught. Or be throwing a load in the drier and have those wet, cold clothes up next to me.” Loretta shuddered. “That’s why God made clothes. To protect our bodies. Adam and Eve knew that. One of the first things they did was piece together some fig leaves. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Naked and invisible are two different things.”

Alice blew on her tea. “They call this longevity tea ’cause it takes you longer to drink it. Stays hotter than Lipton’s.”

“Who’d want Lipton’s when you can have this?” Loretta said. “Only somebody who doesn’t know tea comes in more than one flavor. And so do people and so does life,.” she finished and looked at the ceiling where a ladybug inched toward the light fixture. You’ll fry, Loretta told the ladybug. Is that what you want?

“Life comes in flavors?” Alice circled Nevada. “I thought that was Life Savers.”

Loretta ignored her. “If I could be invisible one day I’d choose tomorrow…from midnight till midnight.”

She laughed and looked at her left hand that looked even more bare since she stopped wearing her wedding rings.

“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard, ” Alice licked the point of her pen. Ink stained a spot on her lip like a purple mole. “What’s Tuesday but another day?”

“That’s the day Wallace Longstreet Post takes Fairmont Royster to be his awful bride.”

“Lawful,” Alice said.

“Awful,” Loretta repeated her original word. “Those two will find themselves looking at somebody they don’t know.”

“How do you know?”

“‘Cause I been knowing both of them for over fifty years and one’s as peculiar as the other. This is no match made anywhere but in First National Bank.”

Alice hooted. “I’ll say. It’s a wonder they’re not doing the ceremony right there in the lobby. Letting Richard Lieby do the honors…if that was legal. Money begets money and that’s the truth. They’re getting married in the church parlor,” Alice circled another word. “And she’s wearing brown.”

“Brown? What’s that color for? The shade her hair dye comes in? Or the shoe polish he uses on his mustache?”

Loretta felt the tea pot with palm of her hand, poured herself the last six or seven drops and stood. “I don’t know about you, but I got letters to write and cakes to bake.”

“You’re wasting your time if you’re baking it for them,” Alice rolled her Find A Word and tucked it under her arm. ‘They don’t eat sweets. He’s boderline diabetic and she’s watching her waistline because that’s what he’s watching too.” Alice laughed, fluffed out her gray curls and headed toward the door. “It’s tofu they eat if you want to know.” Alice was half way out. “And I don’t suppose you do. ”

“Tofu,” Loretta sang, toadfood, toe food, any food was good enough to get her in the door even if she wasn’t invited to the service nor the reception. She didn’t know what it took to get invited to either or both, but being neighbors thirty years ought to count for something. And grade school. She’d been in grade school with Wallace and Fair. And high school. They just didn’t go on from there like some people did. People who thought education ought to make you amount to something.” Loretta pulled at her curtain, trying to see anything moving in Wallace’s yard. Well, if truth be known, and it never was, Wallace was her first love. He’d kissed her first playing Spin the Bottle at Molly Horne’s thirteenth birthday party. And took her to the eighth grade dance. He kissed her then. On the way home. A lot. And tried to do a few other things which she promptly put a stop to. Still they stayed an item until she spent that summer after graduation at the farm when her grandmother was dying.

Lord, that hot summer. And only Lauretta and that ninety year old woman for miles. What could the rest of the family have been thinking? They didn’t. Just somebody to be with mama. That was all they wanted. Lauretta didn’t know any more about nursing an old person that she did milking a cow. But she learned.

That was when Wallace up and married Rachel Lee Nance. Now those two were a pair. You didn’t see one but what you saw the other. They were like earmuffs or mittens joined with a string. Till Rachel got the brain tumor and just wasted away. Of course Wallace was right there every minute.

Some thought he’d go first, the way he suffered with her and mourned. Then Fairmont, newly widowed and very well endowed moved back to town. That was all it took to get him in his dancing shoes. Somebody said they tore up the floor at the Senior Center. Somebody else said they were beyond ridiculous…pawing each other in public all the time. Holding hands in church even. Restraint. That’s a word Loretta always heard and lived by. That and moderation. She’d taught her daughters those lessons and they turned out all right. More than all right. One was a doctor, the other had her own private school. So what if they didn’t write or call much. They had their own lives to live.

Loretta wrote her daily email to both of them, something about the weather and her recent insomnia, love always, then sent it. She made out her shopping list. Tofu. She didn’t know where she’d find such a thing and she wasn’t about to go to any of those little hole in the wall “Asian” markets that had sprung up around town the last couple of years. She wouldn’t feel right in one of those places. If she said anything out loud she’d be pronouncing it wrong. And she couldn’t read directions on any of the packages. If there was any. And she certainly was not going to ASK.

Turned out she didn’t have to. Tofu was right there in the market’s produce department. In little white boxes that looked clean and cute even. And there was a recipe on the package. Lemon Pie. Which suited her mood and the occasion. Of course when she ran into Louise Otten in the checkout line, she hid the tofu under her bread and lettuce, the little pack of ham she’d have for supper and the honeydew melon that was on special. Honey Do that’s what Leonard called her list. Honey, do this and honey do that, he’d laugh, but do them anyway. That was what she missed most. The plumbing repairs, replacing the furnace filters, taking the cars for gas and oil. Tires. She never knew when to buy tires and had to take the mechanics word she needed new ones. Sometimes she thought they saw a mark coming when she drove up.

Roof repairs were the last mess she got herself into. They tore her old roof out and it sounded as if the whole house was being torn apart, starting at the top, working down. But they had given her the cheapest bid…until it came time to pay. Because she didn’t have it in writing, they doubled the original figure. It was her word against somebody theirs. One against three.

Alice poked her head in the door while Loretta whipped meringue. “Smells like lemon pie to me.”

“You’re right,” Loretta said. She pointed with her elbow two perfectly beautiful pies cooling on her counter. Two carefully fluted crusts held shimmering mirrors of gold.

“Smells good enough to eat,” Alice said, easing herself on in. “I’ve always said you can’t beat a good old fashioned lemon meringue pie. Anytime.”

Lauretta spooned clouds of meringue onto the pies, swirled them into peaks.

“I bet you used cream of tartar to get all that fluff.” Alice said.

“I bet I didn’t,” Lauretta said, stripping her beaters between her fingers. If Alice wasn’t here, she’d lick them herself. Now she added the extra spoonsfuls onto the pies.

“Law, there’s nothing better than a fresh lemon pie and a cup of coffee. I could do that for a meal and be more than satisfied,” Alice said. “Those look like a picture from a Betty Crocker Cookbook. Why Loretta you ought to be one of those cooking people on tv.”

“Who’d want to?” Lauretta said and rinsed her mixer bowl. She’d let Alice go on hinting for some pie. She’d wait until Alice practically drooled before she told her that’s why there were two pies One to take and one to stay, if Alice let it alone long enough to cool.

The meringue turned tan and golden with little gold beads popping up here and there. When Laurette took the pies from the oven she put one in her silver serving dish with handles. It did look a picture and a picture was worth a thousand words, wasn’t it? Well, this pie should say something to the love birds. There are other people in this world and it doesn’t stop turning just because the likes of you two decide to do something dumb as go all mushy over each other. Fairmont Royster might say she’d been left well off, but who was to know for sure? She always was one for the little white lie. Except Larette knew her big one. That Miss Head Cheerleader in high school had an abortion. Gone somewhere in Charleston during Easter holidays, had complications and ended up missing the rest of her senior year. Her mother told everyone appendicitis. Hah. Other people had their appendix out and came back to school in two weeks. Fairmont went to California and stayed. Stayed until somebody told her Wallace Post was widowed. She probably waited all those years just to hear that. Then come back and swoop him up like the floozy she was, had always been, just tried to cover it more these days with Elizabeth Arden and every bright stone she could dangle or pin on or wear as a ring. Larette never had thought much of somebody who wore rings on all four fingers of BOTH hands. That was tacky. And cheap. And who could tell these days if ANY of them were real. People with that much jewelry didn’t wear it everyday. That’s what bank deposit boxes were for.

“You gonna cut it?” Alice asked.

Loretta had forgotten there was anyone here. Had she been mumbling to herself?

“When did you start talking to pies?” Alice asked. “Or was it the stove?”

“Neither,” Loretta snapped, “and I’ll cut a pie when I get around to it. It’d burn your mouth you try it now. But you can go ahead if you like. You’re in such of an all fired hurry.”

Alice pulled a pie closer, looked down in its face.

“Not that one,” Loretta snatched it back. ” The crust browned more evenly. Take this one. But let me wet the knife first. You get a cleaner cut that way.”

“Clean. Schmean,” said Alice. “I can eat with my eyes closed if a ragged edge on the meringue bothers you so much.”

Loretta wet her knife, sunk it in the center of a pie and almost let out a cry. “I suppose you’ll want coffee to go with that?”

“Would be nice,” Alice held her desert plate under Loretta’s knife as she centered the slice and eased it into place.

“So how is it?” Loretta asked after Alice took her first bite. She’d let her own slice cool a little before she tasted. A little delayed gratification never hurt anyone, at least as far as she knew. She wished somebody had pounded that into Wallace Post when he was a child. Their lives would have been different all the way around. Not that things had been bad with Leonard. Just not sweet. Not as sweet as Wallace Post’s kiss.

“Not bad,” Alice fixed her gaze on a distant corner of the ceiling. “Not too bad.”

If you would like to read the rest of “Lemon Pie” and the rest of the stories in NEIGHBORS and Other Strangers by Ruth Moose, order your copy today.

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