A version of this story appeared in the newspaper of my town on the morning of Rosh Hashana one year. This is a story that kept growing, something new drawn down with every telling. I followed it around, the story, with a pencil and a pad of paper. I’ll include more of it later.
Ruby and the Dome of Truth
A Rosh Hashana Story
I remember an afternoon in the middle days of summer. I am sitting on my front porch. Someone comes walking down the sidewalk in front of my house, I recognize him. Tall, no older than I am, he carries his height uncomfortably on his skinny bones. He slouches and shuffles and I, of course, recognize this walk. It is Ruby.
Ruby lives down at the other end of Sutherland street, at the end of the block, where it intersects with Radclift. He is an only child. Both his mother and father are elevated as well. I have sympathy for Ruby, for although he is one of the gangsters of the neighborhood, he smokes and buys beer and he knows all the girls of questionable reputation, I love Ruby because he has always been kind to me.
On the afternoon I am remembering now, Ruby and I were maybe fourteen years old. I am still a kid, but Ruby has been an adult for years. On the afternoon that is fixed in my memory, Ruby came walking down the street. It was unusual to see Ruby walking at all. Ruby always commandeered rides from friends with cars. But on this day, Ruby came walking down Sutherland street, that is shuffling and slouching down Sutherland street, dragging a large dark green canvas duffel bag behind him. Ruby had not been home in almost a year.
Ruby had been at what used to be called a reform school, a training school for boys in trouble, called Boys Republic. It was a legendary place that our parents referred to when they were trying to control us. Parenting was not nearly the enlightened set of strategies that it is today, and all of us were threatened with Boys Republic so often that the dreaded Republic embedded itself in our imaginations and deterred us from criminal behavior. The only person I have ever known who had actually been sent to Boys Republic was Ruby. And on the summer afternoon that he returned home, I was sitting on my porch.
After a year at Boys Republic, Ruby was in no hurry to go home. I waved to him and he came up to the porch. I hoped my mother wasn’t watching because she was always suspicious of Ruby. He sat down on the steps, as if he had nothing but time, and we began to talk.
“Where you been?” I knew, of course, but I wanted him to tell me.
“Boys Republic. Just got out.”
“What was it like?”
“The worst.” He didn’t want to talk about it.
“I guess I gotta go home now,” he said. “I got a P.O.” A P.O. is a probation officer. I had to ask.
He was smiling out of his deep, sad eyes, and I swear I saw something in those eyes that looked like tears and over what I could not imagine.
“It was great talkin to you man,” he said. “I wish I could stay here all day.” He got up and shuffled off down the street, heading for the end of Sutherland street where it meets Radclift, to the yellow house in which he lived.
As he walked away I saw the great slouching of a wounded bird, dragging his feet because they were heavy and because something had wounded him too deeply to pick his feet up. He slouched away the big wounded bird that he was, having left behind whatever innocence he had at the Boys Republic, going home.
That’s about the last thing I remember about Ruby. I know we went to high school together, but Ruby lost some of his prominence in high school, and I don’t remember anything else about him, until I saw him again, twenty years later, at my father’s funeral.
He came to our house for the prayers that night. He walked in, put a yarmulke on his head, and stood in the back. I saw him from where I was on the other side of the room. He didn’t look nearly as big as he used to; he also had lost that wounded bird look.
When we were done praying I went right for him. We hugged. He wasn’t much taller than I was. We went off in the corner to talk.
“Ruby,” I said, “do you remember the day you came home from Boys Republic?”
“No man — I don’t remember.”
He didn’t remember! So I reminded him. “I was sitting on the front steps of this house, you came walking down the street with this big green duffel bag, you stopped and we sat and talked. You don’t remember?”
“I don’t remember. Those were some heavy years for me, I try not to think about it.”
At this place in the story, I might write that I regretted bringing the whole subject up, but the events that brought us back to each other after twenty years was life – cleansing enough to strip away the caution that we use in everyday conversation. My Dad had passed away, we were praying to the God of our ancestors in the house I grew up in at the seam in time when the last link to the neighborhood was about to be packed up and sold off, when soon I would become a man without father and mother, when all of these events enveloped us in a dome of intimacy and truth-telling that trusted truth enough to speak it fearlessly in ways we would ordinarily not, especially to former exiles to Boys Republic whom we had not seen in twenty years. He appeared in that time and place in my life where we stood safely under the dome of truth, willing to speak unedited reality to each other without fear. Not only did I not regret bringing the subject up, I pushed ahead.
“I was sitting on the porch of this house the day you came back from Boys Republic, Ruby. You sat on the porch with me. You were coming home but you didn’t want to come home.”
“I remember now,” Ruby said quietly.
“I died there,” Ruby said.
“At the Republic, I died there. Something in me died there,” he said, “and it saved my life. I hated it and it scared the hell out of me and I fought it as long as I could, but I kind of died into something there,” Ruby said. “I got my life taken away from me and it was the best thing that ever happened. Sometimes you have to go to the edge to find your peace. That’s what happened to me at the Republic. It saved my life.”
If I had any doubts before, there were no doubts now. There we were, after praying in my parent’s house, the last time any of us would spend there, standing under the dome of truth speaking the most honest words we knew to each other.
I wrote this story at a seam, the new year Rosh Hashana, a seam for us, a yellow stick – em on the loop of our lives, a tag that reads 57** years since the creation of the world as we reckon time, because Ruby’s story is the Rosh Hashana story. The theme of Rosh Hashana is the story of Ruby, the acceptance of the yoke, submission, the release of this, the acquisition of that, the awakening from below and the awakening from above.
It’s about awakening, that’s the purpose of the shofar, the ram’s horn, to awaken us to living, to the beautiful truth everywhere around us and within us.
We stir, as it were, the desire in God to nurture, to protect, to heal. And every Rosh Hashana, we draw down something entirely new into the world, something that has never been here before. Sometimes you have to make room for it, you have to clear something out for something new to move in, open up and empty out, to let go and grow.