Fiction / Jay Lee Ellis

The Ram and Randy Pruitt

When Mr. Pruitt’s car was assaulted by the runaway ram I was a boy about seven years old and it was the late morning of the American Sexual Revolution. Mr. Pruitt parked his car backwards in their high garage, so he could leave straight down their driveway. He was the only guy on the block who did that. And Randall Pruitt’s Chevrolet Impala was green as the color of Mrs. Pruitt’s eyes.

I saw her every morning. If I had been ten years older at the time it would have looked entirely different what I did each morning, Monday through Friday, in the living room of the Pruitt house. But I was only seven, and Mrs. Pruitt was my kindergarten teacher—you didn’t have to move up so fast back then—and Mr. Pruitt was my barber. My mother worked in a steakhouse downtown, Cattleman’s. Steak and bourbon and salads, a simple job that brought good tips for a woman who looked like Coco Chanel but still had an Arkansas accent. All the Dallas attorneys and other important people of the time ate at Cattleman’s. For some reason my mother had to leave very early for work every morning, before you would think somebody would have to leave to go work in a steakhouse that only served lunch. And so it was that my mother sent me, every morning of the work week, across the street to the Pruitt’s. I spent my time sitting in a strange leather chair and watching cartoons, eating hot dripping bear claw pastries and drinking orange juice.

Mrs. Pruitt didn’t feed me because I had not had breakfast. She fed me because she loved my appetite and knew that it had no end. If I think of her, just now, it still doesn’t.

Randy Pruitt had his own barbershop, and he could go in a little later than the men he had opening for him. The shop was in the old part of downtown and still got plenty of regulars early in the morning, including men who came to have a shave while doing absolutely nothing themselves but smoking a cigar and talking about football or what happened to the president. I remember the barber pole outside the shop from seeing it more from the inside, turning beyond the hat rack, that itself sported real hats. I wonder how many people can think of a barber pole and see a particular one. By that I mean that barber poles have become something other than themselves; they have been replaced by the idea of them. But I remember the particular pole outside Randy Pruitt’s barber shop, as well as I remember his shoes.

Randy Pruitt wore nothing but loafers. Tassels and penny loafers and Italian designs lost on the eyes of most of his neighbors. He was on his feet all day and he felt that anything else would have killed him. For the same reason—his job—he wore only short-sleeved shirts. But different ones than the other men in the neighborhood. Even in the winter, when Dallas can surprise people who don’t know the place by just how cold it gets, Randy Pruitt would simply wear a heavy lamb’s wool coat over his short-sleeved shirts. One day, long after I was gone, my parents told me that Randy Pruitt had almost died in an accident: he was driving his car down the service road that ended our street and he hit a patch of water and flipped. Completely. He would have been fine if his car had not landed perfectly intact, right side up, facing oncoming traffic on the freeway.

I suppose he recovered just fine after that. I think I remember my parents mentioning that he had been in a body cast for a time but then was fine. Hitting a patch of water and flipping your car into oncoming traffic is simply bad luck. It has nothing to do with the heart and if you cannot get over that kind of accident then you’ll never make it. He had gotten over much worse.

One morning when I was seven and was sitting in the strange leather chair and watching Mrs. Pruitt, a newsman came on the television and announced that a large ram had escaped from the Dallas Zoo. That it might be headed our way. We were east of Dallas, southeast a little even, and this was the direction the ram was headed in—straight into the rising sun, which must have been the only thing the ram recognized from its original habitat when it escaped its captors and the unnatural yard of mud and Mesquite trees at the zoo. Mrs. Pruitt did not seem to have heard the announcement. Randy Pruitt was, as always until the last minute before he left for work, out of sight back in the bedroom area of the house. I went back with the television to Felix the Cat, Rock Bottom, the Master Cylinder, and Poindexter. None of us had reason to believe that a ram was heading for Randy Pruitt’s car.

Mrs. Pruitt, in addition to feeding me hot dripping bear claw pastries and letting me watch Felix the Cat, also let me rummage around in her purse. Even now that I am married and sometimes invited to take my wife’s wallet from her purse, I know better than to look in there for anything. In a marriage, you don’t really want to know. Mrs. Pruitt’s purse was the only one I have ever been inside of, and it was better than anything on television, better even than the pastries.

The smell was a braid of three things that are also valued less than they used to be, than they ought to be: lipstick, cigarette tobacco, and leather. She let me sort out all its contents, including little round foil packets whose purpose I would not discover for another seven years. Out spilled the lipsticks, several. Compacts, a brush, a pocketbook with a mirror in it and many zippered pockets, all of which made it entirely unlike the wallets my father handed down to me over the years. Movie tickets, tickets for other things of which I knew nothing, packets of Sweet’n Low, and receipts for meals at restaurants I had never heard of. Even an address book. My father had an appointment book for all his sales calls. But why would Mrs. Pruitt need an address book? Always gum, which I could have if I’d had enough of the bear claw pastries. A nail file. Many bobby pins—which you don’t see so much of anymore. A pair of sunglasses. The only other person I knew who wore sunglasses was my mother, whenever she was wanting to look particularly like Coco Chanel—who, to this day, simply looks to me like my mother.

The mysteries of Mrs. Pruitt’s purse were many. But none preoccupied me more than a question I knew I could never ask her: why didn’t she and Mr. Pruitt have any children?

My mother had already had three. I was the oldest, and my little brother tagged after me when he could but at that time was too young to go to kindergarten. My sister had just arrived, a few months earlier, in the spring. They brought her home in a plastic bassinet and my little brother almost tipped it over trying to look inside. I couldn’t have cared less. She was strange to me, as to a certain extent was my brother. But there they were. Until my mother dropped them off each day with an old woman named Mrs. Sparks, whose little shack sat just outside the edge of the last suburb, and then turned and drove into downtown Dallas, to Cattleman’s, I guess. And so there I was. But where were the children of the Pruitts?

When the newsman made the announcement about the ram I hadn’t thought about it much. There were no pictures, just the man talking against a backdrop of nothing in particular, his black hair shiny. I got through Mrs. Pruitt’s purse and watched whenever she didn’t seem to notice me watching her go in and out of the living room, and often around a screen they had there. I never knew what the screen was for but I had seen something like it on television and as Mrs. Pruitt stepped around behind it I always expected to see her hand flash above the top and a garment, of some mysterious feminine texture and surprisingly small size, fall over the edge and hang there. Now that I do know more about such things I can imagine that the screen might have been used for a divider, to divide the room for something of which I was never a witness. But then again, I can’t speculate that far: the strange leather chair I always sat in was also like nothing I had ever seen in person. And whatever I might wonder, perhaps the Pruitts simply liked to spend their money on Italian furniture—some of which had no clear purpose—instead of on children.

It was always a busy morning there, for them. I sat in simple repose. But from the bedroom area I heard Randy Pruitt showering and singing something I could never make out and then shaving with an electric razor. The electric razor and the type of singing also differed from my father’s practice. Meanwhile Mrs. Pruitt moved sometimes too quick for the eye. Gathering glasses partly full of something and taking them to the sink, emptying ashtrays, all the while moving as in a dance, her high heels never catching in the shag carpet, one hand somehow managing constantly a cigarette reddened at the end by her lips.

Then I would see him, briefly, as he appeared out of the dark hallway. He was probably her height, but because of the high heels Mrs. Pruitt stood a good four inches taller than he.

“C’mere baby,” he’d say. Always the same. I never heard anybody else talk like that in real life.

“Yes?” she’d say. Just that. Nothing else. As if she didn’t know what he wanted.

Then she’d kiss him on the cheek, and Randy Pruitt’d go red all over. Then he’d wipe off the lipstick with his handkerchief, otherwise blinding white, turn it toward me and say, “Gonna be a great day, kid.”

That morning he left, as always, and as far as I know had a normal day of cutting hair and talking about Tom Landry or the new freeway. Mrs. Pruitt drove me to a day of kindergarten that I cannot remember. All I can remember now was that on that morning by the time we left I could not stop thinking about that ram.

I said before that there are simple accidents which do not involve the heart, and that if you cannot get over those then you’re no good to yourself or anybody else. But I am at a loss to understand, let alone explain, what it was about the ram and Randy Pruitt’s car that was particularly devastating to him. I only know that after that night I didn’t go across the street to Mrs. Pruitt’s purse for a while. And the only sure way I would see Randy Pruitt would be once a month Saturdays, when my father took me to have him cut my hair in utter silence.

That ram runs in my dreams to this day, the only dream I ever have more than once. The good thing about the dream is that apart from the ram there is Mrs. Pruitt. But sometimes I still see the ram and wake up in terror, or the dream finishes with the ram running off into the night and I wake up and feel all right, except a little heavy in my chest.

It must have made fools of a hundred men chasing it. You didn’t see everything everybody did all the time all over screens everywhere back then. How had a good-sized ram made it across half the metroplex without getting caught I’ll never know. It’s true there were fields yet to be filled with houses then, whole stretches of forgotten pasture, and not so far from where we lived, fields of cotton and rabbits, of cows even. Wherever that ram went to hide, it turned up again well enough.

It came in the night, and it entered the open garage door of the Pruitts and it took every insult, every slight from a bored zookeeper, every stupid look from some cruel kid, and maybe even the memory of being stolen and boxed up and shipped off to stand around in the thin grass of the Dallas Zoo, all of it, everything, out on Randy Pruitt’s car. We all heard the noise and ran from the table in the kitchen to our front window. The twilight had just fallen, but a streetlight threw shadows in the garage. The sound I never hear in my dreams. You couldn’t compare it to anything else. It was more like several things all at once, no one of which sounded like it. Sure, a car crash. But a good boxing match sitting ringside, too, and then less obvious things. Like a woman screaming. Though Mrs. Pruitt was out and only Randy could have been screaming and he couldn’t have sounded like that. And the sound it made, the sound that it made, maybe that was the screaming part, and the sound of a tornado approaching from far off, something I heard once on a family vacation, all of us hunkering down in a bar ditch away from the car as it rocked and lifted and then settled a few feet away. An angry but devastated sound.

The shadows jumped in the garage and you could see pieces of things flying out into the driveway. Then the police came. The car pulled up into the driveway and when the headlights shot into the open garage the ram just walked out and stood looking at the police car and then jumped on it, the car rolling backwards and then swinging out fast into the street. The ram jumped off the police car and went back to its work on the Pruitt car, knocking it out of the garage and then jumping up and down on the hood of it until it began to roll down the driveway, coming to rest at the street with the ram now jumping up and down on the top of it and the top getting lower and lower over the rest of the car, the car giving up, until the ram seemed to be jumping down into the middle of something only shaped a little like a car on the outside.

The zookeepers had gotten there by then. They got out of their truck and the ram looked at them and they ran down the street a little and stopped. One went back and opened the back of the truck and took some things out. The ram just kept jumping and then stepped down and walked toward the truck and the man there jumped inside it and shut the back door. The ram walked back over to the Pruitt car and looked at it, and then backed off a little, and then ran up and hit it in the headlight, the right one, and backed up and did it again. The third time he ran at the car the man in the truck jumped out and climbed up on top of the truck and stood up with a rifle and shot. You could see, in the streetlight, the red dart in the ram’s hind leg. The ram turned and looked at the truck and then walked into the street.

Our lights were on. My mother then said “Shit,” something I never heard her say again in my life. She turned off the lights, and we could see the ram even better now by its yellow eyes glowing, staring at the house and then turning again, and then running. You could hear its hooves on the concrete as it disappeared in the darkness beyond the streetlight.

Across the street, the door opened. Randy Pruitt came out, in nothing but his shoes and trousers and an undershirt. He stood looking at the car, his hands hanging down at his sides. And then he sank down on his knees and put his head in his hands. My mother got us up from in front of the window and made us go back in the kitchen and finish eating.

I couldn’t sleep that night and the next morning I didn’t go across the street. My mother stayed home from work and I missed kindergarten the rest of the week. When my mother started sending me over again Randy Pruitt would be in the back, but he didn’t sing anymore. And he stopped coming out and saying C’mere baby. He still seemed to take care of his shoes, if, while he shaved the back of my neck, I compared them to my father’s. But he didn’t kiss Mrs. Pruitt in front of me anymore. No more lipstick stain on the handkerchief. No more Gonna be a great day, kid.

That’s when I started dreaming about the ram, the night after I went over and everything was different. I dreamt about it for weeks, until my mother threatened to take me to the doctor about it, or to church, she said. No one spoke about the ram and none of us kids even asked about it. You could tell you shouldn’t. But I dreamt about it. When the dreams stopped for a few years I forgot about the whole thing. But I dream about it again now. At first, only now and then. But now more often. And the only thing different in the dream from what really happened is that I can see it, after it left us, running. Running in the dark.

 

Jay Lee Ellis

Jay Lee Ellis teaches at the University of Colorado. After books on Creative Nonfiction, Southern Gothic Literature, and Cormac McCarthy, his stories and poems have appeared in NOONHobart, and J Journal. He has performed on jazz drums in NY, Boston, and closer to home in Boulder, at Red Rocks.

 

Header photo by Delphine Ducaruge

Author photo by Chuck Stewart