Under a cloudless sky, p.14

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 14

 

Under a Cloudless Sky
 



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  “So she made it okay?” Wallace said, glancing at Frances.

  “She’s a tough old bird.” The man smiled. “I’ll be praying you find Miss Ruby real soon. And that she’s all right.”

  “Thank you,” Frances said.

  The man chugged down the road and Frances leafed through the letters and bills, looking for some new idea about where her mother had gone, but there were no tea leaves to read among the coupons or flyers.

  She walked toward the house and Wallace followed. “You need to get your mind off it.”

  Frances glanced at him.

  “No, I’m serious. Staying here and worrying is not going to do any good. I’m assuming you didn’t sleep much.”

  “What do you want me to do, Wallace? Go to a ball game? Take a nap and act like nothing’s happened?”

  He chewed at a fingernail, something she couldn’t stand. His teeth clicking while they drove or watched TV.

  “There’s a principle in the Twelve Steps that says you’re powerless over your addiction. You’re not strong enough to conquer it alone. That held me back because I wanted to be strong. I thought I should be able to conquer it. But when I saw it was okay to need help, it was a first step to getting out of the hole I had dug.”

  It sounded like an accusation to Frances. That Wallace was comparing his addictions to her situation with her mother. But the more she thought, the more she realized he was confessing. He was opening himself up to her in a way he hadn’t.

  “Are you out of the hole?” she said.

  “I don’t know that I’ll ever completely be out because the hole is in here.” He tapped his head, then his heart. “But things aren’t as dark. I don’t feel like I’m climbing stairs that lead to a locked door.”

  “In the meetings, did they tell you to just get your mind off of things? Is that how it works?”

  He shook his head. “No, I don’t remember them saying that. I guess I want to help and I don’t know how. I thought maybe going into town for lunch might be good. You haven’t eaten. You’ll need to keep your strength up.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “When we find her. She’s going to need you.”

  His words moved her. “You really think we’re going to find her alive?”

  “Frances, we’re talking about Ruby. Come on. She’s one of those who walk through the fire without getting burned. I’ll never forget the time . . . Well, you don’t need to hear that.”

  “No, please. What were you going to say?”

  “She got me alone. Thanksgiving, I think. You and I weren’t doing well. I wasn’t doing well. She was washing dishes and I was drying. You and your dad were watching football. She had Southern gospel on the radio. Singing along. And she said, without looking at me, just like she was talking to herself or the wall, ‘You’re not doing well, are you, Wallace?’ I said I was doing okay. And she said, ‘No, you’re not. And if you don’t get help, you’re going to lose what you care about the most.’ She just kept washing the turkey grease off the dishes and handing them to me.”

  “What year was this?”

  “Before the department let me go.”

  “Wow.”

  “Yeah. It was the best job of drying dishes I’ve ever done. I was rubbing so hard, trying not to say anything. When we were done, she dried her hands and looked at me. She said, ‘Don’t hurt my daughter and my granddaughter by hurting yourself. Get some help.’”

  Frances stared at her ex-husband, trying to recall the holiday scene or any clue that her mother had confronted him. Neither he nor she had let on about the conversation.

  “I thought about that later, after the end of us and the spiral I went through. I always wanted to thank her. I never did.”

  “Maybe you’ll have the chance to,” Frances said, and she smiled and felt something warm inside that she hadn’t felt in a long time. It felt like hope and it wasn’t just about her mother.

  As often happens in life, when you think the sun is peeking over the horizon and life has taken a turn, some dark cloud will sneak up from behind. The front door opened and Jerry bounded out.

  “The guy at the cemetery called. He saw her yesterday.”

  Frances couldn’t help thinking of the mailman’s story as Wallace drove toward Ridgeview Cemetery. It hadn’t been easy, but she had convinced Jerry to remain at the house and wait. His presence with them would only complicate things.

  Ridgeview sat atop the hill, next to Ridgeview Baptist Church, an old building with a fresh coat of white paint. A man in coveralls stood by the fence, waiting. His name was Earl Clagg and he was the kind of man who seemed fit for looking after the dead.

  “I seen her yesterday morning,” the man said after he shook hands with both of them. “Standing right over there leaning on the tombstone. Talking to herself, it looked like.”

  “Was she alone?” Wallace said.

  “I didn’t see anybody with her.”

  “Was she upset?” Frances said.

  “Didn’t appear to be. She told me it was her husband she’d come to see. Said there was a lot of traffic on the road.”

  “Did she say where she was going?”

  The man looked over his glasses at her. “It wasn’t what I would call an in-depth conversation. I just went over to make sure everything was all right with the grave and such. She said her name was Ruby and told me some about her husband and his military service. Then she started back to her car and I helped steady her. She was all stiff in the joints, you know? And I told her to drive careful and she said she would.”

  “Is that it?” Frances said.

  “Well, she made me take a cake she had in the backseat, all wrapped up. Said the Lord had told her I should have it. Your mama’s a good cook.”

  Frances smiled. “She didn’t say where she was going?”

  He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Not that I recall. She just thanked me for the job I did on her husband’s grave and told me to have a nice day.”

  “Which direction?” Wallace said.

  The man removed his ball cap and scratched his head. “I don’t remember seeing. She came from the main road, so I assume she went back that way.”

  “Where does this road go?” Wallace said.

  “Keeps going a few miles. Turns to dirt right back there. You wouldn’t want to go that way without four-wheel drive.”

  In the car, Frances gave Wallace a worried look. “You don’t think she made a wrong turn, do you?”

  Wallace set his jaw. “Sometimes people get turned around.”

  She wondered if that was how he would describe his own life. He took a road he didn’t know and wound up on dirt. Somehow he had gotten back on the blacktop.

  Wallace turned left and they drove the ridge, looking left and right. There were no guardrails and the hill was so steep it took her breath away. When she saw something white flash in the sunlight, she told him to stop.

  They both got out and walked to the edge of the road. Wallace was the first to see the car and he plunged down the hill. “You wait there.”

  Frances remembered a day she had begged Wallace not to leave the house, worried what he might do to himself, the cloud of his actions on the police force swirling around him. It was the beginning of the end of them. Actually, the end had started long before that, but it was a defining moment. And now she saw his back again, running toward bad news, and something rose up inside. She took off after him down the hill. She couldn’t breathe.

  PleaseGodpleaseGodpleaseGod.

  The bumper was in the air and the rear wheels were off the ground. Frances pulled out her phone. They were probably thirty minutes from the nearest hospital.

  “911. What’s your emergency?” a woman said.

  “It’s my mother,” Frances said as she neared the car. “We’re on a road by Ridgeview Cemetery. I can’t remember—”

  “It’s not her,” Wallace said.

  “What?” Frances said.

  “This isn’t Ruby’s car
. It’s been here for years. There’s nobody inside.”

  “Ma’am, what’s wrong with your mother?” the woman said.

  “I’m sorry,” Frances said, putting the phone to her ear. “I thought we’d found her car and that she was hurt. It was a false alarm. I’m so sorry.”

  “Is your mother missing?” the woman said.

  “Yes. The sheriff knows. I’m sorry to bother you. I need to go.” She closed the phone and stared at the Oldsmobile. “Why would anyone leave a car here?”

  “Come on,” Wallace said, holding her arm and helping her up the hill. Dirty bottles and smashed cans littered the hillside.

  “You got down the hill pretty fast for someone of your advanced age,” Frances said.

  “Gravity has a way of doing that. Pulls you down the hill faster than you want.”

  “I was already writing her obituary. I imagined her final moments, Mom screaming as she plunged over the edge.”

  “I doubt your mother, even on a bad day, would take a wrong turn at the cemetery. She’s been here too many times.”

  Wallace guided her back to the car. Her phone buzzed and she nearly dropped it from fright. She opened it without looking at the number, expecting to hear the 911 operator. Instead a female voice on the other end said, “Mrs. Freeman? I’m calling about your mother.”

  Frances sat up straight. “Who is this? Do you know where she is?”

  19

  CHARLOTTE FOLLOWS LEADS ABOUT BEULAH MOUNTAIN’S HISTORY

  BEULAH MOUNTAIN, WEST VIRGINIA

  THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2004

  Charlotte parked in the visitors’ lot at CCE headquarters, pushing down the butterflies in her stomach.

  Rummaging around in the attic at the store had led her to ask questions of some of the older residents of Beulah Mountain, but many, like her grandfather, could not remember details. So Charlotte had made a savvy journalistic move, which could also be termed “sneaky.” She went to the head of the historical society, Marilyn Grigsby-Mollie, a woman who was determined to squelch anything that might taint the vision of the Company Store or the coal company. Marilyn was committed to a vision of the past that was idyllic and sweet. Charlotte affectionately referred to her as Mollieanna.

  Marilyn had agreed to make the request of CCE, and now Charlotte was shown to a conference room where several boxes were stacked in a corner. The room was surrounded by windows, so anyone passing by could see her. A security guard sat behind a desk across the hall. This gave Charlotte a sinking feeling that at some point Buddy Coleman might barge in and handcuff her and inspect what she’d found. She decided it was worth the risk.

  Many documents and pictures were duplicates of things she had already seen. Others were interesting but not worth copying. She was looking for confirmation of something she had discovered in the archives of the Morrow Library special collections while a student at Marshall University. That crumb led her on a series of discoveries, to the chagrin of her history adviser, about the Beulah Mountain mine. She’d gone round and round with him on the veracity of her research and finally tucked the information away for another time.

  The dust from the documents made Charlotte sneeze so much she needed a fresh box of tissues. As she dug into the last box, she found a stack of photos taken inside the company store. The first pictures were of the store manager in front of a soda fountain and candy display. Others showed clothing, tools, and canned goods. But at the bottom of the box she found personal items that looked out of place. A pearl-handled brush and comb. Clothing that looked like it belonged to a younger woman or girl. And when Charlotte pulled out a square, black box, she at first thought it might hold jewelry. She tried to open it, then spied a lens on the front and realized she’d found a vintage camera from the 1930s. She turned it and spied the initials RH crudely engraved on the metal edging.

  Charlotte felt a presence behind her and turned.

  “Find anything useful for the museum?” Buddy Coleman said.

  He was a short man, just a bit taller than Charlotte, with dark eyebrows and a face that crinkled when he smiled. Rumor had it Buddy was moving up in the company, and the final vote at the next board meeting was only a formality—that would come Saturday, the same day as the opening of the Company Store.

  Charlotte’s heart beat double-time and she tried to smile back. “Yes, sir, and thank you for allowing me access. I think these are personal items from the Handley apartment, aren’t they?”

  Buddy nodded, peering inside. “Sure looks like it. We had a bunch of boxes in storage from the old company store. Gave them to the historical society. Must have missed this one.”

  “I found these,” Charlotte said, handing him a folder of pictures and documents.

  “You’re Hollis’s granddaughter, right?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Heard you finished school and made Beulah Mountain proud.” He opened the folder and leafed through the pictures.

  “I worked hard, sir. And the CCE scholarship helped.”

  “What do you have there?” he said, pointing to the camera.

  “I found it at the bottom. I was thinking we could put it in the Company Store Museum.”

  Buddy reached for the camera and Charlotte reluctantly handed it to him.

  “My daddy had one of these. You open it by pushing a button somewhere.” He turned it over and over and finally looked at her. “I’ve been talking with your grandfather about his property.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “I hear the meeting last night didn’t go well.”

  “Not for him. It appears he has an uphill battle.”

  “Mm-hmm.” He handed the camera back to her along with the folder. “Is this all you found?”

  “Yes, sir,” Charlotte said. “Is it all right if I take it with me?”

  He nodded. “And tell Hollis I’m still hoping he’ll come see me.”

  Buddy walked out, his boots clicking on the tile floor of the entrance, and Charlotte hurried from the building. She wasn’t sure why, but she had a strange feeling she had uncovered something important.

  On the way back to the office, Charlotte wanted more than ever to talk with Ruby and ask about the camera. She dialed Ruby’s house and a woman answered. Charlotte’s heart jumped.

  “I’m sorry. Ruby isn’t here.”

  “I’d like to speak with her as soon as possible,” Charlotte said.

  “We’d all like that.”

  “What do you mean?” Charlotte said.

  “Nothing,” the woman said. “I can’t say any more.”

  “Wait, don’t hang up. If I can’t talk with Ruby, maybe you can help me.”

  “Let me give you a phone number for Frances.”

  “Who’s Frances?”

  “Frances Freeman, her daughter.”

  Charlotte pulled over and scribbled down the number and dialed it as soon as the other woman hung up.

  “Mrs. Freeman? I’m calling about your mother,” Charlotte said when the woman answered.

  “Who is this? Do you know where she is?”

  Charlotte paused. “She’s missing, isn’t she?”

  “Tell me who this is or I’m hanging up.”

  Charlotte told Frances her name and where she was calling from. “If your mother isn’t there, I think I might know where she’s headed.”

  “Where?”

  Charlotte briefly explained her interest in Ruby’s story and how she had tried to speak with her. “I even drove up there to talk with her face-to-face, but she seemed agitated and told me to go away.”

  Silence on the other end.

  “I think your mother is headed to West Virginia. To Beulah Mountain.”

  “Why?”

  Charlotte told her about the Company Store dedication on Saturday. “We sent two invitations and never heard from her. Did she say anything about wanting to come down here?”

  “Not a word,” Frances said. “But there was a question mark on her calendar for Saturday. You think
it’s the dedication she’s interested in?”

  “Yes. I hope she makes it because I found something of hers today I think she’ll want to see.”

  “You found what?” Frances said.

  “Perhaps if you came here, I could show you,” Charlotte said. “You could see where your mother lived. As soon as I hang up, I’ll call the local hotel to see if she might have checked in. Or she could have stayed overnight somewhere between here and there. Maybe I can help you find her.”

  When Charlotte hung up, she dialed the Beulah Mountain Inn but Ruby had not checked in. She drove to the Breeze office and rushed into the newsroom with her find.

  Charlotte’s editor, Willie “Corky” McCorkle, was a crusty man who still kept a spittoon in the corner of his office for decoration (though Charlotte wondered if he used it occasionally). He was an old-school newspaperman who allowed Charlotte to bring a digital camera to work but preferred older cameras with film, which he developed himself in a small darkroom—a long closet by his office. Still, when Charlotte held out the camera, Corky stared at it like it was a dead fish.

  “What’s this?” he said.

  “You know what it is. I’ve seen all those old cameras in your collection.”

  He took the camera and turned it over, inspecting it. “I mean, where did you get it? I haven’t seen one of these in a long time.”

  “Look right there. See those initials? Those are Ruby Handley’s. This was her camera.”

  “You don’t know that. Did you find this at CCE?”

  She nodded. “There were personal items from their apartment in one of the boxes. I think this was hers.”

  He handed it back. “Well, good for you. You’ve got something new for the museum. Now if you don’t mind, I’m busy with the special edition—”

  “Corky, if Ruby had a camera, she probably took a bunch of pictures,” Charlotte said, interrupting. “Those would be gold if we could find them.”

  “I thought you went through everything in the Company Store archives.”

  “I did. But there’s a couple other places I can think of to look . . . And if we can find Ruby, we can ask her about them. Maybe there’s corroboration of—”

  “What do you mean, ‘if we can find Ruby’? She’s up in Kentucky, isn’t she?”

 
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