Under a Cloudless Sky, page 16
“Go on and gawk,” she said under her breath. “You people never see a white-haired woman drive?”
When she got comfortable at forty-five, she accelerated to fifty and the steering wheel began to shake.
“Leslie, I think the car has Parkinson’s.” She remembered his laugh and it brought tears to her eyes. She was talking to the Lord and her husband and she felt they were smiling as she escaped her overbearing children and headed toward a land fairer by far.
She had gone ten miles when she remembered the car had a radio. She picked her spot when nobody was passing to reach out and turn the knob. The speakers filled with Southern gospel music and her heart lifted.
Unfortunately she lost the signal about twenty miles farther as it mixed with another station that broke in with some crooning country singer. He sang, “And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying . . .” The station went out and Ruby slowed and it came back. “. . . To live like you were dyin’.”
She turned off the radio and thought about that. What would it be like to live like you were dying?
A horn to her left brought her back to her senses. Faces as mad as hornets. People late to work, trying to get by. Then she thought of Frances. Frances would dial the house and let it ring a million times. Worry was her middle name. All her life her heart had been prone to wander through all the permutations of the bad that might happen instead of the good. Frances was living on worry. It was fuel for her tank. Jerry didn’t seem to worry about anything. He was pretty much oblivious. Just took what was put in front of him at the kitchen table. Frances analyzed the meal and looked for bacteria.
After she got to the house, Frances would find the car gone. Ruby wished she could be there when Frances and Jerry put the pieces together that she had flown the coop. Maybe she should have left a note.
The guilt came like a radio station interfering. She didn’t want to worry her children. But they could handle it for a day or two after all they had put her through.
Frances and Jerry had both married people who weren’t good for them. It was something Ruby saw, but she couldn’t force them to see. Laurie, Jerry’s wife, was aloof and distant. She tried being polite but it always came off as indifference. At worst she was a wedge between Ruby and the heart of her son. Wallace had been . . . Well, Wallace was another story entirely, and she didn’t want to drive and think of him at the same time because she’d run into the guardrail.
The trees on the hills were still as green as emeralds and the sight brought back her childhood. She thought of the little town, the blackened faces of miners passing the company store, and the lonesome whistle of the train. The steering wheel began to shimmy again and she let off the accelerator, a pain shooting up her right leg. Her muscles cramped and she thought about using the cruise control, but she’d done that long ago and had run up on a slowed school bus and she vowed never to use it again. Cruise control was too dangerous.
Near the West Virginia state line she saw a sign for a rest area. She took the exit and parked. There was one other car there and several semis in the truck lot. She took her keys and cane, locked the doors, and got on the sidewalk and stretched. Since she was there, she figured she should use the restroom, so she did, being careful to look behind her for anyone suspicious.
When she’d washed and dried her hands, she walked outside and noticed a woman by a picnic table with a little Yorkie on a leash, a bow in its hair.
“What a cute dog,” Ruby said. “What is his name?”
“It’s a her,” the woman said without looking up. “Rosie Cotton. We have another one—had, I should say. We named him Samwise. It’s from Lord of the Rings.”
“Oh,” Ruby said as if she understood.
“Hurry up, Rosie,” the woman said, tugging the leash.
“Are you on a trip?” Ruby said.
“We were supposed to be at the beach this week, but my mother-in-law fell. We’re headed to Tennessee. She’s in rehab.”
Just the word rehab made Ruby wince. “Sorry to hear that.” The woman concentrated on the dog as if staring at the brown ball of fur would move its bladder. “I’m headed to a place I haven’t been since I was a girl. Down in the coalfields.”
“Really?” The woman looked up and studied Ruby’s face. “All by yourself?”
Do I look like I need somebody to cart me? Instead of saying that, she laughed. “Yes, all by myself. But I only drive during daylight. Once it gets dark, the lights make it hard to see. I’m real careful.”
“Well, you’re amazing,” the woman said. “I hope I’m driving by myself when I get to be seventy.”
“Eighty-four,” Ruby said.
The woman laughed and jerked on the leash again, and finally the dog squatted and a yellow stream stained the grass.
Frances and Jerry chided Ruby about telling people more than they needed to hear. They’d be in line at the FoodFair or the Family Dollar getting paper towels or toilet tissue and Ruby would introduce Frances or Jerry to the cashier. This was a person Ruby saw each week, so it made sense to her that the girl behind the register would want to know her children, but Frances and Jerry both said the cashier didn’t need to know everything about everybody who came through the line.
“Can you imagine how long it would take people to check out if everybody talked to the cashier the way you do?” Jerry said.
This ran through Ruby’s brain as the woman said something to her husband and the man smiled at Ruby and waved. Ruby toddled back to her car and climbed inside, energized by the human contact. A little farther and she spotted the sign over the interstate: Welcome to Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. She made a fist and shook it. There was something defiant about what she was doing, something noble, and she felt it down to her toes.
What she also felt down to her toes was fatigue. And she knew that the easiest part of the drive was now behind her. Soon she would need to leave the safety of these two lanes with traffic headed in the same direction and navigate the winding double-yellow roads into the hills.
She took an exit and began the circuitous route south. The gas gauge dipped below the halfway point and she passed three gas stations before she found one that looked like it would be easy to enter and exit. She remembered the days when young men in coveralls would pump gas and check your oil and clean your windshield. She longed for those days because everything was newfangled now and they wanted you to use your credit card and read the little screen on the pump and her eyes weren’t what they used to be. She wanted a human, not a machine.
She eased up to the pump, making sure it was on the same side as the gas tank on her car. Opening the glove compartment, she pulled two twenty-dollar bills from her stash and locked the glove box and the car, then went inside.
Ruby stood in line until she could ask the man behind the counter to turn on her pump number. He took her forty dollars and told her it was ready.
“I’m sure I won’t need all forty, so I’ll come back for my change.”
“All right, ma’am,” the cashier said.
Ruby picked up the pump with one hand and reached for the gas cap with the other but it wouldn’t budge. She put the pump back in its holder and used both hands but couldn’t loosen the cap. She had told Jerry not to screw it on too tight because she had a hard time getting it off. She rubbed her hands together to take away the sting of the arthritis and leaned forward to get a better look.
“Excuse me, ma’am, is there something wrong?” a young woman said.
Ruby turned to see a girl in her twenties by the trash can. She had long, dirty blonde hair and wore tight jeans and a ragged T-shirt. She looked to be about the same age as Ruby’s granddaughter, Julia.
“No thank you. I can manage,” Ruby said. “It’s just this gas cap is on too tight. Jerry was the last one to put it on. That’s my son.”
“Let me take a look at it,” the girl said. “Sometimes it gets put on there whopper-jawed and it’s hard to get off.”
Ruby took a step back. “
“My mamaw has the same thing,” the girl said. She turned and took Ruby’s hand gently in her own. “I’m Liz.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Liz. I’m Ruby. It’s kind of you to help. You don’t see that too often these days.”
“Well, I figure it’s the Golden Rule. You do unto others what you’d want them to do for you. Or for your grandmother.”
Ruby laughed and Liz smiled, but she covered her mouth when she did and then looked back at the gas cap. “Sure seems stuck. Let me see if my boyfriend can help. Kelly? Come here a minute.”
Kelly’s hair was as long as Liz’s and he had dirty hands like he’d just changed a tire. Tattoos ran up and down both arms.
“This lady’s gas cap is stuck. And she . . . What did you say your name was, ma’am?”
“It’s Ruby. Ruby Freeman. I’m from Kentucky now, but I’m driving to a town where I lived as a girl. Beulah Mountain. Have you heard of it?”
“Oh yes, ma’am. Everybody’s heard of Beulah Mountain. That’s quite a ways, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is. I told myself if the gas dips below half a tank, I’ll stop. And here I am.”
Ruby kept explaining what had happened as she wrung her hands. Kelly worked on the gas cap and glanced back, smiling and nodding, making eye contact, which Ruby thought was good. Most people their age didn’t do that and even though their clothes were unkempt, Ruby felt like she’d made two friends.
“Tell you what,” Kelly said. “I’ve got some Channellocks in the truck. Wait here.”
“He’s good with tools,” Liz said. “His daddy has a garage full. Said he’s going to give them to Kelly one of these days when we get married. Then he can open his own shop.”
“You’re thinking about getting married?”
“Oh yeah, it’s just a matter of time and us saving some money. Kelly lost his job at the car-parts place and he’s been looking. Mostly pizza delivery is all that’s available right now and he’s got his sights set for something bigger. He does car repair here and there.”
Kelly brought what looked like oversize pliers to the car and grasped the cap and turned it. It popped off and Ruby and Liz gave a whoop. But with every victory comes a defeat, and Kelly picked up the cracked cap.
“You’re going to have to get a new one,” Kelly said. “Can’t drive it this way.”
Ruby’s mouth went dry. “Well, my son can get one when I get home.”
“No, Miss Ruby, you need a new one. It could be dangerous, couldn’t it, Kelly?”
“Yeah, with the gas fumes and all. The check engine light’s going to come on. Probably should get a new one right away.”
“Oh, dear,” Ruby said.
“Put the gas in there for her,” Kelly said to Liz. “Let me check something.”
Liz put the pump in the gas tank but it wouldn’t start.
“That’s funny,” Ruby said. “I gave the man inside forty dollars. I’ll go tell him.”
“What about your credit card?” Liz said. “We can get the cash back.”
“I don’t use the credit card because I can’t see the little screen.”
“Let me do it for you. It’s easy.”
“No, I don’t want to use it,” Ruby said.
“Well, let me at least show you how. I won’t run it through.”
Ruby opened her purse and handed her the card.
“It’s easy as pie. See this here? The strip on the back goes on this side. You just make sure you put it in this direction and swipe it down.” She handed the card back to Ruby.
“I don’t know if I can remember that.”
Liz put a hand to her forehead. “I forgot to lift the handle.” She lifted up a silver lever and began pumping the gas. “You can do it. And now that you know how, if you have to stop for gas, you don’t have to pay inside. There’s scary people inside gas stations at night, believe me.”
“Oh, I don’t drive at night,” Ruby said. “The lights hurt my eyes.”
Liz finished filling the tank and went inside and returned with twenty-two dollars in change. “Let me put this in your pocketbook.”
Ruby handed her the purse. “I don’t know what I would have done without you two being here to help me.”
“Don’t think nothing of it, Miss Ruby.”
Kelly returned with the cracked cap. “I called the parts place. They have a universal. I can run over there and get it for you.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Ruby said.
“I don’t mind, ma’am. Plus, you really shouldn’t drive without the cap. The fumes can get out. Tank could explode.”
“Oh, dear,” Ruby said. “I don’t want that.”
“Just pull it over to the side there. I won’t be long.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Liz said.
“I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble,” Kelly said, and he was off in his rusted truck with the booming stereo.
Liz got in the passenger side and Ruby pulled to a shady spot beside the gas station.
“I can smell the gas from here, can’t you?” Liz said.
“I don’t smell anything, but my sniffer isn’t as good as it used to be. I’m glad it won’t be dangerous to drive.”
“And now that you know how to use that credit card, you can go anywhere. Some gas stations don’t have people inside at night.”
“I don’t drive at night,” Ruby said. “And I don’t think I’d be able to use that credit card thing if I didn’t have help.”
“Well, you should watch yourself. There’s people out here meaner than snakes.”
“You sound like my son. He builds houses and he’s all the time cautioning me about trusting people I shouldn’t.”
“Well, he sounds like he cares. You didn’t raise a dummy.”
Ruby laughed and shook her head. “Now why are you out here at the gas station? Don’t you have something better to do?”
“Kelly and I were just getting some smokes.” Liz glanced at Ruby, then looked at the floorboard. “I’m going to quit and so’s he, but right now life is kind of stressful. We agreed it’s not time to start something new, if you know what I mean. I saw you were struggling with the gas cap and Kelly said I ought to help.”
“Kelly suggested it?”
“He’s got a kind heart. I know he don’t look like it on the outside.”
“Do you have a job?”
“Not right now. I was going to beauty school but the money ran out. One day I’m going to have my own shop. Cut hair all day.”
“You should come work for Eula,” Ruby said. “That’s where I get my hair done. She’s helped a lot of young women get started.”
“Really? Well, I need to find me a Eula around here. Or move to your neck of the woods.”
Kelly rumbled up in his truck and held up a cardboard box. By the time Ruby got out and joined him at the gas tank, he had put the new one on.
“There you go, good as new. You shouldn’t have any problems with it.”
“Let me see if I can unscrew it,” Ruby said. She planted both feet and put her hands on the cap and turned. When it unscrewed easily, she looked up at Kelly with a wide smile. “It came right off!”
“Yeah, I don’t know who put your cap on last, but it was crooked. You should be fine now, ma’am.”
“Now don’t you two go anywhere. I have something for you.”
“No need for that. Come on, Liz.”
Liz came around from the other side of the car and gave Ruby a hug. “I feel like I’ve just visited my mamaw again, Miss Ruby. Sure was fun talking to you.”
Ruby grabbed her hand. “Now you wait right here. I want to give you something.”
“Ma’am, we don’t need any payment.”
“I don’t want to pay you, but I have a gift. Something to help you save up for your wedding.”
“Liz, get in the truck.”
“Miss Ruby, I have to go. You have a good day, now.”
“No, I want to give you something. Wait a minute.”
Ruby let go of Liz and hurried to the passenger side and sat in front of the glove compartment. There was something strange about the lock and the door was crooked. She pulled it down and saw the insurance card and registration, but the money she’d placed there was gone.
The driver’s door closed and Ruby saw a tattooed arm next to her. “You wouldn’t listen, would you? You wouldn’t just get back in the car and leave, would you?”
Ruby stared at Kelly, her jaw slack. Through the window she saw Liz at the steering wheel of the truck, frowning.
Kelly started the car and backed up fast. He hit the brake, then sped forward, and Ruby’s door closed on its own.
RUBY IS IMMERSED
BEULAH MOUNTAIN, WEST VIRGINIA
In church the day after the root beer floats, Ruby sat with Bean and her mother as usual. The woman hugged Ruby and thanked her for the medicine. Ruby had no idea what she was talking about but she leaned forward and glanced at Bean, who winked as if she would explain later.
All Ruby’s questions about life’s inequities and struggles seemed to melt into love that morning. The dark question marks about the loss of her mother, the disparity between rich and poor, her fears about leaving for school and going to a place where she didn’t know a living soul and what might happen to her friend all seemed to slip through the hardwood of her heart.
The pastor’s message, the story he read from the Bible and the verses that spoke of Jesus, made her long for his kind of love. Everything that had happened up to that point felt like a tilling of the soil of her soul, a preparation for the planting of seeds that sprouted so quickly she couldn’t begin to understand. And yet, here she was, the light through the window taking a different hue. The mountains were greener, the faces of those around her more focused, the air cleaner, and the birds singing outside sounded like an orchestra of kindness from God himself.