Under a cloudless sky, p.18

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 18


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “What is it?”

  “What does it matter?” Liz said, not seeming to notice or care that the duct tape that had been removed. “Take it.”

  Ruby took the mug and held it to her lips, sniffing. She could sense a slight tinge of sassafras root in the brown liquid.

  “My mama taught me it’s not polite to smell what people give them to eat or drink,” Liz said.

  “I doubt your mama was ever duct-taped and threatened with a shovel,” Ruby said. Then she wondered if that was true.

  “Your choice: the drink or the shovel.”

  Ruby thought of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane drinking the cup of gall. He drank it for her and all of mankind who would acknowledge him. And here was one of the people he died for, standing in the doorway with droopy eyelids and a love for loud music with lyrics screamed at incomprehensible levels. Ruby had wanted to help Liz and Kelly and repay them for their kindness. Their betrayal, and her gullibility, had fueled a growing rage. Now, seeing Liz in the doorway without a stitch of hope for anything but a blazing eternity, Ruby’s heart softened.

  “Is your mama still living?”

  “Why do you want to know about my mama?”

  “Because I’ll bet she’s been praying for you,” Ruby said as softly as she could to be heard over the music.

  Liz cursed. “I told my mama a long time ago not to waste her prayers on me. I’m too far gone for Jesus.”

  “As long as you have breath, there’s hope. Nobody’s too far gone.”

  “Then you don’t know me.”

  “Maybe not. But I know Jesus. And that’s why I think there’s a chance.”

  Liz shook her head. “I’m telling you, old lady, you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

  “I do because I grew up dealing with the likes of you and Kelly. I grew up with people hooked on booze. Hooked deeper than a striped bass on a june bug. There’s nobody outside the realm of deliverance if you’ll give God a chance.”

  Liz turned her head toward the kitchen and yelled. “Just our luck to kidnap a preacher. And this one’s not drinking the Kool-Aid.”

  When Liz turned back, Ruby thought she saw a slight opening in her face. “You ought to listen to reason. I know you’re caught up in something you can’t stop. Something that has hold of you and won’t let go. But there’s got to be a shred of goodness in you. You don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to keep running from your troubles with whatever it is you’re doing.”

  “No wonder your kids don’t want anything to do with you.” Liz walked forward into the dark of the room. “Drink this or I get the shovel.”

  Ruby looked at her face and believed her. She tipped the mug back and drank, then handed it back. The liquid burned on the way down but she felt like she had a listening ear and she kept talking, kept hoping something would get through.

  “I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said. There’s a man on the radio I listen to. His name is Franklin Brown. I send him money every now and again and he says that nobody is outside the reach of God’s love.” She kept on, telling Liz about the message she had heard about forgiveness and how good she felt hearing it. “I’ve been living under a weight of guilt, you see. I’ve been sorry for something my whole life. That’s why I’m going back to Beulah Mountain. To make things right.”

  Liz stepped back into a shaft of light from the kitchen. There was no life in her eyes at all. “Better lay down, Grandma. This stuff works fast.”

  The room began to spin almost as soon as Liz closed the door. No wonder Liz didn’t care that Ruby’s hands had been freed. Ruby was no longer worried about the rat or the drop from the window. She could only think of letting her head hit the mattress. She closed her eyes, a sick feeling in her stomach that could’ve been physical or emotional. The music in the next room seemed to recede, the thumping moving into some other dimension. She looked at the water running down the window and the droplets seemed to move in slow motion, like tears falling down a young girl’s face.

  And then, like lightning, the images and sounds flashed in her mind. The shoes. The third floor. The game the girls played. Root beer floats and a woman’s screams. Men smoking cigars and laughing. The flash of gunfire. Blood on hardwood.

  Ruby put a hand to her head to stop the memories, the hand with the wrist as big as a pumpkin, but she didn’t feel pain any longer. She didn’t feel parched or tired or any muscle cramps—just a feeling like she was floating. She opened her eyes, sure this was what it felt like to die. Her heart slowed. She could feel it inside her own chest. The spinning intensified and she looked at the window as lightning flashed. A scared, grief-stricken face looked at her. A face she never thought she would see again, but there it was.

  She was looking inside the train.

  She was looking at herself.

  And then the silver cord broke and there was blackness and she surrendered.




  OCTOBER 1, 1933

  Ruby dragged Bean up the stairs after church on the first Sunday in October, smiling in anticipation.

  “What’s got you so all-fired happy?” Bean said. “I thought you were sad about being shipped off to school tomorrow.”

  Ruby grabbed Bean’s hand and pulled her inside the apartment. “You have to see what my father bought. It’s to help me remember you and everything here in Beulah Mountain.”

  On a table sat a black box and Bean studied it. “What’s inside?”

  “It’s a camera, silly,” Ruby said. “My dad said I could take pictures and he’s going to develop them and send them to me.”

  Bean picked up the box and turned it, finding the lens. “Reckon he’d let me have one so’s I could remember you?”

  Ruby nodded and pointed the camera at Bean. “Hold real still and don’t move.”

  Bean primped her hair. “Should I smile or just act natural?”

  Ruby shook her head. “I swear, Bean, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you around to make me laugh.”

  “Hey, when the baby comes, your daddy can take a picture and send it to you.”

  “Oh, I wanted to be here when your little brother or sister arrived.”

  “Well, you can visit, can’t you?”

  “Mm-hmm,” Ruby said. She wondered if there was enough light in the room. Her father had said to go outside, the more light the better. But maybe they just needed more windows. “Let’s go upstairs and take a picture in the shoe room.”

  “I don’t want to climb in the old dumbwaiter again,” Bean said. “It gives me the willies being cooped up in there.”

  “You don’t have to,” Ruby said. She ran to her father’s room and came back with a key. “I found it the other day. But before we go up there, I have an idea. Now don’t give me that look.”

  “All your ideas wind up getting me in trouble with your daddy,” Bean said.

  “It was one time and he never got mad at you.”

  “What’s the idea?”

  “Go in my closet and pick something out.”

  “What for?”

  “For the picture. You put on my clothes and act like me. I’ll do the same with your overalls.”

  “If I put one of those dresses on, I’m going to start acting uppity.”

  Ruby laughed as Bean tumbled through the dresses in the closet. She loved watching Bean’s imitation of the people in town, and truth be told, Ruby liked to imitate Bean’s mountain talk and the way she walked, her heels striking the floorboards like she was climbing to the top of the world. But what she liked most was seeing such a poor girl wear clothes she could never afford.

  Bean took out a hanger that held Ruby’s favorite dress. “No, not that one,” Ruby said.

  “You told me I could pick something out, and I pick this.”

  Ruby nodded and said it was okay and Bean took off her bib overalls and let them fall and pulled the dress over her head.
r />   “Lands, this feels so soft and silky.”

  “My mother gave it to me,” Ruby said, stepping into the threadbare denim. “Now no more lands and things like that. You have to pretend you’re me.”

  Bean pressed her lips together firmly and lifted her head. “Yes. You’re quite right. I have a reputation to uphold among the common people. Where’s Mrs. Grigsby and my morning caviar?”

  Ruby was laughing so hard she couldn’t get the buttons into the bent hooks of the overalls and finally Bean helped her.

  “I need to do a load of warsh,” Ruby said. “These overalls are a mite gamy.”

  Bean tilted her head. “They wouldn’t be that way if you would practice simple hygiene, my dear.”

  Ruby laughed and headed for the door. “Last one to the top is a dead polecat!”

  Bean followed, stepping primly onto the stairs with her hands folded in front of her. Ruby was at the top unlocking the door when Bean said, “It’s not ladylike to run like that. A refined girl is never in a hurry.”

  It was similar to something Mrs. Grigsby had said and Ruby doubled over laughing on the top steps, holding the camera. Bean opened the door and walked past her into the shoe room and threw open the curtains. Sunlight streamed across the wood floor.

  “Now I’m ready for my picture,” Bean said, pulling a chair to the wall in front of the shoes.

  Ruby set the camera on a chair, then put books underneath to get it close to eye level with Bean. “Give me your most refined-girl look.”

  Bean tilted her head slightly and looked straight into the lens. After the click, she rose elegantly and sauntered to the camera. “Now it’s time for a picture of the rabble. Go on and sit down. Let me see what I can do with this Beulah Mountain urchin.”

  Ruby giggled and showed her the shutter and how to push the button without moving the camera.

  “I know how to do it,” Bean said, breaking character only for a moment. “I mean, a lady always knows how to be gentle with such photographic equipment.”

  Ruby sat in the chair and pooched out her face, slouching, with one hand on her chin.

  “Is that what you think I look like?” Bean said.

  “Trust me,” Ruby said. “Every time you look at this picture, you’re going to laugh.”

  Bean stared at Ruby, something passing over her like a cloud. She seemed to be looking at the wall.

  “What’s the matter?” Ruby said.

  “I hope I never get a pair of those.”

  “Why not?” Ruby said. “Your feet would stay warm all winter in those lace-up ones. And they’d look good on you.”

  “Sit still,” Bean said as she reached for the shutter. After it clicked, she said, “My mother told me a story the other day. Said I couldn’t tell nobody.”

  “Anybody,” Ruby said, correcting her. “A story about what?”

  “What goes on in this room. The reason you hear voices. The reason women cry sometimes.”

  “Bean, you’re scaring me.”

  “I don’t mean to. I should just keep it to myself.” She primped her hair again. “Like a genuine lady.”

  “No, you can’t bring it up and then stop,” Ruby said.

  “I don’t want to scare the little mountain girl.”

  “I’m not scared anymore. What’s the story?”

  Bean looked out the window. “Do you think it’s okay to break a promise to your mama? You tell her you won’t do something, but it bottles you up inside like one of those soda pops downstairs? Until it feels like you’re going to bust?”

  “Bean, what did she say?”

  Bean moved the camera and books and sat in the chair. “My mama got a pair of shoes from up here. I found where she had them hidden and she told me about them, but she swears she’ll never wear them.”

  “Why in the world not?”

  “Because of what Mr. Coleman made her do.”

  “I don’t think I want to hear this.”

  “I told you,” Bean said.

  “No, go on. I didn’t mean that.”

  Bean scratched her nose. “The Esau scrip ran out. My daddy didn’t go back to work at the mine, so Mr. Coleman called my mother up to see him. They do awful things to some of the women, Ruby. It wasn’t long after that, that my mother knew she was pregnant. My daddy hadn’t been around for weeks. I don’t know much about the birds and the bees, but I know enough to figure out that baby my mama’s carrying isn’t my daddy’s.”

  Ruby’s jaw dropped.

  “I should take your picture right now because it’s exactly what I thought. You can’t tell nobody, you understand?”

  “Your mother is going to have Mr. Coleman’s baby?”

  Bean nodded.

  “Does he know it?”

  “If he does, he ain’t said nothing to her about it. And she don’t want him to know. She’s afraid, Ruby. If he finds out, he might hurt her. I said we should leave but she can’t see a way out.”

  Ruby stared at the floor, trying to comprehend what she’d just been told.

  Bean slapped her knees with both hands and stood. “I got to get back to Mama. The midwife is coming to check her this afternoon and I want to be there.”

  Ruby locked the door to the shoe room and the two retreated downstairs and changed. Ruby gave Bean a hug before she left, heading down the back steps and moving through the woods like a specter.

  Ruby had dinner with her father when he returned later that day, but she couldn’t think of anything but what Bean had told her. Her father must have noticed and asked what was wrong.

  “Nothing,” Ruby said.

  “No, come on. Tell me what’s bothering you.”

  She put down her fork and studied the pattern of the tablecloth. “Do you think it’s wrong to break a promise to a friend?”





  Ruby heard a strange sound and realized it was rain on the trailer roof. The only thing she hated to do worse than drive at night was to drive in a rainstorm.

  “She looks dead,” somebody said. She couldn’t see him because she couldn’t open her eyes.

  “Get the blanket under her.” That was Kelly. “She’ll be easier to carry that way.”

  “What did Liz give her?”

  “Shut up, Carl. You’ll wake her.”

  Wake who? Ruby thought. Liz? Was Liz asleep? Or was she somewhere around the corner digging a hole? Or waiting with a shovel?

  Ruby slipped back into a fog as they worked a dirty quilt underneath her. The world spun. She felt weightless and wasn’t sure if she was being carried or if it was the drink. Liz had come back and given her more of the drink, hadn’t she?

  She heard the raindrops and felt them on her face now. She tried to speak. Tried to yell. She couldn’t. She had no energy or will. She moaned a little when they set her down in the backseat of a car . . . or was it the truck? An engine fired, then another. Then they were rumbling down the hillside and Ruby was gone again.




  The rain picked up as Frances crossed the state line into West Virginia and became a downpour by the time she exited the interstate and took the first of many winding roads that led to Beulah Mountain. Her mother hated to drive in the rain—hated to even ride in a car when it was raining. What would Ruby do if she got caught in a downpour like this?

  Every bend in the road, every mangled guardrail made Frances say a prayer for her mother and wonder if maybe this was the hillside where she had descended. That might be the spot where her mother left the road and this world. Frances kept driving, pulled like a magnet to a place she’d never been. The connection for her mother must have been great to make her brave these treacherous roads. But why hadn’t Ruby told her about this Company Store event—or much of anything about her past?

  The farther she
drove, the harder the downpour came. Lightning flashed over the hills and illumined the landscape and the cascading water for a second, enough for Frances to see the beauty of the rolling hills. She would have liked fewer curves, less up and down and all around, but she knew the road had to move with the mountain instead of cutting directly through it. There was something about the drive and entering this world that made her feel like she had been transported to another place and time.

  Thoughts of Wallace intruded. She felt foolish for thinking there might have been some hope of reconciliation. She felt doubly foolish for being jealous of this Carolyn. But Frances deserved someone much more than he did. She was the one who had borne the trouble of his choices. Why hadn’t she found some perfect match that would patch up all the broken places of her heart? Why hadn’t she been able to call Julia and say, “I’ve met someone”?

  The truth was, after Wallace, she’d been afraid to meet someone. The wounds of the marriage had killed areas of her heart she wasn’t sure would ever come alive again. But seeing Wallace and feeling hope spark, even though it died again, made her think that maybe her heart was beating in those dark places, behind the closed basement doors.

  She thought of a boy from her hometown. He’d been the dream of every young woman from elementary to high school. He had it all—the smile, athleticism, a happy-go-lucky attitude. She still thought of him as eighteen, in his cap and gown, laughing and smiling, caught in time in her mind. She’d lost track of him but heard he was married and had children. All the good men were taken, she thought. And most of the bad ones, too.

  Frances smiled at that and pulled over to consult her map. Each turn and curve made her woozy, but she calmed a bit when she saw a sign that said Beulah Mountain, 16 miles. She was on the right road.

  Another flash of lightning and she looked out on the valley that spread like God’s tablecloth on creation and it took her breath away.

  She wound down, swerving to avoid fallen trees and standing water. When she pulled into the darkened town, she saw light near a hotel that looked somewhat accommodating. It was an older building with a blinking Vacancy sign, and she couldn’t help but think of her own life. Was there room for anyone else?

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