Under a cloudless sky, p.25

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 25


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “All right, the first question I have for you is whether or not they can fix my car,” Ruby said.

  “Ma’am, I’m not the best one to talk to about that,” the sheriff said. “I haven’t seen it. Hollis told me it was banged up. Now, the wrecker is over there and Junior’s going to tow it. The local shop can take a look at it if you want and give you an estimate.”

  “Who is Junior?”

  “He’s a good old boy from town. Drives the tow truck.”

  “How much is it going to cost to fix?” Ruby said.

  “Mama, he just said he doesn’t know. And even if they fix it, you’re not driving the car home.”

  Ruby turned a bewildered face toward her. “Why in the world not?”

  Frances glanced at the sheriff as if to ask, Do you see what I’m up against?

  “Ma’am, why don’t you tell me what happened?”

  “A lot’s happened. Where do you want me to start?”

  “I’m trying to figure out how you wound up in the gully near Ten Mile. There’s a lot of people who’ve been looking for you.”

  Ruby glanced at Frances, then at the floor. “Do I get a phone call? Maybe I need a lawyer.”

  “You didn’t do anything wrong, Mama,” Frances said.

  The doctor finished the cast and told Ruby to stay still, then excused himself. He seemed to sense trouble brewing and didn’t need more than he already had.

  “Ma’am, you don’t need a lawyer,” the sheriff said. “I’m just trying to figure out what happened. Hollis mentioned you ran into some people who hurt you? You want to tell me about them?”

  “Hollis is the type who likes to tell stories.”

  “Well, that’s fair. Why don’t you fill in the missing pieces between when you left your house and three hours ago when he found you.”

  Ruby looked at Frances, her mouth pinched. “If I have to tell this, I’d rather do it in private.”

  “You don’t have to hide anything from me,” Frances said.

  “Yes, I do. You’ll hear this story and jump to conclusions.” She looked back at the sheriff. “And the next thing you know she’ll be putting me in a home. Her and her brother. They’ve probably been on the phone planning it.”

  “Maybe we should have this conversation alone,” the sheriff said to Frances.

  “I’m not planning anything of the sort,” Frances said to Ruby. “Our only concern is you, Mama. We want you to be safe. We don’t want to have to worry about you wandering off.”

  “You think I wandered off? You think this was something I did on a whim?” Ruby’s face was red and her eyes were narrowed. “You and Jerry took my keys. That’s what started this whole thing. That and the fact you sold my car out from under me.”

  “We didn’t sell it. That was a misunder—”

  “You were trying to sell it to that fellow down the road. Drew whatever-his-name-is.” She looked at the sheriff. “My guess is, they’ve hired a Realtor and already have my house on the market. I’ll get back and there’ll be strangers traipsing through.”

  “That’s preposterous!” Frances said.

  The sheriff seemed vexed at the ping-ponging, looking from Ruby to Frances and back. Before he could interrupt, Ruby ramped up again.

  “I’ve thought about coming down here for a long time. But I never made it. And I didn’t want you two sticking your noses into the decision.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it’s none of your business,” Ruby snapped. “And then I thought, well, I’ll ask Frances or Jerry to drive me. It’s a long way to Beulah Mountain. And the more I thought, the clearer it became. I can’t trust you two!”

  Frances tried to hear between the lines but couldn’t. “What are you talking about?”

  Ruby lifted her cast and winced. “I came down here on a pilgrimage. Things have bothered me. Got stirred up like a muddy creek. I always told myself I’d never come back because of the bad memories. Then I got a letter about the Company Store and the big to-do and the dedication. The more I thought, the more it seemed like something I needed to do.”

  “Did Franklin Brown have something to do with this?” Frances said.

  Ruby looked startled. “Do you listen to him?”

  “No, but I know you do.”

  Ruby turned to the sheriff and told him about Franklin Brown’s program and what type of music he played and how long he’d been on the radio.

  “Mama, I know you called and talked with him, right?”

  “How did you know that?”

  “I spoke with him.”

  “You called Franklin?”

  “I called everybody. I went to Eula’s. Jerry drove all over town. I called Wallace. We went to the cemetery where Dad—”

  Ruby interrupted. “You called Wallace?”

  “We had no idea where you were. And the police have been looking. Don’t look at me that way. We had to go to the authorities.”

  “What’s that got to do with Franklin Brown?” Ruby said.

  “We were frantic. I was searching for anything. I found his number on your phone and dialed it.”

  “So now you’ve gone through my phone and I suppose all my mail and my underwear drawer!” Ruby glanced at the sheriff. “Do you see what I’m talking about?”

  “I think I need to step into the hall and let you two settle this,” the sheriff said.

  “You stay where you are, lawman,” Ruby snapped. “My life has been pilfered by my children.”

  “Mama, we were distraught. Don’t you see? This shows how much we care. How much we love you!”

  “Love me?” Ruby said. “You go through my phone records and who knows what else and I’m supposed to fall down and give thanks?”

  “Ma’am, let me jump in. How did you break your wrist?”

  “It’s just a scratch.”

  Frances closed her eyes and shook her head.

  “Did you fall or did somebody do that to you?”

  “I fell,” she said, looking away sheepishly.

  “Mama, tell him the truth.”

  “I don’t want to tell the truth with you in here. You’ll use it against me.”

  Frances locked eyes with the sheriff, then excused herself and stepped into the hall, thinking that nothing in the last few days made any sense. Maybe this was what life would be like from now on, just a slow detachment of her mother from reality.

  In the waiting room Charlotte asked how things were going and Frances pulled out her phone. “She’s a little hard to deal with. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”

  She dialed Wallace. When she heard his voice, she took a breath and began. “Wallace, we found her. I’m with her now.”

  “Thank God. Where was she?”

  “Beulah Mountain. She was headed back here after all.”

  “What for?”

  “She said it was a pilgrimage. I think she trusted someone and they scammed her. She’s with the sheriff here at the hospital.”

  “Is she okay?”

  “Her wrist is broken. They found her car in the woods. A man driving by saw her. If he hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened.”

  Wallace groaned on the other end and it felt good to share this with someone who understood the backstory.

  “At least she’s alive and safe. I’m glad, Frances.”

  Frances felt the emotion coming, a release of all the tension she’d felt. She gathered herself and said, “I left a message for Julia. Maybe you could follow up with her?”

  “Be glad to.”

  A deep breath. Possibly their last words before Wallace walked away forever. Say something good, something positive.

  “Wallace, thank you for putting up with the way my mind twists things. I think I’m a lot like my mother, in some ways.”

  “No need to thank me. I’m happy you found her. Tell Ruby I said hello.”

  Frances hung up as Marilyn Grigsby-Mollie entered the waiting room and hugged Charlotte. When Frances moved toward her, the woma
n’s face was aglow.

  “We heard the news and we’re so thankful,” Marilyn said. “You must be so relieved.”

  Then came a flurry of questions and nonanswers because Frances didn’t know much about what had happened and wouldn’t have divulged it if she had. The sheriff opened the door and held it for Ruby and she shuffled out. For the first time Frances noticed that her mother was wearing the shoes from her closet, the ones she had scolded Frances for playing with long ago.

  Marilyn introduced herself and gushed, “Why, the whole town has been praying for you ever since we heard you were missing.”

  Ruby shot Frances a glare. “I’m a bit banged up, and they gave me a prescription for pain, but I think some ibuprofen will do.” She went into a description of what the doctor had told her, a little too much information about the break and how long it would take to heal.

  When she took a breath, Marilyn said, “Mrs. Freeman, I want to personally invite you to the dedication tomorrow morning. I know this is not the best time and you’ve been through a lot, but we’ll make any accommodation. We’d love to hear your recollections of Beulah Mountain.”

  “That’s very kind of you,” Frances said, stepping between the woman and Ruby, “but my mother has been through an ordeal and we need to get her home.”

  “Now hold on a minute,” Ruby said. “I came down here for a reason. It’d be a shame to travel this far and not see the store. But Frances is right that I don’t have much energy for a ceremony. Would I be able to walk through it now?”

  “Mother?” Frances said.

  “By all means,” Marilyn said. “We will roll out the red carpet.”

  “Frances, could we go over there so I could look around before we head home?”

  “Are you sure?”

  “I’d like to see it.”





  Charlotte’s hands shook as she retrieved her camera from the Beulah Mountain Breeze office. Corky asked what the fuss was about, and she told him Ruby had been located. Rescued was the word she used.

  “Have you told them about what you found?” Corky said.

  “Not yet. I’m waiting for the right moment.”

  “Well, take lots of pictures,” he said. “We’ll have to use them next week because the Saturday edition is done. We’ll put the ones you found along with them if we get permission.”

  She grabbed a recharged battery and rushed out the door.

  Frances was pulling in to the Company Store parking lot when Charlotte made it to the entrance. She snapped a few photos of Ruby getting out of the car. Those looked painful.

  Ruby paused, holding the door to steady herself. She glanced up at the front of the store and Charlotte snapped the photo she guessed would appear in next week’s Beulah Mountain Breeze. Her white hair was combed back like a lion’s mane and she stared as if seeing a wondrous sight or perhaps a ghost from her past.

  Charlotte wanted to rush toward the woman and pummel her with questions and show her the pictures from the old camera that still hung in Corky’s darkroom, but she held back, content for now to catalog the visit. Charlotte took a picture of Frances and Marilyn helping Ruby up the stairs.

  When she made it to the landing, Ruby stomped on the boards. “Just like I remember it,” she said.

  “We’ve tried to make everything authentic,” Marilyn said. “Wait until you see the artifacts we’ve uncovered.”

  Charlotte took a picture of the group from the bottom of the stairs, then turned on her flash and hurried inside. Ruby went straight to the glass cases in front that housed candy and toys children of the mountains could never afford.

  “How did you find all of this?” Ruby said. “And in such good condition.”

  “It was a labor of love,” Marilyn said. “Some of the candy was ordered online. There are places around the country that sell this sort of thing. Some things were donated by local families. The rest was found in storage.”

  Charlotte took a picture of Ruby peering into the case before she moved through the store looking at clothes and mining tools and equipment.

  “What are you thinking, Mama?” Frances said.

  “It feels like I went to sleep and woke up in 1933.” She held out her left hand. “The only thing that’s changed is my wrinkles.”

  “Mrs. Freeman, we have tour guides who have memorized a script written by the historical society. I would love for you to hear what we’ll be telling visitors.”

  Ruby looked at Frances, then back at the woman. “How long will it take?”

  “Charlotte, would you get Tiffany or Alice and have them come and meet our guest?”

  Charlotte wanted to keep taking pictures and listening to the conversation, but she acquiesced and found the two folding flyers. Both wore jeans and T-shirts, but they would wear dresses at the dedication. Both had stellar enunciation abilities and slim figures.

  Charlotte told them someone was wanted at the Company Store and the two ignored her. When she mentioned Marilyn wanted someone, they dropped their flyers and Tiffany followed her out the door.

  Charlotte snapped a photo of Tiffany meeting Ruby, though Marilyn said she wanted the photo deleted because the guide wasn’t in costume. Charlotte kept it.

  Tiffany began the tour with an overview of the Company Store and its importance to the town. She explained it was the main hub of the community, the place where families bought their supplies. She held up a piece of paper and explained how scrip worked, but she left out anything about the inflated prices.

  “Could I see that?” Ruby said.

  Tiffany glanced at Marilyn, who nodded, and the girl handed it to Ruby.

  “I never thought I’d see this again, but to hold it in my hands . . .” She put the scrip to her nose and smelled it.

  “Do you remember anything about the scrip?” Frances said.

  “I remember how precious it was. Some barely had enough to buy food. Children would gather here and look at the candy, the peppermint sticks. Horehound was my favorite. Do you have horehound candy?”

  Marilyn retreated to the counter and brought Ruby a brown stick wrapped in plastic. “It’s yours. I hope the taste of it brings back good memories.”

  Ruby tucked the candy in a pocket and Tiffany moved to the back of the store and continued her speech. “Miners rented their houses and equipment from the company.”

  “It was deducted from their pay,” Ruby said, raising her voice. “You need to get that in there. By the time they deducted the rent each month and the cost of the picks and hats, there wasn’t much left. It was an ordinary thing to see children walking to school without shoes. And in the wintertime, some children would come to school in the morning and go home and their siblings came in the afternoon, because they had to share shoes.”

  “That’s interesting, ma’am,” Tiffany said as if she wanted to stick with her script.

  Ruby shuffled over and Frances followed, holding out her hands as if ready to catch her. Ruby picked up a heavy miner’s hat with the lantern in the front. “This is exactly what they would wear. Every man had one of these or they didn’t go into the mine. It was your lifeline, really.”

  “Would you like to see the apartment above us?” Marilyn said.

  Frances stepped forward. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. Too many stairs.”

  Ruby was already on the move. She waved her good hand in the air. “I’m not coming all this way without seeing the apartment. Let’s go.”

  Charlotte took a few pictures as they entered the stairwell and she kicked herself for not getting in front of the group. She ran up the wide staircase on the other end of the building and came around to the back as Ruby made the apartment landing.

  Charlotte opened the door and slipped inside, closing it and waiting. She crouched and snapped a series of pictures looking up a
t Ruby as she first saw the restored apartment, capturing her openmouthed gaze.

  Ruby stood in the doorway, her eyes sweeping the room. Tiffany pushed through and stood in the middle, hands clasped in front of her.

  “One of the owners of the mine, Jacob Handley, drew up the plans for this building and he included this apartment. This is the living room area. There’s a master bedroom there and another bedroom where his daughter stayed.”

  Ruby shuffled to the fireplace mantel and looked at photos in ancient frames. She leaned close and tipped her head back. “Wish I had my glasses.”

  “What is it, Mama?” Frances said.

  Ruby lingered at one picture, picking it up and holding it in better light. “He was such a kind man. Not like the others.”

  “You mean your father?”

  Ruby set the photo down and wandered to the reading chair, glancing at the bookshelf as she sat. “Now these weren’t here. The bookshelf was over by the bedroom door, and I don’t remember seeing this many. Books were a hot commodity back then. There wasn’t a library in town. You had to go all the way to . . .”

  Her voice trailed off and Charlotte saw the first sign of concern on the old woman’s face, like she had stumbled onto something she hadn’t expected.

  “We weren’t able to find many pictures of this actual room, but the ones we did find helped us,” Marilyn said.

  “I understand,” Ruby said. “Looks like you had to guess at most of it.”

  Frances grabbed a picture from the mantel and held it in front of Ruby. “Your mother was beautiful. They were such a handsome couple, don’t you think?”

  Ruby nodded, but something seemed off, and Charlotte wondered if the old woman had taken medication.

  “Would you like to see the rest of the apartment?” Marilyn said.

  “I’ve seen the rest of the apartment in my dreams every night of my life,” Ruby said. “I can close my eyes and be here. Smell the coffee brewing down in the kitchen and the eggs and sausage and bacon. Hear Mrs. Grigsby walk up those stairs.”

  “Mrs. Grigsby was my grandmother,” Marilyn said proudly.

  Ruby stared at her. “I don’t see any resemblance.”

  “I’m surprised you would have so many memories of this place—you weren’t here that long, were you, Mama?” Frances said.

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