Under a cloudless sky, p.29

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 29


Under a Cloudless Sky

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“I believe you, Mama.”

  “If I tell you what happened, I can’t un-tell you. Once you know, it’ll change everything.”

  “If you say that one more time . . . ,” Frances said. Then she retracted it and apologized and Ruby got quiet.

  “It kills me that you lost Wallace,” she said. “It kills me I wasn’t able to help you keep him.”

  “You should have seen him the other day,” Frances said. “He was really concerned. He remembered things you’d said. Ways you had been kind. Like you and him doing dishes at Thanksgiving.”

  “I remember a lot of things I said to Wallace but I don’t remember too many of them being kind.”

  “He seemed to think so.”

  Ruby put the shoe down and closed her eyes. “We played a game when my friend and I were together.”

  “You mean Bean?”

  “She would dress in my clothes and I would dress in hers and we’d pretend to be each other. She’d try to talk like me and I’d try to talk like her. We laughed and laughed.

  “That day it got serious. We were in each other’s clothes when . . . both of our fathers showed up at the store. There were men up in the shoe room, making noise.”

  She stopped and put her hands over her eyes. “I don’t think I can do this.”

  “Yes, you can, Mama.”

  Lightning struck nearby and a crash of thunder shook the house. Ruby sat up and teetered on the edge of the bed.

  “Are you okay?” Frances said.

  Ruby shook her head. “No, I’m not. I’m not because I’m not who you think I am.”




  OCTOBER 2, 1933

  Bean stood in Ruby’s dress and wished she’d never become friends with the girl. It was easier not being at the apartment or hearing about the boarding school. Ruby had stored more stuff in her steamer trunk than Bean had ever owned. Bean was glad for the food because she hadn’t eaten in two days, but she would need to chart a new course for her life now that Ruby was leaving. She grabbed another half sandwich and listened as the noise upstairs quieted.

  Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer and hopped into the dumbwaiter. The motor whined as she rose toward the third floor. When she stopped, she heard shouting and peeked out.

  She would remember this scene the rest of her life. It was something imprinted on her brain so deeply that all she had to do was close her eyes to see the men in their suits and hats, the women’s shoes on the wall to the left, Ruby’s father standing with his arms folded and Coleman sitting in the cigar chair with a glass full of something.

  “I will bring the sheriff in on this,” Ruby’s father said to Coleman, his face tight.

  The other three men laughed and Coleman leaned back and crossed his legs. “You’re more than welcome to get Kirby right now. Seeing as he has his own key. You don’t think he knows what happens here?”

  “Then I’m prepared to go to the law outside the town.”

  “Jacob, why are we having this conversation again?” Coleman said. “It’s simple. Sell me your half. Move on with your life. This is no place for that pretty little girl of yours to grow up.”

  The door swung open and there was Ruby being pushed inside by Bean’s father. He had a gun in one hand and Ruby in the other, her overall straps wrapped tightly in his hand. Coleman’s men spread out.

  “Is that you, Dingess?” Coleman said. “What brings you up here? You need some shoes?”

  The men chuckled nervously, each of them reaching for their guns.

  Bean’s father cocked the gun until it clicked. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”

  Ruby’s father moved toward him. “Judd, let her go.”

  “Stay where you are, Handley.”

  “Judd, we talked about this. I promised. You’ll see justice. This is not the way to get it.”

  “Lead’s the only language these men understand.”

  Coleman took a drink. “This is where gentlemen come to deal with their disagreements. So let’s be gentlemen, and you put that away and we’ll talk. That thing looks so old it was probably used at Antietam.”

  The others laughed and seemed to relax.

  “Let me take Ruby downstairs,” Mr. Handley said gently.

  “Stay where you are,” Bean’s father said, and Bean could tell he meant it. One oily string of hair hung down in his eyes and he shook it back. From the sound of his voice, he seemed more determined than drunk.

  He edged a step into the room, holding Ruby tightly in front of him. “I know what you done to my wife, Coleman. I’ve heard what happened with the others who came here asking for help.”

  “I don’t know what you’ve heard, Dingess. Only thing we did was offer a helping hand to families down on their luck. I don’t know why you’d hold that against us. Just helping some pretty wives. And some that weren’t so pretty. We didn’t discriminate.”

  Coleman laughed and the others joined as well.

  “Judd, please let me take Ruby downstairs.”

  Bean craned her neck and saw the fear on her friend’s face. She was trying to stand still, but her chin quivered from fright. Bean wanted to open the dumbwaiter door and wave Ruby over, but she sat paralyzed by her own fear.

  Coleman put his glass down and rose. The hardwood creaked underneath his weight. He was an unusually tall and heavyset man. “Boys, what we have here is an unparalleled opportunity.” He walked forward, showing both of his hands. “We have a disgruntled worker who feels used by the company. We have an uncooperative owner who has bucked us at every turn when we’ve tried to make changes. When we tried to increase the bottom line.”

  Coleman put an arm around Ruby’s father and the man tried to pull away.

  “Gentlemen, it’s time to thin the herd.”

  A single gunshot exploded in the room and Ruby screamed. Bean jerked back in shock. Ruby’s father looked at Coleman, then slowly fell to the floor.

  Coleman leaned down. “I tried to tell you, Jacob. I tried to get you to sell but you—”

  Another shot fired and Coleman fell. Bean’s father pushed Ruby out of the way and opened up on the whole room. The other men reacted quickly and fired back. Bean covered her ears in the darkened dumbwaiter.

  She couldn’t count all the gunshots. They exploded together and then came the smoke and sulfur smell that wafted into the shaft and choked her. She coughed—couldn’t help it. Any second she expected one of Coleman’s men to open the dumbwaiter and fire at her.

  There came a stillness like she had never heard. A quiet so great she could hear her heartbeat and feel the blood pumping. She waited for a noise, a sign that she could move. Surely someone would move in the room. Someone would rise and collect the guns or run for help, run for the sheriff.

  And then she thought of Ruby. It was that thought that moved Bean’s hand to the door. She slipped into the room and saw the second sight she would never be able to forget. A room littered with men’s bodies. The one nearest her was staring, openmouthed, at the ceiling, a pool of blood widening beside him. Bean crawled past Coleman, whose hand twitched. She looked at the doorway and saw her father on his back, motionless.

  “Ruby!” Bean yelled.

  The girl’s feet were sticking out from behind a chair next to the shoe rack. Bean moved the chair and looked down at the red stain in the middle of the overalls.

  “It hurts,” Ruby whispered.

  Bean yelled for help. She screamed as loudly as she could, her voice echoing off the walls. She knelt and wiped her own tears away.

  “It’s okay,” Ruby whispered. “I’m going to Beulah. Don’t worry about me.”

  “No!” Bean said. “You’re going to be all right.”

  Ruby reached out a hand and took Bean’s in her own and said something, but Bean couldn’t understand.


  “The ticket,” Ruby whispered. “Take my ticket. Go to school. This is your chance.”
r />   Bean shook her head. “No!”

  The train whistled in the distance. Ruby tried to speak again but there was blood in her mouth.

  “Move out of the way,” someone said behind Bean. She didn’t recognize the voice at first, but when she looked up, she saw her father, a wound in his shoulder and one in his leg. He shuffled toward Ruby.

  “You go on now,” he said. “You shouldn’t see this.”

  Bean stood and watched her father pick up her friend, her hair dangling. He limped through the door and toward the stairs.

  “Where are you taking her?” Bean screamed.

  “To the doctor,” he said, stopping. He turned and looked at her, and in that moment Bean saw something she hadn’t before. It was a mixture of fear and what she could only identify as love coming from him.

  “Do like she said. This is your chance, Bean. Get on that train.”

  Bean watched him walk to the stairs. She expected him to lose his balance and fall, but with each clap of his shoes he made his way down.

  Bean glanced back at the room. Five men lay dead or dying. And she had seen the whole thing.





  Frances sat on the bed, unable to move. Unable to form a question about what she had heard. The event her mother had described was horrific. No one knew this version of the story. No one would dare believe it. And yet the one who stood to lose most by its telling was in the bed next to her.

  “So you were Bean. And you became Ruby.”

  A rumble of thunder shook the windowpane.

  “‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,’” her mother said. “That’s what she did for me.”

  “And your father?”

  “I hated how my daddy acted when he got drunk. But on that day, I saw something in him. He looked right at me and instead of looking past me, he saw me. He carried my friend to the doctor when he could have run.”

  “He got her to the doctor?”

  Her mother shook her head. “Ruby didn’t have a chance. He knew that. But he tried anyway. I think he felt like he had to. Like it was his fault.”

  Frances leaned closer. “What happened after he left?”

  “I went numb, like when you cross your legs too long and everything goes tingly? I watched him walk down the first few steps and then I went down to the apartment and saw the food still on the tray and the room started spinning and I got sick to my stomach.”

  “That makes sense, Mama. It was so much to take in.”

  Her mother sat up straighter, looking back and forth as if she were right in that room again. “I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think. How does a girl my age think through all of that?”

  “You were probably in shock.”

  “That’s what it was. Shock. You have to understand, I was raised in a place where you had to fight for every scrap of food. I can’t tell you how many nights I went to bed hungry and so cold right down to the bone. Looking at people eating in the store and feeling like I was on the outside. Shoes with holes in them. And to get a chance to ride away from the pain and the memories . . . I had no idea what would happen, but after I was sick, I got to my feet and ran into the bedroom and put on my mother’s shoes. Then I grabbed Ruby’s ticket and went down the fire escape to the train platform.”

  Frances watched her mother’s face in the dim light. As she described the scene and told more, she grew animated.

  “I walked up to the train, committed to talking and acting like Ruby. I’d never been on a train before. A man was there and I remembered Ruby had left her suitcase. So I gave him my ticket and asked if he’d get it for me. He looked at me kind of funny and asked if I was traveling with anyone and I told him no. I said my father had made all the arrangements. That was my first lie, Frances. That was the first time I told someone a lie about who I was. And it got easier from there to not tell the truth. I thought for sure he would see through me, that he would kick me off that train and notice my hair was tangled and I didn’t belong in that fancy dress. Instead he treated me like a queen. Took my suitcase and walked me to a room with a bed in it. I’d never seen such a thing. I never even knew trains had beds.”

  Lines formed on her mother’s forehead. “After he left, I looked out the window. And there he was on the street.”

  “Who? Your father?”

  “Yes. He was limping, and I could see bloodstains on his clothes. Ruby was like a rag doll in his arms. Her hair was hanging down and her feet were dangling. He was headed toward the doctor. And I thought, maybe I should stay. Maybe I should get out and help him carry Ruby. Maybe he’d survive and Ruby would wake up and be all right. But then two men came running up the street. One was Mr. Grigsby, the store proprietor. Next to him was the sheriff. He came around the corner and saw my daddy. And the sheriff yelled something and my daddy picked up his pace. And the sheriff pulled his gun. I banged on the window, but there was no use. The sheriff shot twice and he fell with Ruby underneath him. Right there in the muddy street.”

  Frances forced herself to breathe. “Why would he shoot him?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe he thought he was getting away. Or Mr. Grigsby said he had a gun.”

  It seemed more plausible to Frances that the sheriff wanted the man dead. Shooting him down like a mad dog on the road would save them the time and energy of a trial.

  “I crawled in the bed on that train and cried and cried,” her mother said. “The steward came and asked if I had seen what happened. I told him I had and he brought me something to drink. He was a kind man. He said to stay away from the window. No girl should see that kind of thing.”

  “So you rode the train to the school?”

  “We got there late the next morning. The headmistress was there waiting for me on the platform. Well, she was waiting for Ruby.”

  “And she didn’t question you?”

  “Why should she? She’d never set eyes on Ruby. They just knew that there was a girl coming from a wealthy family and she’d be on that train. So they treated me like I was who I was pretending to be. And I’d spent the whole night crying and combing my hair to get the knots out.”

  Frances put a hand to her head. “All these years. Did Dad ever know this?”

  Her mother shook her head. “I never told a living soul.”

  “So everyone thought you had left before the shooting. When did they let you know about . . . ?”

  “That was the closest I ever came to being found out. I was waiting to hear word, thinking they’d send a telegram. Two days later, Mrs. Grigsby shows up at the school and I saw her walking up the steps. I thought maybe they had figured it out. But I guess since Ruby was dressed in my clothes and my daddy was carrying her, the sheriff assumed she was me. We looked alike.”

  “Didn’t Mrs. Grigsby recognize you?”

  “I never saw her. I hid in the basement and watched out the window all day. She finally left for the train, I guess. When I knew she was gone, I went to the office and told them I’d seen her walking in and that she had been mean to me in Beulah Mountain. I was scared. Do you see how the lies keep piling up? That’s when they took me to the principal’s office and offered me tea. He and the headmistress told me the news and I broke down crying. It wasn’t an act. I was really crying about losing Ruby and my mother and the baby she was carrying. I was sad about Mr. Handley, too, and my own daddy gunned down on the road. They believed me.

  “And now you know why I said forgiveness sent me down here. I needed to forgive myself for what I did. I’ve lived a lie.”

  “Mama, no one can blame you. You were a girl.”

  “I could have said something. I could have gone back and told the truth. I think of Ruby every day. I don’t deserve her name or the kindness she showed. I don’t deserve the inheritance either.”

  “What about Ruby’s family?” Fra
nces said. “Did they ever reach out to you?”

  “An uncle offered to take me in. And a cousin on Ruby’s mother’s side. I bonded with the school. The headmistress adopted me, for all intents, and took care of me until graduation. I was like a sponge, Frances. I just soaked it all up and didn’t have to worry about staying warm or finding food.”

  “And you went into the Navy?”

  “Not long after I graduated. After Pearl Harbor, people wanted to do their part. I signed up and went to the Great Lakes Naval base and from there went to California. Nobody knew my story. I felt like I could escape the cloud hanging over me.”

  “What about the inheritance?”

  “Ruby’s father’s half of the company was sold and that was put in a trust. A lawyer from Pittsburgh set it all up. They gave me a stipend to pay for things.”

  “But you never spent the money.”

  “I spent some, but you’re right, I kept it put away. I suppose it’s because I didn’t deserve it. And now that I’m headed toward the grave, I don’t want to keep it from you and Jerry.”

  “That kept you from telling the story?”

  “Jerry needs it for his debts. He’s counting on it. And I suppose you and Julia have plans.”

  “Mama, look at me. I don’t care what happens to the money. I want you to be free.”

  Her mother’s eyebrows rose. “I thought you would be upset. I thought you would tell me we needed to keep this quiet.”

  “I care so much more about you than what you’ll leave behind. Do you understand that?”

  Tears came to her mother’s eyes. “I feel like somebody has lifted a thousand pounds from my shoulders.”

  Frances got up and hugged her a long time, then sat on the side of her bed, looking at her face, trying to reorient herself to what she’d learned. It did change everything.

  “You should get some sleep,” she said. But Frances and her mother couldn’t sleep. They stayed up until dawn talking and asking questions and even laughing. For the first time in her life, Frances felt like she was getting to know her mother.

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