No clothes for a real life.
She reached for a sundress. As she pulled it toward her; the lacy hem caught on something. Ruby gently pushed the other clothes out of the way and saw what had snagged the dress.
It was the upraised flap of a cardboard box. On the beige side, written in red ink, was the word Ruby.
Her heart skipped a beat. She had a quick, almost desperate urge to back out of the closet and slam it shut. Whatever was in that box, whatever her mother had saved and marked with Ruby’s name, couldn’t matter. . .
But she couldn’t seem to make herself move. She dropped the dress, let it clatter to the floor; hanger and all, and fell to her knees. Scooting forward, she dragged the box toward her. Her fingers were trembling as she opened it.
Inside, there were dozens of tiny wrapped packages, some in the reds and greens of Christmas, some in bright silvery paper with balloons and candles.
Birthdays and Christmases.
She counted the packages. Twenty-one. Two each year for the eleven Nora had been gone from them, less the black cashmere sweater that Caroline had sneaked past Ruby’s guard.
These were the gifts that Nora had bought every year and sent to Ruby, the same ones Ruby had ruthlessly returned, unopened.
“Oh, man.” She let out her breath in a sigh and reached for one of the boxes. It was small, like many of the others, the size of a credit card and about a half inch deep. The one she’d chosen was wrapped in birthday paper.
The paper felt slick in her hands and as she lifted it toward her; she heard a tiny clinking from inside, and the sound filled her with a terrible longing. It made her angry, this welling up of useless emotion, but she couldn’t make it go away.
Carefully, she peeled the paper away and was left with a small white box imprinted with a jewelry store logo. She lifted the lid.
Inside, on a bed of opalescent tissue, lay a silver charm. It was a birthday cake, complete with candles.
Ruby knew she shouldn’t pick up the charm, but she couldn’t help herself. She reached down and picked it up, feeling the steady weight of it in her palm, then turned it over. On the back, it was inscribed.
HAPPY 21ST. LOVE, MOM.
The silver charm blurred.
She refused to open any more; she didn’t need to. She knew that somewhere in these boxes were a bracelet and more carefully chosen charms-many representing the years they’d been apart.
She could imagine her mother; dressed perfectly, makeup flawless, going from store to store for the ideal gift. She would be chatting pleasantly with the salespeople, saying things like, My daughter is twenty-one today. I need something extra special.
Pretending that everything was normal … that she hadn’t abandoned her children when they needed her most.
At that, Ruby felt a rush of cold auger; and control returned. A few trinkets didn’t mean anything.
What mattered was not what Nora had tried to give Ruby, but rather what she’d taken away.
There had been no seventeenth birthday party for Ruby. On that day, there had only been more silence. No family had gathered around a big kitchen strewn with gifts. Those times . . . those precious moments had died when their family died.
A few nicely wrapped gifts found stuffed in a cardboard box in a closet couldn’t change that.
Ruby wouldn’t let it.
As Ruby neared her mother’s hospital room, she slowed. A man was standing by the door. He was tall and effete, a man who dressed for women–gray slacks, pink shirt, and vibrant navy blue suspenders. His hair was snowy white and thinning. She noticed that he kept running his hand through it, as if to assure himself that it was still there.
At her approach, he looked up. Narrowed, penetrating black eyes fixed on her. “Are you Ruby Bridge?”
She came to a stop. She’d misjudged the distance, and taken one step too close to him. He exuded a sweet, musky scent. Expensive cologne, used too liberally. She could see that he was disturbed by her invasion of his personal space.
He took a step backward and cleared his throat—a gentle reminder that he’d asked if she was Ruby Bridge.
“Who wants to know?”
Smiling-as if that was precisely what he would have expected Ruby Bridge to say–he extended his hand. “I’m Dr. Leonard Allbright, your mother’s doctor.”
“Where’s your white coat?”
“I’m her psychiatrist.”
That surprised Ruby. She couldn’t imagine her mother spilling her guts to anyone. “Really?”
“I’ve just spoken to her; and she told me all about your … arrangement.” He said the final word as if it tasted bitter. “I’m aware of your past history, so I thought I’d caution you to keep in mind that your mother is fragile.”
“Uh-huh. Are you married, Dr. Allbright?”
A pained expression slipped into the grooves of his face. “No. Why do you ask?”
“My mother collects men who believe she’s fragile. She’s a real Tennessee Williams kind of gal.”
Dr. Allbright did not look pleased by that observation. “Why have you offered to care for her?”
“Look, Doc, when it’s all over; you can ask Nora all the questions you want. She’ll pay you a huge fee to listen to her moan about the bitch daughter who betrayed her. But I”m not going to talk to you."
“Betrayed” is an interesting word choice."
Ruby flinched. “If that’s all. ..”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a slim silver case with the initials LOA etched in gold. Inside lay a neat stack of expensive business cards. He handed her one. “I don’t know if it is a good idea for you to take care of Nora. Especially not in her current state of mind.”
Ruby took the card, tucked it into the elastic waistband of her leggings. “Yeah? Why not?”
He studied her; and she could see by the deepening frown that he wasn’t pleased. “You haven’t seen or spoken to your mother in years, and you’re obviously very angry at her. Considering … what happened to her; it could be a bad mix. Maybe even dangerous.”
“You don’t know her. And as I said, she’s fragile now-”
“I lived with her for sixteen years, Doc. You’ve talked to her once a week for … what, a year or two?”
Ruby’s chin snapped up. “Fifteen years? But everything was fine back then.”
His question threw her into confusion. Fifteen years ago, Ruby had been barely out of braces, singing along to Madonna and wearing a dozen crucifixes and imagining that her future would follow the course of her childhood, that her family would always be together.
“Your mother keeps a lot to herself,” Dr. Allbright went on, “and as I said, she’s fragile. I believe she always has been. You obviously disagree.” He took a step toward her. This time it was Ruby who felt encroached upon. She steeled herself to stand her ground. “Your mother was doing almost seventy miles per hour when she hit that tree. And on the same day she lost her career. Pretty coincidental.”
Ruby couldn’t believe she hadn’t made that connection. A chill moved through her. “Are you telling me she tried to kill herself?”
"I’m saying it’s coincidental. Dangerously so.
Ruby released a heavy breath. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like a good idea to be responsible for her mother; not even for a few days. No one emotionally unstable should be entrusted to Ruby-hell, goldfish couldn’t survive her care.
“You don’t know your mother. Remember that.”
That observation put Ruby back on solid ground. “And who’s fault is that? I’m not the one who walked out.”
He stared down at her; gave her the kind of look she’d seen time and time again in her life.
Oh, good, she thought, now I’m disappointing total strangers.
“No, you’re not,” he said evenly, “and you’re not sixteen anymore, either.”
Ruby should have rented a bigger car. Like maybe a Hummer or a Winnebago.
This minivan was too small for her and Nora. They were trapped in side-by-side front seats. With the windows rolled up, there seemed to be no air left to breathe, and nothing to do but talk.
Ruby cranked up the radio.
Celine Dion’s pure, vibrant voice filled the car; something about love coming to those who believed.
“Do you think you could turn that down?” Nora said. “I’m getting a headache.”
Ruby’s gaze flicked sideways. Nora looked tired; her skin, normally pale, now appeared to have the translucence of bone china. Tiny blue veins webbed the sunken flesh at her temples. She turned to Ruby and attempted a smile, but in truth, her mouth barely trembled before she closed her eyes and leaned against the window.
Ruby couldn’t wrap her arms around that thought. It was too alien from her own experience. Her mother had always been made of steel. Even as a young girl, Ruby had known her mother’s strength. The other kids in her class were afraid of their fathers when report cards came out. Not the Bridge girls. They lived in fear of disappointing their mother.
Not that she ever punished them particularly, or yelled or screamed. No, it was worse than that.
I’m disappointed in you, Ruby Elizabeth … life isn’t kind to women who take the easy road.
Ruby had never known what the easy road was, exactly, or where it led, but she knew it was a bad thing. Almost as bad as “fooling yourself”-another thing Nora wouldn’t abide.
The truth doesn’t go away just because you shut your eyes had been another of her mother’s favorite sayings.
Of course, those had been the “before” days. Afterward, no one in the family cared much about disappointing Nora Bridge. In fact, Ruby had gone out of her way to do just that.
“Ruby? The music?”
Ruby snapped the radio oft. The metronomic whoosh-thump, whoosh-thump of the windshield wipers filled the sudden silence.
Only a few miles from downtown Seattle, the gray city gave way to a sprawling collection of squat, flat-topped strip malls. A few miles more and they were in farming land. Rolling, tree-shrouded hills and lush green pastures fanned out on either side of the freeway. The white ice-cream dome of Mount Baker sat on a layer of fog above the flat farmland.
Ruby actually sped up as they drove through the sleepy town of Mount Vernon; she was afraid her mother would say something intimate, like Remember how we used to bicycle through the tulip fields at festival time?
But when she glanced sideways, she saw that Nora was asleep.
Ruby breathed a sigh of relief and eased off the accelerator. It felt good to drive the rest of the way without wondering if she was being watched.
At Anacortes, the tiny seaside town perched at the water’s edge, she bought a one-way ferry ticket and pulled into line. It was still early in the tourist season; two weeks from now the wait for this ferry could well be five hours.
Less than a half hour later, a ferry docked, sounded its mournful horn, and unloaded its cargo of cars and bikes and walk-on passengers. Then, an orange-vested attendant directed Ruby’s car to the bow, where she parked and set the emergency brake. First car in lane , a primo spot. The gaping, oval mouth of the ferry was a giant, glassless window that framed the view.
The Sound was rainy-day flat, studded by the ceaseless rain into a sheet of hammered tin. Watery gray skies melted into the sea, the line between them a smudge of charcoal, thin as eyeliner. Puppy-faced gray seals crawled over one another to find a comfortable perch on the swaying red harbor buoy.