“I’m going home,” he said quietly. “Hospice will help out . . .”
“That’s great,” she said thickly, smiling too brightly, trying to pretend they were talking about where he was going to live . . . instead of where he’d chosen to die. “I’m way ahead on my newspaper columns. I’ll take the week off, visit you during the day. I’ll still have to work the show at night, but—”
“I mean the island. I’m going home.”
“Are you finally going to call your family?” She hated his decision to handle his cancer privately, but he’d been adamant. He’d forbidden Nora to tell anyone, and as much as she’d disagreed, she’d had no choice but to honor his wishes.
“Oh, yeah. They’ve been so supportive in the past.”
“This is different than coming out of the closet, and you know it. It’s time to call Dean. And your parents.”
The look he gave her was so hopeless that she wanted to turn away. “What if I told my mother I was dying and she still wouldn’t come to see me?”
Nora understood. Even a thin blade of that hope could cut him to pieces now. “At least call your brother. Give him the chance.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I ask.” She forced a smile. “If you can wait until Tuesday, I’ll drive you—”
He touched her hand gently. “I haven’t got much time. I’ve arranged to be flown up. Lottie’s already up at the house, getting it ready.”
Haven’t got much time. It was infinitely worse, somehow, to hear the words spoken aloud. She swallowed hard. “I don’t think you should be alone.”
“Enough.” His voice was soft, his gaze even softer, but she heard the barest echo of his former strength. He was reminding her, as he sometimes had to, that he was an adult, a grown man. “Now,” he said, clapping his hands together, “we sound like a goddamn Ibsen play. Let’s talk about something else. I listened to your show tonight. Mothers and daughters. That’s always tough on you.”
Just like that, he put them back on solid ground. As always, she was amazed by his resilience. When life seemed too big to swallow, she knew he made it through by cutting it into bites. Normal things . . . ordinary conversations were his salvation.
She pulled up a chair and sat down. “I never really know what to say, and when I do offer advice, I feel like the biggest hypocrite on the planet. How would Marge feel if she knew I hadn’t spoken to my own daughter in eleven years?”
Eric didn’t answer the rhetorical question. It was one of the things she loved best about him. He never tried to comfort her with lies. But it helped her that someone recognized how painful it was for Nora to think about her younger daughter. “I wonder what she’s doing now.”
It was a common question between them, one they speculated about endlessly.
Eric managed a laugh. “With Ruby it could be anything from having lunch with Steven Spielberg to piercing her tongue.”
“The last time I talked to Caroline, she said that Ruby had dyed her hair blue.” Nora laughed, then fell abruptly silent. It wasn’t funny. “Ruby always had such pretty hair . . .”
Eric leaned forward. There was a sudden earnestness in his eyes. “She’s not dead, Nora.”
She nodded. “I know. I try to squeeze hope from that thought all the time.”
He grinned. “Now, get out the backgammon board. I feel like whooping your ass.”
It was only the second week of June, and already the temperature hovered around one hundred degrees. A freak heat wave they called it on the local news, the kind of weather that usually came to southern California later in the year.
The heat made people crazy. They woke from their damp bedsheets and went in search of a glass of water, surprised to find that when their vision cleared, they were holding instead the gun they kept hidden in the bookcase. Children cried out in their sleep, and even doses of liquid Tylenol couldn’t cool their fevered skin. All over town, birds fell from phone wires and landed in pathetic, crumpled heaps on the thirsty lawns.
No one could sleep in weather like this, and Ruby Bridge was no exception. She lay sprawled in her bed, the sheets shoved down to the floor, a cold-pack pressed across her forehead.
The minutes ticked by, each one a moaning sound caught in the window air-conditioning unit, a whoosh-ping that did little but stir the hot air around.
She was lonely. Only a few days earlier, her boyfriend, Max, had left her. After five years of living together, he’d simply walked out of her life like a plumber who’d finished an unpleasant job.
All he’d left behind was a few pieces of crappy furniture and a note.
I never meant to fall out of love with you (or into love with Angie) but shit happens. You know how it is. I need to be free. Hell, we both know you never really loved me anyway.
The funny thing was (and it definitely wasn’t ha-ha funny), she hardly missed him. In fact, she didn’t miss him at all. She missed the idea of him. She missed a second plate at the dinner table, another body in this bed that seemed to have enlarged in his absence. Mostly, she missed the pretense that she was in love.
Max had been . . . hope. A physical embodiment of the belief that she could love, and be loved in return.
At seven a.m., the alarm clock sounded. Ruby slid out of bed on a sluglike trail of perspiration. The wobbly pressboard headboard banged against the wall. Her bra and panties stuck to her damp body. She reached for the glass of water by the bed, pressed it to the valley between her br**sts, and went to the bathroom, where she took a lukewarm shower.
She was sweating again before she was finished drying off. With a tired sigh, she headed into the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. She poured herself a cup, then added a generous splash of cream. White chunks immediately floated to the surface and formed a cross.
Another woman might have thought simply that the cream had gone bad, but Ruby knew better: it was a sign.
As if she needed magic to tell her that she was stuck in the spin cycle of her life.
She tossed the mess down the sink and headed back into her bedroom, grabbing the grease-stained black polyester pants and white cotton blouse that lay tangled on the floor. Sweating, headachy, and in desperate need of caffeine, she got dressed and went out into the stifling heat.
She walked downstairs to her battered 1970 Volkswagen Bug. After a few tries, the engine turned over, and Ruby drove toward Irma’s Hash House, the trendy Venice Beach diner where she’d worked for almost three years.
She’d never meant to stay a waitress; the job was supposed to be temporary, something to pay the bills until she got on her feet, caused a sensation at one of the local comedy clubs, did a guest spot on Leno, and—finally—was offered her own sitcom, aptly titled Ruby! She always pictured it with an exclamation mark, like one of those Vegas revues her grandmother had loved.
But at twenty-seven, she wasn’t young anymore. After almost a decade spent trying to break into comedy, she was brushing up against “too old.” Every-one knew that if you didn’t make it by thirty, you were toast. And Ruby was beginning to think that she should start collecting jam.
Finally, she maneuvered between the old station wagons and Volkswagen buses that filled the 1950s-style diner’s crowded parking lot. Surfboards were lashed to every surface; most of the cars had more bumper stickers than paint. The sun-bleached “hey dude” set came from miles away for Irma’s famous six-egg omelette. She parked alongside a bus that could have come from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
She forced a smile onto her face and headed for the diner. When she opened the front door, the bell tinkled gaily overhead.
Irma bustled toward her, her three-story beehive hairdo leading the way. As always, she moved fast, keeled forward like the prow of a sinking ship, then came to an abrupt halt in front of Ruby. Her heavily mascaraed eyes narrowed, and Ruby wondered—again—if human beings could be carbon-dated by makeup. “You were scheduled for last night.”
Ruby winced. “Oh, shit.”
Irma crossed her bony arms. “I’m letting you go. We can’t count on you. Debbie had to work a double shift last night. Your final paycheck is at the register. I’ll expect the uniform back tomorrow. Cleaned.”
Ruby’s lips trembled mutinously. The thought of pleading for this shitty job made her sick. “Come on, Irma, I need this job.”
“I’m sorry, Ruby. Really.” Irma turned and walked away.
Ruby stood there a minute, breathing in the familiar mixture of maple syrup and grease, then she snagged her paycheck from the counter and walked out of the restaurant.
She got in her car and drove away aimlessly, up one street and down the other. Finally, when it felt as if her face were melting off her skull, she parked alongside the street in a shopping district. In the trendy, air- conditioned boutiques, she saw dozens of beautiful things she couldn’t afford, sold by girls who were half her age. She realized she was close to hitting rock bottom when a help wanted sign on a pet-store window actually caught her attention.
No way. It was bad enough serving beef sludge to the Butt family. She’d be damned if she’d sell them a ferret, too.
She got back into her car and drove away, this time speeding recklessly toward her destination. When she reached Wilshire Boulevard, she pulled up in front of a high-rise building and parked.
Before she had time to talk herself out of it, she went to the elevator and rode it up to the top floor. When the doors opened, sweet, cooled air greeted her, drying the sweat on her cheeks.
She walked briskly down the hallway toward her agent’s office and pushed through the frosted-glass double doors.
The receptionist, Maudeen Wachsmith, had her nose buried in a romance novel. Barely looking up, she smiled. “Hi, Ruby,” she said. “He’s busy today. You’ll have to make an appointment.”
Ruby rushed past Maudeen and yanked the door open.
Her agent, Valentine Lightner, was there, seated behind the glassy expanse of his desk. He looked up. When he saw Ruby, his smile faded into a frown. “Ruby . . . I wasn’t expecting you . . . was I?”
Maudeen rushed in behind Ruby. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lightner . . .”
He raised a slim hand. “Don’t worry about it, Maudeen.” He leaned back in his chair. “So, Ruby, what’s going on?”
She waited for Maudeen to leave, then moved toward the desk. She was humiliatingly aware that she was still wearing her uniform, and that her underarms were outlined in perspiration. “Is that cruise ship job still available?” She’d laughed at it three months before—cruise ships were floating morgues for talent—but now it didn’t seem beneath her. Hell, it seemed above her.
“I’ve tried for you, Ruby. You write funny stuff, but the truth is, your delivery sucks. And that’s no ordinary chip on your shoulder, it’s a section of the Hoover Dam. You’ve burned too many bridges in this business. No one wants to hire you.”