Nora took a bite of bacon. Her chewing was a loud crunch-crunch-crunch. “We need to go grocery shopping.”
“How about this morning?”
Ruby nodded. Finishing her last bite, she stood up and began cleaning the table. “I’ll do the dishes. We’ll leave in about thirty minutes?”
“Make it an hour. I have to figure out how in the hell to do a sponge bath.”
“I could lasso your leg and lower you into the bath like an anchor.”
Nora laughed. “No, thanks. I don’t want to drown nak*d with my leg stuck up in the air. The tabloids would have a field day with that.”
The remark took a moment to sink in. When it did,
Ruby turned back to the table. “I wouldn’t let you drown.”
“I know. But would you rescue me?” Without waiting for an answer; Nora spun around and rolled into her bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
Ruby stood there, staring at the closed door.
Would you rescue me?
The Benevolent Order of the Sisters of St. Francis had first come to Summer Island during World War One. A generous donor (who had no doubt lived a life that imperiled his immortal soul) had granted them more than one hundred waterfront acres. The sisters, who were equally high-minded in spiritual and business matters, had opened a general store next to the dock that would become the ferry terminal. On the rolling acreage behind the store, they’d built a sanctuary that tourists never saw. They raised cattle and owned the most profitable apple orchard on the island. They wove their own cloth, dyed it with extracts from their own gardens, and hand-stitched it into brown robes. Their sanctuary was open to any of their order; as well as to any woman who sought refuge from an unhappy life. Such women were welcomed into the fold and given that precious commodity so missing from the hectic, violent outside world: time. Here, they could don the clothing of their grandmothers, do the. simple chores required of subsistence living, and commune with the God they felt they’d lost.
On Sundays, the sisters opened their small wooden chapel to their friends and neighbors. A priest from the monastery on a nearby island conducted quiet services in Latin. It was a humble church, where no one minded the cries of bored babies or the emptiness of a collection plate when times turned hard.
Theirs was still the only store on the island. Ruby pulled the minivan into the gravel parking lot behind the “He Will Provide” grocery store and parked beside a rusty pickup truck.
She helped Nora into the chair. Together they made their way down the rickety wooden boardwalk that connected the town’s three buildings. Wisteria grew along the posts that supported the roof’s overhang and festooned the upper timbers with fragrant white flowers. Here and there along the boardwalk were benches, handmade by the sisters. Later in the tourist season, those seats would be filled by people waiting for a ferry.
Ruby came to the store’s screen door and pulled it open. A bell tinkled gaily overhead as they wheeled inside. The murky store was long and narrow, built like a shoe box.
Light pushed through the twin windows and illuminated a small desk with a cash register on it. Beyond that, layered wooden bookcases held carefully arranged canned goods. A small freezer offered all manner of Island-raised meat-beef, chicken, pork, lamb-and a refrigerated case held vegetables grown on the sisters’ own land.
The nun at the cash register looked up at their entrance.
“Nora Bridge? Ruby? I don’t believe it!” SisterHelen waddled around the desk, her skirt hiked up to reveal heavy white calves sheathed in nubby woolen socks. Her green rubber clogs thumped with every step. Her fleshy face was scrunched into a welcoming grin that turned her bespectacled eyes into slits. She looked-as always-like a sprightly old gnome. “PraiseGod,” Sister said. Her thick German accent turned the words into Praise Gott. “It has been so long…” She turned to Ruby. “And how is the funny one?”
Ruby smiled. “I’m still a stitch, Sister. How ”bout you-got any good Heaven jokes for me?"
“I will think on it, that is for sure. It is wunderbar to see you both.” She elbowed Ruby. “Mother Ruth still talks about the day your rabbit ran through services, ja? She will be happy to see you again.” Ruby stepped away from the wheelchair. “I … uh… haven’t been to services in a while. I’m only on the island a week, anyway.” Helen gave her “the look”-every Catholic recognized it. “There is a Sunday in every week, ja?”
“Uh . . .maybe."
Nora smiled up at the nun. “Some things never change.”
Helen nodded. Her habit slipped down on her forehead and she gave it a quick shove back. “Most things never change. That is what I have learned in seventy-three years of life.” She leaned back on her heels and crossed her beefy arms. “It is good to see you two together again, that much is for sure. You have stayed away from this island for too long.” She turned to Ruby. “You have babies, ja like your sister?”
“No babies-and before you ask, no husband. I’m either footloose and fancy free or lonely and unlovable. Take your pick.”
Helen laughed. “Always you were this way, Ruby. Making a joke out of everything. However-just for the record-my guess would be … fancy free and lonely.” She clapped her hands together. “Anyway, the store is set up as it always was. Get what you need. Shall I begin a new account for you?”
“No,” Ruby answered.
“Yes,” Nora said at the same time, shooting her a dark look. “I may be here a while.”
Ruby grabbed one of the small red baskets stacked by the desk and handed it to Nora. “Let’s get started.”
They moved past the tourist supply section-postcards, pens with ferries on them, little brown and white candlesticks made from Mount Saint Helens ash, Christmas ornaments. Ruby went on ahead; Nora rolled slowly behind her.
They came to the cereal first. Ruby grabbed a box of Cap’n Crunch and tossed it into the basket in her mother’s lap.
“There’s nothing good for you in that cereal.”
Ruby turned, saw her mother’s frown. “Should I get the kind with crunchberries? It adds fruit.”
“Very funny. Will you grab one of those granolas for me-the sisters make it, if I remember correctly.”
Ruby reached for the beribboned bag of cereal and plopped it into the basket. If she remembered correctly, it tasted like carpet fibers.
“We’ll need several cans of tomatoes,” Nora said. “No, not those; the ones in the green cans.”
Ruby put back the unacceptable canned tomatoes and chose the “right” brand.
“Spaghetti and penne, please. God, no, not that cheap brand; get the good stuff … from Italy.”
Like it was actually made in Italy. Ruby gritted her teeth and kept moving, but with every word her mother spoke, she felt her anger rise. When Ruby reached for the Twinkies, her mother practically shrieked.
“You cannot eat that.”
That was it. Very slowly, Ruby turned around. “I’m sorry, do you hear me asking for dietary advice?”
"That’s the point. It’s my butt that’s going to swell to the size of Nebraska, not yours. So please… Shut … up.
Nora snapped her teeth together. “Fine.”
Ruby could hear Sister Helen chuckling.
Miraculously, she and her mother made it all the way to the end of the aisle without another argument.
Apparently, Nora was saving her strength for the battle over vegetables.
“That ear of corn is gross. Get one of the white ones … not that onion, for God’s sake, get a Walla Walla Sweet … come on, Ruby, that broccoli is half dead. What on earth do you eat in California?”
Ruby dropped the broccoli into the basket and walked away. It was safer that way. She poked her head around the end of the aisle and called out to Sister Helen, “Where are the aspirin?”
Sister Helen chuckled. “Along the back wall, honey, by the Pepto-Bismol … which you might want to consider, too.”
Ruby snagged an industrial-size container of Excedrin and tossed it into the basket. It hit a tomato with a juicy thwack!
“Lovely,” Nora said, wiping her cheek. Then she glanced toward the left corner, where the nuns offered a few T-shirts and shorts for sale. “I could get you some clothes, if you’d like-”
“That’s it. We’re done.” Ruby grabbed the handles on the wheelchair and spun it around, then strode up to the cash register. She stopped so suddenly her mother was thrown forward like a rag doll.
Sister Helen was doing her level best not to smile. “It’s just like old times, seeing you two together.”
Nora gave her a tight smile. “Yes, Sister, we’ve always enjoyed these mother daughter outings.”
Ruby nodded. “Just remember what she was like to shop with … when the police come to question you.”
Sister Helen laughed at that and started ringing up the groceries. She chattered nonstop about this and that-who was running for mayor come autumn, whose horse had recently foundered, whose well had gone dry-as her fingers flew across the keys.
Ruby left the store and stared at the cars in line for the next ferry. She was just about to turn around when the row of newspaper machines caught her eye.
She glanced back into the store, then hurried down to the box that held USA Today.
And there, in the upper-right-hand corner, was a picture of her mother beneath the headline: WHERE Is NORA BRIDGE HIDING?
Ruby dug into her fanny pack, found two quarters, and slipped them into the machine.
“Ruby, honey?” came her mother’s voice from inside the store.
Ruby yanked the paper out, rolled it up, and shoved it into her waistband, pulling her shirt down in front of it. “Just a second,” she hollered, running past the store. At the minivan, she opened the back door and shoved the paper in underneath the backseat. By the time she got back into the store, she was breathless.
Nora was staring up at her. “The bags are on the counter. I can carry two of them if you can manage The third.”
Ruby was certain that the patented mother’s X-ray vision had somehow seen what she’d bought.
“Sure. Bye, Sister Helen.” She snatched the bag off the counter, settled it under one arm, and wheeled her mother toward the car.
As soon as they got home, Ruby helped her mother into the house, carried the groceries in, and put them away. Then she turned to Nora, who was watching her closely.
I … uh… I’m going to walk on the beach. It’s such a nice day." Flashing a fake smile, Ruby went back outside. At the minivan, she retrieved her paper and tucked it under her shirt-just in case-then walked down to the beach.
She sat down on a flat granite rock and pulled out the lifestyle section, using a big chunk of silvery drift wood to pin the rest of the paper into the sand. The wind flapped at the edges of the paper and tried to rip it from her hands.
WHERE IS NORA BRIDGE HIDING?
In the wake of an ugly scandal, Nora Bridge has disappeared. Executives at KJZZ, which broadcasts her popular talk show, “Spiritual Healing with Nora,” are closing ranks, saying only that Ms. Bridge is on a previously scheduled vacation.
Tom Adams, the controversial and outspoken owner ofAdams News Organization, reports that nothing has changed with Ms. Bridge’s daily advice column, “Nora Knows Best.”