The graduation dinner for Ruby Connors wasn't really a gradu
ation dinner at all because George Connors, her father, demanded a six-course meal in their house seven days a week. Tonight the fare was fresh fruit, soup, salad, a fish mixture, roast chicken, stuffing, cranberry sauce, string beans and peas from the garden, mashed potatoes, gravy and homemade biscuits suitable for sopping up gravy, and a cake. It was a rich double-chocolate cake, three full layers, with nearly an inch of frosting between each layer. The top was full of swirls and little peaks with colored jimmies all over.
Grace was long and drawn out. Ruby wished her father would get on with it so she could attack her food, not because she wanted it, but because she had to eat it. At least four times a week she puked up her dinner. She watched, her face blank, when her father loaded up her plate. Already her younger sister, Opal, had tears in her eyes. Opal could never eat all her food and always had to sit at the table till eight o'clock, when her mother would take the plate and wrap it in waxed paper so it could be served to Opal for breakfast. George Connors called the heavy, horrible meals “providing for his family.”
Opal Connors cried a lot, but not Ruby. Ruby had learned to do what she was told, for the most part; otherwise punishment was swift and terrible. Once she had spilled a handful of salt on the floor, and her father had forced her to lick it up. Often he had beaten her until she limped. If he found out she threw up after these heavy meals, he probably would tape her mouth shut.
Tomorrow would change all that. Tomorrow she was leaving this house and Barstow, Pennsylvania, and she was never coming back. Tomorrow she was going to Washington, D.C., to live with her older sister, Amber, and to work for the government.
Ruby watched as her father poured glasses of milk for her and Opal. She hated drinking milk because it filled her up even more. This was her second glass, to be consumed with the cake. If only one of her parents would say something about her valedictory speech and graduating with honors, but she knew there would be no words of praise. There never were.
At least Grace Zachary, the Connors' next-door neighbor, had been there for her at the ceremony. Grace had sat with her husband, Paul, in the front row of the bleachers, smacking her hands together in applause after Ruby's speech and enthusiastically poking her husband in the shoulder while he whistled between his teeth and hooted, “Yay, Ruby!” How often Ruby wished they had been her parents instead of the ones she'd been given.
The moment Ruby finished her cake, she asked to be excused. George reached out, slapped his hand over her wrist, and said, “You sit there till your sister finishes her supper.” Ruby's heart fluttered. Her eyes swiveled to her mother, who was staring at her own wedge of cake as if it were her enemy. Ruby sat back and folded her hands in her lap.
She had the ability, from long years of practice, to shift her mind into neutral when she had to. But the moment George Connors left the table to go out to the shed, she flew off her chair and scraped Opal's plate defiantly into the coal stove. She watched the banked coals spit and hiss before she stared down her mother.
“Eat the damn cake, Opal, and stop sniveling,” she snapped, but not unkindly. To her mother she said, “I suppose you're going to tell, like you always do.” This time her voice
unkind. “This is as good a time as any to tell you I throw up these damn dinners almost every night. Tell him
too,” Ruby said, marching out of the room and upstairs. If she'd taken the time to look, she would have seen her mother's eyes fill with tears.
Ruby waited for her stomach to rumble and chum, then beelined for the bathroom and upchucked.
Almost free. Almost.
Ruby Connors looked around her room for the last time. She was really leaving this house, this room, and if she had anything to say about it, she'd never come back. Her eyes fell on the white curtains hanging stiffly at the window, starched in sugar water and stretched on curtain stretchers. No more of that, Ruby thought gleefully. No more pinpricks. And no more white iron bed with its crazy quilt made by her mother with patches from her older sister's dresses. She hated the quilt, just as she hated Amber.
Someday she was going to have a pretty bedroom like the pictures in the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. She'd have a dressing table with a white organdy ruffle with curtains to matchâand not the kind that had to be stretched, either. She'd have a meadow-green carpet and a real bedspread. Every table and corner would have plants and flowers, mostly daisies. On her dressing table would be silver frames with pictures, maybe of her dog or cat. Everything would be alive. Maybe she'd even put her picture of Johnny Ray in it, the one she'd sneaked out of a Photoplay magazine.
Ruby sat down on the edge of the bed, and the springs squeaked under her ninety pounds. The room was sweltering hot, even though it was only June. In the summer she baked alive, and in the winter she froze with cold drafts from the attic.
Almost free. Almost. “I'm leaving and I'm never coming back, nevernevernevernevernever,” Ruby singsonged quietly.
Her suitcases were packed; she was wearing her sodality medal and the scapular that her mother always insisted on. Her dress wasn't new, but it wasn't as faded as her others and a ruffle had been added to cover the let-down hem. Her hairstyle, if it could be called a style, was a dutch boy with bangs. As soon as she could, she was going to get a permanent and some colored barrettes, maybe a ribbon or two if that's what the girls wore in Washington, D.C.
Ruby scuffed at the braided rug with her polished saddle shoe. The shoes were almost new, and so were her socks, but they smelled like No Worry. So did her underwear. If only she weren't so skinny and plain-looking. She was starting to worry now and have doubts. She
doing the right thing. There was no way she wanted to stay home and work in the shirt factory. She'd seen girls that graduated a year or two ahead of her getting off the bus at the railroad tracks with threads all over their clothes. They always looked so tired and listless. Her mother called the shirt factory a sweat box. Living with her older sister, Amber, was not going to be divinely wonderful, either. Amber was prissy and meticulous, and she was a liar. But it would be better than living here and working in the factory.
Ruby carried her suitcases out to the hall. Two hours to go. She put the rag rug back in place at the side of the bed. Two quick swipes and the quilt was wrinkle-free. She backed out of the room. Her hand stretched toward the door. If she closed it, she would no longer exist, she thought. Her parents would walk right past it and never think of her. If she left it open, they just might think, this is Ruby's room.
Maybe ... could be ... dumb thought, Ruby.
She pushed the door shut, a defiant look on her face.
The house was so quiet, Ruby thought as her saddle shoes snicked at the rubber treads on the stairs. Her mother, Irma, was probably on the back porch, shelling peas for dinner. Her father had gone uptown for the mail and to shop at the A&P because he said Irma didn't know how to shop and look for bargains. Opal was at catechism class. She was going to miss Opal. Out of necessity she and Opal had banded together against their parents and Amber. She'd promised to write to Opal, but to send the letters to her grandmother's house. Opal had promised never to show the letters to their parents. Opal was going to have a tough time with her gone.
In the wide center hallway, Ruby listened for any sound that might mean her father had returned. The screen door squeaked when she opened it and squeaked again when she closed it. She waited a moment on the front porch to see if she would be called back into the house. A bee buzzed about her knees. Ruby swatted it and killed it with her bare hand. Amber would have squeaked and gone white in the face the same way she'd always gotten white in the face when it was her turn to scrub the porch floor. Because of Amber's regular weekend illnesses, Ruby scrubbed this porch every Saturday for as long as she could remember. She would never again have to do it. Now it was Opal's turn.
Ruby ran, careful not to scuff her shoes, down the street, past the lumber mill, over the railroad tracks, past Riley's Monument Works, where her father worked. She raced past her uncle's garage, over the bridge and up the hill. The smell of stale beer from Bender's beer joint made her hold her breath as she careened around the corner that led to her grandmother's house.
A smile tugged at the corner of Ruby's mouth. She'd said good-bye to Bubba every day for the past two weeks, but when you weren't ever planning on coming back, you couldn't say good-bye often enough. Besides, she
this last visit, this last good-bye.
Almost free. Almost.
Ruby took a moment to drink in the sight of her grandmother's house, to commit it to memory. It was a squat little house made from fieldstone with a matching wall. She'd never sit on that wall again, never lie under the old chestnut tree in the front yard. She loved the old chestnut and the way its branches hung down and covered her like a grand umbrella. She would forget the house she grew up in, but she would never forget this house. Never.
Inside, the kitchen was big and square with cabbage-rose wallpaper that sometimes made her dizzy, but her grandmother loved bright things. The windowsills and shelves held glossy green plants in colorful clay pots, and the room always smelled of cinnamon and orange. The curtains, as cheerful as the wallpaper, were made from linen and trimmed with inch-wide red rick-rack, handsewn by her grandmother. They were changed twice a year, when the mullioned windows were washed. The crazy quilt linoleum on the floor was blinding. What she loved most, though, were the old-fashioned coal stove and the pots that constantly simmered with orange peels. It was a kitchen of pure love. This house was similar to her parents', having been built by the same lumber company, but love had made it into something very different. Love was something she was never going to be without again.
“Ruby, is that you?” her grandmother called from the back porch.
“It's me, Bubba,” Ruby trilled as she made her way past the snowball bush, which was in full bloom. Once she'd picked a bouquet from it for her room, and her mother had thrown it out, saying she didn't want any bugs in the house. Later Ruby had pulled the wasted bouquet from the trash.
Ruby planted a noisy kiss on top of her grandmother's head. “Apple pie tonight, huh?” Her uncle John loved apple pie. Uncle Hank liked rhubarb. Ruby knew there would be two kinds of pie tonight. “I came to say good-bye again.” Ruby laughed.
“I knew you'd come this morning.” The old lady smiled in return. “You look pretty, Ruby. Did you have breakfast?” Ruby nodded. “Are you nervous about going on the train all the way to Washington?”
“No. Well, maybe a little. About Amber mostly. She's supposed to meet me, and she won't like that. But I bought a present for her last week at the company store, so she'll have to be nice to me. I'm going to do my best to get along with her.” She could tell by the anxiety in her grandmother's eyes that she wasn't convincing her.
“You know, Bubba,” Ruby went on, “I feel different ... inside ... I'm changing or else I already changed ... it's not just me going away, either. It's something else, something I can't explain. Maybe it's because I'm turning eighteen next month. But whatever it is, I think it means you don't have to worry about Amber and me. It's going to work out, it really is.”
“I hope so,” Mary Cozinsky mumbled under her breath. “You stand your ground with your sister, Ruby, and don't let her push you around.”
“You're not going to worry about me, are you, Bubba?”
“Every single day until I know there's nothing to worry about. But I'm happy for you, too. Do you remember when we talked about the seasons in a woman's life? You're in the spring of your life, Ruby, the best time of all. Everything is still before you. It's your time to grow, to spread your wings, to turn into the wonderful woman I know you will become. By the time you reach the summer of your life, you'll be married with children of your own. I think by then you'll understand how the cycle works. Right now your head is so full of anticipation and excitement, it's hard for you to think about things like seasons.”
Ruby wanted to tell her she understood perfectly, but then she would have to admit that she knew her beloved grandmother was at the end of the winter of her life. The thought, the words, were unbearable. Better to pretend she was excited. Better just to change the subject.
“I'm going to write to Opal and send the letters to your box number,” she said. “Opal will read them to you. She's going to scrub your kitchen floor on Fridays, and on Wednesdays she'll go to the farm for your pot cheese. She'll pick the blueberries and help you make jelly whenever you're ready. She can iron real good, Bubba. She can do the Sunday shirts if you want her to. You can depend on Opal, Bubba, and I think you should keep her money the way you did for me. Pop will make her put it in the collection if you give it to her.” Ruby's eyes snapped angrily. “Pop gave me my bill this morning. It's so much money. I have to pay rent, buy food, buy tokens for the bus, and a bunch of other stuff. I'll be an old woman before I pay it off. Your parents are supposed to give you a present when you graduate from high school. I didn't get a present. I got a bill for my keep and for all the money I put in the collection basket on Sunday. Eighteen years' worth! I figured it out, Bubba, it's ten cents for every Sunday Mass.” Ruby cried heartbrokenly.
“How much does it all come to?” Mary asked quietly as she stroked Ruby's dark hair.
“Church is $93.60. The bill for my keep is six thousand.” Ruby felt the tremor in her grandmother's body.
“I have a present for you, Ruby,” the old lady crooned. “You have to stop crying now, or your eyes will be red and swollen when you get on the train. Smile for me, Ruby,” she said in a quivering voice. Ruby wiped her eyes on the hem of the sweet-smelling apron her grandmother wore.
“A present?” Ruby's moist eyes glistened. “How big is it?”
“Very small, sweetie. I'm glad you have a pocket in your dress. This ... present has to be a secret. You must promise me that you'll never tell Amber, even if she makes you so angry, you want to shout about it. And you must not tell your father. Not now anyway. Someday, perhaps, when you're secure and happy. Will you promise me, Ruby?”
“Oh, Bubba, you know I will. I never broke a promise. Not a peep. Amber is the last person I'd spill my guts to, you know that.”
Mary fumbled in the pocket of her apron and withdrew a rumpled-up ball of linen. Ruby knew what it was the moment she saw it. She gasped and the old lady's eyes twinkled. Ruby held her breath. It was years since her grandmother had shown her the prize that was wrapped so carefully in cotton and then again in the white handkerchief.
“The czarina's ring! Oh, oh, oh, it's more beautiful than the last time I saw it. Truly, you're giving it to me? I know you promised, but I thought you ... you just wanted to make me feel good. What if someone steals it?” Ruby said, holding out her hand.
“It's your responsibility now, Ruby. It's up to you to make sure it's kept safe.”
It was so heavy, but it felt good in the palm of her hand. The band was wide, reaching almost to her knuckle, where it crested into a cone-shaped pyramid of diamonds and rubies. Ruby sucked in her breath as she struggled to count the stones in the ring. “How many stones are there, Bubba?”
“Lord, child, I don't know.”
“Do you think it's worth two hundred dollars?” Ruby asked naively. The old lady smiled secretly and nodded.
“I'll keep it safe, I swear I will. I won't ever wear it, I promise.”
“You'd look kind of silly if you did.” The old lady chuckled. “This ring is fit only for royalty. The president's wife doesn't have anything half as grand. Only you, Ruby.”
When Ruby's grandfather had been alive, he would regale her with stories of the ring every Sunday after Mass. The more beer he drank, the wilder the stories became. To this day, neither Ruby nor her grandmother knew for certain if the czarina had bestowed the ring on her grandfather for a deed well done or if he stole it, like he said, as he was falling into his beer stupor that was permitted only on Sunday.
“I think she gave it to Grandpop because he was so young and dashing, a true cossack. Don't you, Bubba?”
Mary did not answer, but instead gave her a mysterious little smile, then handed over a small square of white paper. “There's a man's name here who lives in Washington, D.C. He will buy the ring if you ever want to sell it. Your grandfather was going to sell it before he died to make sure I was taken care of, but I wouldn't let him. He was so proud of that ring. Your uncle John and uncle Hank take care of me. Besides,” she chuckled, “my fingers are all crooked. What do I need with a ring? It's yours, child. Although there's going to be a war around here when I die and your father finds out the ring is missing.”
Ruby's eyes filled. She bundled up the ring and stuffed it into her pocket. “I can't wait till I'm eighteen,” she said.
Mary smiled. “Hand me that apple bowl and don't go wishing your life away.”