When Ruby comes across the street to our house she always comes to the side door, never to the front. She calls my mom Miss Mary, and everything she says begins with or ends with “sorry.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says over and over while squeezing her eyes shut and biting the coral lipstick off her bottom lip. Her hands shake like she has no control over them.
“Count to ten,” my mom tells her. “Take a deep breath and count.” She gets to three and stops. Then her eyes fly open and tears pour straight out as though a mini garden hose has been turned on underneath her eyelids.
Mom twists her face toward mine and gives me a look that means “you and your sister need to leave now.” We run into the hallway and lie down on the indoor-outdoor carpet. Slowly we crawl toward the kitchen, thumping against the sheet rock wall as we kick and squirm for a better position. We peek around the corner but cannot see anything, just hear mom repeat “count to ten.” We loll around on the carpet poking each other until the side door slams shut. I run to the dining-room window and see the back of Ruby’s summer cotton shift bounce around her knees as she walks back home.
At dinner mom tells dad that Ruby had come over to use the phone again.
“Is Ruby’s phone broken?” my sister asks.
“Ruby doesn’t have a phone,” Mom explains.
“When Ruby needs a phone she can come over and use ours,” Dad states in between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. Mom and Dad say all this so matter-of-factly that I feel stupid asking a question of my own and so don’t. Ruby doesn’t have a phone.
Sometimes she doesn’t have bread either, because one time when she came to the side door Mom gave her half a loaf of day old Wonder Bread. Ruby took it home with her but the next day she brought back a brand new loaf, and that made mom mad. She kept trying to put the Wonder Bread back into Ruby’s shaky hands but Ruby would not take it.
“Sorry. I said I would return it,” she announced, her voice full of sadness.
After dinner I scrape the plates, hang the dishtowels on the line outside and then sit under the big maple tree in our front yard, swatting mosquitoes away. From there I can see Ruby’s little house on the other side of the street and a little to the left. The kitchen window glows yellow and someone moves back and forth behind it. I stare at it until my sister shoves me in the back and I chase her down to the rose bushes and try to make her run right into the big rock in front of the tomato plants. The fireflies come out and we catch a few and put them in the jars Dad made us with holes in the metal tops.
Mom’s time-to-come-in hoot sounds from out the kitchen window and we go inside for a glass of milk and three Oreos apiece. We put on our baby doll pajamas and watch exactly 30 minutes of television before dad tucks us into our twin beds, each with a kiss to the forehead.
We toss our dirty socks back and forth between the beds for a while and then try to crack each other up by putting an “s” in front of every word we speak. “Shail smary sfull sof sgrace,” spits my sister from under the covers. We giggle uncontrollably until Dad comes in and yells that it is time for bed.
Finally, I lie back on my pillow and look out the windows at the branches of our maple tree and the lone street lamp that makes a spotlight on the black asphalt of our road. The boats in the marina behind Ruby’s house gently rock to and fro in their slips, their halyards dinging against the mainsails. The leaves on the maple tree swish in the summer night breeze and the dinging and the swishing gently lull me to sleep.
Then, suddenly, I am awake again and I hear someone running down the street, the slaps of their soles hitting the asphalt hard. A woman’s voice splits the heat and the blackness wide open with four words. “Help! Somebody help me!” I hear a firecracker pop and then another and another.
I look over and see my sister sitting upright in her bed looking straight out the window.
“There must be a party going on down at the sand bar,” I say. She says nothing. “It’s a stupid party,” I repeat softly. I roll over, too groggy to say more.
The next morning I beat my sister down the stairs but the kitchen is empty. Out the picture window I see Mom and Dad talking to our neighbor, Mr. Katsikas. There are two police cars parked in front of Ruby’s house with their whirly red lights on. We put on our flipflops and sweat shirts and join our parents under the maple tree.
“Where’s Ruby?” my sister asks. “What happened at Ruby’s?” No one pays any attention to us. Mr. Katsikas lowers his voice. Mom shoos us back inside.
We do not go inside. We go to down to the rose bushes to look at Ruby’s house. My sister stands on the rock in front of the tomato plants to get a better view. A policeman comes out of Ruby’s front door with a plastic bag. He is holding the plastic bag out to his side like it’s trash. The bag is clear and I see two green pillows inside streaked with red like someone had spilt nail polish all over them.
Neighbors begin to gather in front of our house. I don’t want anyone in front of our house. I don’t want anyone to block my view of Ruby’s. I grab my sister’s hand and we squeeze through the Moynihans and the Malloys to the sidewalk right in front of Ruby’s front door.
There are people moving around inside Ruby’s house. The policeman has put the plastic bag on the back seat of his police car and now he is going back inside. We are the only two on the sidewalk right in front of Ruby’s. We stand very close together. No one tries to shoo us away. No one asks us to move.
Ruby’s going to come out any minute now, I think. She is putting on some coral lipstick maybe. Maybe she is counting to ten. When she comes out she will see us and know that if she needs to make a phone call or is out of bread, it is just a short walk across the street to our side door. She has such a pretty face, Ruby does. All I can think of is Ruby has such a pretty face.