An early evening rain had fallen. In the encroaching darkness, the streets of Seattle lay like mirrored strips between the glittering gray high-rises.
The dot-com revolution had changed this once quiet city, and even after the sun had set, the clattering, hammering sounds of construction beat a constant rhythm. Buildings sprouted overnight, it seemed, reaching higher and higher into the soggy sky. Purple-haired kids with nose rings and ragged clothes zipped through downtown in brand-new, bright-red Ferraris.
On a corner lot in the newly fashionable neighborhood of Belltown, there was a squat, wooden-sided structure that used to sit alone. It had been built almost one hundred years earlier, when few people had wanted to live so far from the heart of the city.
The owners of radio station KJZZ didn’t care that they no longer fit in this trendy area. For fifty years they had broadcast from this lot. They had grown from a scrappy local station to Washington’s largest.
Part of the reason for their current wave of success was Nora Bridge, the newest sensation in talk radio.
Although her show, Spiritual Healing with Nora, had been in syndication for less than a year, it was already a bona fide hit. Advertisers and affiliates couldn’t write checks fast enough, and her weekly newspaper advice column, “Nora Knows Best,” had never been more popular. It appeared in more than 2,600 papers nationwide.
Nora had started her career as a household hints adviser for a small-town newspaper, but hard work and a strong vision had moved her up the food chain. The women of Seattle had been the first to discover her unique blend of passion and morality; the rest of the country had soon followed.
Reviewers claimed that she could see a way through any emotional conflict; more often than not, they mentioned the purity of her heart.
But they were wrong. It was the impurity in her heart that made her successful. She was an ordinary woman who’d made extraordinary mistakes. She under-stood every nuance of need and loss.
There was never a time in her life, barely even a moment, when she didn’t remember what she’d lost. What she’d thrown away. Each night she brought her own regrets to the microphone, and from that wellspring of sorrow, she found compassion.
She had managed her career with laserlike focus, carefully feeding the press a palatable past. Even the previous week when People magazine had featured her on the cover, there had been no investigative story on her life. She had covered her tracks well. Her fans knew she’d been divorced and that she had grown daughters. The hows and whys of her family’s destruction remained-thankfully-private.
Tonight, Nora was on the air. She scooted her wheeled chair closer to the microphone and adjusted her headphones. A computer screen showed her the list of callers on hold. She pushed line two, which read: Marge/mother-daughter probs.
“Hello and welcome, Marge, you’re on the air with Nora Bridge. What’s on your mind this evening?”
“Hello . . . Nora?” The caller sounded hesitant, a little startled at actually hearing her voice on the air after waiting on hold for nearly an hour.
Nora smiled, although only her producer could see it. Her fans, she’d learned, were often anxious. She lowered her voice, gentled it. “How can I help you, my friend?”
“I’m having a little trouble with my daughter, Suki.” The caller’s flattened vowels identified her as a midwesterner.
“How old is Suki, Marge?”
“Sixty-seven this November.”
Nora laughed. “I guess some things never change, eh, Marge?”
“Not between mothers and daughters. Suki gave me my first gray hair when I was thirty years old. Now I look like Colonel Sanders.”
Nora’s laugh was quieter this time. At forty-nine, she no longer found gray hair a laughing matter. “So, Marge, what’s the problem with Suki?”
“Well.” Marge made a snorting sound. “Last week she went on one of those singles cruises-you know the ones, where they all wear Hawaiian shirts and drink purple cocktails? Anyway, today, she told me she’s getting married again to a man she met on the boat. At her age.” She snorted again, then paused. “I know she wanted me to be happy for her, but how could I? Suki’s a flibbertigibbet. My Tommy and I were married for seventy years.”
Nora considered how to answer. Obviously, Marge knew that she and Suki weren’t young anymore, and that time had a way of pulverizing your best intentions. There was no point in being maudlin and mentioning it. Instead, she asked gently, “Do you love your daughter?”
“I’ve always loved her.” Marge’s voice caught on a little sob. “You can’t know what it’s like, Nora, to love your daughter so much . . . and watch her stop needing you. What if she marries this man and forgets all about me?”
Nora closed her eyes and cleared her mind. She’d learned that skill long ago; callers were constantly saying things that struck at the heart of her own pain. She’d had to learn to let it go. “Every mother is afraid of that, Marge. The only way to really hold on to our children is to let them go. Let Suki take your love with her, let it be like a light that’s always on in the house where she grew up. If she has that for strength, she’ll never be too far away.”
Marge wept softly. “Maybe I could call her . . . ask her to bring her boyfriend around for supper.”
“That would be a wonderful start. Good luck to you, Marge, and be sure and let us know how it all works out.” She cleared her throat and disconnected the call. “Come on, everybody,” she said into the microphone, “let’s help Marge out. I know there are plenty of you who have mended families. Call in. Marge and I want to be reminded that love isn’t as fragile as it sometimes feels.”
She leaned back in the chair, watching as the phone lines lit up. Parenting issues were always a popu- lar topic-especially mother-daughter problems. On the monitor by her elbow, she saw the words: line four/trouble with stepdaughter/Ginny.
She picked up line four. “Hello and welcome, Ginny. You’re on the air with Nora Bridge.”
“Uh. Hi. I love your show.”
“Thanks, Ginny. How are things in your family?”
For the next two hours and thirteen minutes, Nora gave her heart and soul to her listeners. She never pretended to have all the answers, or to be a substitute for doctors or family therapy. Instead, she tried to give her friendship to these troubled, ordinary people she’d never met.
As was her custom, when the show was finally over, she returned to her office. There, she took the time to write personal thank-you notes to any of those callers who’d been willing to leave an address with the show’s producer. She always did this herself; no secretary ever copied Nora’s signature. It was a little thing, but Nora firmly believed in it. Anyone who’d been courageous enough to publicly ask for advice from Nora deserved a private thank-you.
By the time she finished, she was running late.
She grabbed her Fendi briefcase and hurried to her car. Fortunately, it was only a few miles to the hospital. She parked in the underground lot and emerged into the lobby’s artificial brightness.
It was past visiting hours, but this was a small, privately run hospital, and Nora had become such a regu-lar visitor-every Saturday and Tuesday for the past month-that certain rules had been bent to accommodate her busy schedule. It didn’t hurt that she was a local celebrity, or that the nurses loved her radio show.
She smiled and waved to the familiar faces as she walked down the corridor toward Eric’s room. Outside his closed door, she paused, collecting herself.
Although she saw him often, it was never easy. Eric Sloan was as close to a son as she would ever have, and watching him battle cancer was unbearable. But Nora was all he had. His mother and father had written Eric off long ago, unable to accept his life’s choices, and his beloved younger brother, Dean, rarely made time to visit.
She pushed open the door to his room and saw that he was sleeping. He lay in bed, with his head turned toward the window. A multicolored afghan, knitted by Nora’s own hands, was wrapped around his too-thin body.
With his hair almost gone and his cheeks hollowed and his mouth open, he looked as old and beaten as a man could be. And he hadn’t yet celebrated his thirty-first birthday.
For a moment, it was as if she hadn’t seen him before. As if . . . although she’d watched his daily deterioration, she hadn’t actually seen it, and now it had sneaked up on her, stolen her friend’s face while she was foolishly pretending that everything would be all right.
But it wouldn’t be. Just now, this second, she understood what he’d been trying to tell her, and the grieving-which she’d managed to box into tiny, consumable squares-threatened to overwhelm her. In that one quiet heartbeat of time, she went from hopeful to . . . not. And if it hurt her this terribly, the lack of hope, how could he bear it?
She went to him, gently caressed the bare top of his head. The few thin strands of his hair, delicate as spiderwebs, brushed across her knuckles.
He blinked up at her sleepily, trying for a boyish grin and almost succeeding. “I have good news and bad news,” he said.
She touched his shoulder, and felt how fragile he was. So unlike the tall, strapping black-haired boy who’d carried her groceries into the house . . .
There was a tiny catch in her voice as she said cheerfully, “What’s the good news?”
“No more treatments.”
She clutched his shoulder too hard; his bones shifted, birdlike, and immediately she let go. “And the bad news?”
His gaze was steady. “No more treatments.” He paused. “It was Dr. Calomel’s idea.”
She nodded dully, wishing she could think of something profound to say, but everything had already been said between them in the eleven months since his diagnosis. They’d spent dozens of nights talking about and around this moment. She’d even thought she was ready for it-this beginning of the end-but now she saw her na�vet�. There was no “ready” for death, especially not when it came for a young man you loved.
And yet, she understood. She’d seen lately that the cancer was taking him away.
He closed his eyes, and she wondered if he was remembering the healthy, vibrant man he’d once been, the boy with the booming laugh . . . the teacher so beloved by his students . . . or if he was recalling the time, a few years before, when his partner, Charlie, had been in a hospital bed like this one, fighting a losing battle with AIDS . . .
Finally, he looked up at her; his attempt at a smile brought tears to her eyes. In that second, she saw pieces from the whole of his life. She pictured him at eight, sitting at her kitchen table, eating Lucky Charms, a shaggy-haired, freckle-faced boy with banged-up knees and soup-ladle ears.
“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 breasts, 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.”
“No one. Remember the job I got you on that sitcom? You slowed down the first week’s production and made everyone insane with rewrites.”
“My character was an idiot. She didn’t have one funny line.”
Val looked at her, his ice-blue eyes narrowed slowly. “Shall I remind you that the show’s still on the air and another-less talented-comedian is making thirty thousand dollars an episode saying what she’s told to say?”
“It’s a shitty show.” Ruby collapsed into the plush leather chair in front of his desk. It took her a moment to squeeze her ego into a tiny box. “I’m broke. Irma fired me from the diner.”
“Why don’t you call your mother?”
She closed her eyes for a second, drawing in a deep breath. “Don’t go there, Val,” she said quietly.
“I know, I know, she’s the bitch from hell. But come on, Ruby, I saw that article in People. She’s rich and famous. Maybe she could help you.”
“You’re rich and famous and you can’t help me. Besides, she’s helped me enough. Any more motherly attention and I could end up strapped to a table in Ward B singing ‘I Gotta Be Me.’ ” Ruby got to her feet. It took a supreme effort, considering that she wanted to curl into a ball and sleep. “Well, thanks for nothing, Val.”
“It’s that sparkling personality that makes helping you so damned easy.” He sighed. “I’ll try Asia. They love U.S. comedians overseas. Maybe you can do the nightclub circuit.”
It made her feel sick, just thinking about it. “Telling jokes to a translator.” She winced, imagining herself in one of those men’s bars, with naked women writhing up and down polished silver poles behind her. She’d already put in her time in joints like that. Her whole youth had been spent in the shadows behind another performer’s light. “Maybe it’s time for me to give up. Cash in. Throw in the towel.”
Val looked at her. “What would you do?”
Not, don’t do that, Ruby; you’re too talented to give up. That’s what he’d said six years earlier.
“I’ve got half an English lit degree from UCLA. Maybe it would get me a supervisor spot at Burger King.”
“You certainly have the right personality for serving the public.”
She couldn’t help laughing. She’d been with Val a long time, since her first days at the Comedy Store. Val had always been her champion, her biggest fan, but in the past few years, she’d disappointed him, and somehow that was worse than disappointing herself. She’d become hard to work with, temperamental, difficult to place, and, worst of all, unfunny. Val could overcome anything except that. She didn’t know what was wrong with her, either. Except that she seemed to be angry all the time. She should be standing on a ledge somewhere. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Val. Really, I know it’s hard to get work for a prima donna with no talent.”
The moment the words were out, Ruby heard what lay beneath them. Hesitant, afraid, but there nonetheless. A good-bye. And the worst part was that she knew Val heard the same thing, and he didn’t say no, don’t do that, we’re a long way from over.
Instead, he said, “You have as much raw talent as anyone I’ve ever seen. You light up a goddamn room with your smile, and your wit is as sharp as a blade.” He leaned toward her. “Let me ask you a question. When did you stop smiling, Ruby?”
She knew the answer, of course. It had happened in her junior year of high school, but she wouldn’t think about that time-not even to give Val an answer.
Objects in a mirror are closer than they appear. That was true of memories as well; it was best not to look.
“I don’t know.” She spoke softly, refusing to meet his gaze. She wished she could let Val see how frightened she was, how alone she felt. She thought that if she could do that, if she could for once show a friend her vulnerability, she would perhaps be saved.
But she couldn’t do it. No matter how hard she tried, Ruby couldn’t let down her guard. Her emotions were packed tightly inside her, hermetically sealed so that every wound and memory stayed fresh.
“Well,” she said at last, straightening her shoulders, puffing out her unimpressive chest. She had the fleeting sense that she looked absurd, a wounded sparrow trying to impress a peregrine falcon. “I guess I’d better go. I’ll need to pick up some fishnet hose and a can of Mace if I’m going to start hooking.”
Val smiled wanly. “I’ll make the calls about Asia. We’ll talk in a few days.”
“I’m grateful.” She would have added more, maybe even groveled a little, but her throat seemed swol- len shut.
Val came around the desk and closed the distance between them. She saw the sadness in his eyes, and the regret. “You lost yourself,” he said quietly.
“Listen to me, Ruby. I know about getting lost. You need to start over.”
She swallowed hard. This sort of honesty was more at home in other parts of the country, where time was measured in seasons or tides. Here in L.A., time elapsed in thirty-second spots; true emotion didn’t thrive under that kind of pressure. “Don’t worry about me, Val. I’m a survivor. Now, I’m going to go home and learn to speak Japanese.”
He squeezed her shoulder. “That’s my girl.”
“Sayonara.” She wiggled her fingers in an oh-so-California-darling wave and did her best to sashay out of the office. It was tough to pull off, sashaying in a sweat-stained waitress uniform, and the minute she was out of his office, she let go of her fake smile. She walked dully into the elevator and rode it down to the lobby, then headed for her car. The Volkswagen looked like a half-dead june bug, huddled alongside the parking meter. When she got inside, she immediately winced. The seat was scorchingly hot.
There was a parking ticket on her windshield.
She rolled down her window and reached out, yank-ing the paper from beneath the rusted windshield wiper. She wadded it into a ball and tossed it out the window. To her mind, ticketing this rattrap and expecting to get paid was like leaving a bill on the pillow at a homeless shelter.
Before the ticket even hit the street, she’d started the engine and pulled out onto Wilshire Boulevard, where she was immediately swallowed into the stream of traffic.
In Studio City, the streets were quieter. A few neighborhood kids played lethargically in their small front yards. With the risk of fire so high, there was no wasting water for things like slip-n-slides or sprinklers.
Ruby maneuvered past a big, drooling Saint Bernard who lay sleeping in the middle of the street, and pulled up to the curb in front of her apartment complex.
Sopping her forehead, she headed up the stairs. No one came out to say hello; it was too damned hot. Her neighbors were probably huddled in family pods around the window-unit air conditioners in their apartments-the modern L.A. equivalent of cavemen camped around the marvel of fire.
By the time she reached her floor, Ruby was wheezing so badly she sounded like Shelley Winters after her swim in The Poseidon Adventure, and she was practically that wet. Sweat slid down her forehead and caught on her eyelashes, blurring everything.
It took her a moment to open her door; it always did. The shag carpeting had pulled up along the threshold. She finally crammed the door open and stumbled through the opening.
She stood there, breathing hard, staring at the wretched furniture in her dismal little apartment, and felt the hot sting of tears.
Absurdly, she thought: If only it would rain.
Her whole day might have been different if the damned weather had changed.