We already knew.
Ruby was a town baby where we live. Bright skin and a skip down the square, yes, even old men and broken down autos admired her light.
Ruby was a ten year baby when her Grandpaw died. Ruby was a fifteen year girl when she started wearing lipstick to church and cashing her own birthday checks at the bank downtown. Ruby wore pillbox hats. Ruby read horoscopes in the daily rag and believed them. Ruby did not eat the crusts of her sandwiches.
Ruby was a seven year baby when she was first rushed to the hospital. To the morphine and the plaster and the candy stripers and did you hear about the Moseley girl? She fell outta tree and kept falling and, oh, bless her heart and, oh, where was her mother.
Ruby was seven:
The mimosa tree outside of her house dropped sticky pink fuzzies onto her apricot arms, little fingers gripping the jungle-poles, lines of ants continuing up her fleshy mountain forearms. The air was plum pudding and no one could hear the splitting, no, not even mother, Ruby tumbling blue dress arm cracking, a pile of new branches on the ground.
Even then Ruby thought she was dying.
We all already knew this.
We knew that the body was painted up, the mother, oh where was her mother when she was needed, she is a crumpled tissue, now. A crushed hat. We knew that when we looked up at the ceiling we would see a red flower blossom. We knew that if Ruby could do it, anyone was at risk and we gathered as paranoid administrators, frantic mothers, weary preachers.
We did not know Ruby anymore.
We did not know that she was nineteen before she could bear to eat a good breakfast again. We did not know what she was singing.
We broke it down as we awaited the town baby funeral. We sat in crowded Rotary Rooms, holding empty steno pads. We could not read clocks or newspapers or play checkers anymore. We paused at our screen doors, wondering if anyone else was out. If sitting alone was better than together. If the mother had anyone to sit with.
We stood by our front windows and watched the boxes of clothes get shipped off to Good Will. We felt the sob that sank into the cracks of the buildings and caused even the shoulders of the Civil War statues to sag in the square.
We broke it down because we had to. Because we did not get to know.
A lonesome room, we assume, and a silence that boxes off the ears and presses down on them, leaning on the walls and the brain. A cracked coffee cup on the table beside a white mirror. A burnt ring in the wooden table. These are the things we did not know.
We broke it down further and sipped at it. We sat by open windows and noted the squares of light that dogs laid under, like rugs, letting their coats get hot and shiny.
A put-together metal majesty. A room, yes a room, and a ceiling with crimson blooms.
Happiness is a warm, yes we get the reference. We do not laugh because it is not funny.
The gripping metal market, the jet plane inside her lovely lobes.
"Ruby was my best friend," lines of pearls still sob at each other, each secretly wondering if they gave her a push.
For days after the incident we lit candles at the altar and laid carnations and marbles and seashells and peppermint candies at the foot of her framed portrait. No one went to school. Blinded mothers lined up outside of doctor's offices, cold fingers gripping the bouncy shoulders of their teenage daughters, reminding them that it is best to get them checked out, and do we want another Ruby?
We did not know the chemical solution to get the spot off the ceiling, the pharmaceutical placebo drugs that could have helped.
. . .
Weeks after the funeral when the town finally ran out of tissues and everyone's nose was permanently red and raw, the tears turned from soft salt droplets to shots of acid burning the cheek. The mother, oh where was her mother, who fled in the middle of the night to Montgomery or wherever. The floodgates opened and the sky sank from gray to orange. "Why did we ever love such a child, so messed up in the head?" and, "Oh, what a terrible, shaky mother," and we all knew it, and we all hated it.
The hatred was warm metal that everyone could feel in their hands late at night when their pillow fell off the bed and they groped for it in the darkness.
Everyone wore the stain. The yellow house was bulldozed and the splotch on the ceiling was now brown and the splotch on the ceiling was now crushed up into a pile of rubble and the old men watched as the green Tonka trucks tore that mother down.
On Saturday nights at pink sleepover parties girls gathered in circles on the floor, whispering. The horror of it all was delicious on their tongues and they dissected it carefully before flitting back to discussing the belt loops on boy's pants and the cup sizes of their sore tangerines.
What the girls knew:
Ruby, so pretty, too pretty they decided, was a perfectly sweet girl (well, a bit of a gossip) and one day something snapped and oh, where was her mother, and lord, I'm glad we have all found Jesus and will not snap like that. My mother cried for a week, one girl said. They all agreed that they cared deeply.
. . .
Here is what I know:
A few mornings before the yellow house was torn down I saw the mother quietly rolling out of town, blue car softly crushing the gravel and gray dirt. The air was icy; she was wearing sunglasses even though the sun was just rising. I watched her as she slowed to a crawl and pulled off to the side of the road.
She put the car in park and opened the door, slowly at first, but all of a sudden came tumbling out, a pile of mess. She sobbed in the dirt, making sludge with her tears and collecting it underneath her fingernails. Her face was mud pie; her name was Mary. This is something I know.
Nancy Lee Roane is a high school senior living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This is her first publication. She plans to eat a cheeseburger at a Greek food joint. Tonight.