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A dump truck full of red dirt roared by, going the same direction she had to go, shaking the ground under her as it passed. Ruth Ann decided to sit in the driveway a few more minutes, let that truck get way ahead of her before she got on the road herself. She read a story in a magazine about a dump truck accidentally dumping a load of rocks on a car behind it, killing both passengers in the car, a mother and her little girl.
Stories like that just tore her nerves up. She didn’t know why she read them, except what else was there to do in the checkout line at the grocery store? Of course, that truck only had dirt in it, not rocks, so if it did fall on her she might have a chance of surviving. But it just wasn’t worth the risk, and anyway, she wasn’t in no rush. Ruth Ann put the car in park and started opening her mail. Bills, that’s all it was. Phone bill, gas bill, magazine bill. That was twenty dollars a year she didn’t need to spend, but at least Family Circle give her something to look forward to in the mailbox besides bills every month.
There was a postcard too, from Alex. He was working in Dallas for two weeks and wouldn’t be able to come for the weekend. She could just smell the relief in his handwriting, that he didn’t have to spend a day or two with his family. He could’ve called, but she knew how much easier it was to write, to not hear the disappointment in her voice. Well, at least Angela would show up Sunday with the boys. That was better than nothing.
Ruth Ann slid the mail in her pocketbook and put the car in drive. She looked both ways one more time, then pulled out on the road. Seemed like a lot longer than four months she’d been making the trip from Davis to Asheville, a trip that never got any easier, especially not today. It wasn’t so far distance-wise — only sixty-five miles — and took her only an hour and a half to two hours, depending on the traffic and whether or not she had to stop to use the bathroom, which she almost always did. Her bladder had been shrinking ever since she had her first baby, and she figured by now it couldn’t be much bigger than a peanut. No, what really bothered her was all that long time in the car alone, too much thinking and worrying to do between here and there.
As Ruth Ann drove past Cassandra’s house, she noticed the van was gone. They was probably at the mall getting their supper at the cafeteria. Cassandra wasn’t never big on cooking, and their mama had got to be a real danger in the kitchen lately — bad to leave a pot on the stove and forget about it until it caught on fire and set off the smoke alarm.
At the Davis city-limits sign, she slowed down to thirty-five. Town was empty this time of day, nobody on the street. All the stores closed at five o’clock, except the florist. It stayed open until six. Ruth Ann let the car come almost to a standstill as she stared in the window of Cox’s. One great big arrangement in the front of the window had caught her eye. It had birds of paradise mixed in with orange carnations and baby’s breath. White roses in there too. Good Lord, what was they thinking? Didn’t they know birds of paradise don’t need no other flowers to keep them company?
Somebody come up behind her and honked. Ruth Ann looked in the rearview mirror, but she didn’t know whoever it was, so she sped up and went on down the street. At the edge of town she slowed down again and studied the parking lot at Ruby’s Hot Meals. She didn’t see A.J.’s big old red truck in there nowhere. The man must be sick. Every time Ruby cracked the door, he was in there eating. It was a wonder he hadn’t got fat in the two years since Ruth Ann kicked him out.
A little farther on she slowed down again, at the duplexes where A.J. rented an apartment. There was his truck, impossible to miss since the thing was near about as big as a fire truck. He’d probably be paying on it for the rest of his life. For just a second, Ruth Ann thought about stopping to see if he wanted to go to Asheville with her. He’d only been once, the first week Ashley was up there. Ever since then he’d been too busy to go, which was a lie. He was retired. What else did he have to do? No, he just couldn’t take it, that was all.
Ruth Ann put her foot down on the accelerator. He probably didn’t even remember Ashley was coming home today. The selfish bastard.
She sped up to forty-five around the curve where Cleveland Yarn sat, wanting to get past it. It still made her mad that she’d had to work on a Saturday. They always called her when somebody got sick, and now it’d be way past dark before her and Ashley got home. She was supposed to have picked her up that morning. Maybe it was for the best though. At least she’d been so busy at work she hadn’t had time to think, and now they could just come home and go to bed and not have to sit and stare at each other, wondering what to say.
After she passed the mill, she set the cruise control to fifty-five and settled back in her seat. She could relax a little the twenty-five miles to I-40. Nothing between here and there but corn and cows and convenience stores. She enjoyed this part of the drive. It was the interstate tore her nerves up.
She passed a little white store with two old men in overalls sitting out front. Every time she rode by, there they sat in that same spot, and they always threw up a hand and waved. She didn’t wave back. She didn’t even know them. And besides, she didn’t feel like waving. It wasn’t like she was out for a pleasure cruise.
Ruth Ann slid a hand inside her pocketbook and felt for the shape of a cigarette pack. Then she remembered for about the millionth time that she’d quit. She snatched her hand out and put it back on the wheel.
Hands at ten and two. That’s what Mr. Howard taught in tenth grade. Now, that was somebody she hadn’t thought about in a while. Ruth Ann had been in love with him all through driver’s ed. He was a real gentleman, and a gentle man. A.J. could’ve taken lessons from Mr. Howard.
She twisted the radio tuning knob and picked up some staticky music, then stopped when she heard a familiar tune — our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today. Lord, Tammy Wynette. She hadn’t heard her in years. Normally Ruth Ann didn’t like country music — too twangy — but that song said it all.
She’d almost forgot about it being the first anniversary of her divorce from A.J. Now, wasn’t that something? One whole year, two years since the separation. Something to celebrate. She should’ve took off for Daytona Beach, or maybe even Atlantic City. Anywhere but where she was right now. That was the story of her life, though, never being able to cut loose because she was too dang responsible.
As she headed up the on ramp to the interstate, Ruth Ann cut the radio off. She put Ashley and A.J. and everything else out of her mind in order to concentrate on driving. When the kids was little and bounced around the car like basketballs, making all kinds of racket, she’d had to train herself to tune everything out. The thought of killing one of them in a car wreck give her nightmares, even still. She kept the cruise control on fifty-five, even though the legal limit was sixty-five.
By the time she got to Old Fort, traffic thinned out some, and Ruth Ann relaxed a little bit as the car downshifted for the climb up Old Fort Mountain. She didn’t even look to her left like most people done, to see the view. She’d been looking off at them mountains and valleys ever since she could remember. It was about as familiar to her as the road from her house to the mill. Her mama and daddy used to take them up to Madison County to visit at least twice a year, more if somebody got married or died. None of them had been back up there in years though, not since her daddy died. Her mama never acted like she wanted to go after that.
It was strange how a road and some scenery could bring back so many memories. Her and Cassandra and their brothers used to hate going to Madison County, because it was such a long car ride and Clark used to always get sick and throw up in the backseat. He had to hold a big old pickle jar on his lap the whole way, and it was usually full by the time they got where they was going. Ruth Ann had always wondered why her mama never brought the lid to that jar. It might’ve saved them shivering in the cold with the windows rolled down because of the smell.
Once they got up there to Slatey Knob, they had fun running loose on top of that mountain with their cousins. But then it was back in the car, back to Davis, and Mama always in a bad mood, picking at Daddy’s driving all the way home. Her mama didn’t like going, but she didn’t like leaving even more. Ruth Ann had always known there was something troublesome between her mama and daddy, and she knew it had to do with Madison County. Whatever it was, though, they kept to themselves.
The car topped the mountain and picked up speed down into the Swannanoa Valley, past the Blue Ridge Assembly and the sign for Black Mountain. It hit Ruth Ann all of a sudden that this really was the last time she’d have to make this trip. She didn’t know whether to feel relieved or not, because she still didn’t know what in the world she was going to do with that girl once she got her home.
Why couldn’t Ashley have just finished high school and gone on to college like she was supposed to, like Angela and Alex did? Then Ruth Ann’s biggest worry right now would be coming up with tuition money and spending money. She could handle that. But Ashley had never done what Ruth Ann wanted, not from day one. Her whole problem was she was too much like her daddy, never thinking about consequences — selfish, really.
Then again, Ruth Ann thought, maybe it was her fault. Maybe Ashley heard all that crying and carrying on she done nearly the whole nine months she was pregnant. Doctors nowadays was saying how babies in the womb know exactly what’s going on around them. Angela’s doctor told her to read to Bryan and Jonathan while they was still in her, and look how smart they turned out. Both boys was in accelerated programs at school, so they must be something to it, though Ruth Ann would hate to think of some of the things Ashley heard. She loved Ashley, but that didn’t change the fact she was an accident. Of course, she’d be lying if she said the other two was planned.
Back in May when Ashley called out of the blue, Ruth Ann had been tempted to hang up on her. No word from the girl in nearly a year and suddenly she decides she needs to talk to her mama? But then Ashley started crying and said she was in jail in Asheville and could Ruth Ann please come? Ruth Ann’s heart nearly stopped when she heard that, and her stomach just drawed up in a knot. She’d been so afraid it would eventually come to jail or worse, but she reckoned nothing could prepare a parent for something like that when it actually happened. She prayed Ashley hadn’t killed somebody, and felt such relief when it turned out she got caught shoplifting at the Asheville mall. Ruth Ann had told Ashley she’d come that afternoon and hung up the phone. All she could think at the time was how things didn’t seem to have changed much since the last time they talked.
The last time was right after Ashley turned eighteen, right after Ruth Ann and A.J. signed their final divorce papers, right after her mama had started going downhill so bad. That was the first time in her life Ruth Ann thought she understood what a nervous breakdown must feel like. Almost exactly a year ago to the day, what she had wanted most in the world was to run away, get as far away from Davis and her family as she could possibly get. It was all too much for one person to handle, and it wasn’t fair. Life just wasn’t fair, which was another one of her mama’s favorite sayings, only she always said it like it was something you get used to.
Ruth Ann had felt alone a lot in her life, but never more than that day Ashley run away for the last time. Ruth Ann had got home from work and there was the back door standing wide open and nobody home. At first she didn’t notice anything unusual. She put her pocketbook down on the kitchen table and headed to her room to change clothes. But on the way down the hall she got a funny feeling and went back to the living room. Something wasn’t right. She turned around in a circle in the middle of the room, then stopped and realized the TV was gone. And the VCR. She went to the kitchen and the microwave was gone too. What in the world? She’d been robbed? She hollered for Ashley but got no answer. She was a little bit scared to go through the rest of the house, but then figured whoever it was must be long gone. She checked her room and nothing seemed to be missing there. Ashley wasn’t in her room, but everything looked okay there too. Until Ruth Ann noticed the closet door was open and Ashley’s suitcase was gone. She opened drawers and saw that half Ashley’s clothes was gone too.
It took a minute to sink in. Her own child had robbed her and then run off? Ruth Ann sat down on the bed and just stared. How could this be? How had she raised a child that would do such a thing? About that time the little white princess phone on Ashley’s night table started ringing and Ruth Ann picked it up.
“Mama?” It was Ashley.
From the Trade Paperback edition.