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Mother's Day.

"Dawn? You over there, hon?" Ruby tries to shush her hard breaths long enough to hear whatever sounds respond. Her lungs and arteries are clattering too loud. She can't be sure there's only silence through the bathroom wall of her apartment. "I know you told me you was off to Abilene this morning to visit that sweet Anthony of yours. I expect you've left. Your old friend Ruby sure could use a hand, though, honey, if you're there." She pictures her young neighbor sound asleep, snuggled under that sunflower quilt her grandma left her, the one she'd shown to Ruby when they'd visited one evening in the hall. Then she pictures Dawn brushing her teeth, swishing mouthwash--sure, that's why she can't holler back just yet. Ruby doesn't care to picture Dawn zipping down I-70 in her little red Japanese sedan, sun at her back, singing to her radio's love songs. She wants to save that lonely, pretty picture for another, safer time.

What time is it, anyway? Noon? Surely not. She tries to recollect whatever TV images she'd last seen when she clicked the button, right before she hauled herself into the bathroom, but she can't. Except for movies, something with a real good story, TV programs have become almost impossible for her to watch. Her focus shifts, dispels, reforms, like bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. She doesn't really care except that it's another symptom of a pattern more profound. "Mama, pay attention," Grant will say before he tells her something else she doesn't want to hear. As she gets older, as her radius of life shrinks tighter like a spotlight closing in, befuddlement moves in for company.

And so the TV talk just buzzes in her ears while Ruby finds herself constructing her own pictures, watching her own stories play themselves out in her head. She's drawn to certain favorites. Sometimes small details will differ in her recollections. Sometimes when she remembers taking leave of Grant at that train station in Chicago, its ceilings high as those inside the sanctuary of St. Francis, the railroad yard awash with sunlight, she sees not only Grant, who after kissing her good-bye is climbing up the steps with Mrs. Vincent Allen, but sees herself holding another baby in her arms. Now why is that, when Grant's the only one she ever had? Other times, the rerun of a memory will bring her something true and half-forgotten, some small, unsought surprise: She'll hear again the way Grant dropped his S's when he baby-talked at 3, saying 'poon for spoon, and 'kin for skin. She'll see again the creases in her father's hands, her mother's smile.

But when is this? This is Sunday. Grant would come at 2. Or 3. There 'bouts. He'd rescue her from this damn stupid helpless old lady-type predicament: slipped and fallen, stuck buck naked in her bathtub. Her bathing stool has tipped beyond the bathtub's edge, its stubby legs point back at her across the room, accusing, rigid as the legs of some poor animal run over, undiscovered 'til the morning after. Seen this way, the stool looks like a smaller version of the metal walker leaning up against the wall, that stolid and deaf sentry guarding Ruby in her latest stupid and embarrassing old-lady quandary. Is she crazy, too, regarding props and crutches in this way?

Now Ruby, girl, she tells herself, don't turn things into more than what they really are. She looks around for other points of focus. Thank Jesus that she isn't blind. Or is she? Would someone else know whether that's a towel or housecoat hanging from a hook upon her bathroom door? To her it looks a wide and squarish stripe of blue. She turns her head the other way, to face the wall. "Dawn?" Just beyond her nose, drops of water climb the tiles, how far? One, two, three, four ... nine rows high. How about that? Weak as a baby she might be, but when she topples she can make a mighty splash.

"Don't you worry none, sweetheart. Ruby's gonna be all right. Took a little tumble in the bathtub, that's all, honey. This ain't so serious. This ain't no heart-attack like May." She's brave enough to say this now, 10 or 15 minutes past the slip into the tub, her racing ticker slowed back down, her wind for talk returning. "No broken bones. No stroke or fit. This here's just aggravation, Dawn, that's all." Instead of reassuring her, sounding the names of these more serious of threats, her body's past betrayals, only brings her down. And now that her chest's quit hammering so bad, she notices her bones do hurt. Her forearm's tender all the way from wrist to elbow. Thank Jesus she didn't crack her head. Thank him again she has a son who visits every Sunday. After Mass or morning golf, after lunch, soon as prissy Vera lets him go.

"Maybe Grant will bring that hateful wife of his today," she calls out to the bathroom wall. This close, the blue porcelain tiles seem to tickle her lips. Or is that just her voice, bouncing back as echo? "I hope he does. Not that I care to see her, as a rule. And she ain't got the time of day for me, oh no, not with her Garden Club, her Zeta Pi, or whatchacallit rich gal service club." Ruby takes a gulp of air, reminds herself her pills are way beyond her reach, she needs to take it easy now.

"Dawn, you know Grant's wife's ashamed of me? Her husband's one and only mama. That's right, honey. Because I'm just a plain and lumpy railroad gal, I reckon. Don't talk pretty, like she does. Take my shoes off, company or no. I think a body lives to 80, she deserves a little comfort." Ruby slowly straightens out her left leg, tries to flex her toes. Is that her foot down there? She gets a sudden picture of herself 10 years ago, at 70, doing water exercises with those other old gals at the Y. How girlish silly they could be. Plump and grey, some balding, some of them lopsided from a missing breast, they giggled, splashed, and hugged each other like a pack of second graders. Why, underwater everyone gets wrinkles.

"Plus, Vera she don't understand why I won't move into the city, save Grant driving 60 miles, more than a hundred if you count both ways like Vera does. I don't mean moving in with them, of course. Lord, wouldn't she consider that contamination? She only lets me see my grandkids maybe twice a year, like they're some kind of holy-who-knows-what. Aaron's all of 34 now. Lolly's 31. Vera says they don't have time to visit, acts like they're the movie stars instead of Grant. She don't go in for hugging, neither. But I don't let that bother me: I used to squeeze them kids and feel them getting bigger in their bones, harder in their muscles. Listen, honey, I'll tell you something crazy. Maybe four days afterwards my hands could still recall those kids, the feel of them. Is it that way when you take leave of Anthony in Abilene?" No answer. Course not. Is she crazy?

This is Sunday: Mother's Day. Dawn was going out to see her own ma at the farm.

Honey, you know I don't want to leave this place. You know there's railroad men, old-timers who still recognize me from those days I kept the payroll straight at Santa Fe? There's this one who brings the meals-on-wheels the second Thursday of the month. Another one I sometimes see at Dr. Gene's. Those fellas aren't afraid of hugs, I promise you. There's certain things old bodies still appreciate." Was that a cackle or a sigh that met her ricocheting off the bathroom tiles?

What was she saying, anyway? What was that thing that sounded strange upon her tongue? Oh--wanting prissy Vera here. Least Vera then could fetch her clothes. Least Vera, even with her makeup and her fancy Sunday dress, was still a woman under all, in that no different from the plump and cheery nurse who comes to help her out on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. Cora Schlabach. Not afraid to look at anything, if need be, even touch. Asking during one of Ruby's convalescent sponge baths, Did you wash your little sister, hon? Little sister! Jesus! Ruby laughed for days. Even John, in the good years of their marriage, never talked that way. Shy and nervous, even in the darkest dark. The pain he caused by leaving wasn't from a broken heart.

She'd rather any woman, even Dawn next door, would get to her before Grant does. She doesn't mind he sees her when her teeth are out, her thin white hair uncombed and wild. But not buck naked. Lord, that seems too cruel. Ruby doesn't even want to picture that: Grant, her son, coming through that door and finding her aslump like some gross fleshy fish, tits dragging on her belly, knees up so her back won't ache, little sister winking at the world. Jesus Christ almighty. Ruby flops her hand against the bottom of the tub, old knuckles rapping on the slick and traitorous porcelain. Her son is 62. Will Grant be strong enough to lift her out, maybe even carry her? And then what parts of her would sway and dangle? Oh no. Lord, no.

She switches to a picture then of Grant at 17, twirling Judy Garland clear across his back, her poofed-out skirt a wave of plaid, and setting her down safe to dance with Micky Rooney and the other kids. Grant's told her 20 times it's just a studio in Hollywood, but in her picture memory it still looks like a Kansas barn. Not so different from those barns where Ruby watched her parents square dance Saturdays, back in the 1920s. Papa in his felt cream-colored Stetson. Mama's boots had little tassels on the side, her bodice white and ruffled ...

Lord help me, Jesus. Broadway Babies. Cabaret. Andy Rooney Goes to Catalina. She has the still shots from these and all the other movies in her picture albums. Plus another scrapbook full of Grant's report cards from the MGM school all the movie kids attended. Once, when her nice neighbor Dawn paged through these photos with her, she'd looked up kind of shy and quizzical. Gosh, Ruby. It seems to me you should be, you know, kinda rich. Not meaning to sound rude, sweet gal, schoolteacher curious is all. All she meant was this: How come the mama of a movie star, the mama of a boy seen standing arm in arm with Judy Garland, pals with Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Rin Tin Tin, hibernates in this old, saggy, low-rent room in rusty, dusty Junction City, Kansas? Why wasn't she on Easy Street? What should Medicaid and railroad pensions matter to the likes of her?

It does seem kind of curious. Sometimes she thinks besides the photographs, the souvenirs, the postcards from the '40s, her memories alone should make her rich. The picture that she carries in her head of Grant, at 12, wearing his bone-white three-piece suit, winning that dance contest at the Kansas State Fairground in the city, shaking hands with the governor's wife. Winning first prize once again in that grand, chandeliered ballroom up in Chicago, the two of them chauffeured after to a fine, expensive hotel restaurant, treated there like royalty by Mr. Vincent Allen and his wife. Ruby still remembers weighing in her hand the hotel silverware, turning it to watch its shine, and realizing this is really silverware, her own use of the word has been a lifelong lie.

"You know, hon," Ruby says real quietly, not meaning this for Dawn unless she's listening up close; she runs her finger down the grout between the tiles. "Grant Brandon isn't his true name. I mean the one his daddy and I give him. That was Edwin. Edwin Powell. That slick press agent Vincent Allen talked him into changing it." At the time it hadn't seemed so bad. Why, after John Powell left her, she herself reclaimed her maiden name of Walkiewicz. Nobody ought to bear a name they didn't like.

And as for riches, well, Grant never really was a star. Just one more contract chorus kid. Because she didn't want her son alone out there in Tinsel Town and didn't want to lose her good job with the Santa Fe, Ruby sent her mama out to chaperone. A portion of Grant's movie money paid the mortgage on the bungalow that he and MeeMaw shared. He bought himself a car.

She still remembers how she clutched Peg Heller's hand the first time she saw Grant's face up on screen, down at the Vista Theater. Ruby almost wet herself from the excitement, but she didn't dare get up, wouldn't pull her eyes away until the credits, didn't want to risk missing another look at Grant. Poor Peg yelping from the pain, yanking her hand out of Ruby's just to see if it was whole. What year would that have been now? 1932?

A couple years the studio was slow to issue Grant's new contract, letting some few nervous months lapse in between. This was the writing on the wall they were too ignorant to read, back then. By the middle of the War, they didn't even get a Christmas card from Vincent Allen. Like several of the other movie kids, Grant got cut loose at 22, too gangly for the teenage chorus line. Thank Jesus, Grant had put some money back, enough to move his ancient Meegaw back to Kansas where she'd wanted to be buried. Ruby paid a good chunk of his fees at Notre Dame. In '58 he took a job as office manager for a Kansas City clothing store. Then six years later used his semi-famous name to open up his own store, men's fine suits and formal wear, on the city's north side as the more affluent moved that way. So is the question proper, after all? Hasn't everybody made out fine? Isn't everybody rich enough?

Ruby shivers, folds her arms across her chest. The water's cold. The air feels even colder. What time is it? Ruby spies a glowing on the west wall, where the window is. It must be afternoon at last: the curtain looks illuminated. She'd like to feel a band of that warm sunshine on her chest, her face, her chilly hands. May 1st they always cut the furnace off downstairs. She used to have a small, electric heater in her bathroom. Grant removed it when she got the walker, didn't trust her not to fry herself. When did her boy become the parent, she the child?

Ruby reaches both hands forward, grasps her right leg underneath the knee and tries to straighten it. She still has feeling in her toes, enough to graze the tub's far edge. Now where's that little drain plug lever? Where? There. Even though her leg is aching now, she manages to fit the shaft between her toes and pull. She hears a click and gurgle. Tired and relieved she lets her leg fall back too hard into the tub--she bangs her heel. In that new hurt, she forgets about her forearm, sore already, and drops it, too, against the bottom of the tub. Sweet Jesus! For a moment she sees flashes of red light. "Grant!" she cries. "I need you, Grant!"

He was no more help now than he was last winter when she fell. Why didn't he mop up the snowmelt in her hall? Bring her mail inside for her each day? Why wasn't he the one to find her, cover her bare twisted legs, scoop her up, and help her to the hospital? Where was he when she needed him? He could change his name a dozen times, he's still the son of selfish, cowardly John Powell. What use are they, these men who take so much from her then disappear?

She gets a picture of that pretty speech Grant made when she turned 70: Grant and Vera, all the grandkids beaming at her round their table at the fancy city steakhouse. Mama, the life we live--all of us--we owe to you. You were a single parent and a working mother back before these terms were popular. You raised me, taught me, supported me, and loved me. All that I am I owe to you. This speech is like a soundtrack in her memory, but the faces of these loved ones disappear and there's just Grant, alone and airborne, waltzing gaily through his own charmed life, dancing across movie lots and ballrooms, pirouetting gracefully through nightclubs and golf courses, mansions out in Western Hills, across green campus lawns. All these high-tone settings seeming natural to him and Vera, comfortable as home.

"Dawn?" she cries. Lungs hurting from the effort, she whispers now. "Hey, honey. I ever tell you I myself won contests as a girl?" It's true. The pretty dark-haired little pixie in those vivid, oldest picture memories was her, Miss Ruby Walkiewicz. Once in her life she was herself more than just the mother of Grant Brandon. "I don't mean dancing, honey. No, I used to sing at talent shows. That and whistle. Folks at church called me the little Ruby Meadowlark. I whistled `Red, Red Robin' and `Dixie' for the D.A.R. I sang and whistled for the bank directors' meeting. Took second place at the chataqua in St. Joseph. I was a little bitty thing, you understand. 'Bout 6 or 7 then."

Her mama always sat up front, proud as you please and smiling, the other kids dropped off with Mrs. Martin for the afternoon. At the finish of her program, the chairman or director or the president, someone in charge, would gather Ruby's hand in his. Maybe she'd get flowers. Once she found a silver dollar pressed into her palm. Oh, this was long before she met John Powell, years before she gave her son up to America's bright dream. Lifetimes long before her only audience was doctors, nurses, now this slick and silent, casket-cold blue bathtub tile.

She wore a black-and-white starched pinafore, her hair in braids. Her mama's lipstick shone a silvery pink. Sometimes while she whistled, Ruby closed her eyes and watched the notes go bobbing up and down the staff. Why sure, she carried pictures in her head then, too! And so these pictures were a part of her, and always, not just presents from this new, late suitor called Befuddlement. See how the punch bowl glistens in the light. Watch her mama's button shoe--such tiny feet!--nod up and down in time. Ruby keeps her eyes closed through a song's duration, opens them at last to see the rows of grown-up faces smiling back at her. She runs her hands along her skirt to smooth it down over her petticoats. Listen to the warm applause for her performance. Across the cool air of the humming auditorium somebody's bringing her a shawl to lay across her chilly shoulders, approaching with a loving look and outstretched hands.

RICHARD PLANT is a writer living in Staunton, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Short Story
Date:May 1, 2001
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