Summer Island Page 3

“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.

“I know.”

“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.

Chapter Two

June was a hard month in Seattle. It was in this season, the school bells rang for the last time and the peonies and delphiniums bloomed, that the locals began to complain that they'd been cheated. The rains had started in October (invariably Seattleites swore it had come early this year); by the last week in May, even the meteorologically challenged denizens of Seattle had had enough. They watched the news religiously, seeing the first tantalizing shots of people swimming in the warm waters farther south. Relatives began to call, talking on cell phones as they stood outside to barbecue. Summer had come to every other corner of America.

The locals saw it as a matter of fairness. They deserved summer. They'd put up with nine solid months of dismal weather and it was past time for the sun to deliver.

So, it was hardly surprising that it rained on the day Nora Bridge celebrated her fiftieth birthday. She didn't take the weather as an omen or a portent of bad luck.

In retrospect, she should have.

Instead, she simply thought: Rain. Of course. It almost always rained on her birthday.

She stood at the window in her office, sipping her favorite drink-Mumm's champagne with a slice of fresh peach-and stared out at the traffic on Broad Street. It was four-thirty. Rush hour in a city that had outgrown its highway system ten years ago.

On her windowsill, dozens of birthday cards fanned along the gleaming strip of bird's-eye maple.

She'd received cards and gifts from everyone who worked on her radio show. Each one was appropriate and lovely, but the most treasured card had come from her elder daughter; Caroline.

Of course, the joy of that card was tempered by the fact that, again this year; there had been no card from Ruby.

“You'll be fine tomorrow,” she spoke softly to her own reflection, captured in the rainy window. She gave herself a little time to wallow in regret-ache for the card that wasn't there--and then she rallied. Fifteen years of therapy had granted her this skill; she could compartmentalize.

In the past few years, she'd finally gotten a grip on her tumultuous emotions. The breakdowns and depressions that had once plagued her life were now a distant, painful memory.

She turned away from the window and glanced at the crystal clock on her desk. It was four-thirty-eight.

They were down in the conference room now, setting out food, bottles of champagne, plates filled with peach slices. Assistants, publicists, staff writers, producers, they were all preparing to spend an hour of their valuable personal time to put together a “surprise” party for the newest star of talk radio.

She set her champagne flute down on her desk and opened one of her drawers, pulling out a small black Chanel makeup case. She touched up her face, then headed out of the office.

The hallways were unusually quiet. Probably everyone was helping out with the party. At precisely four-forty-five, Nora walked into the conference room.

It was empty.

The long table was bare; no food was spread out, no tiny bits of colored confetti lay scattered on the floor. A happy-birthday banner hung from the overhead lights. It looked as if someone had started to decorate for a party and then suddenly stopped.

It was a moment before she noticed the two men standing to her left: Bob Wharton, the station's owner and manager; and Jason Close, the lead in-house attorney.

Nora smiled warmly. “Hello, Bob. Jason,” she said, moving toward them. “It's good to see you.”

The men exchanged a quick glance.

She felt a prickling of unease. “Bob?” Bob's fleshy face, aged by two-martini lunches and twenty-cigarette days, creased into a frown.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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