Summer Island Page 7

“Good. Sit here. Someone will come and get you when it's time to go on.” The woman consulted her papers. “You get two minutes up front. You were a last-minute guest, so there's no time for an interview; we'll just have to make do. Be fast and be funny.” With a quick sniff, the woman was gone.

Ruby collapsed on the sofa. Suddenly she was more than nervous. She was terrified. Be funny.

What had she been thinking? She wasn't funny. Her material might be funny, but she wasn't. It usually took her three minutes into a routine before she calmed down enough to make people laugh.

So, a minute after she was finished, she'd be a riot.

She shot to her feet. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought for a second that someone was at the door.

“Calm down, Ruby,” she said, forcing her fingers to uncurl. She focused on her breathing. In and out, in and out. “You are funny. You are.”

There was a knock at the door. “They're ready for you, Miss Bridge.”

“Oh, my God.” Ruby glanced at the wall clock.

She'd been standing here, hyperventilating, for thirty minutes, and now she couldn't remember one goddamn line of material.

The door swung open.

Bird lady stood there, pointy face tilted to the left. “Miss Bridge?”

Ruby exhaled slowly, slowly. “I'm ready,” she said, and though she was facing the woman, she was really talking to herself. She was ready; she'd been ready all her life.

She followed the woman toward the stage. As she got closer; she could hear the familiar strains of the opening music. Then came Joe's voice; the audience laughed in response to something he said.

“Remember,” the woman said in a stage whisper, “we want opinions, the more outrageous and controversial the better.”

Ruby nodded in understanding, although truthfully, she didn't think she had an opinion on anything right now except her own shortcomings. And as an added bonus, she was sweating like a geyser. Mascara was probably running down her cheeks.

She'd look like something out of Alien by the time-

“Ruby Bridge!” Her name roared through the sound system, chased by the sound of applause.

Ruby pushed through the curtains, smiling to the best of her ability. She forced herself not to squint, although the lights were so bright she couldn't see anything. She just hoped she didn't walk off the end of the stage.

She went to the microphone. It made a fuzzy, crackling sound as she pulled it off its stand. “Well,” she said with a bright smile, “it's nice to know I'm not the only person who can come to a talk show in the middle of the day. Of course, it's easy for me. I was fired yesterday. Fired, from a trendy, shit-ass restaurant that I won't name--but it sounds like Irma's Hash House. I won't even tell you what I thought we'd be selling ...”

A smattering of laughter.

“Actually, if they were going to fire me, I'm glad it happened on Thursday. Friday is all-you-can-eat night. And trust me, people take that literally. Irma's is the only restaurant in L.A. where they have defibrillators on the table. Ketchup? Mustard? Restart your heart?” She let silence have a beat of her time. “I mean, this is the new millennium. I kept saying to people, for the love of God, eat fruit.”

More laughter, deeper this time. It gave her confidence.

She grinned, then launched into the rest of her routine, saving the best jokes-about her mother-for last.

At the end of her abbreviated routine, Ruby stepped back from the mike. Amid the beautiful sound of applause, Joe Cochran crossed the stage toward her. He was smiling, which was definitely a good sign.

He placed a hand warmly on her shoulder and turned to face the crowd. “You've all met the very funny Ruby Bridge. Now, let's meet the rest of our players for tonight. There's family therapist Elsa Pine, author of the best selling book Poisonous Parents, and the honorable Sanford Tyrell, congressman from Alabama.”

Elsa and Sanford walked onstage, looking like a pencil and a softball. They were careful not to make eye contact with each other.

Joe clapped his hands together. “Let's get started.”

The three guests followed Joe to the artfully arranged leather chairs on the stage. Joe sat down in the center seat, then looked up at the audience and smiled. “I don't know about you all, but I'm sick and tired of the way our judicial system handles criminals. Every time I open the paper, I read about some psychopath who killed a little girl and got off because the jury felt sorry for him. I mean, sorry for him. Who's looking out for the victims here?”

“Now Joe.” Elsa leaned forward, her eyes narrowed and hard beneath the sensible, round glasses. She was so thin, Ruby wondered how her lungs could fill with air without knocking her over. “Criminals aren't born they're made. It makes perfect sense to understand that some people have been so abused by their parents that they no longer know right from wrong.”

“Little lady,” the good congressman said, his florid face creasing into a good-ole-boy grin, “that's about as wrong-headed as a filly can be.”

Ruby frowned at the audience. "Did he call her a filly? Tell me I heard wrong ...


Elsa ignored it. “You heard right. Congressman-”

“Call me Sanford.” He pulled almost four syllables out of his name.

“The measure of a society is its compassion.”

“What about compassion for the victim's family,” Joe said, “or do you bleeding-heart liberals just want us to be compassionate toward the murderer?” He looked at Ruby. “You know something about toxic parents, Ruby. Is everything wrong in your life your mother's fault?”

Elsa nodded. “Yes, Ruby, you of all people should understand how deeply a parent can wound a child. I mean, your mother is a huge proponent of marriage. She positively waxes poetic about the sanctity of the vows-”

Ruby laughed. “So does Bill Clinton.”

Elsa wouldn't be sidetracked by the audience's laughter. “You were probably the only person in America who wasn't surprised by the Tattler today.”

“I don't read the tabloids,” Ruby answered.

A whisper moved through the audience, chairs squeaked. Joe's enthusiastic smile dimmed. He shot a quick look at bird woman, who was standing just off-stage. Then he leaned forward. “You haven't read today's Tattler?”

Ruby's frown deepened. “Is that a crime now?”

Joe reached down, and for the first time Ruby noticed the newspaper folded beneath his chair. He picked it up, handed it to her. “I'm sorry. You were supposed to have known.”

Ruby felt a sudden tension in the room, the kind of hush that fell just before a bar fight started. She took the newspaper from him, opened it. At first, all she noticed was the headline: RAISING MORE THAN SPIRITS. It made her smile. How did they come up with this stuff?

Then she saw the photograph.

It was a blurry, grainy shot of two naked people entwined. The editors had carefully placed black “privacy strips” across the pertinent body parts, but there was no denying what was going on. Or who the woman was.

Ruby looked helplessly at the faces around her. Joe appeared focused, a dog poised on the scent. The therapist frowned thoughtfully. They were imagining her pain.

She tossed the newspaper down in disgust. It landed on the floor with a muffled thwack. "There's a lesson to women everywhere in this. When your lover says,

“One little photo, honey, just for us,” you better cover your naked ass and run."

Elsa leaned forward. “How does it make you feel to see-”

Joe raised his hands. “We're getting off the topic here. The question is, how much of our screw ups are our fault? Does a bad parent give someone a free ride to commit crime?”

“This country's gone excuse crazy,” the congressman said, not meeting Ruby's gaze. “Every time some loony bin goes crazy, we put his mother on trial. It ain't right.”

“Exactly!” Joe said. “Too damn bad if you were abused. If you do the crime, you do the time.”

Ruby sat perfectly still. There was no reason for her to speak, and truthfully, she couldn't think of a thing to say. She knew she'd given Uproar what it had wanted--a reaction. Her surprise was icing on the cake. By tomorrow, she knew her blank-eyed, dimwitted reaction to the scandal would lead every report. She'd look like an idiot from coast to coast.

She should have known it would be like this ... her big break. What a joke. How could she have been so naive?

Finally, she heard Joe wrapping up. She blinked, trying to look normal.

“That's all the time we have for today, folks. Tune in next week, when our subject will be communicating with the dead-possible? Or just plain fraud? Thank you.”

The applause sign lit up and the audience responded immediately, clapping thunderously.

Ruby rose from her chair and moved blindly across the stage. People were talking to her; but she couldn't hear anything they were saying.

Someone touched her shoulder. She jumped and spun around.

“Ruby?” It was Joe. He was standing beside her, his handsome face drawn into a tight frown. “I'm really sorry about ambushing you. The story broke yesterday. It never occurred to us that you'd miss it. Every station covered it, and since so much of your material is about your relationship with your mother ...” He let the explanation flounder.

“I turned off my phone and television,” she answered, then added, "I was getting ready for the show

He sighed. “You thought this was your big break. And it turned out-”

“Not to be.” She cut him off. The pity in his voice was more than she could bear. She knew he used to be a stand-up comic himself; he knew exactly what had happened. She didn't want her disappointment cemented into words she'd remember forever.

“You know, Ruby,” he said, “I've seen your act a few times. The Comedy Store, I think. Your material's good.”


“Maybe you should think about writing, like for a sitcom. They could use your talent at the networks.”

Ruby stood there with a fake smile pasted on her face. He was telling her to give up. Try something else.

It felt to Ruby as if she were fading away, but like the Cheshire cat, she'd smile to the end. “Thanks, Joe. I have to go now.”

She ran back to her chair and grabbed her handbag. At the last second, she plucked up the Tattler and crammed it under her armpit. Without glancing at anyone, she raced out of the studio.

In her apartment, Ruby closed all the blinds and turned off the lights.

She slumped onto her worn sofa and thumped her feet onto the cheap, wood-grain coffee table. A half full water glass rattled at the movement. The tabloid lay beside her; barely seen in the darkness.

Mommie Dearest had an affair, after all.

It didn't surprise her; that realization, not truly. Any woman who would leave her children to go in search of fame and fortune wouldn't think twice about having an affair. What surprised Ruby was how much it still hurt.

Her fingers shook as she reached for the phone and dialed her sister's number. It was rare that Ruby called Caroline-too expensive-but it wasn't every day you saw naked pictures of your mother having sex with a stranger.

Caroline answered on the second ring.


Source: www_Novel22_Net

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