Lois Cloarec Hart
Note: This is the prequel to Country Mouse, though it can be read as a stand alone.
“Mrs. Gaines, a moment, if you please.”
Ruby didn’t glance up from the conveyor belt as her hands deftly sliced and pitted peaches. “Yes, Mrs. Percy?”
“Mrs. Raymond, step in for Mrs. Gaines.”
Ruby sighed inwardly and stepped aside, allowing her friend Esther to take her station. She turned to face her supervisor, noting that the formidable woman had another woman about Ruby’s age in tow.
“Mrs. Gaines, this is our newest employee, Miss Hazel Barrow. Miss Barrow, this is Ruby Gaines, one of our most experienced employees. Mrs. Gaines, please show Miss Barrow where everything is. I’ll hold you responsible for ensuring that she is up to date on our procedures and policies. Put her on the line next to you until you’re sure she can handle processing without slicing off a finger.”
“Yes, ma’am.” As Mrs. Percy departed, Ruby cast a jaundiced glance over Miss Barrow’s lovely summer dress and unsuitable shoes. Oh sure, she’ll last here until about noon. Ruby gestured brusquely to the newcomer and started walking away. “C’mon, Miss Barrow. Let’s get this show-and-tell over with so I can get back to work.”
“Please, call me Hazel.”
Ruby stopped and looked back at the newcomer who was trailing her. “Alright,” she drawled. “Let’s get you a hairnet, pronto, Hazel. MacDonnell Preserves and Fine Chocolates does not appreciate having their products contaminated by hair, even hair as pretty as yours.”
Ruby heard Esther and several other women on the conveyor line smother laughter, then she spotted Mrs. Percy frowning at them from the stairway to the third floor. “C’mon, we don’t have a lot of time here. There’s another shipment of produce coming in this afternoon.” This time Hazel followed close on her heels.
Ruby launched into the spiel she had given too many times. “You’re in the sorting and prep department right now. Whatever fruit’s in season, that’s what we handle. Right now, it’s peaches. So far this summer we’ve done cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. They usually overlap, so you could be handling three different fruits in one day. We’re processing apricots and peaches now, and blueberries will be next in line. Come late fall and winter, it’ll be pecans and chocolates.
“From here the fruit goes to the cleaning and production vats.” Ruby pointed to the far side of the factory floor, where towering steel vats were lined up in a row. “The bottling and packaging department is through those double doors, and the finished products go down one level to the shipping docks. That’s also where the coolers are for incoming produce. Upstairs is where management and clerical work goes on—sales, billing, and all related matters. When we switch from preserves to chocolate production in late fall, there’s a three day shut-down to re-organize.”
“Of course.” Ruby wasn’t about to expend any emotional energy on delivering a blistering analysis of MacDonnell’s archaic labour policies. If the newcomer lasted until the next payday and had any sense, it wouldn’t take her long to figure things out for herself.
Ruby opened a door and let Hazel go through before following. “This is the women’s changing area. The men’s is downstairs. There’s an empty locker beside mine—number 4. You can take that one for yours. The time clock is on this wall. You’ll have a time card by the end of the day. Don’t be late, and don’t be early clocking out, either. Trust me, Mrs. Percy checks, and three violations is cause for dismissal. No one’s going to cover for you, you can be sure of that.”
That wasn’t exactly true. Ruby and her friends often covered for each other in the event of emergencies, but Ruby wasn’t about to admit Miss Hazel Barrow to their mutual support system until Hazel proved herself worthy.
Hazel regarded Ruby steadily, and Ruby had the feeling Miss Barrow hadn’t missed the things unsaid. Suddenly ashamed that she had treated the new hire so disdainfully, Ruby cleared her throat and softened her expression. “Hairnets are over on the counter there. You have to sign for them. You’re entitled to one a week, but if you go through extra, they’re twenty cents apiece.”
At Hazel’s raised eyebrow, Ruby shrugged. “MacDonnell’s has been around for almost a hundred years. Their attitudes and policies haven’t really changed much since they started the business. They have employees now rather than slaves, but I doubt they see much difference. Just do your job, keep your nose clean, and be on time. You’ll be okay.”
Turning away from the disconcertingly penetrating gaze, Ruby led the way through a door on the opposite side of the locker room. She entered a large space with long wooden tables and benches, dim, fly-specked lights, and a row of dirty grey windows. An aged refrigerator hummed loudly next to a deep, battered sink and a Formica countertop on the far wall.
“This little piece of Heaven is our lunchroom. You can bring your own, or a lunch wagon is outside the employees’ entrance from eleven to one every day. There are 220 employees in the factory. We eat in shifts—half hour off at a time. You’ll be on my lunch shift, at least for now.”
Ruby looked derisively at Hazel’s shoes. “Lady, if you last a day in those, I’ll be amazed.”
Hazel glanced down at her shoes, then at Ruby’s sensible flats. “I’ll dress more appropriately tomorrow.”
“If there is a tomorrow.” Ruby turned away, sure that her muttered words hadn’t been heard, but Hazel’s cool, determined voice stopped her.
“I assure you, Mrs. Gaines, there will not only be a tomorrow, but many, many tomorrows.” With that, Hazel marched determinedly to the counter where the hairnets sat, removed one from the box, and firmly signed her name to the list. “Now that I’ve had the tour, perhaps we can get down to actual work.”
With grudging respect, Ruby stepped back as Hazel pushed by her and out onto the production floor.
She might cut it after all. Time will tell.
From the sick bed in which she had reclined for almost ten years, Helen Barrow watched her daughter closely. Hazel sank down in the bedside chair and grimaced as she removed her shoes and rubbed her feet.
“Was it terrible, dear?”
Hazel shook her head at the weak, raspy voice. “Not so bad, Mama, but I do need to wear different shoes tomorrow. These were alright for the interview, but I didn’t expect to be hired on the spot.” She looked ruefully at her stained dress. “I need to pick up some work smocks like the other women wear, too, or I’m going to have no decent clothes left within a week.”
“I’m so sorry, Hazel. I never thought it would come to this...”
Hazel patted her mother’s arm comfortingly. “Now, Mama, don’t you fret for one little moment. This was the right thing to do, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the job once I get the hang of it. Why, I’m already making new friends. Isn’t that what you’ve been urging me to do?”
“You always had so many friends when you were in school, dear. But your daddy and I let you down so—”
“None of that, now.” Hazel looked at her mother sternly. “No daughter could ever have asked for more loving parents. It wasn’t Daddy’s fault that the war took him, and it’s certainly not your fault that you got sick.”
“You should’ve been married with your own little babies years and years ago. Instead you’ve been stuck here caring for me. It breaks my heart to see you all alone.”
Hazel dabbed at the tears that trickled down her mother’s worn face. “All alone? I’ve been as happy as can be living in the house I was born in with parents I adored. Besides, I don’t think I was ever the marrying kind.”
Helen’s eyes grew distant in memory. “But you had so many suitors. What was the name of that young man who used to come around all the time? I know he would’ve given his right arm to marry you.”
“Who, Quill Carmichael? Oh, Mama, I never would’ve married him. That boy told a lie more readily than he ever spoke a word of truth. I pity poor Melody Carmichael. I truly do. And those children of theirs? Well, all I can say is that Quill will never be half the father to them that Daddy was to me.”
Helen laid a trembling hand on Hazel’s arm. “When I’m gone, dear—”
“Mama, don’t talk like that.”
Helen shook her head. The effort was visible on her thin face. “No, dear, you must listen. I know it won’t be long now. And I know I don’t have anything to leave you but this house. But don’t feel you have to stay here alone. If you sell the house, you’d have enough to go to college. You always wanted to do that. When you don’t have me to care for, you can go. You can be the nurse you’d planned to be.”
Helen watched Hazel fight to control her emotions. She knew her daughter had long ago accepted the truth: Helen Barrow was dying, and all the love and devotion in the world couldn’t change that fact. Even had some miracle procedure been available to change the inevitable conclusion, their money was gone. Hazel’s new job was all that stood between them and destitution.
Hazel swallowed hard, and Helen ached for the sadness on her face. “Some dreams aren’t meant to be, Mama, but that’s just fine. I wouldn’t trade a single day with you for all the dreams in the universe.” Standing, she brushed herself off. “Now, let’s see what I can find to make for dinner. Will you try to eat something tonight if I fix one of your favourites?”
“I’ll try, dear.”
“Chicken and dumplings it is, then.”
Helen’s tired eyes watched Hazel stride determinedly out of the bedroom. Her appetite had vanished long ago, despite her daughter’s fine cooking. But since it would make Hazel happy, she resolved to try and eat something. There was little else she could do for her daughter.
Hazel twisted her long, silken brown curls up under the hairnet and glanced at the clock. She had three minutes to get out on the floor. Though she had become proficient at her daily routine in the weeks since she began at McDonnell’s, Hazel had been too late to catch the bus that morning. Her mother had vomited her breakfast, and by the time Hazel got her cleaned up and called their neighbour to check in on Helen throughout the day, she’d had to call a cab and use some of her scant reserves to make it to work on time.
Another woman sidled up next to her as Hazel shut her locker door.
“You’d best be careful.”
Hazel turned in surprise. She recognized the thin, pinched faced woman from third floor billing, but didn’t know her name.
The woman glowered at her, but Hazel had the sense that was the woman’s normal expression and didn’t take it personally.
“You’d best be careful who you associate with.”
“I’m sorry. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Hazel glanced quickly at the time clock. Two minutes.
“Her. The Gaines woman.” The woman peered back over her shoulder like she expected Ruby to materialize. “She’s one of them, you know.”
“One of them?”
“Divorced.” The woman looked triumphant. “She left her husband cold, and with a little boy, too. What kind of a woman does that, I ask you—takes his son from his daddy? I’ll bet anything she got involved with another man. T’ain’t right, and t’ain’t Christian. You don’t want to be hanging about with her sort. Bad reputations, they tend to wear off on others if they ain’t careful.”
Shocked at the delighted vindictiveness in the other woman’s voice, Hazel shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I have to get to work now.”
“Heed my warning, girl: won’t no decent man look twice at you if you’re friends with a woman like her, especially with you already well past the prime marryin’ age.”
Hazel hastily inserted her time card in the slot and rushed for the door. Sliding into position next to Esther Raymond, she jerked her head towards the stranger who also exited the women’s change room. The woman who accosted her was now hastening to the stairs that led to the upper level. Raising her voice to be heard over the industrial fans that were labouring to keep the factory floor semi-cool, Hazel asked, “Esther, who is that?”
Esther glanced up and snorted her contempt. “Odessa Bellamy. She’s one nasty piece of work. Got a mean streak a mile wide. Likes to start trouble, then stand back and enjoy the fireworks.”
“She was just trying to warn me against associating with Ruby.”
Esther shot her a sharp, appraising glance. “About Ruby being divorced? She tried that one on me, too, when I first started here. She hates it that Ruby don’t take no crap from her. I trust you didn’t pay her no mind.”
“Of course not. Ruby’s life is her own business.” Hazel let herself fall into the rhythm of sorting and processing the fruit that flowed by her, tossing rejects into the barrel opposite them. Ten minutes went by without further words on the subject, though Hazel occasionally covertly eyed Ruby working a little further down the line.
The tall, spare, angular woman with the penetrating blue eyes and short blond hair worked with enviable speed and precision. Ruby’s knife flashed under the low hanging fluorescent lights, evoking a Musketeer’s blade in Hazel’s mind. Not that Hazel had seen a Musketeer lately. She and her parents had been avid movie fans, but her father’s death and her mother’s progressive illness had made such outings a rarity.
Hazel continued the mindless work as she gave her thoughts leave to contemplate the woman who had done her introductory tour. She had swiftly learned that Ruby’s honesty and work ethic were held in high regard from the third floor to the first, though her reputation for blunt, tactless speech made it unlikely she would ever advance to management.
“Esther, do you know why Ruby left her husband?”
Esther grunted disapprovingly. “Nope. Besides, that’s her story. You want to know, ask her yourself. I wouldn’t tell tales even if I knew.”
Chastened, Helen ducked her head to concentrate on the endless line of fruit. She couldn’t help considering Odessa Bellamy’s warning. She didn’t think she spent much time at all with Ruby Gaines, or anyone else, even though it had been her habit to eat lunch at Ruby’s table since that first day.
The moment the day’s closing horn sounded, Hazel rushed out the door with all possible speed. Since the need to get home to her mother caused her to turn down invitations to join fellow workers after work, she had no idea who Ruby kept company with after hours. Perhaps Ruby was in as much of a hurry to be with her son as Hazel was to return to her mother’s side.
Hazel gave a little shrug. Comparing what she knew of Ruby to the even less she knew of the odious Odessa, Hazel had no trouble deciding whose side she would be on should it come to a co-worker conflict. Lifting her head, she was startled to find Ruby’s eyes fixed on her. They locked gazes for an instant until Ruby looked back at the conveyor belt.
What in Heaven’s name? Could she possibly have heard so quickly? Hazel shook her head in baffled amusement at the speed of the factory grapevine.
By lunch time, Hazel felt a strong need to let Ruby know that she gave no credence to either Odessa or her gossip. She took her brown bag out of the fridge, strode determinedly to the table and stopped beside Ruby and Esther. “Mind if I squeeze in here, Essie?”
Esther gave her a grin and slid to the right. “Sure, take a load off.”
Hazel sat and opened her bag. Addressing no one in particular, she remarked, “Devilishly hot out today, isn’t it?”
That instantly started an animated discussion on the extraordinarily scorching, humid summer they were enduring that year. Hazel munched on her sandwich, acutely aware of the warmth of Ruby’s body next to her. Ruby did not participate in the conversation, only speaking to ask for the salt. Hazel was at a loss as to how to allude to Odessa’s comments. She contented herself with glaring at Odessa when she entered the lunchroom twenty minutes later. Odessa returned the look with a sneer.
Hazel could have sworn she heard Ruby chuckle under her breath at the non-verbal exchange between herself and Odessa. Unfortunately she had no time to inquire. Ruby’s shift rose from the table to return to work. Hazel contented herself with an inner resolution to sit near Ruby every chance she got. Perhaps one day she would even be able to engage her co-worker in a casual conversation.
Esther turned at the sound of her name and smiled at Ruby. “Hey, Ruby. Did you have a good weekend?”
“Not bad. Danny and I went on a picnic, and aside from battling the wasps, we had fun.” It took only two of Ruby’s long strides to catch up to her friend. Casually she brought up the topic that had worried her all morning. “Do you know where Hazel is today? I didn’t see her at all.”
Esther led the way to the fridge to get their lunches. “I overheard Mrs. Percy talking to Junior MacDonnell. She said Hazel’s mother died yesterday, so Hazel will be away for a couple of days.”
Ruby absently accepted the bag Esther handed her. “That’s too bad.”
Esther shrugged. “Yes and no. From what Hazel told me, her mother was in a pretty bad way. Might be more a blessing than anything else.”
Ruby filled two glasses with water and balanced their drinks as they headed for their table. Setting the glasses down, she swung into a spot beside Esther and opened her lunch. “I suppose you’re right. Does Hazel have family around here? I mean, I hope she’s got someone to lean on.”
Esther shook her head and mumbled around the mouthful she had just bitten off, “I don’t think so. I think her mama was all she had left.”
“Hmph, that’s too bad.” It felt odd to be eating without Hazel nearby. In the three months since Hazel had started with MacDonnell’s, she always took her lunch at Ruby and Esther’s table. Ruby had grown accustomed to her presence, and found herself looking forward to lunch breaks.
“It’s not like having family is any guarantee anyway, eh, Ruby? Certainly didn’t work that way for you.”
“Tell me about it.” Ruby wryly considered her family’s reaction when she’d had the temerity to divorce the husband she had married with their enthusiastic encouragement and blessing. She was certain that if her one-time family could’ve enforced it, they would have branded her with a scarlet “D”. She and Danny had been cast out on their own. Not like I give a damn anyway. We’re better off without any of them. Still, she wondered how the warm, tender-hearted Hazel was managing.
When Hazel returned to work three days later, Ruby made a point of lingering in the locker room. She awkwardly fingered her smock as Hazel twisted her hair into a coil and stuffed it beneath a net.
“Hey, Hazel, I’m really sorry, about your mother and all.”
Hazel turned and Ruby’s heart clenched at the weary sadness in her dark brown eyes. “Thank you, Ruby. I appreciate that.”
“If there’s anything I can do—I mean any of us, you know. Well, just let me—us—know, alright?
“That’s very kind of you.” Hazel attempted a wan smile but it never reached her eyes. “I’m sort of in the process of figuring out what comes next.” She shrugged her smock over her dress.
“You’re still planning to go on working here though, right?” Ruby waited with unanticipated anxiety for Hazel’s answer.
“I think so, yes. Even with Mama gone, I still have bills to pay and groceries to buy.”
Ruby relaxed as she walked to the time clock with Hazel. “Not that the wages here go very far, that’s for sure.”
This time she got a small but genuine smile from Hazel. “Very true, Ruby, very true. At least the house is free and clear, though, so I’m sure everything will work out alright. And I can always take in a boarder if I need to.”
Ruby smiled as she followed Hazel out the door onto the floor. If there was one thing she had learned about Hazel, it was that her sunny, optimistic nature was seldom down for long.
Two weeks later, Ruby was late getting to the lunchroom for the noon break. When she did arrive, she automatically took a seat, only to realize to her astonishment that she’d sat next to Hazel, rather than her best friend, Essie, who looked at her in mild surprise. She gave Essie an apologetic shrug, which was accepted with a smile. Ruby turned to Hazel and found herself under gentle scrutiny.
“I saw Junior MacDonnell buttonhole you. I hope everything’s all right?” Hazel’s concern was clear in her voice.
Ruby waved a dismissive hand. “Yes and no. He just wanted to talk to me about a memo I submitted yesterday.”
“Uh huh. I thought over what you were saying about women having to pay for their own smocks in processing when the men don’t have to pay for their coveralls in packing and shipping. So I wrote it up.”
“Ruby, you didn’t!”
Ruby warmed to the delighted surprise in Hazel’s voice. “I did, not that it mattered. Junior says the men can’t avoid getting messy, but if we were more careful, we wouldn’t need protective clothing on the belt line.”
“What a crock!” The rest of the women at the table echoed Hazel’s disgust.
Ruby shot her companions a rueful look. “Well, ladies, you know what Junior would say.” A feminine chorus echoed her next words. “If you don’t like it, you can always quit!”
“Like that’s a real option,” Esther complained with feeling. “That SOB has us over a barrel, and he knows it.”
That led to a vehement gripe session. Ruby ignored it. She had been working at MacDonnell’s since she left her ex-husband seven years before. She had heard all the complaints a hundred times over and knew the women had virtually no power to effect changes. Instead she turned to Hazel.
“I was wondering, Hazel.”
Hazel raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Well, Danny—my son—his paternal grandparents are taking him for the weekend. He’s excited because they promised him a trip to the coast with some fishing thrown in. My son loves fishing almost as much as he loves Fess Parker and coonskin caps. Anyway, I was wondering if you might want to take in a movie with me. Unless you have other plans, of course.”
Hazel smiled in delight. “I’ve no plans at all, other than cleaning out a bunch of boxes stored in the basement. What did you want to see?”
Ruby surreptitiously wiped her hands on her smock. Darned humidity. “Do you like musicals? Essie refuses to see musicals. She says it’s just stupid that people break out in song while walking down the street.”
Hazel laughed. “I’ve actually been known to do just that. Anyway, I love musicals. But it’s been so long since I went to the movies, I have no idea what’s even playing.”
“Well, I was thinking maybe Carousel. It’s still in some of the second run theatres. Or The King and I just came out a couple of months ago. They’re both getting good reviews.”
“You choose. I know I’d enjoy either of them.”
“Um, what about both? We could go to one tonight and one tomorrow night.” Ruby couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. Affording two movies in one weekend was completely unlike her. She normally rationed herself to one a month, and that included those she took Danny to.
“Sure.” Hazel gave Ruby an apologetic look. “I’m afraid I don’t drive, so if you let me know the time and place, I’ll catch a bus and meet you there.”
“I might be able to borrow my landlady’s car. Mrs. Weiss and I swap favours all the time. I do work around the house, and she watches Danny in the summer and after school. She’s got an old Chevy but doesn’t have a licence, so I drive her places, too. She’s usually okay loaning the car to me as long as I put gas in it. I’ll ask her.”
Ruby saw Hazel hide a small smile and knew she was being unusually garrulous. She fought down a blush and tore off a small piece of her lunch bag. Grabbing a pencil from the deep pocket of her smock, she wrote down a phone number. “This isn’t exactly mine, but if you call and ask for me, Mrs. Weiss will make sure I get the message. If you give me your number, I’ll let you know times and all.”
Hazel delicately tore the corner from her own lunch bag and borrowed Ruby’s pencil. They exchanged information and returned to their sandwiches with smiles as conversation ebbed and flowed around them.
Ruby and Hazel emerged from the theatre and pulled their long coats closer around them. The night air held a chill that presaged the return of fall weather.
Ruby cast a glance at the clear, dark sky. “It won’t be long before we’ll be converting for the Christmas chocolate rush.”
Hazel gazed at Ruby for a long moment, admiring the strong set of her jaw. With a jolt, she recalled herself. “Do you have any plans for the three day changeover?”
Ruby shook her head. “My only plan is to buy you a root beer float at Hannigan’s—if you’re interested.” She looked at Hazel anxiously.
Hazel gave her a reassuring smile. “I’d like that, but the floats are my treat.”
“Oh no. I made the offer, I’ll pay the bill.”
“No. You bought the movie tickets; I’ll buy the refreshments.”
“You already bought popcorn—”
Hazel laughed and took Ruby’s arm as she steered her down the street towards the popular soda shop. “Then snack precedence has been established, and the floats are mine.”
Ruby shook her head in amused rebuke. “Precedence? You sound like a lawyer.”
Hazel’s face saddened. “My father was a lawyer. I guess I picked up some of the language from him.”
“Hey, I’m sorry.” Ruby stopped and turned towards Hazel. “I didn’t mean to stir up any bad memories.”
“No memories of my father could ever be bad. I just never really stop missing him, you know?”
Ruby stepped forward and held the soda shop door for Hazel to enter. When they had settled in a booth, she picked up their conversation. “Tell me about him?”
“Are you sure you want to hear? I get to talking about my family and it’s hard to stop me.” Hazel felt Ruby’s hand settle lightly over hers for the briefest moment. She looked up from her menu to meet an affectionate glance that warmed her throughout.
“What can I get for you ladies tonight?”
They hastily returned attention to their menus.
“Root beer floats? And maybe a hot dog?”
Hazel nodded at Ruby’s suggestion. “Sounds perfect.” She shot a stern glance across the table. “But it’s still on me.”
Ruby grinned and handed the waitress her menu. “We’ll talk about it.”
“Maybe.” Hazel handed over her menu too.
“So tell me about Mr. Barrow.”
“Actually, it was Sergeant Barrow when he was killed.”
“He was in the war?”
“Uh huh.” Hazel smiled sadly. “He didn’t have to serve. He was too old to be drafted, but he felt it was his duty. He wouldn’t even use his profession or qualifications to get assigned to legal duties or become an officer. He said that it wouldn’t be right to leap frog into a soft berth over others whose families loved them just as much as we loved him. He was killed on November 29th, 1944 in the Battle of Leyte in the Pacific.”
“I’m so sorry, Hazel. That must’ve been terribly hard for you and your mother.”
“It was. A couple of years later, Mama got sick and never really recovered. Sometimes I think she just took a long time to die of a broken heart.” Hazel toyed with her cutlery. “I often wish I could be loved the way she loved him.”
“No lost loves in your past? I mean except for your folks, of course.”
Hazel shook her head with a wistful smile. “There’s been the occasional suitor along the way, but nothing terribly serious. My problem is that I don’t think I could settle for anything less than what my parents had, having seen such a deep love daily.”
“You set the bar pretty high, then?”
“Impossibly high.” Hazel gave a rueful chuckle as the waitress returned with their floats. “So, setting my non-existent love life aside, what did you think of the movie?”
Movies and Hannigan’s quickly became an established ritual for Hazel and Ruby. However, after the first time, they never again made plans in the lunchroom. Without discussion, notes were left in lockers or phone calls were exchanged in the evening.
Hazel assumed Ruby was simply trying to protect her against insinuations such as those of Odious Odessa. Though Hazel refused to be intimidated by Odessa’s vitriol, she also enjoyed having a secret to share with Ruby. So when the subject of weekend activities arose in the lunchroom, she alluded to plans with anonymous friends.
Mrs. Weiss proved to be generous with the use of her car, and Hazel and Ruby took full advantage of her kindness. Danny’s father was remarried with a new family, and wanted little to do with his firstborn son. Danny’s paternal grandparents only claimed their grandson on an intermittent basis, so he and the two women became a fixture at local parks, picnic areas, fishing holes, and of course, the movies.
Danny shared his mother’s love of films, and idolized Fess Parker. Hazel raised her standing with Danny with repeated viewings of The Great Locomotive Chase and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates before those shows left town.
Hazel also gave Ruby and Danny a standing weekly invitation for the three of them to have dinner and watch Disneyland on her TV, as neither they nor Mrs. Weiss had a set. When Westward Ho the Wagons! starring Fess Parker debuted in December, the three of them were first in line at the theatre. An official Disney coonskin cap under Ruby and Danny’s Christmas tree a few days later sealed Hazel’s spot in Danny’s heart.
Two days after Christmas, Ruby caught Hazel alone in the locker room. With a quick glance around, she spoke softly. “Danny’s grandparents are picking him up tonight and keeping him over New Year’s. Would you like to go see Teahouse of the August Moon on Friday? Mrs. Weiss went to stay with her daughter for the holidays; she said I could use her car.”
Ruby knew that asking was a formality. Hazel never said no to one of Ruby’s invitation, nor Ruby to one of hers. They had become fast friends, though none of their co-workers knew.
“Of course. Pick me up at the usual time?”
“I’ll see you then.”
Two women entered the locker room, and Ruby busied herself putting away her smock. Hazel greeted the women warmly, and she and the two newcomers left together.
Ruby stared into her locker. She found herself more and more often drifting into pleasant fugues, only to emerge realizing she had been thinking solely of Hazel. Her friend had become such an integral part of her life and Danny’s. It was difficult to even remember a time when her first instinct wasn’t to contact Hazel, whether to share a laugh over something Danny had done in school, discuss how to make ends meet, or formulate plans for their next outing.
Ruby tried not to take advantage of Hazel’s generosity, but the urge to share meals and watch TV together at her friend’s house was irresistible. She contributed groceries and tried to help with preparations, but Hazel insisted that Ruby and Danny brought so much happiness into her life, cooking for the three of them was simply a small gesture of gratitude.
Besides, Danny likes Hazel’s cooking way more than mine. With that wry acknowledgement, Ruby closed her locker and crossed the floor to clock out. She paused a moment and read a message in coloured chalk on the board. Congratulations, Rose, on thirty-five years of service!
Ruby shook her head, thinking of the wizened, hunchbacked little woman who hadn’t missed a day in all the years Ruby had worked at MacDonnell’s. “Damn, that has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.”
Ruby headed out to catch the bus home, her earlier happiness about the upcoming date with Hazel overshadowed by the appalling thought of passing a lifetime on MacDonnell’s conveyor belt. No way is anyone ever going to write that about me.
Friday night Ruby dressed with extra care, even as she mocked herself for doing so. “It’s not like Hazel is going to notice what you’re wearing, you silly woman.” Still, she felt special sauntering up Hazel’s sidewalk with her coat unbuttoned despite the cold to show off her dark blue silk dress. The old dress showed her eyes to their best advantage. The look on Hazel’s face when she opened the door was more than reward enough for her extra primping.
“You look wonderful, Ruby.”
“Thanks.” Ruby couldn’t take her eyes off Hazel either. “You look pretty fine yourself.”
Hazel tweaked her amber coloured skirt with its matching blouse. “This antique? If I don’t start watching what I eat, it’s not going to fit much longer. I probably should’ve passed on making Christmas goodies this year.”
“Danny would’ve been heartbroken if you had. Me, too.” Ruby was lost in frank admiration of Hazel’s curvaceous figure when she realized what she was doing. Oh for crying out loud! Why don’t you just ogle the poor woman? “Um, want to get going? The show starts in twenty minutes, and I know you hate to miss the coming attractions.”
Hazel was unusually quiet on the drive to the theatre, and Ruby worried that she had offended her friend. Ruby was careful to maintain distance as they entered the theatre and took their seats, but it was difficult with Hazel so near not to bump arms and shoulders.
So torn between Hazel’s delicious proximity and the fear that she would give offence, Ruby had a difficult time following the plot of the film. She relaxed marginally on hearing Hazel’s laughter, but flinched when they both reached for popcorn at the same time. She hastily pulled back her hand, never taking her eyes from the screen.
By the end of the film, Ruby felt as if she had run a marathon. She was relieved when Hazel suggested skipping Hannigan’s.
When they were in the car, Hazel said with a smile, “After all, it’s certainly not like I need the extra calories.”
Hazel laughed lightly, but Ruby thought she heard an edge of uncertainty. Despite her worries that Hazel might think her overly familiar, she couldn’t help but reassure her friend. Turning in her seat, Ruby projected absolute sincerity in her voice.
“Hazel Barrow, you are the most beautiful woman I know. Why, Miss Elizabeth Taylor and Miss Vivien Leigh have nothing on you.” Secretly, Ruby thought Hazel looked a lot like both her favourite actresses, despite having more generous curves than they. Hazel’s delighted smile made Ruby relax for the first time that evening. “I really do think that, you know. Inside and out, I’ve never met anyone who’s as gentle and kind and just...well, pure goodness. I’m thankful every day that you came to work at MacDonnell’s. My life—mine and Danny’s—would be a lot poorer without you.”
“As would be mine without you...two.”
The women beamed at each other. Ruby coaxed the old Chevy to life and drove to Hazel’s small bungalow. As she steered toward the curb in front, Hazel put out a hand to forestall her intent.
“Why don’t you pull into the driveway and come in for coffee? I’ve still got some of those Christmas cookies that you liked so much.”
Not trusting herself to look at Hazel, Ruby simply nodded. She drove into the driveway and up to the doors of the detached garage, which was set to the rear of the brick bungalow.
Ruby followed Hazel through the side door into the kitchen. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears, and she felt light-headed. When Hazel took her coat and invited her to take a seat at the table, Ruby dropped gratefully into a chair. She tucked her trembling hands under her thighs.
As Hazel measured coffee into the pot, she asked their usual post-movie question. “So, what did you think of the movie?”
Ruby relaxed a little. This was familiar territory. “I really enjoyed it, but wasn’t Marlon Brando’s accent a hoot?”
Hazel laughed, took a seat across from Ruby and pushed the plate of cookies her way. “It really was, but I thought he did an amazing job in spite of it.”
“He was good, but he almost always gives a brilliant performance. Did you see On the Waterfront?”
“I missed that, unfortunately. By then Mama was just too ill to go out to movies.”
Ruby considered Hazel sympathetically. “You couldn’t have someone come in to look after her while you went out for one night? I know how much you love the movies.”
“I do, but I loved Mama more. She did try and get me to go out without her, but it didn’t feel right. She and Daddy and I always went together, even after I grew up. It would’ve been like you going to a Fess Parker movie without Danny, you know?”
“Hah. I’d have to turn in my mothering good conduct badge if I ever did that!” Ruby’s face darkened. “Though according to my ex-husband, I never deserved such a badge in the first place.”
“How could he accuse you like that? You’re a wonderful mother, Ruby. Danny is so lucky to have you. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but anyone who could abandon his child so readily, divorce or not, has no right to speak ill of anybody else’s parenting skills.”
Ruby appreciated Hazel’s robust defence, and she allowed the automatic bitterness of marital memories to ease. “Thank you, Hazel, but...it was complicated. I think Douglas actually thought well of my parenting, but he was so angry about other perceived offences that he just lashed out where he knew I would be most hurt.”
Hazel regarded her steadily for a long moment, and rose from the table. “You know what, I think we could use something a little stronger than coffee. Do you like wine? Or maybe beer? I’ve got both in the fridge.”
Ruby was surprised. She’d assumed Hazel didn’t drink. “Um, sure, either is good, as long as it’s not red wine. I don’t much care for red wine.”
“I have white.” Hazel turned off the stove burner that was heating up water for the coffee and took wine glasses from a cupboard. She opened the fridge and extracted a bottle of Chardonnay, handing it to Ruby. Hazel found a corkscrew and motioned to the living room. “Come on; let’s go where we’ll be a little more comfortable.”
Dazed at the way the evening was unfolding, Ruby followed Hazel. They sat together on the sofa, and Ruby watched Hazel deftly open and pour the wine. She accepted the glass Hazel offered her. “You look like you’ve done this a time or two.”
“Open wine?” Hazel smiled and relaxed back into the sofa. “Daddy loved a glass with his meal. We always had wine with Sunday dinners. Mama and I kept up the ritual after he died, at least until the last couple of years.”
Aware of how restricted Hazel’s finances had become before her mother’s death, Ruby was glad that Hazel was now able to recapture some small pleasures. She tilted her glass and touched it lightly to Hazel’s. “To life’s little treats.”
“To movies,” Hazel responded with a wink.
“To Elizabeth and Vivien and Judy, and all those others who brighten our world.”
Hazel hesitated, and then took a deep swallow before boldly extending her glass again. “To the woman who has brightened my life more than I could ever express.”
Ruby’s hand shook as she touched her glass to Hazel’s. “And to you. I had no idea how barren my existence was until you came into it. Thank you...for everything.”
Hazel took another sip and her eyes locked on Ruby’s.
Ruby tried to speak, but the words came out in a raw whisper. “Hazel, what’s happening here?”
“I hope it’s something that you want to happen as much as I do.”
Ruby noticed the glass trembling in Hazel’s fingers, and realized that her companion wasn’t nearly as calm and collected as Ruby had assumed. That realization gave her the strength to set her glass down and slide closer to Hazel.
“Do you want something to happen? Hazel?”
Hazel’s gaze dropped. She stared at her glass as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world. “I’m so scared.”
Ruby heard the soft words, but they were superfluous. Hazel’s fear was written in the tense lines of her body and the way her fingers clenched the glass. “I would never hurt you, Hazel. I swear I couldn’t. If you want me to go home—”
“No.” Hazel looked up and met Ruby’s gaze. “No, I truly don’t want you to go. I’ve just never...”
“I haven’t either.”
Hazel shook her head. “No, I mean I’ve never...with anyone.”
“Oh.” Ruby sat back. Hazel’s confession was unexpected, despite her earlier protestations of having had no experience with love. Though Ruby knew her friend had lived with her parents all her life, Hazel was such a vibrant and charming woman that Ruby couldn’t imagine how she had made it through three decades without having at least one or two affairs of the heart.
Ruby took Hazel’s glass and set it aside, then she cradled Hazel’s hands. “I need to tell you something. About why this is just as scary for me.” Ruby drew a deep breath. This memory never lost the power to sting. “I didn’t exactly leave my ex-husband. At least, it wasn’t really my decision, or not all my decision.”
Hazel looked confused at the unexpected segue, but she nodded encouragingly and gave Ruby’s hands a supportive squeeze.
“When it happened, Douglas and I had been arguing more than usual. Things weren’t going well. They hadn’t since before Danny arrived, and he was born less than a year after we got married.” Ruby closed her eyes as the pain of harsh, prolonged wrangling rushed to the fore as if it had happened yesterday. “Finally, one night after Danny was in bed, it was the fight to end all fights. It did end—when Douglas hit me so hard that I fell against a coffee table and split my head open.”
Hazel drew in a sharp breath and tugged a hand free to trace the white scar on Ruby’s temple.
“There was blood everywhere, and I remember Douglas was as scared as I was. He grabbed a dishtowel, crouched next to me and held it to my head. He looked at me with tears in his eyes. He said we had to end it—had to end our marriage because he was afraid of what might happen next.”
“He might hurt you even worse?”
“Uh huh. See, he’d never hit me before, but he was so frustrated that this time he didn’t stop himself.” Ruby steeled herself for the most difficult part of the story. “Our fights were always about the same thing. He told me...he said sleeping with me was worse than sleeping with a stick, because even though me and a stick had about the same reaction to his touch, at least a stick wouldn’t have made him feel so guilty.”
Ruby didn’t realize she was crying until Hazel gently wiped away her tears. “The thing is, I know he was right. I hated sleeping with my husband, right from the first time on our wedding night. It felt like a violation, every single time, and I’d come up with every excuse under the sun to get out of it. I used to love when his company sent him away on business, so it was just Danny and me at home.”
“Oh, Ruby, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how bad it was for you.”
Ruby gave a strangled laugh. “That’s the irony. From the outside, it looked like I had everything a woman could want—a beautiful home, a handsome husband who was a steady provider, and a baby boy whom I adored. So no one could understand when I walked away from all that, and Douglas...well, I guess it was easier to put the blame all on me. Hell, I blamed myself for being such a rotten wife, so I sure didn’t try to dispute his public interpretation of the facts. I even let him make up a fictional affair on my part to justify the divorce, and believe me, our families bought it hook, line, and sinker. I almost lost Danny because of it, but then Douglas decided he really didn’t want a three year old on his hands.”
“So you’re afraid—”
“That I would be as terrible a lover to you as I was to him, yes.” And that you would throw me out, too. Ruby felt as if she was going to hyperventilate. She had put it all out there—all of her inadequacies and failures, but most of all, her undeniable desire to be Hazel’s lover. She was pretty sure Hazel was feeling the same attraction, but if she wasn’t… Ruby was terrified of the risk. Don’t let me lose her. Don’t let me lose her. Don’t let me lose her.
The pounding in Ruby’s ears and her lungs’ desperate need of additional oxygen, almost made her miss Hazel’s response.
“My love, please don’t be so afraid. Douglas was simply the wrong one for you. If you feel half of what I’m feeling right now, then I am the right one. Please take a chance on me…take a chance with me.” Hazel leaned forward and caressed Ruby’s face.
“God, yes.” Ruby touched her lips to Hazel’s, lightly at first, then with growing passion as Hazel pressed closer.
Ruby filled her senses with the sweet scent and silky softness of the woman in her arms. Every doubt, every fear, every terrible memory linked with intimacy faded in the reality of Hazel. This was right. This was wonderful. This was how Ruby wanted to spend the rest of her life.
Hazel moved her mouth to Ruby’s ear. “Will you stay with me tonight, love?”
Ruby answered with fingers that swiftly unbuttoned Hazel’s blouse. As she slipped her hand inside, Hazel gasped and arched under Ruby’s fevered touch. Ruby hesitated for a moment, but was quickly reassured when Hazel tore away only to stand and grab Ruby’s hands. “Come.”
An unwelcome thought struck Ruby as she followed in Hazel’s wake. “The car. What about the car? The neighbours will see it.”
Hazel spun and pushed Ruby against the door frame of her bedroom. “I don’t care about the neighbours right now. You can put the car in the garage—later.”
“Works for me,” Ruby mumbled as she watched in amazement at how fast Hazel’s hands raced to disrobe both of them. In a trice, they left their clothes piled in a heap.
Her nude body shining in the moonlight, Hazel held out her hands in invitation. Awed by the sight, Ruby stumbled over a pair of shoes and kicked them aside. She closed the separation swiftly, overcome with need to feel Hazel nestled against her.
They came together at the bedside. Ruby closed her eyes at the feel of Hazel’s body pressed against her own. The sensation of the soft curves she had been admiring for weeks sliding against her own flesh left Ruby feeling dizzy.
Hazel ripped back the covers with one hand, and gently pushed Ruby down with the other. She paused, letting her gaze drift over the naked woman. The wonderment and admiration in Hazel’s eyes made Ruby feel truly beautiful, for the first time in her life. When Hazel lowered herself to the bed and began to move her lips and hands and body over Ruby, she felt worshipped.
This is what the fuss is all about. This is what’s at the heart of the movies. I finally get it. With that thought, Ruby gave herself over fully to Hazel’s loving.
“I don’t want to leave.”
Hazel smiled from her spot curled against Ruby’s damp body, two strong arms holding her close. “Good, because I don’t want you to. I’m perfectly happy with you right where you are.”
Ruby sighed happily, and Hazel watched in fascination as her lover’s breasts rose and fell. She didn’t think she would ever get tired of the sight.
“You know I have to at least move the car. We don’t want to give the neighbours any reason to talk.”
Hazel stilled the hand that had begun to re-explore Ruby’s body. “I know. You’re right, of course.” She sighed heavily.
Ruby took Hazel’s hand and gently settled it on her breast. “We have to be careful, sweetheart. You know that, right? Not only here, but even more so at work. Can you imagine what Odious Odessa would do if she ever got an inkling of what we share?”
Both women shuddered and fell silent. Hazel hated that reality was intruding on the most wonderful night of her life, but she knew that since she never wanted this bliss to end, they were going to have to come up with a plan. “I wish you and Danny could just move in with me.”
Ruby was quiet so long that Hazel began drifting. She started fully awake when Ruby spoke again.
“Are you serious about that? About me and Danny living with you?”
Hazel pulled herself up and rolled over to cover Ruby’s body with her own. Staring into the eyes that had enthralled her, she said with complete certainty, “Absolutely. Until tonight, I was never happier than when you and Danny and I were hanging out together.”
Ruby grinned shyly. “And now?”
“And now,” Hazel began rocking slowly, using her arms to hold herself up enough so that their breasts just brushed together, “I’d have to say everything else takes second place to this.” She picked up speed, enjoying the way Ruby’s eyes widened and her lips parted. Tender hands slipped down her back, and she felt Ruby’s hips rise.
Ruby drew in a deep breath, clearly struggling to hold on to her train of thought. “I so agree. What if I come up with a way that we could do this every night, a way that wouldn’t make people suspicious?”
Hazel halted her movement. “Then you would make me happier than Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart when the African Queen blows up the Louisa.”
“When they swim away together, singing?”
“Uh huh. Married and shipwrecked, and into their happily ever after.”
Ruby chuckled and planted her hands firmly on Hazel’s hips. “I think I have an idea for our own happily ever after. How good an actress are you?”
“As good as you need me to be, love. If it means being with you, I’ll be Bette Davis, Susan Hayward and Grace Kelly all rolled into one. I’ll be a star!”
Ruby chuckled at Hazel’s dramatics. Slowly punctuating every word with a strategically placed and lingering touch, she murmured, “You...my darling...will...always...be...my...star.”
Esther regarded her friend with concern. “Why so glum, Ruby? You’ve been like a black cloud for over a week now.”
Ruby opened her locker with a deep sigh. “Sorry, Essie. I’ve just got a lot on my mind right now. Mrs. Weiss is talking about selling her house and moving north to live with her daughter. I don’t know what Danny and I are going to do without her. I’ve been checking newspaper listings and looking around for over a week, and I can’t find anything halfway decent that’s in my price range. I might be forced to let Danny live with his grandparents while I take a room in a boarding house. At least until I can save enough to find a proper home.”
“Damn, you can’t let Danny go, Ruby. That boy is the light of your life.” Essie’s worried face peered at Ruby around the locker door. “Look, let me talk to Pete and see if he’d agree to let you live with us, at least until you find a place.”
“Oh, no. Thanks, Essie. It means the world to me that you’d offer, but your house is barely big enough for you, Pete, and your four kids. No way am I intruding on you. I know how hard it is to make a go of a marriage without external stress.” She patted Esther’s hand comfortingly. “Don’t you worry; I’m sure something will turn up. And if worse comes to worst, you can be sure I won’t rest until I figure out some way to get Danny back from his grandparents.”
Ruby noted Esther’s look of guilty relief, and chuckled inwardly. Okay, sweetheart, the stage is set.
For the rest of the morning, Ruby appeared pre-occupied, so much so that Mrs. Percy pulled her out of line and publicly scolded her for her inattention and carelessness. Ruby mumbled an apology, noting how Esther and some of the others bristled on her behalf. Looks like the word is spreading.
It wasn’t hard to appear pre-occupied. As Ruby handled her mundane tasks, her mind exulted over memories of their first weekend together. After hiding the car in the garage, she and Hazel had spent almost every moment wrapped in each other’s arms. It was only when it was time for Ruby to return to Mrs. Weiss’ to meet Danny and his grandparents, that she had reluctantly dragged herself away.
Every waking moment since, Ruby dreamed about the next time she and Hazel would be together. They had planned a putative movie night for the very next Friday, both knowing that they wouldn’t go anywhere near the theatre. Luckily, Ruby had the foresight to buy a paper that day and read the film reviews, as Mrs. Weiss always questioned her when she got home.
Ruby amused herself with imagining Mrs. Weiss’ face if she had been truthful. No, Mrs. Weiss, I didn’t actually see Giant. I was too busy making love the whole evening to the most beautiful woman in the world. Ruby shook her head at her mental meanderings. That would certainly add veracity to my story, because she’d kick me out of her home so fast my head would spin.
The hardest thing had been to ignore Hazel on the first Monday morning after they had become lovers. They agreed it was best to rigidly maintain the illusion of being casual co-workers, but Ruby almost lost her resolve when Hazel entered the locker room. She felt like a magnet helplessly pulled to true north, and wondered how the electricity between the two of them was not readily apparent to all.
Thankfully Hazel was much better at the deception. Aside from one lascivious wink when no one was looking, Hazel maintained her usual casual manner through the long days at work. Lunch hours, Hazel sat at the same table as she always had, but at the opposite end from Ruby, conversing with other women.
Having to shield their feelings from everyone had an unexpected pay-off. When movie night had arrived, Ruby hardly stepped foot in the house before Hazel was tearing her clothes off. When Ruby left three hours later, she scarcely had the energy to start Mrs. Weiss’ car. She was deeply grateful that Danny was such a ready and deep sleeper, as she was able to go right to bed when she got home. Replaying that evening was both exhilarating and frustrating. It would be another week, maybe even two before she and Hazel could be together again. Ruby whispered softly into the stillness of her bedroom, “At this rate, I’m not sure I’ll survive until spring.”
Three days after Ruby’s confession to Esther, the setting was just right for the next part of their plan. At lunch hour Ruby trailed Esther into the lunchroom, and restrained a whoop when she saw two seats open next to Hazel.
Esther sat beside Hazel, with Ruby on her other side. Ruby quietly opened her lunch bag. She was certain that she wouldn’t be able to swallow a single bite. She listened as Hazel spoke to a woman across the table.
“Anne, you had mentioned that your mother takes in boarders. Do you know of any she’s had to turn away who might still be looking for room and board? Of course, if it were a person she could vouch for, that would be ideal.”
Anne looked up from her lunch. “Why? Are you looking for someone, Hazel?”
“I am. Things are awfully tight at the moment. If I could supplement my wages with a little extra, it would make it worthwhile to give up some of my privacy. I’m looking for someone reliable, quiet, and courteous, who would be willing to do some work around the house in return for a reduced rate. I’m not in any hurry, but could you let your mother know that if she has to turn away a suitable boarder, I’d greatly appreciate a referral?”
Before Anne could answer, Esther broke in delightedly, “Hey, Hazel, I’ve got just the solution. Ruby and her son need a new place to stay because her landlady is moving.”
Hazel frowned and shook her head slightly. “Oh, I’m not sure about that, Essie.”
“Why not?” Esther wrapped an arm around Ruby’s shoulders. “Ruby is quiet and reliable, right?”
“I’ve no doubt she is.” Hazel shot Ruby an apologetic look. “It’s just...well, I’m not sure about having a child around the house. I’ve got an awful lot of breakables that were my mother’s. I’d hate to see any of them shattered, and we all know boys will be boys.”
A murmur of agreement went up around the table.
Esther persevered. “Danny’s a great kid, Hazel, honest. I wouldn’t say so if he wasn’t. Ruby’s done a great job of teaching him manners and proper behaviour. I just wish she’d take my boys away for a few years and send the little savages back to me when they’re civilized.”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I hope you aren’t offended, Ruby.”
Ruby shook her head, the sad expression on her face apparently spurring Esther on.
“Just give them a chance, Hazel. I swear you’d never regret it. Ruby, tell her.” Esther shook Ruby’s arm encouragingly. “Tell her what a good tenant you’d be.”
Reluctantly, as if the words were being dragged out of her, Ruby offered, “I could provide references from my current landlady, Mrs. Weiss.”
Esther took Hazel’s arm, tugging her towards Ruby. “References. See, Hazel, Ruby could give you references. I’ll bet Mrs. Weiss will tell you Danny is no trouble at all. They’ve been living with her for about seven years now, right, Ruby?”
“Going on eight.”
It felt to Ruby as if the whole table was holding its breath. After a long moment, Hazel gave a slight nod.
“Very well. I suppose we could try it for a little while—see if it works out. I could move some of my father’s things out of the den and turn it into a third bedroom.”
Ruby injected a pleading note into her voice. “No need, Hazel. Danny and I are used to sharing a room. We’d just need the one. I promise he wouldn’t be any trouble at all.”
“I did have in mind that a male boarder might be able to finish developing my basement as a private living area, but I suppose I could put that off for a bit.” Hazel looked sternly at Ruby. “I don’t like to share the kitchen, though. That’s another reason I thought perhaps a gentleman would be preferable to a lady. The kitchen is my domain, and I wish to keep it that way.”
Several of the women around the table nodded in understanding. Anne spoke up. “Just about drives me crazy when my mother-in-law comes to visit and tries to take over my kitchen. Can’t stand it that someone’s constantly giving me advice when I’ve been cooking my own way for twenty years.”
“Exactly,” Hazel agreed. She gave Ruby a warning glance. “You’d have to swear you’ll leave the cooking to me.”
Esther broke out in laughter. “Woo hoo, no troubles there, Hazel. Ruby couldn’t cook her way out of a brown paper bag. Mrs. Weiss does all the cooking at her house; Ruby just buys the groceries.”
Ruby dug an elbow into Esther’s side, then sheepishly raised her right hand. “I can’t argue with Essie. I can’t cook. I promise I’ll leave the kitchen all to you. I’m a pretty good dishwasher, though, and I’d be pleased to help out that way.”
Hazel brightened visibly. “Doing dishes definitely detracts from the culinary experience. We’ll have to work out details of expenses, though. You’d have two mouths to my one, and I’ve heard how much growing boys eat.” She reached across Esther to offer a hand. “All right, if we can iron out an equitable agreement, we’ll give it a trial run.” Ruby shook Hazel’s hand firmly. “But after a couple of months, if either of us doesn’t like the living arrangement, we’re both free to call it quits. Agreed?”
“Agreed, and thank you very much, Hazel. You’re helping Danny and me out of a real tight situation.”
“I’m glad to be able to help, and I sincerely hope it works out.” Hazel’s expression remained neutral, but just for a second, her eyes flashed joyously at Ruby.
Odessa Bellamy snorted and waved a dismissive hand from the other end of the table. “Hah, you put two cats together and they’re going to end up tearing each other apart, especially with a cub in the mix. You two won’t last even a week without killing each other. Mark my words.”
Ruby was delighted to see glares, heads shaking and eyes rolling at Odessa’s dismal prognostication. It was clear their co-workers were in favour of the new living arrangement, and wished Hazel, Ruby, and Danny well.
Esther shot Odessa a furious look. “Shut your pie hole, Odious.”
That elicited a big laugh as the private nickname got its first public airing.
Esther continued, “I think this is a damn fine idea. It solves a problem for two good people, and you can’t ask for more than that. Hazel and Ruby are mature adults, and Danny is a delightful little boy. If they can’t figure out how to live in harmony, then no one can. God knows your husband would kill for a little peace and harmony in his home, Odious.”
Odessa’s ears were red, and the vein in her forehead stood out prominently as she bolted to her feet and faced Esther. “My Russell is perfectly happy in our home, Esther Raymond. Don’t you ever say otherwise or I’ll send him after you to teach you what’s what!”
Jeers and catcalls followed Odessa out of the lunchroom. Russell Bellamy worked on the first floor with Esther’s and many of the other women’s husbands. Everyone knew that he routinely disparaged his nasty tempered wife.
Esther turned to Ruby with a grin. “So, do you think Russ Bellamy could take my Pete?”
“Pah. Pete could twist old Russ into a pretzel without even breaking a sweat, not that Russ would raise even one finger to support his wife.”
The next lunch shift began appearing in the doorway, and Ruby’s tablemates got ready to go. Ruby made a point of stopping Hazel in the midst of the crowd to publicly thank her again for her kindness.
“Think nothing of it, Ruby. I’m sure we can figure out a way to live together, at least until a better situation comes along for you and Danny.”
As Ruby watched Hazel depart with her friends, her heart swelled with the knowledge that it would only be a matter of weeks, maybe even days, until she and Hazel and Danny could begin their new life together...as a family.
Ruby opened Danny’s door and peered in. The nightlight softly illuminated the room. Her son slept soundly in one of two single beds, his precious coonskin cap still on his head. The linens were pulled back on the other bed, awaiting a sleeper who would not arrive until much later.
Ruby watched Danny for a long moment until she felt Hazel’s arms slip around her. She smiled and quietly closed the door. Twisting, Ruby enfolded Hazel in an embrace and laid her cheek against soft hair. “Can you believe it, sweetheart?”
Hazel sighed happily and tightened her grip. “That you’re finally here? I thought these three weeks were never going to pass.”
“That, but also that Danny has settled in so easily. We’d lived with Mrs. Weiss for as long as he can remember. I thought he’d be more upset at leaving her.”
“I was more surprised that Mrs. Weiss actually did want to move up to be with her daughter. Who knew she’d only been staying so you and Danny would have a home?”
“And I was concerned about not being there to help her around the house. It really worked out well for everyone, didn’t it, sweetheart? She even practically gave me her old car.”
“She is a sweetie, that’s for sure.”
Ruby let go of Hazel with one arm and reached into the deep pocket of her cardigan. “I have something for you.”
“Mmm hmm, but before I give it to you, you have to promise me you’ll keep an open mind.”
Hazel leaned back in Ruby’s one-armed embrace and regarded her with curiosity. “Of course, I will. When haven’t I been open-minded?”
“When it comes to putting your needs first, that’s when.” Ruby held her surprise behind her back. “Do you remember what you told me about your mother’s regrets for your life?”
Hazel chuckled. “What, you mean me not marrying Quill Carmichael? I’m sure Mama’s looking down from Heaven and singing choruses of thanks with the other angels that I didn’t marry that fool. She’d have liked you far more.”
“I somehow doubt that, but that’s not it. Though I can guarantee you I’ll never treat you like your unlamented former suitor.”
“So what, then? What are you up to, Ruby?”
Ruby took the pamphlet from behind her back and pressed it into Hazel’s hands. “This. I want you to give this serious consideration, if not right now, then in the near future. I don’t want you working at MacDonnell’s for the rest of your life. You were meant to be so much more.”
Hazel looked at the cover of the booklet. “Nursing school? Oh, Ruby, I can’t afford to go. Besides I’m far too old now.”
“No, you’re not. And with Danny and me living here and sharing expenses, you can manage it. You’re not in this alone now, sweetheart. Your family is fully behind you, and I want you to live out your dream—your mama’s dream for you.”
“Oh, Ruby, I don’t know...
“I’m not asking you to make a decision tonight; I just want you to seriously consider it.”
Helen gave Ruby a troubled look. “There’s nothing wrong with staying at MacDonnell’s. If I hadn’t gone to work there, I’d never have met you.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t plan to stay at MacDonnell’s forever, either, at least not on the line. If they want to keep me, they’re eventually going to have to give me a more interesting, better paying job. But that’s in the future. For right now, we’re talking about you. So promise me you’ll think about it?
“I will, but Ruby, it feels like I’d be taking advantage of you.”
“No, you’d be building towards a better future for all of us.” Ruby smiled and winked at her worried lover. “Besides, I’m all for you taking advantage of me...anytime you like.”
With a laugh, Hazel turned to lead Ruby down the hall, past the den to the master bedroom. “Okay, you sweet talker, I’ll at least think about it, but I make no promises, except for that ‘taking advantage of you’ part.”
The women stopped for a long lingering kiss just outside their bedroom door. Finally, Hazel murmured, “What did you tell Danny to account for your absence if he wakes up and sees the other bed empty?”
Ruby chuckled softly. “I don’t think my son has woken up in the night since he was a baby. But I did tease him that if he snores too loud, I was going to sleep with you. Honestly, at his age I don’t think it would even faze him.”
“And later, when he’s old enough to figure things out for himself?”
Ruby gently laid a finger over her worried partner’s mouth. “Don’t fret so, sweetheart. Hopefully by that time he won’t even be able to imagine not having you as his other mom. It will be as natural to him as breathing. I don’t want you, or him, to ever think I view our situation as one to be ashamed of. It’s just that at his age, it’s best to give him cover so he doesn’t blurt out an inconvenient truth at school one day. Besides, he’s got more closet space for my stuff than you do. And to anyone who visits our home, it’ll appear as if Danny and I share one room, and you have the other.”
“I know. I just wish—” Hazel’s sigh was one of deep longing.
“What, sweetheart? What do you wish?”
“That someday all this subterfuge won’t be necessary, that someday families like ours won’t have to hide our love for each other.”
“That’s a wonderful dream, Hazel, and I hope it comes true.” Ruby softly kissed her partner. “But for now, I’ll set the alarm for six and be in that other bed when my son wakes up tomorrow morning.”
Hazel’s eyes twinkled as she opened the door to their room. “And after all, he will graduate high school in seven years. Once he’s off to college, the house will be all ours, love.”
Ruby followed Hazel into the bedroom. “Mmm hmm. And exactly what do you plan to do when the house is all ours, Hazel Barrow?”
The door swung slowly closed.
“Allow me to give you a preview of coming attractions, Ruby Gaines.”
© Lois Cloarec Hart