Ruby, like her mother and her grandmother, was a fortuneteller. She had not been a fortuneteller for very long. Before her mother, Miss Evelyn, passed she had been a cook at the Buccaneer Inn in Queen’s Harbour, a very prestigious position. The passing of Miss Evelyn left a terrible void in the community, which Ruby, quite naturally, was expected to fill. Now, every morning she would make a big pot of coffee and a plate of flitters and settle in at her table. People would come throughout the day to have their cards read and then stay on a bit to gossip. One man, John Holland, came several times a week (as he had to the Inn) and always stayed a bit longer than most. John Holland was in love with Ruby, a fact that, in spite of whatever psychic abilities she might have possessed, she completely missed.
Ruby was not famous for the success of her predictions. Still, this was not the true value of the local fortuneteller. Her home was a gathering place and a place of solace. Gossip and news were exchanged along with coffee and prognostications. Whether something came true or not was completely incidental, the healing power lay in the opportunity to unload one’s burden and receive words of hope and encouragement from the mysterious spirits which guided the cards. Her natural talent for listening and comforting words and promises made her a very popular neighborhood sage.
On Sundays there were no card readings, but after church the neighbors would drift in with pots of rice and beans, platters of fried plantains and loaves of warm coconut bread. Ruby would fry up a vat of grouper or a pot of topado and everyone would sit around the house eating and chatting. In the evening the men would gather on the porch for dominoes while the children chased blinkies until their mothers shuffled them off to bed. John Holland was always the last to leave, sitting with Ruby on the porch, savoring the sweet smells of the evening and the soft, soothing tones of her voice.
“I got something been troubling me.” He said in the darkness.
“Mm humm.” Said Ruby.
“Maybe I could come by tomorrow and have you take a look see.”
“You do that John Holland.” She said, patting his leg lightly and rising from her chair.
Taking her meaning, he rose, reluctantly, said his goodnights and headed up the solemn road towards home. At 35 he was the oldest bachelor on the island. Most women thought it was a terrible waste, as he had a fine house and made a fine living as an electrician. He had had many chances to marry, but Ruby was the only woman he had ever loved. He kept a watchful eye for any sign that she might return his affection, but his shyness (and fear of rejection) kept him from revealing his own. He had thought it was better to keep her as a friend than to make her uncomfortable with declarations of, possibly unrequited, love - thus losing her forever. But loneliness and longing were taking their toll, and he was about decided to speak his heart to her and take his chances.
He arrived early Monday morning to find the house already filled with people. Old Mr. Tom was there, as well as the Jones boys, their older sister, Angela, and Mr. Louis. Ruby was just finishing up with Mr. Louis who looked overly pleased with whatever she was telling him. John Holland took a seat on the porch and patiently awaited his turn.
“Mornin’ Mr. Tom,” smiled Ruby, “How you be this fine morning?”
Old Mr. Tom slid into the chair across the table shaking his head and sighing mightily.
“Not so good, not so good. My roof leak so bad I ain’t had to shower all winter. Boards is rotten and when the wind blow the whole thing shake like it’s to come down. Ain’t got no money to buy the lumber and ain’t got no strength to fix it if I did. Thinking maybe I should just leave it be and go on up to Queen’s harbour and live with my mean sister, though she hardly speak to me in ten years.”
Ruby had continued to shuffle the cards as he told her his sad story and now she placed the deck before him for the blessing. She cut the cards into 3 piles and had him make a cross on each one with the side of his hand while speaking his full name aloud. Then she proceeded to read.
“Lord yes, things have been some hard for you of late.” She nods and places more cards on the table. “But you’re not to worry no more ‘cause good luck is on its way to you.” More cards are laid. “I see a fine new house and - see this black queen here - that’s your sister Emma ‘bout to die of envy!”
Mr. Tom let out a fine laugh, something he hadn’t done in many a day now. Ruby laughed with him and patted his hand, more like old silk than skin, as he rose from the table. Smiling, he tucked a wrinkled bill under the small plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin, knowing it was about to come back to him ten fold.
“Why Jackson Jones, I never thought to see your doubtin’ butt sitting in that chair!” Ruby laughed as the young man blushed to the color of a ripe mango. Jackson was 24 and, as the oldest boy, was head of the family now. “What’s troubling you today?” she asked, adopting a more professional tone.
“Andy and I ain’t got no work and Angel be set on marrying before she die but says there ain’t no one worth spittin’ on ever come to her door!”
Andrew and Angel move up behind his chair wide-eyed and nodding. This was also their first time to visit Miss Ruby in her psychic capacities. Ruby placed the cards in front of Jackson and cut them into three piles, she asked each of them to cross one pile and state their name aloud. That being done, she continued.
“Yes indeed, been a lean month or two I can see that. But you boys build fine houses and when the rain be done, there’ll be lots of folks calling to you. You got’s to trust in the Lord children and he will always provide for you.
“He gonna provide me a husband before I too old to care?” this from Angela, a ripe old 25, who was grinning at the good news for Andrew and Jackson - and hoping for some of her own. Ruby laughed and slapped down more cards on the table, humming a little hymn as she did.
“Ooo girl, there be a man so fine as to make you light up like a Christmas tree! “
“He’s for me?” she asked.
“Yes he is. He be lookin’ for you right now, but he don’t know it’s you he be lookin’ for! You just be ready when he come knocking and you be married before the summer’s gone.”
Ruby beamed up at Angela like a maternal floodlight and the poor girl let loose a river of tears and fairly ran from the house. Jackson rose abruptly from his chair -
“She be fine! She be just fine!” laughed Ruby, “Ain’t you never seen a happy woman cry?”
Jackson turned to Andrew and they both turned to Ruby rolling their eyes and shaking their heads
“Anyone ever figger out a woman, gonna make his self a fortune!” said Andrew with mock seriousness. Ruby shooed them out and followed to the porch where John Holland was still waiting.
“You got time for me to have a cup a coffee?” she spoke through the screen.
“I got time if you got a cup for me as well.” He said, rising and heading into the house.
“I got flitters too.” She said, progressing into the kitchen with him close behind.
She pulled the flitters from the warming oven and placed them on the kitchen table, along with a pot of coffee. When she turned to the cabinet for cups and saucers, he grabbed up a flitter and bit into it. How could a little flour, lard, sugar and cinnamon fry up into something so damn good?
They ate and chatted about the weather, about the neighbors. Finally, Ruby reached into her pocket and pulled out her cards - “might as well take a look right here, ‘stead of moving over to the reading table.” And she began to shuffle.
She placed the cards before him and cut them into three piles. Solemnly he made a cross on each pile quietly speaking his name.
“John Holland, John Holland, John Holland.”
She picked up the first pile and began.
“This be your money. No worries here, everything just fine. But it looks like you’ll be taking a little break soon. You planning a vacation John?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.” He said “Always someone needing an electrician these days.”
“Ain’t for lack of work, more for the needing a rest!” she laughed and picked up the second pile.
“This be your health. Hmmm, looks like some trouble here. It ain’t no big thing, but seems you should be real careful so as not to go falling off a ladder or shocking yourself a good one. So you keep awake John and you’ll be just fine. Sometimes the cards just be reminding you to pay attention.”
He nodded, but said nothing, absorbing the soft texture of her voice.
“This be your heart. Oh my, I see love coming to your door any day now!! You been waiting a long time and now it’s your time. You get ready John Holland, ‘cause this is gonna be your lucky week!”
She put down the cards, leaned back in her chair, and smiled at him.
“’Cept for the little warning, it looks like everything gonna work out real nice for you John.”
His heart was pounding so hard he could hardly speak. To cover his excitement, he reached for his coffee and took a big sip. The he returned the cup to the saucer and rose from his chair.
“Then I best be getting’ on with it!” he laughed. “I thank you for the coffee and flitters.”
Pausing by the door he slid a bill beneath the plaster saint of Mary and said a small, silent prayer of thanks.
Tuesday broke hot and brilliant. Ruby walked through the dusty streets of town carrying a string bag of fish and produce. The sun reflected, blindingly, from the white stone road. Suddenly there was a bright flash, which drew her like a fish to a lure.
“This is sure my lucky day!” she laughed, leaning over to pick up the shiny coin in the road.
At that very moment, John Holland, who was riding his old bicycle some 50 feet behind, caught sight of her magnificent bottom, two ripe melons packed tightly in a floral cloth bag. His heart began to race and his hands to tremble and sweat. Losing control of the bicycle he veered sharply to the left and then to the right and slammed into a deep pothole. The bicycle went down and John Holland went up, sailing ass over teakettle into the road. He landed hard on a stone, his arm at a very unnatural angle. Ruby, unaware of the catastrophe, continued happily down the road clutching her treasure.
Mr. Tom was sitting on his sagging porch enjoying the warmth of the sun. This was the first sunny day in twenty and he had opened all of his doors and jalousies hoping things might dry out a bit before the rains came again. By the time they ended in January, the house would be held together my mold alone, as the nails would be rusted and the boards rotten through! Still, it was hard to be sorry on such a fine blue day.
“Hey there Miss Ruby!” he hailed from the porch, happy to see her swaying up the road towards him.
“Hey yourself Mr. Tom! How’s the day treating you?”
He didn’t want to burden her with more of his woes but, as she was always so willing to listen and so generous with her sympathies, he let them flow.
“It’s a hard time for you I know. You got no sons to help you now, with both Carl and Sampson gone to the States. Hard to keep them children from wandering these days.”
“That be the truth! They good boys and they write me plenty. But they’ve mouths to feed and lives to live. Can’t be runnin’ down to take care of an old man too fool to take care of himself!”
“You ain’t no fool Mr. Tom, in fact I think you must be one of God’s favored.” She leans down and pretends to pick up the coin she held palmed in her hand. “Look what lying here right in your own front yard!” She walked up to the porch and he hunkered down to receive her bounty.
“I’ll be damned!” he said, turning the coin over and over in his hand. “This looks like a Spanish coin!”
“Seems some pirate had a hole in his pocket!” she laughed aloud, enjoying the amazement on his face. “Now you do something good with that and don’t forget to thank the Lord for his goodness.”
“Amen.” He said in almost a whisper, tears filling his eyes.
Ruby walked on down the road so as to allow Mr. Tom his time of reflection.
Mr. Tom was indeed no fool and within a few hours he had made his way to the Buccaneer Inn, found a rich American, who kept his yacht in the marina there, and sold him the coin for a right tidy sum. From there he headed straight to the house of Andrew and Jackson Jones. He found them on the porch, drinking coffee and killing time.
“You boys got nothing’ better to do than sit on your butts and count bugs!?” he called up to them.
“You got a better plan Mr. Tom we be glad to hear it!” called Jackson right back to him.
“Yeah, I got a better plan. You boys get your tools and come on over and rebuild my house for it fall into the sea!” They looked at each other, shrugged and rose from their chairs. Might be free work, but at least they’d be working.
“You got money for lumber Mr. Tom?” asked Andy, “We can’t help you with that.”
“I got money for everything - including good pay for both of you!”
Being too polite to inquire further, both boys rushed into the house and returned, armed to the teeth, with saws, hammers, planes, awls and a fine assortment of other tools.
“You got money for one more man as well?” asked Jackson. “Work’ll go a lot faster with three.”
“Yes I do. You go find yourselves another strong boy and get my house finished ‘fore the next rain comes down.”
On their way into town they passed the docks and right there, just getting off the Island Queen, was a man big as a refrigerator and toting a big wood toolbox!! Without another thought, they strolled right up to him and offered him a job.
“We be on our way down to Mr. Tom’s house to do a job. Like to come and work with us?”
“You paying?” asked the big man.
“No -“ they laughed and he started to shake his head. “But Mr. Tom is!!”
“Well, that being the case,” he reached down and hauled up a big flour sack that must have held his few belongings, “I guess we best be goin’!”
The three moved on down the road talking away and making better acquaintance. The big man’s name was Samuel Cooper and he’d just arrived from Florida. He had family on the island and when his father died he figured it was about time he met some of them - as they were all he had in the world now. Samuel was 29, never married, and now an orphan. He had spent the past three years looking after his sick father up in Tampa and his death had left a hole in his life that only family could fill. He was amazed to find himself employed and befriended just minutes after stepping off the boat. Surely this was a sign that he had made the right decision!
They arrived at Mr. Tom’s just as a trucked full of lumber pulled up. Joyfully they began to unload the boards and boxes of nails and set right to work with crowbars and hammers pulling up the rotten wood. By day’s end they had a new frame up and the tin roof back on, but it was still to soon for Mr. Tom to be sleeping there.
“You come on home with us Mr. Tom and by Friday we’ll have you back home livin’ in style!”
They gathered up all the tools and materials and stacked them in the living room. There was no need to worry about anyone stealing anything - this was before things changed on the island, before the ‘others’ came in earnest. The four men hurried down the road, exhausted and yet full of that energy one gets after a good days work. That, and the promise of a big chicken dinner made by Angela’s loving hands!
“You boys leave those boots on the porch now, I just washed down these floors!” she called from the kitchen in greeting to them. “Evening Mr. Tom - you can leave your shoes on and come on in.” she added seeing Mr. Tom lean slowly over to untie his shoes.
Mr. Tom came in followed by Andrew and Jackson. Then Angela looked up casually and saw a vision. There at the door stood a tall man surrounded by an aura of golden light. She stood staring, amazed.
“Well come on in Sam, don’t be shy!” said Andrew.
And Samuel Cooper entered the house, and a new life. His eyes were full of the tall bronze beauty standing in the kitchen. Never had he seen such an -
“…Angela.” Finished Jackson. Sam looked at him surprised and shook his head. And again
Jackson said, “This is our sister Angela.”
Sam got control and walked towards the kitchen and towards her extended hand. He felt a jolt of electricity run through him as he grasped it.
“I’m pleased to meet you.” He said, “Thank you for having me in for supper.”
Angela, having experienced the same jolt, replied with a quiet “You’re most welcome.”
They all gathered around the table and Angela loaded it down with Chicken, rice, beans, fried plantains, Flitters with mango jam and honey, a pot of coffee and a coconut pie. Knowing that the boys were working, she had gone to the market and bought groceries on credit so they could have this celebration dinner. She had spent the whole day cleaning and cooking never knowing that the celebration would, in the end, be for her. She and Sam fell into easy conversation, like old friends. The boys chattered on and Mr. Tom ate with enthusiasm, interjecting compliments as he did, but slowly the destined couple was lost to all but each other. Andrew and Jackson looked to each other and grinned.
Ruby returned home and put away her groceries. She wouldn’t have company until after supper, as Tuesday was her day for shopping and cleaning. She scrubbed up the house and then put on the coffee and fried up some flitters for her nightly visitors. She was vaguely disturbed that John Holland hadn’t arrived, as he was always the first to come and share a cup of coffee with her before she got to reading. She wandered out on the porch nibbling a cold pastillo. She felt her heart jump a little when she spotted a man coming up the road - but it was not John it was only Dr. Morgan.
“Evenin’ Doctor.” She hailed from the porch. “Haven’t seen you in an age. But I guess that’s a good thing - professionally I mean.”
“Evenin’ Miss Ruby.” He hailed back, coming through the gate and up the path. “I came to tell you about John Holland and ask for your help.”
Cold panic ran through her and she froze in place. More than once she’d been asked to help ready a body for burying, and it was a sad business indeed. Her mouth was too dry to speak so she nodded.
“Damn fool fell off his bicycle this afternoon and broke his right arm. Too proud to ask for help, but I know he can’t tend to himself with it all plastered up. I gave him some pills for the pain and they’re gonna make him shaky as well. Thought you might drop by his place with some supper and a kind word.”
Half way through this speech Ruby was already gathering her thoughts and heading for the kitchen, the doctor close behind. He settled himself at the kitchen table and continued to detail John’s plight while she warmed up a plate of stew and wrapped hot flitters in a dishtowel. She packed them and a jar of mango preserves in a basket and shooed the doctor in front of her as she headed for the door. She stopped long enough to kiss the plaster virgin.
“You mind sittin’ here a spell and lettin’ people know I won’t be readin’ tonight doctor?” she asked as she continued towards the gate.
The good doctor just smiled and waved her on.
“I’ll just help myself to some coffee and flitters and then give free medical advice in your stead!” he called to her rapidly diminishing image. He was laughing as he entered the house.
Ruby was out of breath when she knocked on John Holland’s door. When there was no response she pushed it open and entered quietly. He was lying on the bed, fully clothed but for his shoes, the lamplight casting a soft sheen about him. He looked so vulnerable lying there and she turned to go to the kitchen without disturbing him. He opened his eyes and said -
“Miss Ruby…” and she turned back towards him.
“I brought you some supper.” There was a moment of silence and so she said “You look terrible John.”
“And you look beautiful as always Ruby, just like my angel.”
His words went straight to her heart and broke it open. Love came rushing out in a stream of tears. She set down the basket, went to his bed and sat down carefully. He reached up with his left hand and stroked her face. She bent down and kissed him. He kissed her again, and then once again. The she rose, sighed, and picked up the basket.
“I’ll just heat this up for you.” she said.
“Stay.” He said
She slipped out of her shoes and slid in beside him, cradling him in her arms. Entwined together, the lovers fell asleep.