New York City
May 3, 2005
Everyone has a happy place, the scene that comes into view when you close your eyes and let your mind transport you to the dot on the globe where life is cozy, safe, warm. For me, that place is the bookstore, with its emerald green walls and the big picture windows that, at night, frame the stars twinkling above. The embers in the fireplace burn the color of a setting orange sun, and I’m wrapped in a quilt, seated in a big wingback chair reading a book.
I open my eyes quickly, and the stark white walls beyond my hospital bed reset my frame of mind to reality. The thin sheet draped over my body is stiff and scratchy, bleached one too many times, and I shiver as a nurse places her icy hands on my wrist.
“Didn’t mean to wake you, honey,” she says, fastening a blood pressure cuff around my arm.
I stare at the tattoo on her forearm, a butterfly with a lot of pink and purple detailing, as she squeezes the black pump between her fingers. I immediately thank my seventeen-year-old self (profusely) for not actually going through with that wraparound dolphin ankle tattoo I was once this close to getting. A moment later she rips open the Velcro and frowns. “High,” she says. “Too high for a woman your age. Dr. Cater is going to want to talk to you about this.”
I see the disapproving look in her eyes and I want to blurt out, “I’m a vegetarian! I run marathons! I haven’t even had dessert in two years!” But my cell phone chimes, and I pick it up quickly. It’s a text from my boss, Arthur.
“Where are you? Thought you were working on second-quarter reports tonight?”
I feel my heart beat faster and I take a deep breath. He doesn’t know I’m in the hospital, of course. No one does. And no one will. The nurse begins to speak, and I hold up my hand for silence, then sit up to compose myself before hitting Reply. “Got sidetracked with another project,” I type. “Will be in asap.” The project, of course, is this pesky health condition of mine. If my body would just cooperate.
I look up at the clock on the wall: It’s after eight. I was admitted at noon with high blood pressure—dangerously high, the ER doctor said. “Am I having a heart attack?” I asked. I’ve been having symptoms for at least a month, but at a business lunch today—me, and eleven men in suits—I had to excuse myself. I felt dizzy, nauseated. My hands tingled. I couldn’t let them see me like that, so I lied and said I had to go back to the office and put out a fire. Except I didn’t go back to the office. I got into a cab, and I went to the emergency room.
I fidget with the IV in my arm that’s slowly administering blood pressure medication. This isn’t supposed to happen when you’re thirty-five. I eye my bag on the chair across the room anxiously. I need to get out of here.
As I stand up, the door opens and an older man in a white coat appears. He’s frowning. “And where do you think you’re going, Ms. Andersen?” Although in place of my name I imagine him saying “missy.”
I don’t like his tone, even if he is a doctor, even if his ultimate goal is to save my life. “I’m feeling better,” I say, still fiddling with the wire attached to my arm. “I have an important project at work that I have to get to.”
The doctor walks closer and sets my chart down on the table beside my bed. He’s obviously in no hurry to have me discharged. “What’s it going to take?”
I look at him, perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“What’s it going to take to get you to slow down?”
“Slow down?” I shake my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He points to the folder on the table. “I read your chart.”
I gave the ER doctor a rundown of my typical day: up at five, to the office by seven (and that’s after running six or seven miles), then work, work, work until eight, maybe nine p.m. (and, actually, sometimes later).
So what? I’m a vice president at a major bank, the youngest VP in the history of Chase & Hanson Bank International, and with eight thousand employees worldwide, that’s saying something. I have to prove myself. Besides, I’m good at what I do. It’s maybe the only thing I’m good at.
“Listen, Dr. . . .”
“Dr. Cater,” I say in the slow, confident voice I use to negotiate with debtors. “I appreciate your concern, but really, I’m going to be OK. Just give me the prescription, and I’ll take the pills. Problem solved.”
“It’s not that simple,” he says. “You’re a complex case.”
I let out a little laugh. “Thank you, I think.”
“Ms. Andersen, I see that you’re experiencing numbness in your hands on occasion.”
“Yes,” I say. “I run a lot. New York is cold before sunrise.”
“I don’t think it’s that kind of numbness,” he says. “I believe you have a panic disorder.”
“Excuse me—a what disorder?”
“Panic,” he says. “I think your body is under a tremendous amount of stress and that it’s compensating by shutting down, in a sense.”
“No,” I say, unwrapping the tape that’s holding the IV in place. “I know what you’re implying. You think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. Others in my family, well, they may be. But I’m not.” I shake my head. “Listen, are you going to take this thing out of my arm, or am I going to have to yank it out myself?”
Dr. Cater looks at me for a long moment and then sighs. “If you insist on leaving, we can’t keep you here,” he says. “But please, promise me that you’ll at least consider slowing down. You’re going to run yourself into the grave.”
My cell phone buzzes again. What does this guy know about me? Absolutely nothing. I shrug. “Whatever I have to say to get out of here.”
Dr. Cater reluctantly takes the IV out of my arm, and tucks a slip of paper into my hand. “This is a prescription for beta-blockers; they work by blocking certain nerve and hormone signals that cause anxiety,” he says. “I’d like you to take the pills, at least for the next few months, and I strongly encourage you to lighten the load. Maybe exercise a little less; cut back on your workload. Take a vacation.”
I stifle a laugh. No one at my level takes time off. Lisa Melton, the new VP on the ninth floor, took a week off after her wedding and even that was frowned upon. There’s a certain expectation in finance that when you hit the big time, you pretty much live and breathe work. Vacation days just accrue into a lake of time off that you can never think of dipping into, unless you want to drown. It’s just the way it works. “I appreciate your concern,” I repeat, reaching for my coat and bag. “But I have to go.”
“There you are,” Arthur says, smirking a little. “I thought we’d lost you.” My boss is shrewd, cunning. But I know that deep down he has a heart, or at least some semblance of one, which is why I once told him that he’s the nicest asshole I’ve ever met. For his twentieth anniversary with the company, I had a gold plaque engraved with those very words.
“Sorry I had to leave the lunch today,” I say. “I . . . I . . . listen, I had a thing come up.”
“A female thing?”
“No, no,” I say, making an annoyed face. Men. “Nothing like that.” I snap back into work mode—all business. “Listen, I’m sorry. I’m here now. It won’t happen again.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow. “What in the world are you wearing?”
For the first time, I realize what I must look like after spending the past eight hours at the hospital. Disheveled hair. Smeared eye makeup. I quickly pull my wool peacoat tighter around my neck when I realize I’m still wearing the light blue hospital gown. “I came from home, didn’t have time to, er, change,” I say.
Arthur shrugs. “OK. Anyway, let’s get to work.”
We sit down at the conference room table, and he lays out a stack of file folders. “Every single one of them in default,” he says. “Who are we going after first?”
I lean in and pick up the folder on top labeled Samantha’s Knitting Room. I’ve long stopped feeling sorry for small business owners who can’t make ends meet. At first it was hard, cracking down on mom-and-pop shops. And I’ll never forget my first assignment. I cried when I delivered foreclosure papers to a café in New Orleans that had been in business since the turn of the century. It was one of those old venues with intricate wrought-iron railings and a green-and-white-striped awning. Beloved by everyone in the city, of course. When I walked in the door, I was greeted by the owner, an old woman. The café had been her father’s. It was a New Orleans tradition. John F. Kennedy had eaten lunch there in 1959. On the wall were signed photographs of Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong. She brought me coffee and a plate of sugar-dusted beignets. My hands trembled when I handed her the envelope that would shutter her family’s pride and joy forever.
It got easier after that. In time, I learned to handle each case with the precision of a surgeon. In and out. No emotion. My guiding tenet: It’s business, not personal. I don’t care how cute, quaint, or beloved your business is. I don’t care if the Pope was born there or if your father got down on one knee and proposed to your mother in the storefront window. The fact of the matter is, if you can’t pay your bills, the bank—well, I will repossess and sell off your assets. It’s that simple.
I like to think that Arthur chose me to mentor because he saw a certain spark, a skill that I had that no other junior banker did. But no, I know that when Arthur saw me, he simply saw clay. I didn’t have a life outside of work. I was devoted to my job. I was malleable.
He helped me hone my skills in banking. Everyone called him “the ax man,” because he had no qualms about closing an under-performing business and auctioning off prized possessions. He didn’t even bat an eye in the face of distressed clients. He only saw the bottom line. And he trained me to see that too. He shaped me into his ax woman, and together we became the bank’s highest-performing department. We cut the fat. We got results.
Of course, not all cases require a personal visit. Usually we can get the papers signed from afar. Usually people cooperate. But some don’t. Some let the letters stack up on their desks and ignore our phone calls simply because they want to delay the inevitable. It’s hard facing your failure. I get that. But that’s life.
I hold up the folder for Samantha’s Knitting Room and thumb through the papers inside. Samantha, who, I see from the original loan application, was born the same year I was, 1970, is seven months behind on her payments. I review the contact log, and see that she’s ignored our department’s calls and letters.
“Looks like someone needs to pay Miss Samantha a visit,” Arthur says. His eyes light up the way a detective’s might when he has someone in his sights and knows he’ll be cuffing them soon.
“Yeah,” I say vacantly. My fingers are tingling again, and my head feels heavy, like a bowling ball attached to my neck, which strains under the weight. What’s wrong with me? My scalp begins to tingle next. The heavy feeling dissipates and my head begins to feel like a balloon, one that’s floating above my body. I should be invested in this discussion with Arthur. I should be approaching each case with my usual zeal. Why can’t I? My heart beats faster, and I clutch the edge of my seat. The numbness in my fingers has spread to my hand, and I can barely feel my palm. It’s happening again.
I eye the door. “Arthur,” I say quickly, “I think I ate something funny.” I clutch my stomach for believability. “I’d better excuse myself.”
He shrugs, collecting the folders into a neat pile and then handing them to me. “OK, well, it is getting late. You can go over the files this weekend. I flagged the ones that need the special June Andersen touch.”
I force a smile. “Right. Of course.”
By the time the cab drops me in front of my building, I’ve gotten control of myself, sort of. The numbness, except for a slight tingling sensation in my left pinky, is gone. I check my mail in the lobby and take the elevator to the seventh floor, then slip my key into No. 703.
I think back to that horrible biology teacher I had in my junior year of high school. I got good grades, mostly, but I’d always struggled with science. After I’d failed an exam, he called me to his desk and told me, “You know, your mother was a student of mine. She wasn’t good at science either. If you don’t study harder, you’re going to turn out just like her. Do you want to spend your life working at the checkout counter of a grocery store?” I hated the look on his face: condescending, cavalier. My eyes stung, but I didn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I saved that for later. If Mr. Clark could only see me now. If he could see the career I have, the apartment I own (mortgaged to the hilt, but so what—my name is on the title).
Sure, I don’t have a husband, kids, a dog. But how many thirty-five-year-olds can say they purchased their own two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with parquet floors, a chef’s kitchen, and windows with peekaboo views of Central Park?
I throw my coat on the upholstered bench in the entryway— take that, Mr. Clark—and set my keys on the glass table against the wall (the decorator insisted on it, and yet every time I hear my keys click onto its surface, I hate it all the more), then sort through the mail. I recognize the handwriting on the letter atop the stack and inwardly wince. Why is she contacting me again? I have nothing to say to her. I walk to the kitchen, where I toss the envelope, un-opened, into the recycle bin. It’s too late for I’m-sorrys.
I slump down onto the couch and sort through the rest of the mail: bills, a few magazines, a postcard from my old friend Claire, in Seattle. She and her husband, Ethan, and their baby son, Daniel, are in Disneyland. “Greetings from Cinderella’s castle,” she writes. “Sending you lots of sunshine! xoxo”
It’s sweet, of course, but if I’m being completely honest, sentiments from blissfully happy friends only feel like daggers in my heart. I stopped going to weddings, and now I only send presents to baby showers. My assistant wraps them beautifully with lots of ribbons and bows. It’s easier this way, managing friendships from afar. No one gets hurt, especially not me. The only person outside of work I keep in touch with anymore is my accountant friend, Peter (smart, kind, handsome, and, I might add, very gay). And I can’t even take credit for our continued friendship; Peter does all the calling.
I sigh. Beneath a Victoria’s Secret catalog is a manila envelope from the Law Offices of Sherman and Wills. It looks official. I tear open the edge cautiously, the way I always do when inspecting legal papers, and pull out a small stack of pages with a cover letter paper-clipped to the top:
The Law Offices of Sherman and Wills
Seattle, WA 98101
TO: June Andersen
RE: The Estate of Ruby Crain
Dear Ms. Andersen,
By now, I’m sure you have heard that your great-aunt Ruby Crain has passed away. Let me express my deepest condolences for your loss.
I pause and place my hand over my heart. Ruby? Gone?
We were retained to handle the distribution of her estate, and I am pleased to tell you that your aunt has left her entire estate, including the children’s bookstore, Bluebird Books in Seattle, to you. Enclosed you will find the attendant paperwork. Please sign the flagged pages and return all to my assistant. You might consider coming out to Seattle to get things in order. As I’m sure you know, Ms. Crain was quite ill for the months before her death. In any case, I trust you will find it a great pleasure, as Ruby did, to own the store. If I can be of help to you in any way, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.
Jim Sherman, attorney
I set the letter down on the coffee table and shake my head. Ruby died? How did I not know? Tears sting my eyes, and then I feel a surge of anger. Why didn’t Mom tell me? Probably too busy with her new boyfriend to even think to mention it. And yet, I realize the person I’m really angry at is myself. I could have written Ruby. I could have visited her, but I was always too busy. And now it’s too late. Now she’s gone.
I stare at the paperwork in disbelief. Of course, we were close, at least when I was a child, but I had no idea that Ruby would choose me as her heir, bypassing my mother and sister, Amy, even. Amy. How will she feel about this? It still feels strange not to be able to pick up the phone and call her. We shared everything growing up (everything except a father, though neither Amy’s nor mine was ever in the picture). I think of her face, that blond hair, just like our mom’s, her plump, pouty lips that always drove boys crazy, her cerulean blue eyes. It’s been five years since the incident, and yet the memory of it still smarts, so I turn to the past instead, when Amy and I were rosy-cheeked girls, skipping hand in hand to Green Lake.
I catch my reflection in the window and I do a double take. What happened to me? That curious little girl with blond braids and her nose always in a book has grown into, I hate to admit, a woman who has little time for family, much less books. I rack my brain and try to remember the last time I even spoke to Ruby, and then I hear her voice in my ear. She called on Christmas Day last year. She’d attempted to organize a Christmas dinner at the store. There’d be a burnt turkey in the oven and a platter full of sugar-dusted cookies. Just like old times. I couldn’t make it, but she called on Christmas Day just the same. Mom and Amy were there. I could hear them laughing in the background, and it made me tense up. Ruby sensed that.
“Is everything all right, June?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied, “everything’s fine.”
“I know you’re so busy in New York, June,” she said. I could hear the hurt in her voice. I still hear it. “But I really hoped you could visit.”
“I just couldn’t break away this year; I’m sorry.” I said, staring at my lonely apartment, bare of holiday decorations. A Christmas tree for one seemed like such a waste.
“Are you ever going to come home, June?” she asked. Her voice sounded older than it ever had. It was airier and it crackled a bit around the edges. That frightened me. The passage of time has always frightened me, but it especially did in that moment.
“I don’t know, Ruby,” I said honestly, wiping a tear from my eye. The truth is, I didn’t know if I could ever go home to Seattle. I hadn’t thought about my home in a long time. When I left, I left for good. Laura Ingalls Wilder said, “Home is the nicest word there is,” but as the years passed, I began to feel that those sentiments didn’t apply to me.
Though we always lived in Seattle, our little family of three moved from apartment to apartment when I was a child. Mom, Amy, and me. To her credit, Mom was good at finding jobs, just not very good at keeping them. She waited tables, worked the night shift at a 76 station, and punched tickets at the movie theater, but all were short-lived. She’d call in sick too many times, or forget her shift, or arrive late, or something. Eventually Mom found work at a little grocery store down the street, and I’m not sure if her boss was just really nice or maybe she’d learned from her mistakes, but she wasn’t unemployed anymore after that. On summer days, Amy and I used to sit on the curb outside the store and munch on sunflower seeds. We’d crack the shells open with our teeth and then toss them in the storm drain beneath us. Every few minutes the automatic sliding doors would open and close, sending a blast of icy, scrubbed air-conditioned air onto our skin. I still remember the way that air smelled: slightly sweet, like the skin of ripe bananas, with a tinge of cleaning solvent.
Mom worked hard at the grocery store, and on her days off, she played hard. There was a never-ending stream of boyfriends with names like Marc, or Rick, or Mac. Many of them played the guitar, and Mom would always go out to watch them in bars around town. My sister and I would stand in the doorway of the bathroom and watch her style her long blond hair. She was an expert with a curling iron, setting her bangs in thick rolls before feathering and teas- ing them back with her teal green pick. She’d finish the look with a thick layer of hair spray, then apply green eye shadow to her lids and pink blush to the tops of her cheeks. She was beautiful, and she knew it. A spritz of Jean Naté, and she’d be out the door.
The lemony, musky scent of her perfume would linger for hours after she went. The familiar smell comforted me when it was stormy out, or when the back door creaked in the wind. I knew I couldn’t cry, even at eight years old. It was my job to take care of my little sister. Amy was only four.
Standing on the step stool to reach the stove, I’d manage to open a can of SpaghettiOs or a box of Kraft mac and cheese. I didn’t know how to make the latter, so I guessed and boiled the noodles with the powdered cheese sauce. I remember the time I found a hunk of old cheddar in the fridge and threw that in too. The result was a soupy, gooey mess that Amy and I ate anyway. I’d usually dish our dinner up in mugs (because the bowls were always dirty and piled high in the sink), and together we’d watch TV until Amy got sleepy. I’d help her into her pajamas and tuck her into bed, then read her a story. We didn’t have much, but we always had books, thanks to Aunt Ruby, who brought over boxes of them. And because of her, we learned of entire worlds that existed beyond the walls of our drab apartment. We followed Madeline through the streets of Paris and made pumpkin pie with Laura and Ma in Little House in the Big Woods. And every night, I read Amy her favorite book, Goodnight Moon.
It was my favorite too. I came to love the nursery with its green walls and striped curtains, the sense of love and warmth. The old woman (the mother? grandmother? a great-aunt like Ruby?) hovering near as the child nestles into his bed. She doesn’t leave her child like Mom left us. She stays and knits, rocking in her chair as he sleeps, as the nursery darkens ever so slowly and the stars sparkle out the window. To me, it seemed the epitome of love.
Ruby hated the way Mom raised us. And for years, she didn’t even know how we lived. Mom told her a different story. And she squandered the money Ruby gave her to help pay for our school clothes and necessities (Ruby, though not wealthy by today’s standards, was very generous, and we were her only family). For a time, Mom spent it on booze and tube tops in every color of the rainbow. One evening Ruby showed up on our front steps and saw the house in its state of disarray. Mom was passed out in the bedroom. Amy and I were watching TV. Ruby had tears in her eyes when she took my hand and then lifted Amy into her arms. “Come on, girls,” she said. “You’re coming with me. I won’t let you live like this. Not anymore.”
She gave us a warm bath that night in her little apartment above the bookstore. Mom showed up two days later, sober and apologetic. They went downstairs together, and Amy and I heard a lot of shouting. After that, things were different. Sort of. When Mom was home, she paid more attention to us. She even took us to the zoo one day. We came to spend more time with Ruby at the bookstore, too. We’d stay for entire weekends and sleep in her apartment a couple of nights a week. It was an open, loft-style space, with exposed brick walls and high ceilings. Ruby hated being confined by walls, she said, so she kept her little bed in the living space and set up the bedroom for Amy and me. I loved it there. Amy and I each had our own twin bed with fresh sheets and big comfy quilts. I hated going home. I wished we could live with Ruby.
She’d read to us for hours, feed us picnic dinners by the fire. I feel a funny flutter in my stomach when I think about Bluebird Books. In the mid-1940s, Ruby was a pioneer of sorts, opening the area’s first children’s bookstore on Sunnyside Avenue, just a few blocks up from Green Lake, and building it into a Seattle institution.
I stand up, and without knowing why at first, I walk to my bedroom and open the closet. Far in the back is a box containing the few remaining relics of my childhood: a diary I kept from the age of ten to twelve; the dried wrist corsage Jake Hadley gave me on the night of the homecoming dance; my baby book, in which Mom only bothered to fill out two pages; and a stack of children’s books from Aunt Ruby. When I left Seattle at age eighteen for college on the East Coast, I had just one suitcase. I’d wanted to pack all of my books, every one of them. But Mom wasn’t willing to pay for shipping—even book rate—nor did I have the money to do it myself. So I picked the books that I loved most, and on top of the stack was Goodnight Moon.
I pull the book out of the box and hold it in my hands. It’s a full-size hardback, not the tiny board books bookstores sell these days. I flip through the pages, and my heart contracts when I think of Amy’s tiny fingers pointing to the mouse hiding on each page. It was our little game to find him, and we never tired of it.
I sit down on the floor and lean back against the side of my bed. It’s dark, and I can see an almost-full moon outside my window, outshining the city lights all around. I don’t think of work or the stack of folders on the dining room table requiring my attention. Instead I think of Seattle, Ruby, and the life I left behind so many years ago.
I think of Bluebird Books.