Silo, Florida, 1956
LEVEN-YEAR-OLD VIRGIL MONTGOMERY WAS SO TERRIFIED OF HIS MOTHER
that he would do almost anything to keep her happy.
Against his better judgment, Virgil made a pact with Mama Ruby on a sultry night in July that would have a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.
He promised her that he would never tell anyone she had just kidnapped her best friend's newborn baby girl and was going to raise her as her own. Virgil knew even back then that he would experience an enormous amount of guilt and shame and that it would probably destroy him someday, but
said no to Mama Ruby. . . .
who tries to take this baby away from me,” Mama Ruby vowed as she gazed at the beautiful baby in her arms that she had named Maureen, after her former beloved madam.
Virgil would never forget how Mama Ruby looked that night in that hideous, shapeless, black flannel duster that he had always hated so much. She sat at her kitchen table feeding the baby a concoction she had made with cornmeal and goat's milk.
Virgil had never seen his mother so nervous. Her hands were shaking, and sweat was streaming down her face like melting wax. No matter how fast he handed her a can of beer every few minutes like she demanded, she scolded him for being too slow. Even when he handed her a fresh can before she finished the previous one, he was still too slow for her. More than two-dozen empty beer cans had already been dumped into the trash barrel on the back porch of their shabby rural houseâand that was what Mama Ruby had drunk in one day.
Mama Ruby couldn't keep her false teeth from slipping and sliding in her mouth, so she jiggled them out with her fingers and placed them on top of a pot holder on the table. Every few minutes she glanced toward the door. Each time she heard a movement outside, she held her breath. She had scratched her head and fussed with her hair so many times since she'd come home with the baby in a shoe box that it looked like she had combed it with an eggbeater.
It was a very long night for Virgil. After he got too tired to remain in his mother's company, he put on his long john pajamas and crawled into his tipsy rollaway bed in the tiny bedroom behind the kitchen. Before he could get to sleep, a bat squeezed through a crack in the wall and entered his room. Virgil flung some balled-up socks at the creature until it squeezed back out the crack. He was convinced that the bat's sudden appearance was a bad omen, and that frightened him. He lay there for hours gazing at the ceiling and out the window at the full moon, wondering what kind of mess his mother had gotten them into this time.
Virgil was not surprised when Mama Ruby entered his bedroom a couple hours later and ordered him to get back up. He had just dozed off, so it took him a few moments to realize what was going on. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, staring at Mama Ruby as she hovered over his bed. Her suitcase was on the floor in front of the doorway. The baby was still in her arms, rolled up in a towel like a cocoon. Even though she had already told Virgil that she was keeping Othella Johnson's baby, he had not believed her until now.
“Boy, drag your tail out of that bed and shake a leg. We fixin' to haul ass,” Mama Ruby growled with her jaws twitching. She clamped her ill-fitting false teeth more securely onto her gums, hoping they wouldn't fall out of her mouth during the night like they often did. “Grab you a few sugar tits and some tea cakes out the ice box. Then go empty out your bladder and your bowels so we won't have to make too many stops.”
Despite an assortment of crimes that Mama Ruby had committed over the years with Virgil as her accomplice, they had avoided jail so far. He didn't count the month that she had spent behind bars for leaving some white kids in her care unattended when she went to go shoot and kill her unfaithful husband, who was also Virgil's father. That had happened before Virgil was even born. But what Mama Ruby was about to do now scared him. He was well aware of the fact that kidnapping was a very serious offense, even if the victim was a black child in a racist, Southern town.
Virgil looked from the suitcase to Mama Ruby's face and opened his mouth to speak. But before he could get a word out, she gave him one of her grim “don't ask me no questions” looks, so he didn't. He scrambled out of bed and got dressed. After he had stuffed only what he could carry into a shopping bag, Mama Ruby made him creep around outside the house to make sure that the coast was clear.
“We ain't got nothin' to worry about. I even checked to make sure that everybody at Othella's house had gone to bed,” Virgil reported, chewing on a sugar tit as he tiptoed back into the house.
“What about Othella's hound dog?” Mama Ruby's voice was hoarse. She had just raked a comb through her hair, braided it, and covered it with a plaid scarf. She had taken a birdbath in her kitchen sink, sprayed lemon-scented toilet water behind her ears and on her wrists, and changed into a fresh duster. She had even smeared on some lipstick and slapped rouge across her bloated cheeks. She had plain features, but she was still a very vain woman. Making herself look more attractive was one of her better habits, and it had always paid off. She had been a very popular prostitute back in New Orleans fifteen years ago, and she was still able to draw men in like a Venus flytrap.
“Oh, we ain't got to worry about that mangy creature. I gave him a hambone and tied him to Othella's pecan tree. Even if he was to see us leavin' and start barkin', he can't get loose.” Virgil paused, swallowed the last piece of his snack, and gave Mama Ruby a curious look.
“What's wrong with you, boy? Why you lookin' at me like that?” she asked. She was still nervous and had begun to sweat even more.
“Um, I was just wonderin' . . .”
“I was just wonderin' . . . uh, can you . . . uh . . . run real fast?” It was a question that Virgil didn't feel safe asking a woman who weighed almost four hundred pounds. There were times when Mama Ruby could barely stand up, let alone “run real fast.”
Mama Ruby glared at Virgil and said hotly, “Yeah, I can run real fast if I have to! Why?”
“Well, things might get real serious,” Virgil pointed out. “You ain't no spring chicken, you a little on the heavy side, and you kinda clumsy.” There was an edge of sarcasm in his voice. He averted his eyes from Mama Ruby's and glanced down at his feet to make sure his shoelaces were tiedâin case he had to suddenly run real fast from her.
“Look here. I got news for you, boy. Things is already real serious,” Mama Ruby growled, ignoring Virgil's remark about her age and weight like she usually did.
“Mama Ruby, what I want to know isâand I ain't tryin' to be funnyâdo you think you can run fast enough for us to escape in case Othella's hound dog starts barkin' loud enough to wake her up?”
“Oh,” Mama Ruby mouthed, scratching the side of her face with three fingers. “Well, tonight I bet I could outrun Tarzan,” she whispered, looking toward the door again. “Make sure you pack my Bible and blow out all the lamps, and let's make tracks. Lickety-split!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Virgil whispered back. By now he was almost as nervous as Mama Ruby. Other than a few pennies from her coin purse, a piece of candy, and some peanuts from the local grocery store, he had never stolen anything before in his life. Yet here he was now, involved in a conspiracy to steal another woman's baby!
Mama Ruby died suddenly in the first week of January 1983. Despite her unhealthy eating habits, her love of beer, and her dangerous weight, almost everybody believed that she had died of grief. She couldn't bear the thought of going on after Maureen had moved out on her own a few months earlier.
Two weeks before, the last time Virgil had seen his mother alive, she had reminded him of his promise to keep her crime a secret. “I'm so proud of you, boy. You been a good son, done almost everything I told you to do all your life. I knew you wouldn't blab to nobody about me stealin' Othella's baby,” she said with a touch of sadness in her voice.
“No, I never told nobody. I ain't that crazy,” Virgil said, and then he added, “My mama didn't raise no fool.”
Ruby chuckled. “I sure didn't!” She chuckled again, and then she got serious. The sadness returned to her voice. “I swear to God, I would rather die than ever tell anybody what we done back in the summer of fifty-six.”
“What do you mean, what we done? I didn't do nothin'. You was the one that stole Mo'reen and run off with her. If the law ever was to catch up to you, they ain't got nothin' on me. Besides, I was only eleven when it happened!” Virgil snorted, giving his mother a defiant look. He was the only man on the planet who could be so bold with her and live to tell about it.
“Well, you ain't no eleven-year-old boy no more. You pushin' forty now. I couldn't have avoided gettin' caught and gettin' locked up without your help all these years. That's what the law will look at.” Mama Ruby paused. She glanced from side to side. Then she shaded her eyes and looked up the dirt road toward the pyramid-shaped hill that faced her house. The palm trees and thick bushes on both sides of the road were good places for busybodies to hide behind. The last thing she needed was for one of those busybodies to sneak up and overhear this conversation and report it to the one person in the world she wanted to keep it from. That person was not the sheriff. It was the “victim” herself: Maureen, who was now twenty-seven years old.
Mama Ruby occupied her front porch glider that Saturday afternoon, two weeks before Christmas. Virgil sat on the banister, facing her. They couldn't share the glider like they used to when he was a small boy and she was still a fairly normal size. Mama Ruby's four-hundred-plus-pound body, the weight that she had maintained for the past twenty years, lay slumped to the side, almost covering the entire glider. The same shabby Bible that she had been reading a few hours before she kidnapped Maureen now lay in her lap, splayed like a filet. A check mark, in red ink, highlighted a proverb that she had made Virgil memorize: He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruinâProverbs 13:3. A half-empty can of beerâher tenth one in the last four hoursâwas in her hand.
Mama Ruby was a wise woman. She even possessed supernatural abilities if you believed her and some of her associates. She had made a few lame predictions that had eventually come true, and she had laid her alleged healing hands on a few sick people and made them feel better. But even with her special powers, she couldn't predict how her precious Maureen would react if she knew that Mama Ruby had kidnapped herâand it was the one thing that Mama Ruby never wanted to find out. Kidnapping a baby was a secret that she was determined to take with her to the grave. She had told Virgil that on more than one occasion.
“Well, even if you told Mo'reen what you done now, you wouldn't have to worry about her real mama causin' no trouble and takin' Mo'reen away from you,” Virgil eased in. “You took care of that when you killed that woman.”
“That was self-defense, boy! I had to chastise Othella! She came at me with a blade in her handâand in my own house at that! Even the cops sided with me!” Mama Ruby shot back with a nod and a grunt. She finished her beer and let out a mild belch. “Why you bringin' up this subject again anyway?”
“You the one that brought it up this time!” Virgil reminded.
“Oh. Well, anyway, we don't need to be talkin' about this incident no more, no how. What's done is done, and ain't nothin' goin' to change it.”
Virgil dropped his head and rubbed the back of his neck. When he looked back up at Mama Ruby, he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. She was as rough and tough as a person could be. But she was also so sensitive that she would often burst into tears at the drop of a hat. She set her empty beer can on the floor and fished a large white handkerchief from inside her bra. She immediately began to weep like a baby.
“Now you stop all that bawlin'!” Virgil ordered. “I feel bad enoughâand have for yearsâabout you kidnappin' Mo'reen,” he fumed.
“I can't help it!” Mama Ruby wailed, blowing her nose into her handkerchief. “I don't know why you won't lay this . . . this . . . situation to rest like I did.” Mama Ruby stopped crying and gave Virgil a look that was so frightening it would scare a ghost. “The past is the past and we can't change it. I advise you not to mention this kidnappin' incident to me no more as long as I'm still breathin'. Do you hear me, boy?”
“Yes, ma'am. I . . . I . . . won't never bring this up again as long as you still breathin',” Virgil sputtered.