“Damn that wind,” Lilly Jean muttered to herself, slamming the door of her Chevette and then pausing for a moment to make sure the door wouldn’t fall off of the old rattletrap. “Messing with my hair again.” Lilly Jean wasn’t used to living at the bottom of a valley. She didn’t like it. Didn’t like it at all. The wind whipped her hair across her face; it made her eyes stream; it made her mascara run. Lilly Jean didn’t understand how people could enjoy living here: Rather than walking purposefully to their destinations, they were blown there, heads held down against the wind. The wind gave everyone a rumpled look—like towels left to dry on the clothesline to save a bit on the electric bill. The wind drew squint lines on every face and the skin of the residents of this valley was ruddy and pocked. Or perhaps it was just the harshness of their lives that decorated their skin that way. No. Lilly Jean shook her head. If that were the case, her skin would be as ruddy as the rest of them, despite the moisturizer she slathered on every night before bed. Watching her one night, Daddy Sheriff complained about the cost of her moisturizer. Told her he was saving up for a new truck and couldn’t she use something more cost-effective? She caught his eye in the mirror. Held it there. “You certainly wasn’t complaining about my moisturizer when you first met me. Your skin is so soft, baby.” Daddy Sheriff had the decency to blush then. “’Sides, it ain’t as if you’re shellin’ out the cash for my creams. I’m paying for it my own self, just the way I always have done.” And just to spite him, she applied an extra generous amount of moisturizer to her neck.
Lilly Jean was at odds, and the weather did little to improve her mood: Just after she’d set dinner on the table last night, Daddy Sheriff had called and said he wouldn’t be making it home. Something about a drug stakeout. “Your daddy’s bin too long a bachelor,” she’d told her son-in-law. “He needs to get used to having a wife again. Needs to learn himself some mannerisms.” But, as usual, Howard didn’t reply.
People must think it strange, Lilly Jean mused, that she had a son-in-law who was three months older than herself. She’d heard the whisperings: Daddy Sheriff robbed the cradle. Daddy Sheriff liked them young. Daddy Sheriff wanted a daughter. She shook her head. Ever since he’d slipped that ring on her finger and said “I do,” he seemed just a bit less interested in Lilly Jean. She felt like one of them deers he was always talking about sacking or bagging or whatever it was that someone did with a deer. Lilly Jean wouldn’t know. She would never eat deer meat, even if you did fancify it up by calling it venison. Lilly Jean had seen Bambi. She wasn’t going to eat nobody’s mamma, no matter how much Daddy Sheriff pleaded with her to just try it.
It was too early to open up the post office. If Lilly Jean opened at six o’clock today, sure shooting they’d be lined up at the door by five o’clock tomorrow. Why the devil had she left the house at five forty-five this morning?
Truth was, she was lonely. And she had nowhere to go. Daddy Sheriff was still gone, probably wouldn’t be home until suppertime. And Howard—not that he was any company at all—he’d headed out to the Fowler place at five. She glanced at the diner. The lights were on. She could see Bitsy bustling around inside. It would be warm inside. It would be cozy inside. Inside, she knew, the swirling—both the swirling of the wind and the swirling inside her head—would be momentarily silenced.
The wind blew the door out of her hand and sent it crashing against the wall. For a moment, Lilly Jean thought she’d broken it. “Oh, my Lord, they need to fire that pretty face they call a weatherman. Hell, I can predict the weather better ‘n he can and I won’t charge you a dime for the trouble.” She wrestled the door shut then leaned against it.
“You alright out there, Bitsy?” Spank’s voice, from the kitchen, Lilly Jean knew. The man was about as old as time and had awful taste in music.
“I’m alright, Spank. The wind blew Lilly Jean Jacobs right into the diner.” Bitsy nodded to Lilly Jean. “We’re not open yet.”
“Why you got them lights on?” Couldn’t Bitsy see she just needed a bit of company?
“So we can see what we’re doing here.”
“Why you got the front door unlocked, then?”
“Everyone in this town knows our hours, Lilly Jean, and visitors can read the sign.”
“You saying I’m a visitor?”
“I’m saying we’re not open. I haven’t even set the tables yet.”
“Can’t I just sit a spell; have a cup of that coffee to warm up my hands afore I head over to the post office?” She shivered. “In Tennessee we never had this kind of weather.”
Bitsy nodded. “Mmm hmm.”
Lilly Jean took a seat at one of the four-tops in the center of the room. “Did I ever tell you I was runner up for Miss Tennessee?”
“Yup.” Bitsy began setting the tables slowly and deliberately; a behemoth lumbering from table to table.
“And that I won Miss Sweet Pea, the year before that?”
“Told me that, too, Lilly Jean.”
“And that I…?”
“Heard about that one, too.”
Lilly Jean frowned. Nothing happened in this two-bit town. That was precisely why she’d agreed to marry Daddy Sheriff and move to Medford. Everyone would be so bored, she’d be a bit of interest to them; a spark of liveliness. But no one wanted to hear Lilly Jean’s stories. No one wanted to hear stories of an aging beauty queen. No, she shook her head. They wanted to hear about the weather and the crops and the coal mines. They wanted to hear about jobs and the welfare checks and whether or not the Lincoln Hotel was going to be torn down. “Sure smells good. Didn’t even have my coffee yet this morning, what with Daddy Sheriff on his stakeout. Daddy Sheriff says them Ellis boys have always been dancing with the devil. Seems now, they’ve jumped right into bed with him.”
“I’ll get you some coffee, Lilly Jean.” Bitsy handed her a menu. “And you may as well have a look, now that you’re here.”
Lilly Jean opened it. “Got anything new?”
“Menu hasn’t changed in fifty years, Lilly Jean,” Bitsy said. “You looking for something different, you’re not going to find it on there, no matter how long you look.”
Lilly Jean frowned. “Can’t hurt to keep hoping.”
“Don’t change what works, Lilly Jean,” Bitsy said. “I haven’t changed this diner since my mamma opened it in ’57.”
“I can tell.”
Bitsy looked around. She softened her voice. “I can’t believe we’ve been open that long.”
“Well I can. You need to freshen up this place. You wouldn’t see this in the city no more. Dark and dreary is out, Bitsy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, them floors, for starters.”
“Those floors hide the dirt. Do you know how much…?”
“Chipped at the edges, too, like your customers have been gnawing on them while waiting for their dinners.” Lilly Jean laughed. “Then waxed and polished by the feet of so many patrons shuffling to their tables. If I owned this place, I’d brighten it up a bit, Bitsy. Ceramic tile, for instance. And antique chairs, all mishmashed, ‘stead of this red vinyl shit that’s bin taped up here and there. Someone’s liable to get their ass stuck to one of them seats.”
“You even listening to me, Bitsy? And them booths, what are there, six of them on each side of the room? Tear ‘em out.” Lilly Jean swept her arm around the room. “Open the place up a bit. You need airy. Light and airy. You need plants.”
“No time to water plants, Lilly Jean. Besides, some people like those booths. Believe it or not, some people like a bit of quiet while they have their dinner.”
“They should eat at their own home, if it’s quiet they seek. And what the hell is with this paneling on the walls, Bitsy? It really darkens the place up.”
Bitsy paused and turned around. “You got anything positive to say about this place, Lilly Jean?”
“Well, I do like the breakfast bar.” It stood just to the right of the entrance and was no more than a long stainless steel counter. It had eight stools that spun all the way round. Lilly Jean had watched all manner of people—children, boys with their dates, hell, she’d even seen Howard spinning on them. “Them stools bring out the child in a body.” Lilly Jean wanted to try it herself.
“Well, why don’t you sit there, then?” Bitsy shook her head and sighed.
“Them seats is for the locals.” People like Jonathan Fowler and Wheezy Hart and Andee Miller liked to sit at the bar, lingering over a last cup of coffee and jawing while Bitsy wiped down counters and rang up customers.
“You’re local now, Lilly Jean.”
“No, I ain’t.” She laughed to cover her embarrassment. “Don’t think I’ll ever be quite at home here.”
“Give it time, Lilly Jean. Come on.” Bitsy patted the counter of the breakfast bar. “Come up and keep me company. I’ll get you a sweet roll.”
Lilly Jean shook her head. “Nah. Them seats isn’t for me.” Besides, she thought. Howard sat there. “I’m fine here.”
Here was a set of four-top tables in the center of the room. As far as Lilly Jean could tell, no one in town much cared for these seats, situated as they were in the middle of everything. “These seats remind me of Ellie.”
“What do you mean?” Bitsy looked puzzled.
“They ain’t attached to nothing. Them booths are…” She looked at Bitsy. “You know all the right words to say, Bitsy. What’s the word I’m looking for? When a boat is left to drift hither and yon down the river because…”
Lilly Jean shook her head. “No that ain’t it. Less fancy.”
“Unanchored?” Bitsy suggested.
Lilly Jean slapped the table. “That’s the word. You’re so smart, Bitsy. What are you doing in this town?”
“I’m not smart, Lilly Jean.”
“I beg to defer, Bitsy.” Lilly Jean pointed to the wall. “Them booths are anchored to a wall or a window. And that breakfast bar is anchored by you.” Lilly Jean was afraid Bitsy would take offence to her comment. “I mean that in a positive way, Bitsy. You hold this place together. But these tables…They belong to no one.”
“They belong to everyone,” Bitsy said. “They’ve got nothing to do with Ellie.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“You’ve been here just a couple of months, Lilly Jean. Don’t assume you understand everything you see.”
“Why, Bitsy, I was just…”
“Keep yourself out of Ellie’s business, you hear me?”
Lilly Jean nodded. But Lilly Jean had been nodding all her life. She’d had years to practice the art of deception. She opened her menu and pretended to study it intently, knowing full well that she’d order the bacon and eggs as usual.
For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week,Chris White Writes challenged me with "Dancing with the Devil" and I challenged transplantedx3 with "Exactly why did the dish run away with the spoon?"
Labels: Fiction, Indie Ink