“What’s wrong, Daddy Sheriff?” Lilly Jean sat on the edge of the bed and watched her husband even out the straps of his Bolo tie. The stone was green turquoise and, truth be told, was what had initially attracted Lilly Jean to her future husband. She liked a man with an interesting past and Daddy Sheriff claimed he could trace his family back to the Navaho. Naturally, she’d believed him. She sighed. She’d always been a sucker for a good tale.
Daddy Sheriff glanced at her. “I could ask you the same question. You’ve been setting there sighing for ten minutes. You didn’t even know Wheezy Hart all that well. What are you so sad-faced for?” He shook his head.
Those first months with Daddy Sheriff, before he’d brought out that diamond solitaire and ruined it all, those had been the best months of her life. She looked at that ring on her finger, now joined for eternity by a thin elegant band. The rings were beautiful. But she found them too tight upon her hand.
She found they strangled the life out of her.
“Are you going like that?” Daddy Sheriff nodded at her outfit; an outfit she’d picked with care to honor the memory of a man she did not know outside of her dealings with him at the post office. She’d selected a modest skirt and a tasteful sweater. She knew the outfit hid too much for Daddy Sheriff. Her husband liked to parade her around like a prized possession.
“I think so.” She lifted her chin slightly.
She’d given him her finger. She’d given him her vow. She refused to give him her pride.
He raised an eyebrow and returned his attention to the mirror.
She was glad she’d also refused to give him her name. At the very least, Lilly Jean intended to keep a small sliver of herself apart from her husband, a man she found she despised just a little more every day.
“That kid. Ellie.” Daddy Sheriff spoke to his reflection. Smoothed down his hair with a comb. “You know her?”
“I see her around from time to time. Mostly at Bitsy’s. Sometimes at the Post Office. What about her?”
“Just before he kicked off, Wheezy Hart told her that her daddy was here.”
Lilly Jean looked around the room. “Where?”
“Here in town. In Medford.”
He turned and glared at her. “For being the town crier, you don’t know much, do you?”
“Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Her father skipped town just as soon as he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. And her mother is useless. Just sits around all day watching soap operas while Ellie works at the diner to pay the bills.”
Lilly Jean felt her heart sink. She leaned against the headboard of the bed. Ellie. She was alone in this world. And Lilly Jean knew what that was like: All her life, she’d been jostled about; moved from place to place by her father, who always seemed dissatisfied with his lot in life. He was convinced that there was always something better out there, just out of reach. He could smell it, taste it. He’d ignore the call, resist it as long as he could. But eventually the pull would be too strong to resist and he’d pack up the family in the old Ford Fairmont and speed away on balding tires and the cycle of new jobs, new schools, new everything would begin again.
People said moving builds character; makes you a better person. Interesting. Intelligent. Strong. Ha, Lilly Jean thought, striking a match and bringing it to her cigarette. The tip glowed red and satisfying. She sighed. People who thought moving built character hadn’t gone through the process. At least not as many times as she had.
It’s strange, moving, Lilly Jean thought. Unsettling. Just when you’ve got your life rearranged in some semblance of order, just when you’ve learned the rules of a place and set out tentative shoots, you’re grabbed and yanked and shoved into new dirt. Unfamiliar dirt. Dirt that’s too dry or too sandy. Too weedy or too wet. Dirt that just doesn’t feel right. Yeah, you adjust. Eventually. You look at someone on the street and recognize them. And just when you work out how you know them and you’re headed up to speak to them, to extend a hand and say, My Lord, it’s been years, you realize, no. No. I knew that person in another time; in another place. The person before me is not who I was thinking of, not who I once knew.
After the fifth move, Lilly Jean’s mother had had enough. She ran off with an Army deserter to Mexico. The moves came quicker, then, rapid-fire. Lilly Jean would just figure out the kitchen of the little apartment and her father would be packing her up and taking her to a new place. Sometimes he didn’t even bother to enroll her in school.
Lilly Jean had learned not to settle, not to trust in the truth of a place. Lilly Jean Jacobs had learned to create her own truths.
She took a drag on her cigarette and coughed lightly. Talk. Big talk. That was the sum of Lilly Jean’s existence. Her eyes filled with tears. She was eight years old when her mother left her. Even now, years later, she felt the pain of that absence. That hole in her life. That missing piece that would never close up. All she’d ever wanted was to talk with her mother. My Lord, the questions she would ask.
“What’s your problem, Lilly Jean?”
She shook her head, wiped those damn tears from her eyes. She understood Ellie’s pain; her aloneness. There was so much history that she didn’t know. So much history she was entitled to. No one would bother filling in the blanks, Lilly Jean knew that much. Maybe, she thought, crushing out her cigarette, maybe every time she thought she recognized someone on the street, what she was really hoping was to recognize her mother. Or maybe, when she recognized someone, it was just another lonely soul. Maybe it wasn’t the person she recognized. Maybe it was the pain. “That poor child.” All Lilly Jean had ever wanted was a child of her own. But she knew that she’d never had Daddy Sheriff’s child. Not in a million years,
“Are you kidding me? She’s got it made, living off the charity of the entire town.”
She looked at Daddy Sheriff with disgust. Lilly Jean Jacobs was alone. Just like the child. All her life, Lilly Jean had seen herself as merely an outline, a person to be filled in, fluffed out, by the expectations and definitions of others. Now, she pictured Ellie ten years hence, lying next to a man in a loveless marriage, a man she’d hitched herself to in order to give herself some definition, to fill in the empty spaces in her heart and soul. Pictured her pretending to everyone else—even the husband she despised—that she was happy. Pictured her crying herself to sleep at night with the realization that, once the veneer had been lifted, the shell of herself contained only emptiness.
Lilly Jean wouldn’t allow that to happen to Ellie. If her life was to be worth anything, she had to do something to make the child’s life better than her own had been. Lilly Jean ashtray, rose from the bed, and planned her next move. Ellie’s life would be a good one. Ellie would find a husband—a good one. They’d have a nice little house and scads of children. Ellie would be happy.
“Shake a leg, woman. If we don’t step on it, we’ll miss the calling hours.”
“Be right there.” Lilly Jean watched her husband leave their bedroom before getting up off the bed and closing the door behind him. When she’d married Daddy Sheriff, Lilly Jean had promised him that her meddling days were over; that she’d quit trying to fix people’s problems and just let them solve things on her own. Well, Daddy Sheriff had made promises too, and he hadn’t kept them had he?
Lilly Jean stretched out her lower lip with her teeth and applied a generous portion of lipstick. She rubbed her lips together then blotted away the extra lipstick on a tissue. She smiled at herself. “Daddy Sheriff,” she whispered. “I’m coming out of retirement.”
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