I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 2
“I’m looking for—well—I think my mother knew that church,” she told him. Saying the words ‘my mother’ sent a thrill through her that straightened her back and sent a burst of hope radiating outward until she felt her fingertips tingle.
Even if she learned nothing, she would go out there to visit the only place she knew her mother had been. And it had to have been her mother who wrapped her up snug in some fuzzy soft blanket with bitty teddy bears stitched lovingly around the hem, who tucked her into a pristine white wicker basket, and left her on the immaculate church steps, her heart broken like glass because she loved her so much she couldn’t keep her.
“Well, ain’t that nice,” Ned said doubtfully.
Jilly gave a start of surprise and for a second she wondered if she’d spoken her time-worn story aloud, but he was only commenting on her earlier statement.
She supposed it did sound a little strange, to want to visit a place her mother had known, but Ned Santa-whatever didn’t seem inclined to quiz her.
He hesitated and leaned forward to whisper, “Nice girls shouldn’t go playin’ near the graves, cha know.”
“Oh, I won’t—I’m not going to be playing,” she told him truthfully.
He placed one hand over his heart in a solemn gesture and intoned: “We do not play on Graves -- / Because there isn’t room -- / Besides -- it isn’t even -- it slants -- / And people come -- / And put a flower on It -- / And hang their faces so -- / We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop -- / And crush our pretty play--” He dropped his hand and peered at her. “Cha ain’t bringin’ no flower, are ya?”
“Ahh . . .” Jilly eyed him warily.
“That’s Emily Dickinson. The poetess. She wrote that there poem about graves. There’s more. Here’s the endin’.” He put his hand back across his heart, and said, “And so we move as far / As enemies -- away -- / Just looking round to see how far / It is – Occasionally--” He stopped. “Is that what cha doin’?”
“Chore Ma ain’t dead, is she?” he asked, closing one eye and peering over at her, a few stray eyebrows pointing at her like antennae.
Jilly swallowed the sudden fist-sized lump that formed in her throat. “No.” She blinked. “No,” she said more firmly. The thought had never even crossed her mind. “I’m just visiting a place she used to know.”
Ned nodded as though giving her permission. “Well . . . awwright then.”
Jilly walked around the store and picked a bottle of Mountain Dew out of the cooler, the icy air swirling against her face momentarily before she swung the door shut. Near the counter she grabbed a pack of Twinkies and paid for her purchases. She hoped Ned wouldn’t spout anymore poetry.
“Hope cha find what chore lookin’ for,” Ned told her as he rang up the sale.
“Me, too,” Jilly said, and she never meant anything more in her life.
She pushed the heavy door open, the cowbell rang, and then she was outside in the sunshine. The day looked perfectly ordinary. Completely dreadful things could not happen on ordinary sun-filled days, could they? She stuffed the Twinkies into her knapsack, too wound up to eat them now, but twisted the top off the Mountain Dew to take a refreshing drink. The bubbles burst against her throat, and she told herself that’s what made her feel like crying for real.
The thought of her mother being dead—forever out of her reach—did not seem remotely possible.
She capped the soda, slid it into her knapsack, and set off in the direction Ned had indicated. Even if she saw nothing more than gravestones, at least she could say she’d been there.
Jilly trudged along the roadside, kicking up dirt with her sneakers, and turned left when she saw the sign. She used to imagine her mother dropping her off, imagined in detail the white wicker basket, and imagined, too, the beautiful white church, its steeple rising in a blue cloudless sky. Her mother, she imagined, would have been crying silent tears, her face an echo of despair over the deed she was about to commit.
Reality felt like a cold lump of ice skidding down her hot spine.
The church was a weather-worn gray; no steeple rose majestically from its rooftop. In fact, Jilly thought it looked more like a storage shed than any church she’d ever seen. To the left of the rain-rotted wooden building was a fenced-in area filled with tilted gravestones. Someone obviously maintained the cemetery, at least in part, because the grass was clipped short.
Slowly, Jilly walked up to the church building. To her horror, she noticed there were no steps leading up to the door—there was only a cement doorjamb, now crumbled and tired-looking. How could her mother have left her here when there were no steps? There’d always been steps in her mind.
She ran from the church yard and wove her way randomly through the cemetery stones. She felt unmoored. What could she do now? She dropped to her knees next to a shade-covered headstone and pushed the knapsack off her shoulders, too heartsick to even cry.
“I’m never going to find my mother.” She said the words aloud, testing them like a razor slashing through the summer air. Lester had been right about her: there wasn’t a single person on this earth who cared that she was born. Oh God! Lester couldn’t’ve been right about her! Lester couldn’t—
Jilly leaped to her feet and whirled around. An old man, tall and spindly, his white cottony hair lifting with each puff of hot air that blew across the cemetery, stood there staring at her. He was dressed all in frayed gray clothing, and even his boots looked dull and colorless. His face registered shock.
Jilly scrambled to her feet. “I’m not Jane,” she told him. He looked like he might fall down dead of a heart attack. “Are you okay?”
“Jane Sandra! What are you doing out here?” He stumbled toward her, and in her panic, his outstretched hand looked skeletal and ghostly. “Your mother’s going to tan your hide!”
Jilly swallowed hard; it felt like her stomach had risen up through her throat. She backed away slowly. “I’m not Jane.” She shook her head for emphasis. “I’m not your Jane Sandra.”
The old man raised one trembling hand to his whitened lips, as though appalled at her betrayal. “You don’t have no call to be saying that to your own father, Jane. Why are you always trying to hurt me?”
“I’m not—” Jilly began again. “Honestly! Look at me . . .” She spread her hands out to her sides as though to give him a better look. “I’m not Jane Sandra.”
The old man narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. His mouth worked as though trying to form an argument, but nothing emerged. He sighed. “I—I guess I might be mistaken.” He sighed again and rubbed the top of his head. “I’m not so good at remembering anymore,” he said. “You’re too young; Janey’s gone and grown up. Been gone for years.” His lips puckered, and he lifted his chin before he added in a voice so low she barely heard the words, “I get caught up in the past sometimes.”
She heard the hurt in his tone. “I’m sorry—”
“Never mind! Just go away.” The old man tightened his lips, his jaw going tense, before he said, “Just go away and leave me alone. I can’t take anymore.”
His voice was so filled with desolation Jilly turned around and fled. There wasn’t anything she could do for him; there wasn’t anything she could do for herself.
The idea repeated itself like a mantra as she walked along the dry roadside.
She had so completely come to the end of her imagined destiny, so completely been… demystified was the only word that came to her mind …that she felt close to some mind-numbing terror, unable to think clearly about what she should do next.
The old man in the cemetery had seemed so certain she was his daughter.
She took three more steps and stopped still as the air.
And there she was looking for her mother.
How scary was that? Maybe . . . maybe his daughter — this Jane Sandra—was— She broke off the thought, not able to think what might be. Still, Jane
Jilly’s mouth went so dry she almost cried out. That would be too coincidental, wouldn’t it?
Maybe they were both doing nothing more than chasing butterflies off from cliffs.
But if she looked like this man’s daughter, and their names were so close, and -- and he was tall, too! Could it be possible?
She was almost a quarter of a mile down the road before she remembered her knapsack. She’d left it back at the cemetery. She had to go back now, and if he was still there, she wasn’t going to be afraid. She would talk with him and find out if she was in the grip of wishful-thinking-hysteria or plain-smack-dab in front of the truth.
She ran back to the cemetery, her feet slip-skipping in the dry roadside dust, suddenly desperate, her breath hitching painfully in her side. He couldn’t have left! She’d only been gone a short time.
Thoughts, blinding and swirling like sunspots behind her eyes, made her dizzy. She charged into the cemetery, disoriented. Where had she been when he’d come at her?
With a bizarre feeling of playing hide and seek, she sprinted through the cemetery, zigzagging to avoid the headstones, not knowing what to call out. Should she yell out ‘Hey you?’ ‘Grandpa?’
But she spotted her knapsack, sitting atop a headstone, the old man no where in sight. She crossed over to her pack and lifted it into her arms. Despite the fact there wasn’t much in it, its weight dragged her down and she sank weak-kneed to the ground, resting her forehead against the hot stone.
He was gone.
Maybe he hadn’t ever been there.
Black spots replaced the blazing purple aura that had been behind her eyes when she ran. The spots spread like oil, then merged, and she tilted over in a faint.
Desperately she pulled her mind into focus, dragging herself up and out of the black and purple despair. She had never fainted before in her life, and she marveled at the notion. Why anything at all could happen to her out here, anything at all!
The thought cheered her up considerably, and she sat up, weak as water. Food. Obviously, she needed to eat if she was going to keep going. She dug the Twinkies and the warm Mountain Dew out of her knapsack. Twilight was approaching and she smelled the faint scent of lilacs on the air. The birds were singing a few short goodbye notes, and the frogs and insects were becoming night-noisy.
Ordinary days turned into ordinary nights, she reminded herself. She wasn’t about to give up this easily.
She finished the Twinkies, gulped the last of the Mountain Dew, and slapped a mosquito on her forearm. The sugar revived her, and she made her way to the abandoned church, wondering if she could break in. It had offered her shelter once, a long time ago, and maybe that would be the best place for her to stay right now.
The door of the church creaked open when she pushed on it, its hinges rusty and squeaky with disuse. Inside was simply a shell of a room with a few gardening tools stored inside. The windows, two on each side, were of plain glass, no colorful stained glass anywhere, no pews or hymn books, or anything at all to say this was once a place of worship. A silty layer of dust covered everything and she rubbed her nose, then sneezed as her movement stirred up the air inside and she felt the grit against her teeth, tasted the long-dead dust against her tongue.
She made her way to the corner, set her knapsack down, and stretched out beside it. She couldn’t go anywhere else anyway. Not right now. The two days of traveling, the lack of food, and the emotional upheaval were too much. She needed to rest.
“What cha want with ol’ Otto Beckinhide?” Ned asked.
Jilly smiled at him. “Is that his name?” The morning sun slanted in through the plate glass window and she squinted. She’d been up since daybreak formulating a plan, and she figured the best place to start looking for the old man with the white hair was back at the Mobil station where Ned-the-Prophet-Poet worked.
“Well . . . ain’t too many other people go hangin’ ‘round the graves, ‘sides choreself,” he told her.
Jilly didn’t even bother to deny she wasn’t hanging around graves. She suspected the denial wouldn’t have done her any good anyway, and she didn’t want to waste time. “Do you know where he lives?”
“Out on Chestnut Road,” Ned said. “‘Bout three miles outta town, sort a kitty-corner from the ol’ cemetery as the crow flies. Otto prob’ly cuts cross-lots to get there, but if chore lookin’ for him, cha best go out here and follow the road past Jordan and keep on a goin’ ‘til cha get to what looks like a dirt road, only it ain’t.”
“It’s not?” Jilly asked. She was almost getting used to Ned’s peculiar way of talking.
“Nope. It’s Otto’s driveway. His house is a bitsy way back, sort a hidden in some tall tamaracks, even though it is a huge old thing.” Ned paused, and swiped at his wet lips. “Did cha know that Main Street here turns into Chestnut Road once cha get a ways outta town?”
He probably hadn’t talked this much in ten years, Jilly thought. But before she could encourage him to continue, he did so on his own.
“Otto’s house is an enor-mouse-ity,” he clarified, as though he thought she might not have understood his previous reference. “But it’s fallin’ down ‘round Otto’s ears. If cha go out there, tell ‘im Ned said he best be gettin’ that roof checked. Winter ain’t long in comin’.”
Jilly nodded, amazed at Ned’s reference to winter when the sweat trickling down the side of her neck was thick enough for a water bug to ride. “I’ll tell him.”
“Well . . . cha better be careful, too,” Ned told her. “Some ‘round here say ol’ Otto lost his mind. He a re-lay-tion of chores?”
“I—I’m not sure,” Jilly said slowly. If Ned thought Otto was crazy, and she wasn’t too sure about Ned, that put a whole new light on Plan A.
But since there wasn’t any Plan B, there wasn’t much else she could do. Jilly eyed the revolving pizza display. Once again, hunger dictated her actions. “What’s that?”
“Breakfast pizza,” Ned said. “Made it myself. Scrambled egg, bacon, and cheese. Crust comes ready made from the supplier, though.”
Five minutes later she headed out of town, nibbling on a slice of breakfast pizza, a carton of orange juice tucked into her knapsack. She had exactly twenty-two dollars and forty-nine cents left to her name, the last of the money she’d earned cleaning house for the working couple who lived next door to Lester and Lynette. And while it was mid-June now, and sleeping outdoors didn’t present too terrible a hardship, she couldn’t live this way indefinitely. As Ned had pointed out, winter was bound to turn up sooner or later.
The thought of being forced back to Lester and Lynette’s tightened her stomach. She’d been gone for three days now, but she didn’t imagine they were the least bit worried. If anything, they were probably wondering how long they could conceal her absence, so they could continue to receive their government check for her care.
She didn’t even think the school would be too concerned about her absence. There’d only been two days left of tenth grade, and she’d passed everything. They wouldn’t even think about her being gone.
In fact, there was no one who would think about her being missing -- not one person who would wake up and wonder where she had disappeared to or wonder if she was doing all right. Resolutely, Jilly hitched the knapsack higher onto her shoulders. It didn’t matter, she thought. Nothing mattered about back there. It was the here and now she had to think about. If she had a mind-eraser, she’d wipe out her past with wide, sweeping strokes, and then she’d concentrate on the present.
A little over an hour later she came upon a dirt driveway that led back into some shady-looking trees she supposed were tamaracks. They looked a bit like fuzzy pine trees.
The sides of the drive were lined with timothy weeds and Queen A
Jilly stood and stared, uncertain. The place appeared deserted. Should she knock on the door? Go up those steps and say hello?
Or turn herself in and be sent back to Lester and Lynette?
As if she felt Lester’s hands, coarse and slimy against her skin, the thought motivated action, and she took a step forward. Then Otto Beckinhide himself rounded the corner of the house and stood staring at her in mute shock, his white hair poofed out over his ears.
“Hello,” Jilly said. She gathered her courage and moved closer. “Mr. Beckinhide?”
The old man nodded once, still not speaking.
“I’m Jilly Sanders,” Jilly said.
He nodded again. “I don’t have any money for whatever it is you’re selling. Sorry you came all the way out here for nothing.”
“Oh, I’m not selling anything,” Jilly said. “Don’t you remember me?”
Otto froze. His tongue darted out to lick his lips. “Remember you?”
“From yesterday. Out at the cemetery?” Jilly crossed the yard, the high weeds tangling in her sneakers, forcing her to look downward every two steps. “We met out at the cemetery.”
“We did?” Otto rubbed his chin, his hand large and callused. He appeared upset, but no longer like an apparition.
“Are you all right?” Jilly asked.
“Wha—” Otto jerked in surprise and dropped his hand. “Yes. I’m fine. Except I—I’m afraid I don’t remember you. I—I have a problem with—with –” He broke off. “What can I do for you, young lady?”
Jilly blinked. How could he not remember her? They’d seen each other yesterday! Old people were funny, she supposed, and his memory—or lack of it—was the least of her problems right now.