I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 5
I know you never want to see me again, and I know even that is not enough to erase what has happened. I’m only sorry right now you are left alone, but right now that is what you prefer. I try to understand. Please remember how much mother and I loved you. And I still love you. Maybe someday you will be able to forgive me.
Jilly’s heart fisted in her chest. February 21, 1981! That was only a few months from when she was born! She dropped the letter as though it had suddenly burst into flames. Was she the reason Jane Sandra left home? Was she the reason Otto never saw his own daughter or his wife again? And if so, shouldn’t she be the one Otto hated?
With shaking hands, she picked up the letter, refolded it and slipped it back into the envelope. She slid the rings back into the canister and pushed the other papers in after. The lid didn’t want to go on, and she struggled with it, desperate to get away. Finally, it clicked into place and she put it back where she’d found it.
She pulled out her t-shirt and made a sort of basket, shoving the dirty newspaper wads inside before she grabbed the ammonia and fled down the stairs.
They’d left Otto! His wife and his daughter! How could they?
She stumbled on the stairs, but caught herself before she fell.
Or had Otto been responsible? Had he been so unforgiving he couldn’t reconcile the fact that his daughter had gotten pregnant?
Jilly didn’t think morals and values were all that different in 1981 than they were today. And Otto didn’t strike her as the type to turn his daughter so heartlessly away.
Or at least he didn’t seem that way now.
Had twenty years taught him to forgive?
A new thought occurred to her and she felt nauseous. Did he think Jane Sandra had kept her baby all those years, and now Jilly was here to try to make amends? What would he do if he knew Jilly had been abandoned, packed away and forgotten like the baby doll bundled in the trunk, in order to earn his forgiveness?
In the kitchen, she dropped the used newspapers into the trash and left the ammonia on the counter. She pushed the screen door open and walked into the field out back, heading in the opposite direction Otto had taken her the day she arrived.
She meant to go exploring out here ever since Otto had said to stay out of the right field. What kind of person did that make her? Seemed like she always wanted to do the one thing somebody told her not to! She wondered if that was some kind of genetic trait she’d inherited from her mother. Or maybe from her father.
This wasn’t the first time she’d thought of her father, but she dismissed him from her mind as she always did. She held him responsible for her mother having to . . . leave her to strangers. He must’ve turned against her mother, his pregnant girlfriend, because if he hadn’t, Jilly wouldn’t have been left anywhere! She knew this in her heart, believed it to be true, and that belief enabled her to forgive her mother more easily than she might have done otherwise.
Being outside, away from the house, away from those papers, the letter, and those cold, lonely rings that symbolized smashed lives, made her calm down a bit, and she took a deep breath of country air. She moved quietly through the tall grass, stirring up crickets that chirped angrily at her. She made her way through the timothy weed, the tall black-eyed Susans, yellow-hearted daisies, and milkweed until she came to an ancient oak tree off by itself at the edge of the field.
A few feet away she came upon a rusted car, its front smashed inward, a few fragments of glass clinging to the edge of what was once a windshield. She circled around it, found her way blocked by what looked like berry briars, and finally set down on the trunk, her thoughts confused.
Had Mirabelle and Jane Sandra left Otto, left everything behind, in order to start over fresh in a place that held no memories of the past? Had it been Mirabelle who convinced Jane to leave her baby at the church? Or had Jane thought of that all by herself?
The terrible bitter irony of those two hiding from the very past she was barreling straight into on purpose made her face twist with a sad smile, and she wished she could forget the happenings of the day.
The thought immediately reminded her of Otto, and she recanted it. “I don’t want to forget anything, God,” she said aloud. “I only wish it all didn’t hurt so much.” Her voice sounded loud and unnatural in the empty field, but she talked out loud so she wouldn’t feel so alone. “If Otto had to be punished, you sure did a good job of it, God. Making somebody forget their day memories is a mean thing to do! Why didn’t you make him forget the past?”
Once she said the words, she knew she wasn’t angry with Otto. How could she be? He wasn’t the man now that he was then. Nobody stayed the same. Besides, how could she be mad when the only memory he had was of a past that had twisted up so many lives none of them would ever be able to escape from it? How could she hate him when he remembered that time and still asked her to stay with him?
The smell of the car wafted up to her nostrils and she sniffed. There was a scent here of sun-heated metal, but also of something else, something unacknowledged and still strangely new.
She jumped off the trunk and pulled half-heartedly at the back door handle. To her surprise the car door eased open with a tired sounding grating rumble. She stuck her head into the car hoping a mad chipmunk wouldn’t jump out and bite her in the eyes. Nothing stirred inside.
She climbed into the high back seat; it was absurdly comfortable. Like a child playing hide and seek, she smooched down and lifted her feet up against the back of the front seat. For some reason, the car comforted her. Maybe it was simply the fact that it, too, had been abandoned, out here in the field.
Or maybe it was the mind-lulling solitude it offered to her while she nursed her sore heart and gathered her courage to go back to the house and its bitter secret memories.
By the beginning of July, Jilly had become accustomed to Otto and she tried to forget the letter up in the attic. Right now she only wanted to go on from here for as long as she could—then, if the good Lord was willing, as Otto would say, the day would come when Otto would talk to her about Jane Sandra. But until then, she only wanted to build a new kind of life out here with Otto, a life that, despite its mysteries, still felt better than any foster home she’d ever been in.
“I’m going to make you a spaghetti dinner,” she told Otto one day at the beginning of July.
“Oh, pasta,” Otto said in a voice so gloomy Jilly was startled into laughter.
“You don’t like pasta?” she asked.
“I’d rather eat a bag of fleas,” Otto said, “but if you want pasta, we’ll go into town and get some.”
“But you’ve never eaten my spaghetti!” Jilly exclaimed, as though that made a difference. “Besides, the Fourth of July is coming up in a couple days, and we can have Celebration Spaghetti!”
“Celebration Spaghetti?” Otto said, doubt clear in his quizzical face.
“I’m buying,” Jilly announced. “I’ve got twenty dollars, and there’s nothin’ else I want to spend it on.”
Otto grunted, but Jilly thought he looked relieved. She’d discovered he received a monthly disability check each month, but the amount was a pittance. Money was not a hot commodity out here. They ate a lot of cornbread and fresh vegetables from the garden Otto had planted out beside the house. She suspected he planted it there so he’d remember to weed it, a task she helped him with and found soothing.
She wasn’t sure what he did about food in the winter, but the two of them could cross that bridge when they came to it. If she was still here.
“My old legs aren’t quite up to the trip. You don’t want to go alone, do you?”
“Sure,” Jilly said. “Maybe I can check out the library while I’m there. I saw it when I got into town.” And while she was there, without Otto, maybe she could ask Ned a few pertinent questions, she thought smugly.
“Hmmm,” Otto said. He was a hummer whenever his mind got to thinking about so
Jilly followed him out to one of the old shacks standing beside the barn. “Was this a chicken coop?” she asked.
“Hmmm,” Otto said.
“What are we doing?”
Otto went inside. “I’m looking for something. Wait a minute.”
He came out pulling a rusty wagon; she could barely make out the words Radio Flyer in faint white on the sides. The rest of it used to be red, but was now a sorry-looking rusty brown.
“You can’t be carrying a sack a groceries and books back from town all by yourself. You’ll want to take this with you.”
Jilly eyed the wagon, but she knew Otto wasn’t asking her if she wanted to pull the dilapidated red wagon all the way into town; he was offering it to her like a present. “Ahh . . . sure,” she said. She pulled on the handle and the wagon screeched with misery. “If I don’t go deaf, this’ll help a lot.”
Otto grinned at her. “Takes more than that to make a person go deaf,” he told her smartly. “You sure you aren’t afraid to go into town alone?”
Jilly shook her head. She wasn’t afraid to go into town. She was pretty sure
she could get somebody to come out and get Otto before night fell and he went to sleep and forgot her if, say, somebody from social services kidnapped her and tried to return her to Lester and Lynette’s.
Otto would claim her, she was certain. And she wasn’t about to get lost. There was only the one road, straight on into town, and she set off, dragging the wagon behind her.
Briar Rose had been transformed. Flags fluttered from every conceivable place; they dangled from street lamps, from buildings, and from overhead wires. Someone had even hung a red, white, and blue banner, stretched from Digg’s grocery to the ALL U CAN EAT 4 LESS that proclaimed: Briar Rose Celebrates Freedom! And below that in smaller lettering: Fireworks Friday Night!!
Jilly loved fireworks, but she doubted if she could talk Otto into walking to town to see them. They’d have to walk home in the dark, and even she wasn’t too crazy about that thought.
The Radio Flyer tracked along behind her, swaying back and forth. The pull-handle was long enough so she didn’t have to stoop, and although the wagon was bothering her now, she knew she’d be grateful for it once she made her purchases.
But before she did any shopping, she was going to go the library and check out a couple books.
She parked her wagon outside of the library, hitched its handle over the edge of a bike rack standing next to an urn that held pink geraniums, and went inside. Despite the fact that the library was only a half a building wide, they had a pretty good selection. Jilly browsed the aisles scanning for interesting titles and took note of the ancient librarian sitting behind the desk. For a minute, her imagination kicked into full gear and she wondered if the blue-haired woman was alive or dead. A fly buzzed near the woman’s face, though, and she waved one crinkled, knobby hand in its general direction.
Toward the back of the room a half-circle of high-backed chairs had been arranged in front of a fireplace. Jilly wondered if the fire had ever been lit, so clean was the hearth. Still, even if it was only for show, the area looked inviting, and after she choose three books she went to sit down.
Curled up in the center chair, invisible until Jilly got closer, was a small girl with the most beautiful hair Jilly had ever seen. The strands were beyond blonde; they made Jilly think of a shiny warm cream-white, a nameless color. Even more enchanting was the texture: a jumble of messy curls framed the girl’s face, with longer, straighter locks cascading down to the arm of the chair. She sat with one heel on the edge of the chair, one ankle crossed over her knee, a position that looked impossibly painful, her back curved into the corner of the huge leather-covered chair. Her plain white t-shirt rode up, showing the skin above her cut-off jean shorts, and her sneakers, worn without any socks, were unlaced and flopping. She held what appeared to be a thousand-page novel, and she was intent on the final few pages.
Jilly sat down gingerly in one of the chairs nearest the fireplace, stacked her books beside her, and then picked one up and opened it so she could read the inside of the book cover.
Two minutes later, the fairy-imp two chairs over slammed her book shut. “Damn!” she said. Her voice was louder than the harsh pop of the book slapping shut, and Jilly darted a quick glance at the librarian who appeared to be having an apoplectic fit. “Why does he always do that?” she moaned.
Jilly pinched her lips together, not certain if this creature was talking to her or to the world at large.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong: I love him.” She looked directly at Jilly, and pointed at the book for emphasis. “But the man has a real problem with endings. Here I am, falling in love with the characters, I mean I’m in love. I’d marry ‘em all if I could. Honestly. And I’m sick, I mean vomiting sick whenever one of ‘em’s in danger or sad or . . . well . . . whatever! But then he gets to the ending, and suddenly it’s like totally unbelievable! There ought ‘o be a law, ya know?”
Jilly stared at her in fascination. She saw now that this girl wasn’t a child at all; she could have been anywhere from sixteen to thirty for all Jilly could detect.
And she was about to get thrown out of the Briar Rose Public Library.
“A law against unbelievable endings. That would work! I mean, if I’m going to go to all the trouble of reading eight hundred pages, I ought to get--”
“Young lady!” the librarian hissed.
The young lady let out a muffled scream. “Cripes!” She set up straight as a string bean. “Don’t do that!”
“At this library, we follow the golden rule, young lady.”
She lifted her lip, crinkled her perfectly shaped nose, and eyed the librarian. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? That doesn’t make much sense--”
“The golden rule of silence,” the librarian clarified, straightening her back with exaggerated dignity.
“Silence! But there’s only me and her and you here.” She looked at Jilly. “Do you care if I talk out loud?”
Mutely, Jilly shook her head.
“I care,” the librarian choked out. “And I think you’ve been in here long enough for today.”
“I didn’t know there was a time limit at the library,” she said. “Or is that Golden Rule Number Two?”
Jilly cringed. The ancient librarian appeared to be on the verge of a stroke. Her lined face went taut and red, but she merely let out a long-suffering sigh. “Why don’t you check out a book and go home?” she suggested. “Do you have a library card? You’re not from around here, are you? What’s your name?”
“No. No. Gwenivere. And I don’t want to check out a book, thank you very much anyway.” She stood up and gave a wave in Jilly’s direction. “See ya,” she said and walked out of the library.
They watched her go, and then the librarian turned to Jilly. “Do you want to check those out?” she asked pointedly.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jilly said, her voice almost inaudible.
She carried her books to the check-out desk, filled out a library card, and waited in perfect silence while the librarian stamped the due dates in the back of each book.
“These are due in four weeks. There’s a five-cents-a-day fine for each day books are late, and we don’t allow patrons to check out any new titles if they owe a charge.”
Jilly nodded her agreement, snatched up the books and went outside, thinking to herself it was a wonder anyone ever checked books out of there. The Gestapo-Librarian probably hired a hit man if a person failed to return something. She plunked her books into the wagon and headed toward Ned’s Mobil station.
Ned was perched in his spot behind the counter reading a book of his own. When the cowbell rang he lifted his head, his ears perked forward with interest.
“Did cha find him?” he asked, as though they’d ended their previous conversation an hour
“Yes,” Jilly told him. “That’s where I’m living now.”
Ned beamed at her. “That’s right nice. Cha ain’t havin’ no—ahh—problems out there?”
Jilly shook her head. “Otto is my grandfather,” she said.
“Well, bite my shorts!” He peered at her with new interest. “He remember that?”
“So you did know about his memory problem!” Jilly said, conveniently ignoring the question.
Ned had the grace to look shame-faced. “Well, I didn’t know who cha were, now did I? I couldn’t go tellin’ a stranger every little thing I know, could I?”
“I’m not a stranger anymore,” Jilly said firmly. “Look.” She dug in her pocket and held up a square orange card. “I got a library card and everything now.”
Ned took the card from her and admired it. “Jilly Sanders. That’s a right nice name.” He handed back her card, and indicated his own book. “I’m reading Tar-Tough by Mole-hair.”
Jilly peeked down and saw a thin, battered copy of Tartuffe by Molière.
“He ain’t no Keats or Yeats, I’ll tell cha.” He shook his head as though Molière were tough going. She also noticed he rhymed Keats and Yeats, but she didn’t say anything. “He don’t know nothin’ ‘bout livin’ in no bee-loud glade, that much I know fer sure.”
Jilly assumed he was talking about poetry again, so she nodded her head in agreement. Ned might mispronounce words, but she suspected understanding the heart of poetry didn’t require perfect pronunciation. The only reason she knew the difference was thanks to her tenth grade English teacher who had a penchant for what she called ‘World Literature.’ Jilly couldn’t remember much of the content of anything she read that year, but the teacher had impressed the author names and titles of their works indelibly into her brain. Jilly figured there was something inherently wrong with that kind of education, but she’d never been able to convince any of her teachers.