Lilly Jean sat on the couch outside the branch manager’s office. She’d been waiting for the past fifteen minutes, staring at the sign on the office door. Frank Liebowics, Branch Manager. What the hell was the man doing back there all that time was what Lilly Jean wanted to know. Likely taking a nap, she mused, crossing her legs and drumming her fingernails on the arm of the chair.
A woman entered the bank and strode to the manager’s door. “Frank, I’m kind of in a hurry here.”
Lilly Jean looked up. Frowned. Nobody barged in front of Lilly Jean Jacobs. She opened her mouth to speak. Closed it just as quick. Lilly Jean suddenly regretted her decision to stop putting on makeup; to stop doing her hair of a morning. This woman was drop dead gorgeous. She wore a wool suit, red. An ivory scoop neck shirt beneath. Gray pumps. A pearl necklace and matching earrings. Her nails—fingers and toes—wore shiny red polish. Her long blonde hair was pulled back into a casual but neat bun. “What’re you starin’ at?”
Lilly Jean felt her skin grow hot; she looked at the floor. She felt awkward in her postal uniform. She felt ugly and unbalanced and uncoordinated. She wished she’d at least put on a spot of lipstick that morning.
The woman opened the manager’s office and stepped in.
“Good morning, Miss Jackson.”
“You used to call me Neala, Frank.” The woman gave a sultry laugh. “Remember that?”
“May I help you, Miss Jackson?”
This was getting interesting. Lilly Jean pulled a book from her purse—some science fiction thing Howard had loaned to her. She held the book to her face and strained her ears.
“I’d like to make a withdrawal from my account.”
“Did you fill out the proper paperwork?”
“I have all the paperwork I need. Remember these? I saved every last one of your letters, Frank.”
“You said you destroyed them.” The man was whispering now.
“I say a lot of things, Frank.”
A drawer opened and then closed. “This account is in your daughter’s name, Neala. Are you the custodian?”
“Well I ought to be, don’t you think? I am her mother, after all.”
Lilly Jean heard some keys being pressed on the computer. “You’re not listed.”
“Why don’t you just list me then, Frank?”
“I can’t do that…”
“Ellie needs to make a deposit at
“Bring her in. I’ll be happy to help her with that.”
“I want to surprise her, Frank. I’m trying to turn my life around; do something right for once.”
“Neala, I can’t. It’s against bank policy. I could lose my job. I’m sorry, but I just can’t…”
“Frank, I’m telling you, if you don’t put my name on this account, the entire town will know about us.”
“Please, Neala. I’m a married man. I have children.”
“You were married then. And your wife was pregnant. I saved more than the letters, Frank. I never destroy anything. You don’t help me out, I’ll cook your ass. You’ll lose your job. And your family.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
She laughed again. “Try me.”
The manager sighed.
“All you have to do is list me as the custodian, Frank. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“You can have ‘em.”
“The other stuff?”
“Good as gone.”
Lilly Jean squirmed in her seat. She brought the book closer to her face. She listened harder than she’d ever listened in her life.
“You’re now the custodian of Ellie’s account. I hope you’re not screwing with me.”
“Oh, I’m not screwing around with you Frank. You are a married man, after all. Here are you letters. Don’t worry. I’ve got copies at home.”
The woman emerged from the office and walked up to the counter. “I’d like to make a withdrawal.”
Lilly Jean turned a page. Looked up over the top of the book. Yes. She could definitely see the resemblance. This was the famed Neala Jackson.
“All of it.”
The teller looked up. “That’s quite a sum.”
“Five hundred dollars is nothing.”
“Ms. Jackson, there’s over sixty-five thousand dollars in this account.”
Ellie’s mother gasped. “What?”
Lilly Jean grasped the edges of her book tightly.
“Still want to take it all out?”
Lilly Jean watched Neala Jackson consider. “All but five hundred. I want to transfer the rest to a new account. In my name only.”
Frank Liebowics, Branch Manager finally decided to haul his ass out of his chair and make an appearance at the door. “May I help you?” The man looked about as bad as road kill. His face was red and sweaty. His hair stood up in the front. His tie was loosened and his suit jacket was rumpled.
Lilly Jean paused. She’d wanted to see how this played out. But…She glanced at her watch. “I’d like to open an account, please.” Reluctantly she stood and followed Frank Liebowics, Branch Manager into his office.
The entrance to the diner opened, sending in a blast of cold air. Bitsy frowned. “Lilly Jean, you know we don’t open until six o’clock. I can’t keep letting you in or everyone else will be coming in for their morning coffee before we get it brewed.”
“I know you and Spank are sweet on each other now. But that doesn’t give you special privileges.”
Lilly Jean walked behind the breakfast bar. She reached underneath the bar and grabbed a filter. “Regular or decaf, Bitsy?”
Lilly Jean tore open the packet of coffee and poured it into the filter. She nodded to the kitchen. “I hear Spank’s got his music on again. How he can listen to that shit is beyond me.”
Bitsy sighed. She’d have to talk to Spank; tell him to keep his girlfriend in line. She studied Lilly Jean as she took out two coffee cups from beneath the counter. Seemed to Bitsy that Lilly Jean was acting pretty fast; hooking up with Spank when she was still married to Daddy Sheriff. Coming into the diner like she owned the place. “Lilly Jean…”
“Why do I feel like a guest in my own diner, Lilly Jean?”
Lilly Jean tore open a creamer and poured it into one of the cups.
Lilly Jean emptied three packets of sugar into the other cup. “I come to help, Bitsy.”
“I don’t need help.”
“You lose your best waitress, you need help.”
“And how will people get their stamps today?”
“Not my problem. I quit.”
“Daddy Sheriff got me that job.” Lilly Jean shivered. “I’ve washed my hands of that man.” She picked up the coffee pot and poured out two cups.
“So you just burst in here, looking for a job? I’m losing customers right and left.” She’d been a fool to end her business relationship with Jonathan. She’d never expected it to backfire the way it had. “I can’t afford to hire you, Lilly Jean.”
Lilly Jean shook her head. “I ain’t lookin’ for a job, Bitsy. I’m here to help you. As a friend. Now where do you keep your aprons?”
“In the kitchen, with your boyfriend.” Bitsy sighed. The last thing she needed was Lilly Jean mooning over Spank, keeping him from his work.
Lilly Jean pushed through the swinging door and returned a second later, trying an apron around her waist. “Put me to work, Bitsy.”
“Lilly Jean, I…”
“Tell me everything that needs done before opening.”
Bitsy began counting on her fingers. “Tables need to be set. Water glasses filled with ice. More coffee made. Baskets lined with napkins and filled with sweet rolls…”
“Holy, shit, Bitsy. How many things you got to do every morning?”
Bitsy sighed. “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?”
“Oh, don’t go getting all spiritual on me, Bitsy. I’ll start with the tables.” Lilly Jean grabbed a stack of placemats and began setting them neatly upon the tables. “Well, go on,” Lilly Jean said, casting a glance over her shoulder. “I reckon a woman knows how to set a table without a body watching over her.”
Bitsy nodded and pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen.
A moment later, she returned to the dining room. “Hey, Lilly Jean?”
Lilly Jean looked up. “Yeah?”
Lilly Jean nodded. “Happy to do it, Bitsy.” And she returned to her tables, humming along to Spank’s music drifting in from the kitchen.
And for the first time since Ellie left, Bitsy allowed herself to smile.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kurt challenged me with “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and I challenged Jay Andrew Allen with “I’ve just made a horrible mistake…”
“I ain’t going nowhere, Howard. Your daddy don’t scare me.” She gathered up glasses and plates and set them in the kitchen sink, humming a little as she did so to steady her nerves. When she saw Daddy Sheriff standing in the hallway, she startled. “Well, speak of the devil. Where you headed with that big ole’ suitcase?”
“Don’t expect me for some time.” The door slammed.
And then, since it was dark and since Daddy Sheriff wouldn’t be looking for dinner, Lilly Jean went to bed.
This was writen in response to Story Dam’s prompt.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Sir challenged me with ““What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” ? Mikhail Bulgakov” and I challenged Janey with “A million drops of water.”
Wheezy Hart lay there in his coffin, waxen hands clutching a shiny black Bible, proof of his belief in God, as if, Jonathan thought, God needed any more proof than what was bound up within the contours of a man’s heart. Jonathan imagined his friend reaching up and hooking an index finger beneath the knot of the red tie encircling his neck. Wheezy always claimed he couldn’t wear a tie too tight, claimed it aggravated the asthma that had plagued him his entire life. Jonathan shook his head at the waste. That asthma had forced the Harts to sell their farm to Jonathan’s parents and move to town, sentencing Wheezy to a life of books, a life that would better have been spent working the land.
“He’s missing his cane.” Jonathan pictured Wheezy, picking his way down
, sucking at his inhaler like a calf on a teat.
“He doesn’t need it anymore, Jonathan,” Annie said.
More faithful than any woman had ever been to Wheezy, that cane had been Wheezy’s constant companion for decades. When he wore the polish off the handle, the old cheapskate refused to buy a new one, claiming he wouldn’t divorce his wife just because she’d gotten a little ugly over the years, now would he? Wheezy might have joked about not having found a wife, but deep down, Jonathan knew, he was lonely. It wasn’t just God who could see into the heart of a man.
“He looks good,” Annie murmured.
Jonathan frowned. “He looks like hell.
She stared. Blinked. “God.” Annie was as sure of God as she was of the sunrise.
“No.” He shook his head. “It’s the judgment of others. The judgment of friends and family and neighbors and children. That’s what makes a life good or bad.”
Annie looked at him with clear, beautiful eyes. “Any life is good, Jonathan. Life, by its very nature is good.”
“Even when not one person can point to one good thing about it?”
“I believe that every person has good in them, Jonathan. But sometimes the good gets misplaced.”
“Even with Neala? What good has come from her?”
Annie put a hand on Jonathan’s. “She gave us Ellie, Jonathan. Neala gave us a whole lot of good.”
“But Neala, herself. She’s no good.”
“I think you’re wrong there, Jonathan. You’ve been too long away from the church.” Annie squeezed Jonathan’s arm before moving away to take a seat in one of the chairs placed at various angles around the room, in what Annie called conversational style. Jonathan didn’t understand it: Who could converse at a time like this? Again, he pictured Wheezy, this time in heaven, laughing at the gathering beneath him.
Old Wheezy. Getting the last word in, the last laugh as usual. For one brief moment, Jonathan allowed his heart to soften, looking at his old friend laid out before him. He recalled their times together, on adjacent farms, the two of them perpetually side by side, almost as if they were twins.
After Wheezy moved to town, their friendship continued, of course. Only years later, did Wheezy take that fatal step that lead to the destruction of their friendship, separating them as surely, as cleanly as a surgeon’s scalpel. For years, Jonathan longed to feel that closeness again, longed to fill the aching void left by Wheezy’s absence. Jonathan mourned him, the way he might mourn a missing limb or an absent twin. But still…Jonathan wiped a tear from his eye. He leaned over Wheezy’s inert body. Brought his mouth to his ear, feeling oddly ridiculous as he did so, knowing that if Wheezy were able to hear, he wouldn’t be using his ears. Jonathan cleared his throat, heard the sudden silence of the room all around him. He resisted the urge to smack the old man’s cheek, so fresh and raw was his anger at this latest injustice. “Should’ve left well enough alone, old man.”
Then he straightened and turned towards the room. All eyes were on him, pinning him to the spot. Had they heard? No, there was Lilly Jean, gigantic purse on her lap, grinning inanely at him, as was her way. Next to her, the sheriff, eyes respectfully in his lap. And Bitsy, a bit of flour dusting her brow. To her left Old Spank. He wondered idly who was managing the diner, what with the owner and the head cook at the calling hours. Then he allowed his eyes to take in the rest of the people in the room and realized that all of
Jonathan stalked from the room. As he passed, the funeral director quickly rearranged his face into a mournful expression. “Are you OK, Mr…” He put a hand on Jonathan’s arm. Jonathan didn’t bother to stop. “I’m fine.” The lobby was filled with giant vases of dusty silk flowers. There were a couple of wing chairs in the corner of the room. Jonathan could hide there.
Light footsteps. Quiet, funeral parlor footsteps. Then…
Lilly Jean Jacobs took a seat in the matching chair. “I’m sorry, Mr. Fowler. Mr. Hart was a real nice man.”
Jonathan gave a slight nod.
“I hate these things. They make me nervous.” She laughed lightly and crossed her legs, tapping her foot to some invisible sound only she could hear. She leaned forward suddenly, examined the table between them. “What does a table in a funeral parlor need a drawer for, do you think?”
He shrugged. Perhaps it was better in with Annie.
Lilly Jean looked around before grabbing the pull and sliding the drawer open. Jonathan glanced inside. “Look at these old gloves!” Lilly Jean slipped a glove onto her left hand and pulled it all the way to her elbow. “I wonder how long…” Lilly Jean spotted something else in the drawer. “Oh, my Lord, do you think this is a real pearl?” Lilly Jean held a dangling earring to her lobe.
“I’m not up to date on jewelry, Lilly Jean.” He sighed. He’d wanted this time alone.
“What’s this?” She set the earring on the table and picked up an envelope, yellowed with age, from the drawer.
“No,” Jonathan said. “Put it back, Lilly Jean.”
“Don’t you want to know what’s inside? Sealed envelopes are my especiality.”
“Some secrets are better left locked away,” Jonathan said. Wheezy Hart of all people should have understood that.
He stood and left the funeral home. Annie would be angry, he knew, that he’d be missing the church. But he also knew that she’d understand. Jonathan hadn’t stepped foot in a church in eighteen years. And a man, especially one as full of anger as Jonathan, was surely slow to change his ways.
Howard jumped. Now that Daddy Sheriff had taken off to go hunting, he’d grown accustomed to the silences of the house. He liked the quiet, after a day of noise at the farm and the diner. But Lilly Jean had a way of letting the entire world know when she was entering a room. Lilly Jean Jacobs’s goal in life, Howard suspected, was to get noticed.
illy Jean shuddered. “Give me a romance novel any day, Howard and I’ll be jest fine.”
ince his father’d left, Lilly Jean had stopped fussing with herself so much. She pulled her hair back in a ponytail. She stopped wearing all that perfume. And she no longer slathered her face with all that makeup. She looked…Howard felt himself blush…more attractive without makeup. He didn’t understand why his father liked Lilly Jean all painted over.
You telling me you never before heard that name, Howard?”
He set down his book. Looked at Lilly Jean.
eah, I’m not so stupid, either, Howard. I actually studied literature in college.”
Lilly Jean? College?
“Surprising, I know. A lot of men don’t like smart women. It’s easier to play the game.” She smiled. “I was lying when I said I liked romance.” Lilly Jean switched off the television. “I guess you and me, we both got a secret now, don’t we? But you didn’t answer my question. I guess you never will. Me? I’m too late for dreams. But Ellie’s not, Howard. You can help me, or you can stand in my way, but I am gonna’ find Ellie’s daddy and haul his ass here to Medford myself, if I have to. A girl needs to know who her people are, don’t you think?”
Lilly Jean wasn’t
going to find Ellie’s father.
I can help you, Howard. I can help you talk again.” Lilly Jean’s eyes were animated. “I can help you get your GED. Hell, I can help you get into college, if that’s what you’re looking to do. Think of it, Howard.” Lilly Jean looked at the ceiling. “Think of all them stars out there in the sky, just waiting for you to notice them. They’re waiting for you to find ‘em, Howard. Just like Ellie’s waiting to find her father.”
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Tara Roberts challenged me with “”If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?” – Thomas Lovell Beddoes” and I challenged trencher with ““Everywhere we went, when school was not in session, the children were at the barns, helping with the work, watching, listening, learning to farm in the best way it is learned. Wilbur told us that his eleven-year-old son had cultivated twenty-three acres of corn last year with a team and a riding cultivator.” –Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table”