Characters: Jenny Hill, Edward Bloom
Word Count: 13,219
Written For: Rana Eros for yuletide 2008.
Betaed by: kittydesade and tesserae_, who each provided feedback that was very valuable to me.
Summary: The biggest fish in the river gets that way by not getting caught.
When Jenny Beamen was eight, a man came to town. A man who told stories. Now, Spectre had its fair share of storytellers, but this one was something special. For one thing, no one'd heard any of his stories before, which made him a right novelty in those parts. For another, Jenny heard even the old-timers who sat outside her daddy's store say he had a knack for the art and an eye for the absurd. A mite rough, maybe, but time would give him the polish to be a first-rate raconteur. (Jenny didn't know what a raconteur was, but she couldn't imagine Mister Bloom being anything but first-rate at anything he did, so she had no doubt the old-timers were right.) The gift he already had, wasn't nobody in the world could teach, they maintained. They should know, being his primary audience, as he worked around the store doing odd-jobs to earn his bread and butter.
Jenny happened to agree with them. She spent every spare second she could scrape from her schoolwork and helping Momma with the household chores sitting on the front porch of the store, drinking in every word Edward Bloom said as he moved between shelves and tables laden with dry goods, restocking and straightening as he went.
"… and then I turned around, and what do you think I saw?"
Jenny sighed, dreamily, sure that no matter what Mister Bloom saw, it would be more fantastic than anything that had happened in Spectre in its entire history. Some of the old men sitting in rocking chairs out on the store's porch hollered in guesses. Jenny frowned, and wished they'd be quiet to allow Mister Bloom to continue telling his story.
"Your daddy standing there with a switch?" Old Mister Adams was the loudest, on account of his hearing being half-gone. Also, he had no sense of humor and disapproved of the vice in others. Jenny shuddered, glad he wasn't no relation of hers, and tried to ignore the way sweat made her dress cling unpleasantly to her back by throwing herself back into the story Mister Bloom was telling.
"Nossir, although I admit it would've stood me right if I had, the fright I'd given old Miz Bailey, skulking around her petunias." Mister Bloom gave a smile. Everyone listening chuckled, Jenny included although she couldn't see what was so funny about a switching. "No," Mister Bloom shook his head, "instead I saw Maybelle Jones standing there, pretty as a peach blossom in her Sunday best, with my grandmother's cut-glass punch bowl in one hand and the dime-store pearls in the other. You see, Elmer had gotten mighty tired of waitin' around for me, and he'd gone back towards the soda shop to spend our ill-gotten gains by himself. On the way he'd run into …"
Jenny hardly dared breathe for the remainder of the story, and the one that followed it, for fear of distracting Mister Bloom and causing him to stop. Momma had to call her home twice before she could tear herself away and back to the ordinary, everyday chores awaiting her at home.
Mister Bloom had a way of drawing you in to his stories, making you feel like the most absurd things in the world were true, and sometimes even that they were happening to you. Why, he even made his home town of Ashton (a town not much bigger than Spectre, truth be told) seem like the most exciting place on earth! Jenny was all afire to go there, before Momma reminded her sharply that she'd been there once, and complained of boredom the whole day.
"Jenny, I think you been spending too much time listening to stories," Momma said when Jenny protested that surely, they must just have been to Ashton on an off day. "Your imagination surely does not need any help. I don't want you hanging 'round there all the time. I'm sure you can find other things to do with yourself."
"But, Momma!" Jenny protested, drumming her heels against the chair.
"Jenny," Momma said, warning in her voice as she turned back to the chicken she'd been cutting up for supper. "I don't want to hear any more on the subject."
Jenny heaved a sigh, and turned back to snapping the beans. When Momma got that tone in her voice, wasn't no use arguing with her.
So the next day after school, instead of heading over to the store, Jenny headed across to the other side of town to where old Aunt Bertha lived. Aunt Bertha wasn't really Jenny's aunt in the strictest sense of the word. She was some kind of relation on Momma's side of the family, the Colberts, and Momma took Jenny over every other week or so to help out with the heavier chores Aunt Bertha couldn't do on her own any more.
It was Jenny's main claim to fame, besides her Daddy owning the general store, because Aunt Bertha lived right next to the field where the boys played baseball in the summer. She was a crotchety old lady who never failed to come out and shake her stick at them if anyone dared land a ball in her yard. She looked like she was a hundred years old, with white hair piled atop her head, and she'd worn black for years since her husband died. Even with Momma and Jenny's help and that of her neighbors her house was always dirty and rundown, the garden overgrown with weeds. It had a kind of run-down magnificence, for the front porch had pillars instead of mere posts, decayed and ivy-covered as they were. Nobody'd ever seen Aunt Bertha in church, not even Christmas and Easter, which would have made her strange enough, but the truly shocking thing about her was the fact that she had only one eye.
There were many theories among the youth of Spectre as to how she'd lost it—some said she'd clawed it out in grief over the husband she still wore black for—some said her husband had done it in a fit of rage—some said it was a bizarre accident with a bb gun. Billy Jameson said she'd traded it to Sam Hill for arcane powers of life and death. For it was a sure and certain truth, known to every child in Spectre, that old Bertha Maddely was a witch. And it was Jenny's claim to fame that she was the only child in the whole county who'd ever set foot inside that house and lived to tell the tale. Why, she'd even once seen the glass eye outside of Aunt Bertha's head, sitting all by itself on a table!
Aunt Bertha had been feeling poorly, so Momma and Jenny had been over to bring her some soup and medicine. Momma had sent Jenny in to Aunt Bertha's bedroom all by herself, to see if she was awake while Momma started tidying up the place. There'd been no reply when Jenny knocked on the door, but Aunt Bertha was hard of hearing so Jenny poked her head in just to check. And there it was, sitting out on the bedside table next to a glass with dentures and another one with a spoon sticking out of it. Dentures Jenny had seen before. A glass eye out of its socket? Now, that was a horse of a different color.
The eyeball had been milky white, and not quite perfectly round because it bulged out where the eye itself was, and that circle of color was staring right at her. Jenny had stared back, unable to blink or look away. Slowly, she'd crept into the room, closer to it with every step. She could see things in it, she realized, stooping down to look directly in it. Ghostly reflections of the room loomed in its polished surface, distorted and gruesome looking. There was one in particular that was awful beyond belief. "It's the wardrobe," Jenny muttered to herself. "Got to be." Heaven knew that old relic in the corner was ugly enough already, and it was the only thing in the room big enough to look like that. Unless there really were horrible misshapen monsters in the house like Billy was always saying.
A face loomed large, eclipsing even the horrid wardrobe. It was craggy and lumpy and misshapen, and it had only one eye. "See anything interesting?" a voice croaked in Jenny's ear.
Jenny shrieked and leaped to the side, away from that horrible eye. She looked over at the bed to see Aunt Bertha looking back at her, one eye socket shriveled and empty, and Jenny knew Billy had to be right, had to be, because surely only a witch who kept monsters locked in the basement could possibly look that horrible. She shrieked again and ran from the room, down the hall, out the front door, across the sagging front porch, and didn't stop till she made it to the safety of the ball field. Aunt Bertha yelled at children in the ball field something awful, but she'd never hexed them or ate them or anything as long as they kept out of her overgrown yard.
It had only taken Momma a few minutes to come out after her, and one look at her face was all Jenny needed to know she was in serious trouble. She got a stern talking-to about how Aunt Bertha was most certainly not a witch, merely a very old, sick, and quarrelsome woman, and she'd had a hard life and deserved to be treated with respect and dignity in her twilight years and eight was certainly too old for such carrying-on. Jenny was to march right in there and apologize for disturbing her, and when they got home Momma was going to use the wire end of the fly swatter on her behind so's she'd remember in the future how not to treat her elders. All of Jenny's arguments and pleas to be spared the gruesome fate that surely awaited her in Aunt Bertha's bedroom were ignored. Within five minutes she was in that dreaded place again, Momma's hand clamped firmly on her shoulder denying any possibility of escape.
"I 'pologize for coming into your bedroom without permission, Aunt Bertha," Jenny said dutifully, eyes on the braided rag rug beside the bed so's to look small and harmless. "And I 'pologize for staring." Momma's hand tightened on Jenny's shoulder. "And I apologize for making a scene and running out."
"You're forgiven," Aunt Bertha said, and Jenny glanced up to make sure that her ears weren't deceiving her—there was a twisted smile on the old woman's face. Jenny couldn't tell whether that was a bad sign or a good one. "I could use some help eating this fine soup you brought, Mildred," Aunt Bertha said, lifting one hand to show how it trembled. All of a sudden she looked real small and weak, lying in bed in her nightgown, propped up with pillows to help her sit. Jenny wasn't quite sure what to think—surely the witch and the sick old woman couldn't possibly live in the same body, could they? Which one was real?
"Jenny can help you while I put things in order in the kitchen," Momma said, tightening her fingers on Jenny's shoulder again.
Jenny looked up, trying to plead with her eyes not to be made to stay, but just a look at her face convinced Jenny of the wisdom inherent in acting the dutiful daughter. "Yes, ma'am."
Momma fussed around them until Aunt Bertha was comfortable in a good position for eating and Jenny was seated in a chair next to the bed, bowl in hand.
It was a long half-hour, feeding Aunt Bertha, and Jenny truthfully didn't recall much detail of interest when pressed for information on the schoolyard, but when it was over Jenny was fairly certain Aunt Bertha was no witch. Not that she'd admit it in the hearing of her fellow children, of course—she got a great deal of respect for having seen the witch's eye out of its socket and having spent a half-hour alone in her presence and surviving to tell the tale.
So now, some months later, Jenny was looking for something to do. Exploring the tangles of overgrown plants surrounding Aunt Bertha's house so that you couldn't tell where yard stopped and the swamp behind it began sounded at least as interesting as anything else.
"That you, Jenny?" came Aunt Bertha's voice from inside as she came in sight of the house. Jenny sighed; she'd been hoping Aunt Bertha would be in bed instead of watching from the front. She kept to her room, most days now, but those days she felt well enough to sit in her front room she kept an eagle eye on anything passing by. Now she'd seen Jenny, there was no way Jenny could get out of having a short visit with her. And Aunt Bertha hadn't ever had cookies or anything good for visitors even back when she'd been up to doing her own cooking and housework. But if Jenny walked on by, Aunt Bertha would be sure to tell Momma when Momma came with her supper and to ask if Aunt Bertha was finally willing to move in with the Beamens so she wouldn't be alone all by herself on this end of town.
"Yes, Aunt Bertha," Jenny said.
"Come in and sit awhile," Aunt Bertha said.
Jenny sighed. "Yes, ma'am."
"So, why aren't you playing with your friend Sarah on such a nice day?" Aunt Bertha asked, once Jenny was settled in a chair in her front parlor with a glass of water. It was a parlor suitable for a witch, should anyone but Jenny and her Momma see it, complete with great, big, ominously carved furniture. There were cobwebs in all the corners and hard to reach places. It was dark and the heat was oppressive, even with the window open.
"Sarah moved away a few months ago," Jenny said patiently, fanning herself with a hand. Wasn't the first time she'd told Aunt Bertha that, probably wouldn't be the last. Aunt Bertha was starting to forget things, and Daddy said it wouldn't be long before she'd have to be moved out of her house and into theirs whether or not she wanted to come. She sipped her water. She might not want to sit here and listen to Aunt Bertha, but she was grateful for the drink—it was hot, and even though there was so much humidity in the air Jenny was surprised she couldn't just drink it, the cool glass was appreciated. "And I don't like Gertie, and she doesn't like me, and the other girls won't play with me if Gertie won't." In a town small enough to only have a two-room schoolhouse, the choice of companions was often slim.
"Mm." Aunt Bertha said, nodding. "And what all is happening now in the great town of Spectre?"
"Well," Jenny said, "There's a new man in town, Mister Edward Bloom, and he works for my Daddy. He's from Ashton, and he tells stories. Why, just the other day he …" and she was off, telling a story about the uncatchable fish Mister Bloom had told her. Which eventually turned into a description of Mister Bloom's manly virtues and accomplishments, and finished up with "… and he's eighteen, and I'm eight," she said. "He's ten years older than me. That's a lot now, but it won't be so much when he's twenty-eight and I'm eighteen. It'll be even less when he's thirty-eight and I'm twenty-eight, and practically nothing at all when he's forty-eight and I'm thirty-eight. So I think I'll marry him, when I get old enough."
"And what, exactly, does this paragon of a man think about that?" Aunt Bertha asked.
"Oh, he's going to wait for me to grow up, of course," Jenny said, swinging her legs impatiently. She was short for her age and Aunt Bertha's chair was tall, and her toes didn't reach the floor. Momma would say it wasn't proper and ladylike to swing her legs so, but Jenny was bored and wanted to be let go out and play by herself since she didn't have a friend in town any more and Momma said she couldn't go back into town and hear Mister Bloom tell his stories. "He says I'm his best girl in town and the only one for him."
"Is that so," Aunt Bertha said. "Well, just you remember, young lady, that the biggest fish in the river gets that way by not being caught."
Jenny frowned, not sure what she meant.
Aunt Bertha shook her head. "Go on, get off with you."
Jenny hopped down off the chair, took her cup into the kitchen, and darted out the back door. By the time she remembered she'd forgotten to say goodbye, she was out of sight of the house and in no mood to go back.
Later, Jenny walked home past Mister Evans' hardware store. Mister Bloom was sweeping and putting the place to rights for the evening—he sometimes did odd jobs for Mister Evans in addition to what he did for her Daddy, for a little extra cash. It was a wooden clapboard building much like her Daddy's store, except instead of dry goods and candy and fabric and soap, it had bins for nails and screws and hammers and pipe and such. Not nearly as interesting.
"Hey, there, Miss Jenny," Mister Bloom said. "Didn't see you today."
Jenny glanced around, knowing that half the town would know she stopped and talked. But the prohibition against seeing Mister Bloom was not generally known, and besides, Momma had specifically said Jenny wasn't supposed to hang around him at Daddy's store. Conscience thus soothed, Jenny went over and sat on the porch, watching Mister Bloom sweep while she told him about her day. This naturally led into the story of Aunt Bertha the witch and her glass eye and the time Jenny saw it out on the bedside table and the gruesome shadows she saw in it. (She left out, as she always did, the fact that they'd just been reflections of the furniture in the room.)
"So you can see things in it?" Mister Bloom said.
Jenny bounced in delight. He was really listening to her! Aside from old Aunt Bertha, that didn't happen often lately with Sarah gone. Even with Aunt Bertha it was only because Jenny was her one source of news. (Momma had a horror of gossip and refused to repeat it, which had led to harsh words more than once between the two.)
"Like creatures, ghouls, that sort of thing?" Mister Bloom asked.
"Mmm," Jenny said, hesitating, "not really. It was all real stuff, y'know? Aunt Bertha, old and looking like she was dying in that big bed of hers, that sort of thing."
"Shows how she'll die, does it?" Mister Bloom shook his head. "That's some eye that witch has, I do admit."
Jenny bit her tongue, not wanting to correct Mister Bloom. "Yes," she said. "Except she doesn't wear it much, now. She says it doesn't fit correctly any more, so mostly she just wears an eye patch."
"Really," Mister Bloom said. "And this is the woman you took a glass of water from and sat down with all on your lonesome?"
"Yessir," Jennifer said with a smile.
"I tell you, Jenny, you're one brave girl," he said.
He opened his mouth to say more but Jenny beat him to it. "I told her all about you, while I was visiting," she said. "And she said a thing I didn't understand. She said that the biggest fish in the river gets that way by not being caught. What did she mean by that, Mister Bloom?"
Mister Bloom leaned on his broom, deep in thought. "Well, you know, Miss Jenny, I have no idea. I wonder—"
But just then Mrs. Weber walked by. "It's almost time for supper, Jenny," she called. "You should be home to help your Momma set the table."
"Yes, Ma'am," Jenny said, hopping up from her perch and heading off at a run. It was late, and Momma would be looking for her. "See you later, Mister Bloom," she called over her shoulder.
She never saw him again. A few weeks later he drifted off, no one quite knew where. Still, he left behind some good stories.
When Jenny Beaman was eighteen, she stopped being Jenny Beamen and became Jenny Hill. Charlie Hill was a storyteller, and ten years older than she was, which Jenny thought was the perfect age difference. Old enough to be a man, not some callow youth; old enough to be settled even if he still had that air of adventure and charm about him that young girls are warned about. His hair was a sunny blond, and his eyes a muddy green that turned hazel when they caught the light.
True, he only worked as a handyman and jack of all trades, but he made enough to live on for two and that was all Jenny cared about. Aunt Bertha had left her home to Jenny, lacking any closer relations. It'd sat mostly empty ever since, but could be made habitable with a little work, so they wouldn't have to waste money on rent. Besides, eventually they'd inherit Daddy's store, and that'd do for them once they had children. And in Spectre there weren't many jobs to be found, prosperity having mostly passed the town by on its way to larger cities and industrial areas. So it wasn't that unusual for a man almost thirty and about to be married to be without a steady job.
Jenny'd dreamed of getting married as long as she could remember; all the girls she knew had. If there wasn't much money to spare on frills and everything, well, the spread the ladies at church put on and the wildflowers she and her bridesmaids had made into bouquets everywhere made up for it.
All that spoiled it was the fight Momma and Daddy got into the night before, when they thought Jenny was asleep. She was in a cot out on the screened porch, taking advantage of any cool breeze that might waft by, because her room was upstairs in what had once been an attic. Although the heat in the rest of the house was bad, it got pretty unbearable in her room in the height of summer. Consequently, all windows in the house being open, there was no way for her to avoid hearing her parents arguing in their own bedroom.
Jenny knew her Momma didn't approve of the groom, but it hurt something awful to hear her hissing about "that man" and telling Daddy to "for God's sake, do something Henry, before it's too late."
"Now, Mildred," Daddy replied, using the voice he'd used to calm Jenny down as a child, "it's a bit late for calling things off now. Everything's arranged, everyone's coming—think of all that work the ladies have put into cooking for the dinner afterwards."
"Think of Jenny's life shackled to that good for nothing Hill boy to the end of her days!" Momma said. "She's not listening to me on the subject. She's normally such a level-headed child, I was hoping she'd come to her senses."
Daddy sighed. "She's eighteen, she don't need my permission to marry, not legally, anyhow," he said. "And she's got a stubborn streak in her would do it despite us if we really tried to stop her. So I'm gonna give her away tomorrow and smile so's she knows she has our support no matter what happens." His voice hardened. "And Mildred, you're gonna do the same."
Jenny clutched the pillow to her as if it were the stuffed bear she'd abandoned as she grew older. That had been the end of the conversation, and Jenny had consoled herself that it was a well-known fact in Spectre that Momma didn't think there was a man on God's green earth good enough for Jenny. She'd react the same to any man trying to marry her precious daughter, wasn't nothing specific against Charlie.
Still, it did take the glow off the wedding day, some.
Being married was nothing like Jenny'd thought it would be. Mostly, it was a lot of work, taking care of the house and the cooking and joining into the activities of the ladies of Spectre as an adult for the first time. She tried to tell herself things would be better after they got the house fixed up—the nine years it'd sat empty hadn't done it one bit of good, and it hadn't been much to look at to begin with—but truth was, it was more than that.
She'd expected to feel all grown up, but she still felt like a child playing house, only this time there was nowhere else to go at the end of the day. And Charlie had been real gentlemanly and solicitous of her feelings while they'd been courting, and that trickled away to practically nothing in short order after the wedding. Long's she had food on the table when he got home, and put up with his advances in the bedroom, he didn't seem to care much what she did or what she looked like.
Didn't seem to care much what the house looked like, neither. He'd get home from wherever he'd been working that day and eat his dinner and sit around, and get real testy if she mentioned things needed a man's strength or a handyman's skill. His stories were good, but no substitute for four solid walls, a decent roof, and a generally habitable home.
"Woman, goddammit, would you just quit nagging all the time?" he said one day about a year after they were married, when she asked him (again) when he was going to fix the roof. He leaned his chair back so it was only on two legs; it was an old chair, and the joints were none too solid, and for a minute Jenny wished they'd give up the ghost and drop him on his fool head, though they couldn't afford to replace the chair. "Jesus Christ," Charlie went on, "I spend all day slaving away at Jack Jameson's place to put food on this table for you to eat and clothes on your back, and when I get home you want me to climb up on the roof and start slaving away for you?"
Jenny flinched at the profanity, but not the tone; she'd heard it enough over the last few months. "'Less you really like living in a pond, yeah," she replied. "I don't have enough pots and pans to catch all the drips, and it's gonna rain more soon, which means the roof has got to be fixed. Good light today, not too hot, not too cold, not too windy, and I called Maybel Jameson, and she said you only worked a half-day today for her husband, so you can't be too tired out." She ticked off all his customary excuses. "So you'll go out there and fix that roof today because it needs doing, and I can't do it myself."
"If I'd'a known what a bossy, stuck-up bitch you were, I'd never have married you," Charlie spat out.
Jenny clenched her jaw and tried to hide how much that hurt; she'd learned early on that he'd go for any weakness she let him see. "If I'd'a known what a lazy, stupid, jackass you were, I'd never have married you," she said, instead of crying which was what she really felt like doing. "But that doesn't change the fact that the roof needs fixing, and soon, and you're the only one here can do it."
"Hell with this," he said, and stalked out of the house. Not to get his tools, though. No, he started off down the road into town, no doubt headed to the bar.
Jenny turned, feeling numb, and began clearing the table. She wouldn't see him back that night, almost certainly. She brought the dishes in to the kitchen, avoiding the hump in the doorway and the cracked linoleum in the middle automatically. In some ways it was almost a relief not to have to deal with him, but they couldn't afford the money he'd spend on booze, and the hangover'd make him twice as ugly tomorrow.
Still, it could be worse, she reflected, as she washed the dishes; there were one or two women in town couldn't always make it to ladies' events, and no matter what excuses they tried to give, everyone knew it was because their husbands beat them and they didn't want anybody to see the bruises. Charlie might be lazy, and he sure tried to cut her down with his tongue, but he'd never raised his hand to her.
Then it struck her: this was the rest of her life she was thinking about, and the best she could say was that her husband didn't beat her? She collapsed over the sink, head in her soapy hands, tears prickling at her eyes. "Lord, have mercy," she choked out, and for the first time in her life it wasn't rote, wasn't an exclamation, but a true prayer.
Abandoning the dishes, she fled to the bedroom, and curled up in her (their) bed, crying her heart out among furniture mostly left over from Aunt Bertha. Years stretched ahead of her, barren, empty, and Jenny couldn't bear to think about them.
After a while, she was all cried out, and lay there exhausted staring at the bedside table where Aunt Bertha had once kept her glass eye. She understood what the old woman had said now, she realized dully. She was well and truly caught, and wouldn't ever get any bigger than she was now. Charlie wouldn't let her.
She couldn't divorce him; he'd never beat her, and to the best of her knowledge he wasn't stepping out on her. Even if she could find grounds for a divorce, the thought of what the town would say if she tried to get one—and it'd be even worse if she succeeded. She'd never be welcome anywhere in town again, not church, not the ladies' aid, not anywhere. They'd say it was Aunt Bertha's taint coming through, and what could one expect of the great niece of a woman who murdered her husband? Gertie Pyle alone—she shuddered to think what poison Gertie would spread around town behind Jenny's back. Her mother was a Hill, and the Hills could gossip like none other, and Gertie'd never liked Jenny to begin with.
Jenny'd heard the story of Aunt Bertha's husband's death many times, though only once from Aunt Bertha herself. It was Aunt Bertha's version she thought back to now. She'd heard it on a cool day in early spring, not long after Jenny'd seen the glass eye out on the table, before Aunt Bertha's memory had started to go. Momma had sent Jenny over to check on her, and Jenny had skipped over hoping to get another glimpse at the eye. Instead, to her dismay, her knock on the front door had been answered by a querulous old voice that still had an edge so dry Jenny was sure it could make even the muggiest Alabama summer day feel like the Sahara instead. She'd obeyed, to find Aunt Bertha sitting bolt upright in her own front parlor with the radio on and the glass eye firmly in its place.
Aunt Bertha had then gestured one imperious finger at the couch in front of her, onto which Jenny had gingerly sat, trying to avoid the sprung springs that poked through the fabric here and there. From her position, the window was right behind Aunt Bertha, making her hard to see. As Jenny fidgeted, Aunt Bertha had proceeded to give her a lecture on the great necessity of both choosing a suitable husband and being able to tell the truth behind whatever gossip was going around town.
Jenny, who was some years yet from starting to think on such subjects as boys with favor, and whose hobbies included sitting on the porch of her Daddy's store listening to people gossip (and the more fantastic the tale, the better) had borne it with as much outward patience as an active girl of seven or eight can reasonably be expected, under the circumstances. Until Aunt Bertha had gotten around to explaining why such things were necessary.
"My George was a stupid man," Aunt Bertha said, fixing an eagle eye on Jenny, who sank back into the couch. "He was only mean when he was drunk and only sober on Sundays. I wanted food on the table, I had to take care of things. When George had a job, I made sure his boss always knew to give the money directly to me at the end of the week, instead of George. Now, it's not proper for a woman to handle the money if there's a man around to do it for her—but George was no kind of man. I made good and sure everyone in the area knew better than to give George his pay directly."
"How'd you do that, Aunt Bertha?" Jenny had asked, fascinated. Wasn't often she'd heard stories where girls got to do things that weren't proper. In fact, this might be the first one. Of course, that wasn't too surprising considering it came from the town witch.
"Will Weber hired George one harvest time to work his cotton fields, and gave him his pay end of the week, which George promptly drank away. I went to Weber and told him that if he did that again, I'd castrate him with a dull knife. I knew how to do it, too, and he knew I did. He never did it again." Her voice sounded as normal as if she'd just been discussing the price of cotton this season or an upcoming barbeque. It took Jenny a few minutes to figure out what she'd said, and her eyes had gotten huge.
"How'd you convince him you were serious?" she asked. "Did you wave a knife under his nose? Did you grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake him?" This she could not imagine, as the Webers were all tall as church steeples and solid as tanks, to boot. Aunt Bertha was not much taller than Jenny, herself, and looked like a stiff breeze could blow her over even on a good day. But how else could anyone have gotten a Weber to change his mind?
"Didn't have to," Aunt Bertha said. "Just looked him in the eye and told him. He knew I wasn't bluffing. No need for theatrics."
Jenny's unvoiced "oooh" was ignored.
"Where was I," Aunt Bertha muttered. "Oh, yes. Managed to cut off most of George's drinking, then, because he didn't have the money to pay for it. Except sometimes he did, and I still to this day do not know how he got it." She shook her head, and Jenny watched in fascination as wiry wisps of hair came loose from their place and floated free, giving her almost a halo. "Lord knows he didn't have friends would've been willing to pay his tab. One night he came home in a drunken rage, yelling all kinds of filth at me, threatening to kill me if I didn't back down on the money. I held the paring knife I'd been using to cut up carrots under his nose and told him he didn't frighten me but he did annoy me, and that might not be the smartest thing he ever did, considering who it was made sure we didn't starve. Unfortunately Joanne Hill was walking by that particular moment, and had stopped to listen, and neither George nor I was being particularly quiet. And by the next day it was all over town that I'd chased George down the street with a butcher knife."
Jennie nodded as wisely as she knew how. Momma was always warning her against consorting with Hills because they were inveterate gossipers, to the last one, and would make things up (just the right side of being outright lies) to make them as sensational as possible.
"Even that I could've lived down," Aunt Bertha said, "but six months later George went up on the roof to replace some shingles while drunk, and fell off. I was well rid of him, except the damn fool managed to fall onto a Bowie knife he'd left leaning against a bush earlier that morning. Which, combined with the rumors, was enough to get me a week in the county hoosegow while the sheriff decided if it was murder or just an accident. Eventually they figured out I hadn't had a thing to do with his death, and his own drunken stupidity more than explained everything. But fifty years later, I'm still not welcome in most places in this town, because of the chance I might be a murderess." She shrugged. "I don't much care any more, but life's much easier if you've got the Ladies' Aid on your side rather than lined up against you."
It was the only time Jenny heard Aunt Bertha tell that story because it wasn't long until Aunt Bertha's memory started to go, and the rest of her body with it. Jenny hadn't paid much attention to Aunt Bertha's advice at the time, but she was beginning to see that she'd been right; the Ladies Aid sometimes had more say in what happened in Spectre (or at least, how it happened) than the mayor and city council. And none of them had a high opinion of divorce, or the kind of women who sought it out.
Jenny opened her eyes, staring up at the ceiling of what had once been Aunt Bertha's bedroom and was now hers. Cracked, discolored patterns covered it, and she played her old familiar game of looking for patterns and shapes in it before forcing herself back to reality. Much as remembering Aunt Bertha's tales was an enjoyable past-time, it wasn't going to get anything done to help the situation.
She wanted Momma. But Momma wasn't here, and Jenny was just a little girl trying to play house who'd gotten in over her head, and wasn't nobody going to save her from her mistakes.
Eventually Jenny got tired of the self-pity and sat up. True, there was nobody to save her, but there were still chores to be done, and she'd keep the house up herself as best she could. She'd work around Charlie somehow. She'd make it work.
By the time she was done with the dishes and the final bits of cleaning up it was real late, and true to form her husband hadn't shown back up, so she went to bed alone, luxuriating in having the whole thing to herself. She fell asleep and didn't dream.
And was woken up the next morning by a crash of thunder. Jenny spent three hours running frantically from room to room, switching pots and dishes to catch the worst of the leaks, barely a few seconds here and there to catch her breath and grab a bite to eat. By the time it stopped and the sun showed its face, she was more exhausted than she could remember being in her whole entire life. So she went home.
She walked all the way there, dodging puddles and nodding cordially to those out and about now the deluge was over. Jenny passed the time imagining how good it would feel to have Momma coo and fuss over her and make her some coffee and maybe get her a slice of pie or cake or cookies, whatever was made up, and fret over what Charlie Hill hade done to her little girl. The storm had done a marvelous job of clearing the moisture from the air, and everything glistened with water as if it were made of glass. It was a pleasant walk, and the nicest half-hour she'd had in a long time. Wasn't until she was almost home that Jenny realized that in order to have the fuss, she'd have to let go of her pride and admit she'd been wrong to marry him in the first place, and her pride was just about all she had left. So before she turned the corner onto the street she'd grown up in, Jenny sat herself down on a convenient stump and thought over her options.
The conversation she'd overheard the night before she was married echoed in her thoughts. Daddy, at least, wouldn't refuse his help, and she didn't think Momma would either. But much as that thought comforted, it didn't take the sting off of needing to come crawling home for help, to Momma who'd chosen a fine upstanding man to marry, one who loved her and respected her and provided for her. Momma had never been in a situation like Jenny was; how could she possibly understand what her daughter was going through? While Jenny knew help would be available, that didn't necessarily mean it would come freely and without recrimination. And Jenny didn't think she could abide the thought of any more strings tying her down than the ones Charlie had already put on her. That she'd let him put on her.
Eventually, what decided her was the thought of walking all the way back to that hell-hole of a house, and having nothing there but chores and bitterness to welcome her.
"Oh, my baby girl," her mother said when she opened the door. "My poor baby girl."
She wrapped Jenny in a hug, and Jenny, who hadn't expected Momma to know something was wrong from just one glance and wasn't much used to affection now anyhow, froze, uncomfortable, not sure how to react. A year ago she'd been a little girl and would have melted right into that embrace. But she wasn't a child any more. "Hey, Momma," she said at last.
"Come on in," Momma said, releasing her. "I'll just get you settled and then you can tell Momma all about it." She took Jenny by the hand, sat her down in the neatly-kept, bright kitchen with a glass of lemonade, next to the window so as to catch the most breeze in the room, and seated herself in the rocking chair opposite her. Jenny took a deep breath and began.
"Don't you worry about a thing," Momma said when Jenny was done with her story. "Your Daddy will take care of it. I promise."
Jenny never did find out what her Daddy said to Charlie, but it seemed to work. Next few weeks, he came home from wherever he'd been working that day and got right to work fixing whatever needed fixed around the place, starting with the roof. He was surly and cold, but he never swore at her, and Jenny almost didn't care as long as things were getting fixed. After about three weeks came the night she'd been waiting for, the night he fell back into his old habits. She'd have let it slide, only the plumbing in the kitchen had sprung a major leak and she couldn't do much of anything in there until it was taken care of. Nothing she said moved him, however, not even pointing out that it meant nothing but sandwiches for supper. So the next day she went and told Daddy, and Charlie fixed the plumbing when he came home that evening.
Three days later, he didn't come home at all. And never did.
Once Jenny got used to the idea he wasn't coming back, she was kind of grateful it'd all turned out the way it did. At least being abandoned was better than being divorced, in the eyes of the town. Most of the big things were done, and she thought she could handle the rest. And despite the way the town was beginning to talk about her, it was still better than having Charlie around.
"I don't see why you can't move back home," Momma said during a visit, eyeing the faded wallpaper that was peeling off the walls. Even faded, it was three or four shades darker than anything Momma had in her house. "We got your old room, just the way it was before you left. You wouldn't have to deal with this ol' heap, or any reminders of him." Momma never said his name if she could help it.
For a second, Jenny wanted nothing more than to take up Momma's offer. Then she remembered that she wasn't a child any more, and didn't want to be treated like one again. And truly, now that neither the roof nor the plumbing leaked, it wasn't that bad a house. And it was hers. "Thanks for the offer, Momma," she said. "It's real tempting. But this is my home, now."
"What are you going to live on?" Momma pressed. "You know your Daddy'll let you clerk for him in the store, but he can't afford to pay you enough to live on by yourself."
"I been talking to Miss Mary Jean Miller," Jenny said. "Going over to use her piano and brush up on my skills."
"You always were such a lovely player," Momma said fondly. "I realize Mary Jean's closer to you here than home is, but if you moved back in you'd have our piano right downstairs whenever you wanted it."
"Miss Miller's getting old," Jenny said. "She can't really take care of that house by herself any longer, now her brother's dead, so she's moving in with her niece. But there's no room for the piano, and even if there was she's not feeling up to teaching any more lessons. She says she'd be willing to give the piano to me, turn her students over, too, if I'll get someone to move it for her. I figure, if she could live on what she got from teaching all those years, I could too."
Momma sighed, seeing an argument she wasn't going to win. "I s'pose that would work," she said grudgingly. Her mouth twisted into a smile she tried to hide. "You always were the best piano player in town. Of course you could make it as a teacher, if you really wanted to."
"I do, Momma," Jenny said. "I do."
When Jenny Hill was twenty-eight, Edward Bloom came back to town. She didn't recognize the name when it started going around; twenty years is a long time, and she'd mostly forgotten her first real childhood crush. He made quite a stir, especially among the ladies of the town, and was quite the topic of conversation. Jenny heard the whole story from Mary Beth Carter, who was Jenny's second cousin, sister-in-law to Gertie Pyle Buford, but didn't get along with her at all and so made a point of including Jenny in whatever she could. According to Mary Beth, Edward Bloom was a case of a local boy making good, because even if he wasn't quite a local boy, he'd made an impression in Spectre the first time he was there, and Ashton was close enough to count.
People left Spectre all the time, looking for jobs, and wasn't often they came back. Certainly not if they'd actually made it. Wasn't much to come back to, in Spectre. One dusty street of stores, a church, and some houses surrounded by swamp and cotton fields. Even if you disbelieved some of the obvious exaggerations in Edward Bloom's stories (Jenny did, especially hearing them second or third hand when the tall tales had gotten taller and the skill of the teller had shrunk considerably), well, he did have that flashy car so he must be doing something right.
Jenny mostly kept to herself, as always, and ignored the fuss. People in Spectre talked, and occasionally they even talked to her, but Jenny'd learned that life was much easier if she stayed on the fringes of the town's activities. She gave piano lessons, she showed up to work at whatever the ladies of the church were doing, she went to church, she visited her Momma. She didn't bother nobody, and nobody bothered her. And after a few days all the fuss died down, and things were pretty much back to normal. Edward Bloom had left again. That was the way of things, in Spectre.
Except he came back. Again. And it wasn't because he sold so many of his gadgets—nobody in Spectre could afford them—so folks figured he must've come back because he liked the town. Which good taste, along with the further adventures of his life story that he showered on anyone who'd stay still long enough, was enough to firmly cement him in the town's books as a son of Spectre, a conquering hero returned to prove that local boys really could make good.
By the time he came back the third time, and started buying up everything in sight, Jenny still hadn't laid eyes on the man. Partly it was because she didn't go into town much; partly it was because she'd taken care not to draw his attention. Jenny didn't hold much with tale-telling and pie-in-the-sky stories. Charlie had cured her of that. And she couldn't figure out his angle; wasn't anything in the town as "historic" and "picturesque" as he seemed to think, and much as her hometown pride might wish to convince her otherwise, Jenny smelled a rat somewhere.
So it wasn't until most of the town (including her Daddy's virtually bankrupt store, to her mother's disgust) belonged to one Edward Bloom and his "cultural trust" that she happened to make his acquaintance for the first time. Unlike all the other folks he'd bought out, Jenny was in no danger of losing her home. She'd inherited it outright, and as her needs were few and her wants simple she'd never had any reason to mortgage the place. She might starve, but she'd never be homeless. But it seemed that the great Mister Edward Bloom couldn't stand to see a place as run-down as hers sitting even on the edges of the postcard-perfect city he was trying to turn Spectre into, so he stopped on by to see what arrangements could be made.
Jenny'd been playing the piano when he'd climbed her front porch and knocked on her door. She'd been working on that piece for a while; the piano was her main joy and comfort in life, and mastering a new piece was one of the highlights of her month, and she'd almost gotten this one down perfect. So she didn't hear him, engrossed in music as she was. It wasn't until he'd pushed open the screen door and cleared his throat she'd even realized someone was there.
"Yes?" she said, turning around, raising an eyebrow at the stranger before her. Only one person it could be, for there was only one person in town she hadn't grown up with: Edward Bloom himself, the legend in the flesh, and every bit as handsome as the ladies of the town had said. Charlie had been handsome, too.
"Miz Hill, I'm Edward Bloom," he said, with a smile as wide and cheery as could be without splitting his face completely in two. He used his hat to fan himself, and somehow he'd managed to keep his shirt free of sweat even in the beastly hot spell Spectre'd been having. Jenny herself was barefoot with no stockings to trap heat; after all, only her students would be seeing her. "I'm sure you've heard of me—I've taken on this town as a project." He came in and sat on her couch without waiting for an invitation. "It's the perfect Southern town, a piece of our heritage that could be lost if action isn't taken to protect it. I'd surely hate for it to pass away, Ma'am, and that's the truth. So I'm trying to ensure it's survival as a model for all the surrounding area as to what the South should look like. And I was—"
Jenny cut him off. "You think a model of a Southern town is one that belongs to you?"
Bloom blinked. "Well, no, ma'am, but that's why it sets up in a trust, so it's not just mine, but it's available to give people a helping hand when they need it, and—"
"I don't need a helping hand," Jenny said. "I do all right on my own. You've already got my parents' place and store; don't seem as if you need any more of my family's property. So you just pretty up the rest of the town and leave me in peace, and we'll all be happy."
"Your parents?" Bloom said, a frown on his face.
"Mister and Mrs. Ernest Beamen," Jenny said.
He blinked, and stared. "Jenny? Little Jenny Beamen?" A smile broke out over his face, even broader than the first one. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, that one. "Why, last time I saw you you were only 'bout knee-high, always hangin' round. You've sure grown into a pretty little thing, haven't you? How've you been?"
"I get by," Jenny said. "Which is why I don't need or want your help. Thank you for your time." She stood, forcing him to do the same.
"Jenny—Mrs. Hill, I mean—perhaps I could come back and discuss this with your husband, sometime."
"I haven't seen Mister Hill in almost ten years, for which I am thankful," Jenny said, starting towards the door to show him out. "And even if he were here, the house has always been in my name, and that's exactly where it's going to stay. I wouldn't bother coming back; my answer isn't going to change."
"Well, here's my card if you should change your mind," Bloom said in desperation, holding it out as he was herded to the door.
Jenny didn't take it, just stood there till he left. Then she went back to her piano. She had time for a few etudes before her next student arrived.
Bloom left town again, and Jenny half-hoped he'd given up. He hadn't, worse luck for her. Instead, he was back three weeks later, with a set of tools and some paint and set about the house fixing all the things that were too big for Jenny to do herself. She let him, because if he was going to fix things without charging her for them or treating her to a disapproving silence she had no objection to letting him wear himself out with working. There were always too many projects in need of attention, as they tended to pile up and it took her time to save the money to pay for having a man come out and fix them for her. And all she had to do to keep the list of projects shrinking was let him patter away at her while he did it.
The first day, and the second, Bloom spent trying to convince her to buy in to his little scheme. Oh, he talked of other things, but always leading back to his vision of what Spectre should be. Unfortunately for him, Jenny was not impressed and always had a sharp retort for what he considered his strongest arguments. He kept shooting her perplexed looks, as if he wasn't accustomed to people not falling in with his ideas. Well, if the way the citizens of Spectre related to him was at all typical, he probably wasn't. It was probably good for him to get a taste of disappointment, Jenny decided, and her refusals took on a cheerful, good-natured tone that served to confuse him even further. She did so love helping people.
After those two days he spent working on her porch, replacing all the rotted boards, Bloom left town again to go back to work selling things. He was gone almost a month that time, conducting his business and keeping his schemes in motion via telephone and letter. When he came back, it was with the biggest man Jenny had ever seen, and the two of them set to work fixing places where the house had settled to make the floor level again.
It was something Jenny had never thought to add to the list of projects; there were many more immediate needs, and such major work to the house would have cost more than she could afford. Jenny was torn between a wish that he'd take care of things like the rotting porch that were on the list she'd given him, and awed that he'd take on such a major project for her. Bloom didn't help any by keeping the conversation away from his plans for Spectre. Those, she could have defended herself against handily. Stories of the world outside Spectre, stories without agenda or barb, those she could not dismiss. The second day, for reasons she couldn't explain to herself, she wore makeup and did her hair on a day other than Sunday for the first time in a long time.
He came frequently after that, though never regularly, sometimes with Karl and sometimes alone, and slowly the old house began to look less ramshackle and more respectable. Slowly, too, Jenny began to look forward to his coming. To having someone to talk to. To not being alone.
"People are beginning to talk, you know," Momma said one day over a glass of sweet tea. Jenny had come over to help with the spring cleaning; some of it was getting to be a bit beyond Momma's capacity, these days. After a long morning of work they'd more than earned the break.
"People are always talking about something," Jenny said, which was true if not necessarily to the point. She sipped her tea and looked around Momma's kitchen, with its peeling paint, and reflected that with the nice pretty bright wallpaper Edward had just put up, and with the cabinets he'd fixed and the new appliances she'd made him let her help pay for, her kitchen was actually nicer than Momma's. "What are they talking about now?"
There were only two types of women in Spectre. The members of the first type, which included (or was assumed to include) the majority of the female population, were good—prim and proper and never said or did anything as might spoil their reputation (though the reputations of others were fair game). Gertie Buford was the acknowledged queen of the younger ladies and darling of the older ones in that set.
The members of the second type were the fallen women, those who did not measure up to those exacting standards. As an abandoned wife, and one who hadn't had the decency to move back in with her parents, and who didn't go out of her way to court the good will of the arbiters of Spectre's social life, and who had once said in public that she was better off without him, Jenny was firmly in the second category, if generally more pitied than censured. Being the butt of gossip was hardly new.
"You and Mister Bloom," her Momma replied. "He's been coming around to your place quite a lot, and both of you married to other people."
"He's still hoping to get me to sign over to him," Jenny said. "Thinks he can wear me down. He won't but he can't give up and admit defeat, so he keeps coming over to try his luck, and he uses my list of projects as an excuse. Nothing's happened."
"That's not the way the story's told," Momma said.
Jenny shrugged. "They're just jealous he's spending so much time with me and not them—you know how everyone loves his company. If they wanted to keep it longer, they should've tried playing hard to get."
"Mmm." Momma said. "Just be sure that you don't end up gotten." It wasn't a reference to Edward's plans for the town.
"I think I learned my lesson about that with Charlie," Jenny said, and changed the subject.
Still, despite her previous terrible experience with men, and the knowledge that precarious as her reputation and circumstance were in town they could only get worse, Jenny longed for Edward's company in a way that no married woman should. She began fixing things for him, cookies and pies and cakes to go with the meals she cooked him for working on her place. She'd sit close to him while he worked, or while he was eating, and bask in his presence. She began daydreaming, telling herself stories about what life would have been like if she'd married Edward instead of Charlie, and Edward came home to her instead of to a woman whose name she didn't even know. Edward was all the things Charlie should have been, and wasn't. His stories built people up, instead of tearing them down. He had ambitions, but he worked hard to achieve them. He left, but he came back.
And when one day he kissed her, well, it didn't take any thought at all to fall into her fantasy and shut her eyes to the consequences.
Some six months later the house was just about unrecognizable as the dilapidated shack it'd been in all Jenny's memory of the place, and Jenny's story that Eddie only kept coming around to pester her about signing over to him was wearing mighty thin. She was pretty sure that the only reason the Buford girls were still her pupils was because there was no one else in town to teach piano, and even that might not be enough to keep them if the affair went on much longer. Even given the loss of income which she could ill afford, Jenny couldn't bring herself to be too concerned; these six months with Eddie had been the best of her life.
He arrived one evening just as her last pupil of the day finished with his lesson, and young Billy Joe Weber stayed to hear a story while Jenny went into the kitchen to fix supper. The two were seated in what Aunt Bertha had called the parlor, except with decent furniture, the plaster fixed, and clean it was a far more inviting room.
Edward's story was one she'd heard a few times before, but it was as entertaining as ever the way Eddie told it. Young children sneaking through a swamp in the dead of night to see a witch with a glass eyeball. Quite a story. Jenny herself had never snuck out at night as a child to do any bit of mischief, but she had no trouble picturing Eddie as the sort who would. The glass eyeball itself reminded her of old Aunt Bertha, whom she hadn't thought of in ages. Jenny smiled, as she got the chicken frying, and wondered what that old bat would think if she saw the house now. (She carefully did not, however, think about what Aunt Bertha's reaction would be to some of the things her great-niece was doing in the house with the one who'd fixed it up so nicely.)
"Wow, Mister Bloom, what did you see?" Billy Joe asked excitedly.
"Well, now, I couldn't possibly tell you," Eddie said. "On account of its being a mystical message from the otherworld intended for my eyes alone."
"Ooh," Billy Joe said.
Jenny shook her head. Eddie was so good with children; for a second, she could imagine Billy Joe was their own, and the three of them were a family. Or perhaps a little girl ….
"Did you ever see the witch again?"
"Once. On the day I left Ashton, she was there. When I saw her, the crowd that had come to see me off parted like Moses and the Red Sea, and she beckoned me over with a gnarled hand. Not wishing to offend such a perilous creature, I hurried to her side for whatever words of wisdom she could impart to me." Eddie's voice dropped conspiratorially. "She leaned over to my ear and whispered these words: the biggest fish in the river gets that way by not being caught."
Jenny almost dropped the skillet.
That was what Aunt Bertha had told her, long ago. But how had Eddie come to hear of it? He'd been in Spectre twenty years ago, and he'd mentioned talking with her then; she had only hazy memories of him, but it was possible she'd told him the story. And that glass eye—surely it was too much of a coincidence that the witch had her aunt's house location (at the edge of a swamp), her glass eye, and her saying. Eddie must have taken those details and grafted them on to the personality of some old witch from Ashton, to make a better story out of it. There. Mystery solved.
Except … where was she, in the story? The witch was her aunt, Jenny was the one who'd spent time alone with her and impressed the other schoolchildren, Jenny was the one who'd looked into the eye, Jenny was the one who'd been warned not to let herself get hooked. And Jenny had been completely replaced by Eddie.
"What does that mean, Mister Bloom?"
"Well, Billy Joe, I don't rightly know. But once I get that figured out, I'll be sure and let you know."
No, of course he hadn't figured the words out, Jenny thought bitterly, they were never meant for him in the first place. And Billy Joe wasn't her son, and Eddie wasn't her husband, and you can't live in a fantasy, at least not for long.
Later, over dinner, she asked him about it.
"What? Jenny, where did you get that idea?" Eddie asked. "Everything in my stories really has happened to me, one point or another. I don't make it up."
Jenny raised her eyebrows at him, dry as a bone.
Eddie ducked his head like a shame-faced little boy. "Well, I do embellish it some, but God's honest truth it really all has happened to me, one time or another."
"And the embellishments?" Jenny persisted. "Because my old Aunt Bertha had a glass eye just like that witch, and I looked in it as a young child of eight or ten, and spent a half-hour alone in her presence for which I got much respect for at school for the remainder of my time there. Shortly thereafter she told me about big fish getting that way by not being caught—and unlike you, I do understand what she meant. So I would appreciate it, if you tell stories involving me and my Aunt Bertha again, if you would properly attribute them."
"Jenny, I'm telling you …" Eddie shook his head. "Is this because I haven't been paying enough attention to you? I'm sorry I haven't been around much, they've been expanding my territory and I'm spending more time on the road. I'll try to do better, but I'm stretched real thin at the moment, and …"
Jenny sat back, listening to him drone on, and realized that for all the care and time he'd lavished on her, for all his hard work, she was just a bit player in his story. It really was all about Edward Bloom, in his mind—his larger-than-life stories, his job, his family back home, that perfect wife and son he only rarely mentioned in her presence. Even sitting right in front of her, he couldn't hear her concerns over his own assumptions. Because of course, the only thing any woman could possibly want once their house was all pretty and fixed up was Edward Bloom's attention.
That night, after Eddie was asleep and snoring gently next to her, Jenny stared at the ceiling. After a while, she got up quietly and started rummaging through his wallet. Didn't take her long to find what she was looking for: pictures of Eddie and his wife Sandra and their son Will. They'd been nothing more than names in Eddie's stories to her, until now. Not real people with faces and stories of their own. She wondered if that was the way Eddie saw them, or if they were just bits and pieces of his story to him, the necessary embellishments no Southern man could live without. Or if she was the embellishment and they the real people. She sat there for a long time.
"You're awfully quiet this morning, Jenny," Eddie said over breakfast.
"So, your wife Sandra," Jenny said. "Chances of you ever leaving her and young Will are fairly slim, I imagine." She didn't look up at him as she said it. She wouldn't want him to, anyway—the kind of man who'd do that to his wife and son was not the kind of man she wanted Eddie to be. She'd never wish her own pain on another woman, especially not one with a young son to raise.
"Of course not—Jenny, have I ever given you reason to think—I love Sandra and Will, you know that—"
"Your fooling around on her doesn't do a very good job of proving it," Jenny said dryly. "If you loved her so much, and if you were never going to be serious with me, why'd you do it? Why start something you never intended to finish properly?"
"She's the kind … you're a woman who … Jenny, you're not being fair," Eddie protested. "You know I care for you a great deal and I never meant to hurt or mislead you, it's just—"
"She's the kind of woman you marry, and I'm not, is that it?" She kept her voice down; didn't think anyone would be passing by this time of the morning, but better safe than sorry and this was one conversation she didn't want the whole town talking about.
"Now Jenny, you know I'd never say that to you," Eddie said, and give him credit he was both perfectly sincere and telling the truth. He was too much of a gentleman for that.
"But it's true, isn't it?" Jenny said. His silence was answer enough. She scraped the eggs on her plate around, staring at them as she made pieces of abstract art like they had in magazines. "Eddie, when you leave this morning, I don't believe you'd better come back." She took a bite, never looking up at him.
After a few minutes she heard his chair scrape back, and he left the table. Her fork clattered to the plate and she buried her head in her hands. She'd thought she'd learned from Charlie not to get caught. Her shoulders shook with the effort of holding in tears. Eddie was rattling around in the bedroom, probably getting his stuff together and making sure that this time, unlike all previous visits, nothing got left behind. She'd given him a drawer a month or two back, and there were always odds and ends that didn't quite make it back into the suitcase. Not this time.
She got up and scraped the remains of breakfast into the slops bucket. Neither of them had eaten much. Jenny, at least, wasn't hungry. But at least, she reflected as she ran the water for the dishes, this time she'd learned to free herself from the hook.
She turned around slowly, knowing this was the last time she'd ever see him. He stood in the door, suitcase in hand, handsome as ever, and for a brief second she wanted to tell him to stay, let her live in the fantasy for just a few months longer. "Yes?" she said instead.
"If ever you get in trouble and need something—anything at all—you call me, y'hear?" he said. He stretched out his hand, and there was a business card in it.
Jenny looked at it for a few seconds; she'd never had his phone number. If he'd given it to her before, that sense of being part of his life might have averted last night's painful revelation for at least a few months longer. She couldn't say if she was glad or sad he was only offering it now. She didn't reach out to take it.
"Jenny, please," Eddie said. "I don't want to have to worry about you, all by yourself out here."
"All right," Jenny said unsteadily. She took it delicately, thumb and forefinger, as if it might bite. "I'll walk you to the door," she said.
They walked in silence, not touching, and just inside the door Jenny gave him a peck on the cheek. He stood there, eyes closed, waiting for more, a muscle in his jaw clenching, and when nothing was forthcoming he took his hat from the peg he'd attached to the wall himself, stuck it on his head, and walked out. Jenny stood in the doorway and watched Edward Bloom drive away for the last time.
Then she walked in to her bedroom. It looked emptier, somehow, without Eddie's coat slung over the back of a chair. She crossed the room and opened his drawer, to make sure he'd got everything she told herself. She stood there, staring down at it. He hadn't taken everything, it seemed. That contract to sign over the house, just waiting for her signature, lay at the bottom. She didn't know whether it was a message or just an oversight. She dropped the card in on top of it, closed the door, and did her best to forget about it.
When Jenny Hill was thirty-eight, her Daddy got cancer. Him being only sixty-two, and in generally good health otherwise, and the tumor being small and caught early, he'd probably survive and live a good long time if they could cut it out of him now before it had a chance to spread. Problem was, none of the family had the money to pay for it, and not having title to their home or store any more, couldn't mortgage anything to get it. (Of course, if they still had title they'd probably have lost everything years ago, the way the economy was in Spectre, Momma was quick to point out when questions got asked.)
Jenny still had title to her own place, but ten years of no man around had again taken their toll and if it wasn't as bad as it had been it still was no postcard. Nobody in town wanted to buy it, and Mister Buford down at the bank didn't want to deal with her—fallout from her affair with Eddie. Well, that and his wife Gertie's life-long dislike of Jenny. She hadn't thought it was possible to be more ostracized than she had been since her husband left, and hadn't thought she'd mind too much, but it was and she did, particularly now it might cost her Daddy his life.
In the bustle of tests, taking care of Daddy, and trying to raise the money for surgery, it took Jenny two weeks to remember Edward Bloom's offer. She'd sworn she'd never call him for help, but this was Daddy's life they were talking about; Jenny'd do a darn sight more degrading things than asking Edward to save her Daddy. She put it off for another week, debating with herself. What would Edward expect in return? This was more than a few hours' work on the house—a lot more. That kind of money didn't grown on trees and unless things had changed dramatically for Edward, he was comfortable but no more well-off than that.
But in the end, it didn't matter; she called him anyway. He listened, he gave his condolences, he chatted for a while and caught up with current events in Spectre, he wired the money. He didn't ask for anything, and he never stopped by Spectre to not-ask in person. Jenny hadn't thought he'd demand a resumption of their arrangement in return for her Daddy's life, he wasn't that kind of a man; but she had wondered if he might use her contact as an excuse to drop on by and see if she had any interest in renewing their acquaintance. If he had, she wasn't sure she'd have turned him down. She was awful lonely, these days; even the children gave her a wide berth. One or two of her students had let slip that some of the children who played ball on the field next to her house thought her a witch. She'd stopped going to church, not able to stand the whispering when she did, although with Daddy sick she'd been going again to pray.
The surgery was a success. Daddy recovered quickly, and further tests showed the cancer to be in remission. After he regained his strength and went back to work at the store, Jenny went into her bedroom, and opened a drawer for the second time in ten years. She signed the contract, and put it in the mail with a note saying Thank you for the money. I pay my debts. Jenny.
When Jenny Hill was forty-eight, she met Will Bloom for the first time. He had his father's eyes, but his hair was much darker, which Jenny wondered at considering his mother had been a blonde in the one picture Jenny had seen of her. She showed him in to her living room. He sat down on an old couch covered in brown and yellow flowers that Jenny had picked out with his father, and handed her a file folder with an old document she recognized in it. Will came to her with the contract and the news that his father was dying, and wanted to know if she'd had an affair with his father. More than that, he wanted to know who his father had really been, the truth beneath the legend Eddie had built for himself.
And what should she tell him? Jenny had learned from Edward Bloom that in order to be the main character in a story, you had to tell it yourself; but Will wasn't looking for Jenny, not really, he was looking for Eddie reflected in her, and for once Jenny was content to let that be. She thought of the stories Eddie'd told her during their time together, twenty years ago, thought of all the things she could say that would do nothing but hurt them both even at this late date. She thought of the way she remembered Eddie, and the way Eddie would want to be remembered, especially by his son and beloved wife. And if she was the one telling the story, and there were indeed only two types of women in the world and the role of perfect woman were already taken, well, she didn't think Eddie'd begrudge her a few embellishments of her own.
"The first thing you have to understand," she said, "is that your father never meant to end up here. Yet he did, twice. The first time he was early and the second time, he was late …"