He needed me.
Whenever anyone — usually a reporter — asked me how I coped with a man like Jimmie, I smiled and said nothing. I’d learned that whatever I said would be misquoted, so I simply kept quiet. Once, I made the mistake of telling the truth to a female reporter. She’d looked so young and so in need herself that for a moment I let my guard down. I said, “He needs me.” That’s all. Just those three words.
Who would have thought that a second of unguarded honesty could cause so much turmoil? The girl — she had certainly not attained the maturity of womanhood — parlayed my small sentence into international turmoil.
I was right in thinking she herself was needy. Oh, yes, very needy. She needed a story, so she fabricated one. Never mind that she had nothing on which to base her fable.
I must say that she was good at research. She couldn’t have slept during the two weeks between my remark and the publication of her story. She consulted psychiatrists, self-help gurus, and clergy. She interviewed hordes of rampant feminists. Every famous woman who had ever hinted that she hated men was interviewed and quoted.
In the end Jimmie and I were portrayed as one sick couple. He was the domineering tyrant in public, but a whimpering child at home. And I was shown to be a cross between steel and an ever-flowing breast.
When the article came out and caused a sensation, I wanted to hide from the world. I wanted to retreat to the most remote of Jimmie’s twelve houses and never leave. But Jimmie was afraid of nothing — which was the true secret of his success — and he met the questions, the derisive laughter, and worse, the pseudo-therapists who felt it was our “duty” to expose every private thought and feeling to the world, head-on.
Jimmie just put his arm around me, smiled into the cameras, and laughed in answer to all of their questions. Whatever they asked, he had a joke for a reply.
“Is it true, Mr. Manville, that your wife is the power behind the throne?” The reporter asking this was smiling at me in a nasty way. Jimmie was six foot two and built like the bull some people said he was, and I am five foot two and round. I’ve never looked like the power behind anyone.
“She makes all the decisions. I’m just her front man,” Jimmie said, his smile showing his famous teeth. But those of us who knew him saw the coldness in his eyes. Jimmie didn’t like any disparagement of what he considered his. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said in that teasing way of his. Few people knew him well enough to know whether or not he was joking.
Three weeks later, by chance, I saw the cameraman who’d been with the reporter that day. He was a favorite of mine because he didn’t delight in sending his editor the pictures of me that showed off my double chin at its most unflattering angle. “What happened to your friend who was so interested in my marriage?” I asked, trying to sound friendly. “Fired,” the photographer said. “I beg your pardon?” He was pushing new batteries into his camera and didn’t look up. “Fired,” he said again, then looked up, not at me, but at Jimmie.
Wisely, the photographer said no more. And just as wisely, I didn’t ask any more questions.
Jimmie and I had an unwritten, unspoken law: I didn’t interfere in whatever Jimmie was doing.
“Like a Mafia wife,” my sister said to me about a year after Jimmie and I were married.
“Jimmie doesn’t murder people,” I replied in anger.
That night I told Jimmie of the exchange with my sister, and for a moment his eyes glittered in a way that, back then, I hadn’t yet learned to be wary of.
A month later, my sister’s husband received a fabulous job offer: double his salary; free housing; free cars. A full-time nanny for their daughter, three maids, and a country club membership were included. It was a job they couldn’t refuse. It was in Morocco.
After Jimmie’s plane crashed and left me a widow at thirty-two, all the media around the world wrote of only one thing: that Jimmie had willed me “nothing.” None of his billions — two or twenty of them, I never could remember how many — none of it was left to me.
“Are we broke or rich today?” I’d often ask him, because his net worth fluctuated from day to day, depending on what Jimmie was trying at the moment.
“Today we’re broke,” he’d say, and he would laugh in the same way as when he’d tell me he’d made so many millions that day.
The money never mattered to Jimmie. No one understood that. To him, it was just a by-product of the game. “It’s like all those peels you throw away after you’ve made jam,” he’d say. “Only in this case the world values the peel and not the jam.” “Poor world,” I said, then Jimmie laughed hard and carried me upstairs, where he made sweet love to me.
It’s my opinion that Jimmie knew he wasn’t going to live to be an old man. “I’ve got to do what I can as fast as I can. You with me, Frecks?” he’d ask.
“Always,” I’d answer, and I meant it. “Always.”
But I didn’t follow him to the grave. I was left behind, just as Jimmie said I would be.
“I’ll take care of you, Frecks,” he said more than once. When he talked of such things, he always called me by the name he’d given me the first time we met: Frecks for the freckles across my nose.
When he said, “I’ll take care of you,” I didn’t give the words much thought. Jimmie had always “taken care” of me. Whatever I wanted, he gave me long before I knew I wanted it. Jimmie said, “I know you better than you know yourself.”
And he did. But then, to be fair, I never had time to get to know much about myself. Following Jimmie all over the world didn’t leave a person much time to sit and contemplate.
Jimmie knew me, and he did take care of me. Not in the way the world thought was right, but in the way he knew I needed. He didn’t leave me a rich widow with half the world’s bachelors clamoring to profess love for me. No, he left the money and all twelve of the expensive houses to the only two people in the world he truly hated: his older sister and brother.
To me, Jimmie left a run-down, overgrown farm in the backwoods of Virginia, a place I didn’t even know he owned, and a note. It said:
Find out the truth about what happened, will you, Frecks? Do it for me. And remember that I love you. Wherever you are, whatever you do, remember that I love you.
When I saw the farmhouse, I burst into tears. What had enabled me to survive the past six weeks was the image of that farmhouse. I’d imagined something charming, made of logs, with a stone chimney at one end. I’d imagined a deep porch with hand-hewn rocking chairs on it, and a lawn in front, with pink roses spilling petals in the breeze.
I’d envisioned acres of gently rolling land covered with fruit trees and raspberry bushes — all of them pruned and healthy and dripping ripe fruit.
But what I saw was 1960s hideous. It was a two-story house covered in some sort of green siding — the kind that never changes over the years. Storms, sun, snow, time, none of it had any effect on that kind of siding. It had been a pale, sickly green when it was installed, and now, many years later, it was the same color.
There were vines growing up one side of the house, but not the kind of vines that make a place look quaint and cozy. These were vines that looked as though they were going to engulf the house, eat it raw, digest it, then regurgitate it in the same ghastly green.
“It can be fixed,” Phillip said softly from beside me.
In the weeks since Jimmie’s death, “hell” could not begin to describe what I had been through.
It was Phillip who woke me in the middle of the night when Jimmie’s plane went down. I must say that I was shocked to see him. As Jimmie’s wife, I was sacrosanct. The men he surrounded himself with knew what would happen if they made any advances toward me. I don’t mean just sexually, but in any other way. No man or woman in Jimmie’s employ ever asked me to intercede for him or her with my husband. If he had been fired, he knew that to approach me and ask that I try to “reason” with Jimmie would likely earn him something far worse than a mere dismissal.
So when I awoke to Jimmie’s top lawyer’s hand on my shoulder, telling me that I had to get up, I immediately knew what had happened. Only if Jimmie were dead would anyone dare enter my bedroom and think that he’d live to see the dawn.
“How?” I asked, immediately wide awake and trying to be mature. Inside, I was shaking. Of course it couldn’t be true, I told myself. Jimmie was too big, too alive, to be…to be…I couldn’t form the word in my mind.
“You have to get dressed now,” Phillip was saying. “We have to keep this secret for as long as we can.”
“Is Jimmie hurt?” I asked, my voice full of hope. Maybe he was in a hospital bed and calling for me. But even as I thought it, I knew it wasn’t true. Jimmie knew how I worried about him. “I’d rather have my foot cut off than have to deal with your fretting,” he’d said more than once. He hated my nagging about his smoking, about his drinking, about his days without sleep.
“No,” Phillip said, his voice cold and hard. His eyes looked into mine. “James is not alive.”
I wanted to collapse. I wanted to dive back under the warm bedcovers and go back to sleep. And when I awoke again, I wanted Jimmie to be there, slipping his big hand under my nightgown and making those little growling sounds that made me giggle.
“You don’t have time for grief right now,” Phillip said. “We have to go shopping.”
That brought me out of my shock. “Are you mad?” I asked him. “It’s four o’clock in the morning.”
“I’ve arranged for a store to open. Now get dressed!” he ordered. “We have no time to lose.”
His tone didn’t scare me in the least. I sat down on the bed, my big nightgown billowing out around me, and I pulled my braid out from under me. Jimmie liked for me to wear old-fashioned clothes, and he liked for my hair to be long. After sixteen years of marriage, I could sit on my braid. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”
“I don’t have time now — ” Phillip began, but then he stopped, took a deep breath, and looked at me. “I could be disbarred for this, but I made out James’s will, and I know what’s coming to you. I can hold off the vultures for a few days but no more. Until the will is read, you’re still James’s wife.”
“I will always be Jimmie’s wife,” I said proudly, holding all my chins aloft in the bravest stance I could muster. Jimmie! my heart was crying. Not Jimmie. Anyone on earth could die, but not Jimmie.
“Lillian,” Phillip said softly, his eyes full of pity, “there was only one man like James Manville ever made on this earth. He played by his own rules and no one else’s.”
I waited for him to tell me something that I didn’t already know. What was he leading up to?
Phillip ran his hand over his eyes and glanced at the clock on the bed. “By the law of ethics, I can’t tell you — ” he began, then he let out his breath and sat down heavily on the bed beside me. If I’d needed any further proof that Jimmie was no longer alive, that would have been it. If there was a chance that Jimmie would walk through the door and see another man sitting on the bed beside his wife, Phillip would never have dared such a familiarity.
“Who can understand what James did or why? I worked with him for over twenty years, but I never knew him. Lillian, he — ” Phillip had to take a few breaths, then he picked up my hand and held it in his. “He left you nothing. He willed everything to his brother and sister.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant. “But he hates them,” I said, pulling my hand from his grasp. Atlanta and Ray were Jimmie’s only living relatives, and Jimmie despised them. He took care of them financially, always bailing one or the other of them out of some mess, but he detested them. No, worse, he had contempt for them. One time Jimmie was looking at me strangely, and I asked what was going on in his mind. “They’ll eat you alive,” he said. “That sounds interesting,” I replied, smiling at him. But Jimmie didn’t smile back. “When I die, Atlanta and Ray will go after you with everything they have. And they’ll find lawyers to work on a contingency basis.”
I didn’t like what had become Jimmie’s frequent references to his demise. “Contingent upon what?” I asked, still smiling. “How much money they get when they sue you to hell and back,” Jimmie said, frowning. I didn’t want to hear any more, so I waved my hand in dismissal and said, “Phillip will take care of them.” “Phillip is no match for greed of that scale.” I had no reply for that, because I agreed with him. No matter how much Jimmie gave Atlanta and Ray, they wanted more. One time when Jimmie was called away unexpectedly, I found Atlanta in my closet, counting my shoes. She wasn’t the least embarrassed when I found her there. She looked up at me and said, “You have three more pairs than I do.” The look on her face frightened me so much that I turned and ran from my own bedroom.
“What do you mean that he’s left it all to them? All what?” I asked Phillip. I wanted to think about anything other than what my life was going to be like without Jimmie.
“I mean that James willed all his stocks, his houses, real estate around the world, the airlines, all of it to your brother and sister-in-law.”
Since I hated each and every one of the houses that Jimmie had purchased, I couldn’t comprehend what was so bad about this. “Too much glass and steel for my taste,” I said, giving Phillip a bit of a smile.
Phillip glared at me. “Lillian, this is serious, and James is no longer here to protect you — and I don’t have the power to do anything. I don’t know why he did it, Lord knows I tried to talk him out of it, but he said that he was giving you what you needed. That’s all I could get out of him.”
Phillip stood up, then took a moment to regain his calm. Jimmie said that what he liked about Phillip was that nothing on earth could upset him. But this had.
I tried to get the picture of my future out of my head, tried to stop thinking about a life without Jimmie’s laughter and his big shoulders to protect me, and looked up at Phillip expectantly. “Are you saying that I’m destitute?” I tried not to smile. The jewelry that Jimmie had given me over the years was worth millions.
Phillip took a deep breath. “More or less. He’s left you a farm in Virginia.”
“There, then, that’s something,” I said, then I took the humor out of my voice and waited for him to continue.
“It was a breach of ethics, but after I wrote the will for him, I sent someone down to Virginia to look at the place. It’s…not much. It’s — ” He turned away for a moment, and I thought I heard him mutter, “Bastard,” but I didn’t want to hear that, so I ignored him. When he turned back to me, his face was businesslike. He looked at his watch, a watch that I knew Jimmie had given him; it cost over twenty thousand dollars. I owned a smaller version of it.
“Did you do anything to him?” Phillip asked softly. “Another man maybe?”
I couldn’t stop my little snort of derision, and my answer was just to look at Phillip. Women in harems weren’t kept under tighter lock and key than James Manville’s wife.
“All right,” Phillip said, “I’ve had months to try to figure this out, and I haven’t come close, so I’m going to give up. When James’s will is read, all hell is going to break loose. Atlanta and Ray are going to get it all, and what you get is a farmhouse in Virginia and fifty grand — -a pittance.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “But the one thing I can do is see that you receive as much as you and I can buy between now and the moment that James’s death is announced to the public.”
It was hearing those words, “James’s death,” that almost did me in.
“No, you don’t,” Phillip said as he grabbed my arm and pulled me upright. “You don’t have time for grief or self-pity right now. You have to get dressed. The store manager is waiting.”
At five-thirty on that cold spring morning, I was pushed inside a huge department store and told that I was to buy what I needed for a farmhouse in Virginia. Phillip said the man he sent couldn’t see inside the house, so I didn’t even know how many bedrooms it had. The sleepy store manager who’d been roused from bed to open the store for James Manville’s wife dutifully followed Phillip and me about and noted down what I pointed at.
It all seemed so unreal. I couldn’t believe any of it was happening, and a part of me, the still-in-shock part, couldn’t wait to tell Jimmie this story. How he’d laugh at it! I’d exaggerate every moment of it, and the more he’d laugh, the more flamboyant my story would become. “So there I was, half asleep, being asked which couch I wanted to buy,” I’d say. ” ‘Couch?’ the little man asked, yawning. ‘What’s a couch?’ ”
But there was not going to be any storytelling with Jimmie, for I was never going to see Jimmie alive again.
I did as I was told, though, and I chose furniture, cookware, linens, and even appliances for a house that I had never seen. But it all seemed so ridiculous. Jimmie had houses full of furniture, most of it custom-made, and there were great, enormous kitchens full of every imaginable piece of cooking gear.
At seven, when Phillip was driving me back to the house, he reached into the back of his car and picked up a brochure. “I bought you a car,” he said, handing me a glossy photo of a four-wheel-drive Toyota.
I was beginning to wake up, and I was beginning to feel pain. Everything seemed so odd; my world was turning upside down. Why was Phillip driving a car himself? He usually used one of Jimmie’s cars and a driver.
“You can’t take the jewelry,” Phillip was saying. “Each piece has been itemized and insured. You may take your clothing, but even at that I think that Atlanta may give you some problems. She’s your size.”
“My size,” I whispered. “Take my clothes.”
“You can fight it all, of course,” Phillip was saying. “But something’s wrong. About six months ago, Atlanta hinted that she knew some big secret about you.”
Phillip looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I knew he was again asking me if there were other men in my life. But when? I wondered. Jimmie didn’t like to be alone, not even for a second, and he made sure I was never alone. ” ‘Fraid the bogeyman will get me,” he said, kissing my nose, when I asked him why he avoided solitude so diligently. Jimmie rarely — no, Jimmie never gave straight answers to personal questions. He lived in the here and now; he lived in the world around him, not inside his head. He wasn’t one for pondering why people were the way they were; he accepted them, and liked them or didn’t.
“I was a virgin when I met him,” I said softly to Phillip, “and there’s only been Jimmie.” But I looked away when I said it, for I knew that there was a secret between Jimmie and me. Only I knew it, though. Atlanta couldn’t know — could she?
But she did.
By eight, my comfortable, safe world as I knew it had collapsed. I don’t know how Atlanta heard about Jimmie’s plane going down so soon after it happened, but she had. And in the time between when Atlanta was told and the press heard of Jimmie’s death, she had accomplished more than in all the other forty-eight years of her life combined.
When Phillip and I returned from our crazy shopping expedition, we were greeted at the front door of what I’d thought of as my house by men carrying guns, and I was also told I wasn’t allowed to enter. I was told that, as Jimmie’s only surviving relatives, Atlanta and Ray now owned everything.
When Phillip and I got back into the car, he was shaking his head in wonder. “How did they find out about the will? How did she know James left it all to them? Look, Lillian,” he said, and I noted that up until Jimmie’s death, he’d always called me Mrs. Manville, “I don’t know how she found out, but I’ll find the culprit who told and…and…” Obviously, he couldn’t think of anything horrible enough to do to someone on his staff who’d leaked the contents of Jimmie’s will. “We’ll fight this. You’re his wife, and you have been for many years. You and I will — ”
“I was seventeen when I married him,” I said quietly. “And I didn’t have my mother’s permission.”
“Oh, my God,” Phillip said, then he opened his mouth to begin what I assumed was going to be a lecture on my irresponsibility. But he closed it again, and rightfully so. What good would it do to lecture me now that Jimmie was gone?
The next weeks were horrible beyond anything I’d ever imagined. Atlanta was on TV just hours after Jimmie’s death, telling the press that she was going to fight “that woman” who had so enslaved her beloved brother for all those years. “I’m going to see that she gets everything she deserves.”
It didn’t matter to Atlanta that Jimmie’s will stated I was to get nothing. Not even the farmhouse was mentioned in the will. No, Atlanta was out to avenge all the things she imagined I’d done to her over the years. She didn’t just want money; she wanted me humiliated.
Yes, of course she’d found out that my marriage to Jimmie hadn’t been legal. It couldn’t have been difficult. My sister knew. She and her husband had divorced because she couldn’t bear to stay in Morocco, but her husband wouldn’t give up all that cash and luxury. My sister blamed me for her divorce. Maybe she called Atlanta and volunteered the information that I wasn’t legally married to Jimmie.
However she found out, Atlanta waved my birth certificate before the press, then showed them the photocopy of my marriage certificate. I was only seventeen when we’d married, but I’d lied and said that I was eighteen, and therefore legally in charge of my own fate.
No longer did I have Jimmie to protect me from the press. Now every reporter who’d been mistreated by him — i.e., all of them — dug through his archives and pulled out the most unflattering photos of me he could find, then slapped them across every communications media there was. I couldn’t look at TV, a magazine, or a computer screen that didn’t feature all my chins and the nose I’d inherited from my father. I’d told Jimmie about a thousand times that I wanted to have my overlarge nose “fixed.” “Removed!” is what I said, but Jimmie always told me that he loved me as I was, and, eventually, the right hook of my nose didn’t seem to matter.
When I heard what was being said about me, my ugly nose was the least of my concerns. How can I describe what it felt like to see four respected journalists — three men and a woman — sitting around a table, discussing whether or not I had “trapped” James Manville into marrying me? As though a man like Jimmie could be trapped by anyone! And by a seventeen-year-old girl whose only claim to fame was a handful of blue ribbons won at the state fair? Not likely.
Lawyers talked about whether or not I was legally entitled to any of Jimmie’s money.
But when the will was finally read and it was seen that Jimmie had given it all to his brother and sister, I was suddenly the Jezebel of America. Everyone seemed to believe that I had somehow ensnared dear little Jimmie (the youthful Salome was the comparison used most often) but that he had found out about it and had used his will to give me “what I deserved.”
Phillip did his best to keep me away from the press, but it wasn’t easy. I wanted to get on a plane and go away, to hide from everything — but that was no longer an option. My days of jumping on a plane and going anywhere in the world I wanted were over.
For six weeks after Jimmie’s death, while the courts dealt with his will and the press hashed and rehashed everything they heard, I stayed locked inside Phillip’s sprawling house. The only time I left during those horrible weeks was when I went to Jimmie’s funeral, and then I was so shrouded in black draperies that I may as well not have been there. And I most certainly wasn’t going to give the press or Atlanta and Ray the satisfaction of seeing me weep.
When I got to the church, I was told that I couldn’t enter, but Phillip had anticipated such an event, and seemingly out of nowhere, half a dozen men the size of sumo wrestlers appeared and surrounded me.
That’s how I entered Jimmie’s funeral: walking in the midst of six enormous men, my face and body covered with black cloth.
It was all right, though, because by that time I had realized that Jimmie was actually never coming back, and nothing anyone did mattered much. And, too, I kept imagining that farmhouse he’d left me. One time Jimmie had asked me to describe where I’d like to live, and I’d talked of a cozy little house with a deep porch, tall trees around it, and a lake nearby. “I’ll see what I can do,” he’d said, smiling at me with twinkling eyes. But the next house he’d bought was a castle on an island off the coast of Scotland, and the thing was so cold that even in August my teeth were chattering.
After the will was probated, I made no move to leave Phillip’s house. With the press still hovering outside and with Jimmie gone, it didn’t seem to matter where I was or what I did. I took long showers, and I sat at the table with Phillip and his family — his wife, Carol, and their two young daughters — but I don’t remember eating anything.
It was Phillip who told me that it was time for me to leave.
“I can’t go out there,” I said in fear, glancing toward the curtains that I kept drawn night and day. “They’re waiting for me.”
Phillip took my hand in his and rubbed his palm against my skin. For all that I no longer had a husband, I still felt married. I snatched my hand away and frowned at him.
But Phillip smiled. “Carol and I have been talking, and we think you should…well, that you should disappear.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, “suttee. The wife climbs onto the funeral pyre and follows her husband into the afterlife.”
From the look on Phillip’s face, he didn’t appreciate my black sense of humor. Jimmie had. Jimmie used to say that the more depressed I was, the funnier I was. If that was so, I should have gone onstage the day of his funeral.
“Lillian,” Phillip said, but when he reached toward my hand again, I withdrew it. “Have you looked at yourself lately?”
“I — ” I began, intending to make a sarcastic remark, but then I glanced into the mirror over the big dresser across from the bed in the guest room in Phillip’s house. I had, of course, noticed that I’d lost some weight. Not eating for weeks on end will do that. But I hadn’t noticed how much I’d lost. My chins were gone. I had cheekbones.
I looked back at Phillip. “Amazing, isn’t it? All those diet programs that Jimmie paid for for me, and all he had to do was die and bingo! I’m finally slim.”
Phillip frowned again. “Lillian, I’ve waited until now to talk to you. I’ve tried to give you some time to come to terms with James’s death and his will.”
He started on another lecture about my stupidity in not telling either him or Jimmie that I’d been seventeen when we married. “He would have given you a huge wedding. He would have loved doing that for you,” Phillip had said the day after he found out. “It would have been so much better than the elopement you had the first time.”
But I’d heard that lecture before and didn’t want to hear it again, so I cut him off. “You want me to disappear?”
“Actually, it was Carol’s idea. She said that as things stand now, the rest of your life is going to be one long press interview. People are going to hound you forever to tell them about your life with Jimmie. Unless — ”
“Unless what?” I asked.
Phillip’s thin face lit up, and for a moment I saw the “little fox” that Jimmie had always said the man was. “Do you remember when I told you that I’d tried to talk James out of writing his will as he did?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “I did persuade him not to put the farmhouse in the will. I said that if he was so afraid of what his sister would do, then she’d probably try to take the farm too. At that time I hadn’t seen the place, and I thought it was — ”
“Was what?” I asked.
“Valuable,” he said softly, looking down at the floor for a moment, then back up at me. “Look, Lillian, I know the farmhouse isn’t much, but it must have meant something to James, or he wouldn’t have kept it all these years.”
“Why did he buy it in the first place?”
“That’s just it, he didn’t buy it. I think he’s always owned it.”
“People have to buy things,” I said, confused. “People just don’t give real estate away, at least not while they’re alive.” It was then that understanding began to hit me. “You mean you think that Jimmie might have inherited this farm?”
For the first time, I felt some interest spark inside me. All three of them, Atlanta, Ray, and Jimmie, were maddeningly secretive about their childhood. When questioned, Ray evaded and changed the subject. Atlanta and Jimmie out-and-out lied. They would say they were born in South Dakota one day, and in Louisiana the next. I knew for a fact that Jimmie had given me four different names for his mother. I’d even secretly read all six of the biographies that had been written about him, but the authors had had no better luck than I had in finding out anything about the first sixteen years of James Manville’s life.
“I don’t know for sure,” Phillip said, “but I do know that James didn’t buy the place since I’ve known him.”
At that statement, all I could do was blink. Jimmie and Phillip had been together from the beginning.
“When I said that Atlanta and Ray might try to take the farm away from you, all I can tell you is that James turned white, as though he were afraid of something.”
“Jimmie afraid?” I said, unable to grasp that concept.
“He said, ‘You’re right, Phil, so I’m going to give the place to you, then when the time comes, I want you to sign it over to Lil. And I want you to give her this from me.’ ”
That was when Phillip handed me the note written by Jimmie. It was in a sealed envelope, so Phillip hadn’t read it. He’d kept it and the deed to the farm in Virginia in his home safe, awaiting the day when he’d turn them both over to me.
After I read the note, I folded it and put it back into the envelope. I didn’t cry; I’d cried so much over the last six weeks that I didn’t seem to have any more liquid inside me. I reached for the deed to the farm, but Phillip pulled it back.
“If I make this out to Lillian Manville, then register the property transfer, within twenty-four hours, you’ll have reporters — and lawyers — on your doorstep. But — ” he said, drawing out what he wanted to say as though I were a child he was enticing to be good.
I didn’t take the bait, but just stared at him.
“All right,” he said at last. “What Carol and I thought was that maybe you should change your identity. You’ve lost so much weight that you don’t look like James Manville’s fat little wife anymore.”
That remark made me narrow my eyes at him. I did not want to hear what he and the rest of Jimmie’s staff had sniggered behind his back. I guess I’d not spent all those years near Jimmie for nothing, because I could see Phillip beginning to wither under my gaze.
“All right,” he said again, then let out his pent-up breath. “It’s up to you, but I’ve already done a lot of the work, such as get you new documents of identification. I needed to use James’s connections while they still remembered him. Sorry to be so blunt, but people forget fast. Now, it’s up to you to accept it.”
He handed me a passport, and I opened it. There was no photo inside, but there was a name. “Bailey James,” I read aloud, then looked up at Phillip.
“It was Carol’s idea. She took your maiden name and James’s first name and — You don’t like it.”
The problem was that I did like the idea. A new name; maybe a new life.
“Carol thought that with your weight loss, and if you got your hair cut and lightened, and if you…Well, if you…”
I looked at him. What was he having such a hard time saying? But then I saw that he had his eyes fixed on my nose. I’d gone down headfirst on a playground slide in the first grade and had managed to knock my nose permanently to the right. “No wonder,” sixth-grade Johnnie Miller had said as I stood there gushing blood. “Her nose is so big that it hit the ground half an hour before she did.” I still remember the teacher holding me and oozing sympathy even as she tried hard not to laugh, even as she made Johnnie apologize for his remark.
“You want me to get a nose job,” I said flatly.
Phillip gave a curt nod.
Turning, I looked at myself in the mirror. If Jimmie had left me his billions, I could have made a prison with high fences and locked myself away from all the gigolos and hangers-on that orbit around money. I didn’t have the billions, but I did have the notoriety. I knew that, eventually, in ten years or so, Jimmie would fade in people’s memories and I’d be left alone, but during those ten years…
I looked back at Phillip. “It’s my guess that you have a surgeon all set up.”
“Tonight.” He looked at his watch, the twenty-thousand-dollar one that Jimmie had given him; Atlanta was now wearing mine. “If you’re ready, that is.”
I took a deep breath. “As ready as I can be, I guess,” I said, then stood up.
That was two weeks ago. My nose had healed enough that I knew it was time to step outside Phillip and Carol’s big house. It wasn’t Lillian Manville who was to greet the world, but someone I didn’t even recognize in the mirror, someone named Bailey James.
During the time I was recovering from surgery, I’d come to know Carol somewhat better. In the past she’d attended the parties that Jimmie liked to give, but he had always warned me that it was better not to get too chummy with employees, so I was courteous, but there were no secrets shared between us. I didn’t share secrets with anyone other than Jimmie.
The surgery had been done in the doctor’s office, and a few hours later I was driven back to Carol and Phillip’s house. The first night a nurse stayed with me, but the second night I was alone when Carol tapped on my door. When I answered, she tiptoed in and sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you angry?” she asked.
“No, the doctor did a fine job. Nothing to be angry about,” I answered, pretending that I didn’t know what she was talking about.
She didn’t fall for it; she stared hard at me.
“You mean, am I angry that I spent sixteen years giving my entire life to a man, only to be cut out of his will?”
Carol smiled at my sarcasm. “Men are slime,” she said, then we smiled together, and when I touched my sore nose in pain, we laughed. It was my first genuine feeling of humor since I’d last talked to Jimmie.
“So what are you going to wear?” Carol asked, folding her legs and sitting on the corner of the bed. She was about ten years older than me, and I’d be willing to bet that she was no stranger to the surgeon’s knife. She was blonde and pretty, and extremely well cared for. I knew what that meant because I, too, used to spend a lot of my time looking after myself. I may have been plump, but I was a well-coiffed, well-tended plump.
“Wear where?” I asked, and felt my heart jump a bit. Please, I silently prayed, someone tell me that I wasn’t going to have to go again to some courtroom and hear Atlanta and Ray accuse me of “controlling” Jimmie.
“On your new body,” Carol said. “You can’t keep on wearing my sweats, you know.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I guess I haven’t thought much about clothes lately. I — ” Damnation, but tears were coming to my eyes. I wanted to be the brave little soldier and believe that, whatever Jimmie had done had been done out of love. But when I was confronted with issues such as the fact that the only clothing I now owned was what I’d put on the night Jimmie died, and the black shroud that Phillip had given me, I didn’t feel very brave.
Carol reached out to touch my hand, but then she pulled back and moved off the bed. “I’ll be back in just a minute,” she said as she left the room. In seconds she returned with a foot-high stack of what looked like catalogs. She’d taken so little time to get them, I knew she must have had them piled outside.
She spread them across the bottom of the bed, and I looked at them in wonder. “What are these?”
“Phillip owes me five bucks!” she said in triumph. “I bet him you’d never seen a catalog. In nor — uh, most households, catalogs come through the mail at the rate of about six a day.”
I knew she’d been about to say “in normal households,” but she’d stopped herself. In Jimmie’s houses, a servant brought me my few pieces of mail on a silver dish.
I picked up one of the catalogs. Norm Thompson. Inside were the kind of clothes that appeared in my closet now and then, especially in the two island houses. Jimmie had someone he called a “shopper” who made sure that we had whatever clothes we needed in every house.
Carol picked up a catalog and flipped through it. The cover read “Coldwater Creek.” “You know, I used to feel sorry for you. You always looked so alone and lost. I told Phillip that — ” Breaking off, she bent down toward the catalog.
“You told him what?”
“That you were like a lightbulb, and you were only on when James was around.”
I didn’t like what she’d said. Not one bit. It made me sound so…so nothing, as though I weren’t a person at all. “So what did you have in mind with these?” I asked, making my voice sound as cool as possible.
She understood my tone. “It’s my opinion that we owe you for the wedding gift that you gave Phillip and me, so I thought we might order you some new clothes and whatever else you might need in your new life. We’ll charge it all to Phillip; he can afford it.” She lowered her voice. “He’s going to be one of the attorneys for Atlanta and Ray.”
At that my mouth dropped open, then I winced because my new, smaller nose hurt at the movement. I wanted to scream, “The traitor!” but I didn’t. “Remind me. What did Jimmie and I give you for your wedding?”
“This house,” Carol said.
For a moment I couldn’t speak, and I had to look away so she wouldn’t see my eyes. He gave a house to his attorney, a man he thought was his friend, but now that so-called friend was going to work for the enemy. I picked up a catalog. “Do you have one of these things for jewelry? I need a new watch.”
Carol smiled at me; I smiled back; a friendship was formed.
Copyright © 2002 by Deveraux, Inc.