Wyoming passed from summer to fall. Temperatures dropped at night, enough that Jack got out the thicker pajamas for the girls and heavier quilts to sleep under. The leaves turned to gold and orange. Breezes came more often and stole the warmth from his body as they passed. Jack finished his job paving the road in Hudson. He’d added a decent amount of money to his rodeo prize winnings. This led to him starting a bank account locally. Another step in settling into his new life with Ennis in Riverton. Of course they’d also enrolled Alma Jr. in school. It was a very exciting time to be a parent. Jack drove them all to the store for school shopping to celebrate the occasion.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Ennis said, he’d been given the task of pushing the cart.
“Back to school clothes.” Jack replied. “Hmm... I don’t know what little girls wear to school. Button ups?”
“The girls around town seem to just wear sweaters and skirts.” Ennis pulled a sweater off the rack, inspecting it.
“Those are high schoolers.” Jack said. He didn’t know if little girls wore the same things as older girls to school. He tried to think back to the girls he went to school with. What did they wear? He couldn’t remember. He’d never paid much attention to the girls at school, what they wore, or the ways they tried to accentuate their bodies. He couldn’t recall a transition in age between clothes. “She’s four. Maybe we should start with shoes. What size is she?”
Ennis shrugged. Jack scoffed at his partner. “Okay. Time to learn what your daughter’s shoe size is. Baby, can you take off your shoes?”
Alma bent down in the isle and pulled her shoe off, offering it up to Jack. Jack looked inside, looking for any print or tag that told them the size. There was a tag sewn on the underside of the tongue of her shoe that listed the materials of the shoe and the size. Jack scanned it quickly. “Okay, this says nine. Does that sound right, darlin’?”
Alma nodded. “Great. Let’s go get shoes then.”
Alma was very careful in her selection. Jack helped her pull boxes off the shelves and push her feet into them. Watched her walk circles around the aisle. Asked if they were comfortable. “Do they pinch your toes?”
“Nuh-uh.” She looked down, wiggling her toes in the red sandals she was currently trying on. “I want these!”
“Alright. Let me have them, baby. You should get two pairs.”
After a lot of deliberation Alma decided on a second pair. A set of black Mary Janes that shone under the harsh store lights. She gave the other pair to Ennis for him to put in their cart. “Why are we buying shoes if she already has shoes?” Ennis asked.
“Well we’re gonna have to buy her shoes every year now, kids grow real fast. And I think it’s to give them a sense of pride?” Jack thought about it. “Like, they’re meeting kids their age and joining social groups. I think they’re supposed to look good. Otherwise they’ll get picked on.”
Ennis grunted. “I don’t remember shopping for school.”
“Well neither do I. I remember being picked on, though.” Jack said, loading the sandals he was holding into the cart. Alma reached up, making grabby hands to be lifted. Jack put her in the cart as well. “I don’t know if that was because of my clothes, if I’m bein’ honest.”
Then they were right back where they started. In the children’s section looking at pleated skirts and cardigans with no clue what they were looking for to begin with. Jack paced in front of the sweaters, looking at them like a mystery to solve.
Nancy Miller was there with her daughter. Daisy Miller was slightly older than Alma, about six years old. She was a quiet little girl and she played with Alma nicely when they were together. She seemed shy. Always hiding behind her mother’s legs, just as she was doing now. Peeking out from behind them at Jack and Ennis.
Immediately Ennis went quiet like he always did when he wasn’t talking to Jack. Jack was the one responsible for socializing with the townspeople. “Yeah.” Jack said. “Alma here’s going to school in a few days.”
“Oh well, congratulations!” Nancy said with a smile. “You need to get her some skirts, some stockings, and some sweaters. Get nice thick ones but also a lighter one for when the weather starts to get warmer. It’s okay to get them a bit big, she’ll grow into them. Little girls grow like weeds.”
Jack sighed. “Okay. Sweaters. Sweaters are easy. Ennis! Get over here. I need you to help me decide between dark blue and white.”
Nancy smiled. “Good luck you two! I have to go get belts.”
“Thanks Nancy.” Jack said as she left. “Anyway, dark blue or white?”
“Dark blue.” Ennis finally said once Nancy was out of earshot. “I’m not spot treating that white sweater every time she spills juice on it or plays in the grass.”
“Good point.” Jack said. He threw the navy blue garment into the cart.
Alma chose a series of pleated skirts and fluffy sweaters. They tossed some stockings in for good measure. Had to have nice socks for her to wear her new shoes in. They bought enough clothes to last her the year that afternoon. Jack also threw together some notebooks, crayons, and pencils for her.
“I think she’s ready.” Ennis said, looking at the cart they’d filled.
“Not yet. She needs a lunch pail and a school bag.”
Ennis groaned. “Why do kids need so much?”
“It won’t be too bad next time. We’ll save these clothes and just hand them down to Jenny. Save us a lot on clothes shopping.” Jack turned to Alma. “Alright, baby. Let’s go get your bag.”
Alma happily walked through the store with them. She looked over the selection of bags. They were small, sized appropriately for her age. There wasn’t much selection, though. There was never much selection of anything in small towns. Alma picked out a black bag with straps she could put over her shoulders. She looked happy enough with her selection.
Lunch pails, however, were a much more exciting process. Brightly colored tin boxes in a greater selection than school bags were available. Some were shaped more like pails, others boxes, all with sturdy handles and latches. Different decals and designs decorated the boxes. One box in particular caught Alma’s eye immediately.
“Daddy! Wild Wild West!” She said, holding up the box to show her father. Her eyes sparkled at the colorful painting of Jim West.
Ennis nodded awkwardly. “It’s nice.” He said.
“How about Disney, baby? You like Mickey Mouse?” Jack picked another box off the shelves, crouching down to Alma’s level to show her.
“Hmmm.” She seemed to consider the yellow box. It’s bright cartoon characters and it’s sturdy handle. But in the end she didn’t seem nearly as impressed with it. “I like James.”
Of course she did. Jack understood. He’d seen The Pirate as a child with his mama. He’d had a pretty big crush on Gene Kelly. In his childhood innocence he didn’t hide it nearly well enough. It was the first time she’d realized something was different about him. He understood the innocent awakening Alma was experiencing well. James West was pretty handsome. She had good taste, Jack thought. “I bet you do.” He said with a grin.
Ennis shot Jack an exasperated look. Jack just smiled at him.
They ended up buying her the James West lunchbox.
Alma spent the rest of the day excitedly showing her sister all of the things she got for school. Jenny was excited to go to school until she was told she wasn’t old enough yet. This ended in her crying and walking into her daddy’s arms.
“I wanna go to school!” She wailed.
“You will. When you’re old enough.” Ennis tried. But Jenny wasn’t happy with that.
She huffed, shoving her head into her daddy’s chest and whining. “I wanna go with Junior!”
It took quite a bit of cajoling to distract her. Alma was annoyed that Jenny had taken the fun out of her new school supplies. But Ennis managed to distract them with the TV.
Ennis and Jack rewarded themselves with beers from the fridge. It had been a long day. Ennis sighed. “Boy. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when she actually goes.”
“It’ll be fun. You got a camera? You should take pictures. You only get two first days of school.” Jack took a deep swig out of his beer.
“I think you’re a better daddy than I am sometimes.” Ennis said, and it was a joke. Mostly. There was an undercurrent of insecurity there. Jack frowned.
“Nah.” He said. “I’m just a different one. Besides, I never see the dads in this damn town take care of their kids. I don’t think half the dads in this town even like their kids. My daddy never liked me, that’s for damn sure. You love your girls. It’s very attractive.”
Ennis rolled his eyes. “I think you just find me attractive.”
Jack smiled. “True.”
His flirting was rewarded with a rather attractive blush. Ennis clenched his jaw, looking down at his empty beer. “Yeah, yeah. It’s time to make dinner, rodeo.”
“I’ll get you later.” Jack promised. He bent over into the fridge to start gathering the ingredients he needed. He expected Ennis to leave the kitchen. Leave the conversation behind. He didn’t expect Ennis to bend over him. Grip his waist in his hands. Whisper in his ear.
“I’m counting on it.”
Then he was gone, with the last word in. Jack was hot under the collar.
Oh, boy. Was he getting it later.
The morning Alma went to school was thrilling. And messy. Ennis made pancakes as quickly as he could while Jack meticulously braided her hair. He matched the ribbons in her hair with the red of her sweater. He helped her into a black skirt and her stockings and Mary Janes.
“You look like an angel.” Jack said, smoothing out her clothes. “Now let me get the camera.” Ennis’ camera was the cheapest thing he could buy at the time. Film was expensive, and he only got one so that Alma’s mama could take wedding pictures. Alma had taken pictures of her children at their birth and baptism, but mostly the camera was unused. Jack intended to change that. Life passed quickly, and he wanted something to remember the girls by when they inevitably grew up and left them. Ennis may bitch about expensive film now, but he’d thank him later.
Alma, however, was not thanking him at the moment. “Jack Jack.” She whined. “I wanna eat pancakes.”
“Just smile sweetie. It’ll take two seconds. Big smile!”
Alma begrudgingly smiled, Jack took a picture. She looked so cute. He smiled. “Okay, baby. Go eat.”
While they were eating Ennis packed lunch for Alma in her newly acquired tin lunchbox. Then he took her out to wait for the bus. The morning was cool and clear. The wind disturbed the wispy, looser hairs out of Alma’s braids, sweeping them across her face. Ennis looked down at his daughter. She always seemed to tiny to him. Even as she grew and grew.
She really did grow so fast. It seemed like just yesterday the nurse brought his firstborn daughter into the hospital room in a little pink blanket. Pink as her tiny pinched face. This was a big step forward. Ennis had the sudden urge to hold her and never let go.
He fidgeted as the bus pulled up to their apartment. “You have a good day, okay baby?”
“Yes daddy.” Alma made grabby hands at her daddy. He knelt down for a hug.
Ennis pressed a kiss into her hair. Jack had done such a good job braiding it. He was getting so good at doing their hair. He smoothed her hair with his hands as he pulled away. “Be a good girl, listen to your teacher, learn a lot.”
He fiddled with the ribbons in her hair. “Okay. You get going now.”
Alma adjusted the straps on her shoulders. She began stepping onto the bus.
Ennis turned to see Jack practically falling down the stairs. He jumped over several steps in his haste to get down as quickly as possible. He ran over to them, tripping on his feet as he did so. His outstretched hand held Alma’s lunchbox.
“Your lunch.” He panted when he finally came to a halt in front of them. “You forgot your lunch.”
“Thanks Jack Jack.” Alma said, taking the box from his outstretched hand.
Jack collapsed to his knees and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Have a great day at school, darlin’.”
Alma jumped up the stairs. The bus door closed behind her. Jack and Ennis watched it rumble away down the street while Jack caught his breath.
Jack sighed, leaning against Ennis’ shoulder. “There she goes. They grow up so fast.”
“You’ve only been her daddy for three months.” Ennis pointed out.
“Yeah and she’s already learning to tie her shoes and going to school. What a big girl.” Jack huffed, finally his breath had caught up with him. “Let’s go get Jenny. You gotta get to work. I should probably start looking for more permanent employment.”
Ennis hauled himself to his feet, reaching out for Jack and helping him up. “Is Miss Mary Brown available today?”
“Oh, for sure. If she isn’t I’ll just bring Jenny with me.” Jack and Ennis climbed the stairs together.
Ennis grabbed his hat and keys. “I’m going to work, then. Can you heat those leftovers for dinner? I don’t want them going bad.”
“‘Course. Have a good day at work.”
He didn’t say anything in return. He simply grabbed Jack’s collar, pulled him in, and kissed him goodbye before putting his hat on and walking out.
Jack’s heart fluttered. He’d never get over that. A smile spread over his face.
Jack Twist, rodeo cowboy, wanderer, dreamer, had finally settled down after years of chasing the horizon. For the first time in his life he felt truly at home.