Jesus Will Always Be Your Valentine

by Lori White
Jesus Will Always Be Your Valentine by Lori White

When Tammy Simpson discovered the word FAGOT spray painted down the driver’s side of her Corolla, the misspelling didn’t surprise her; the only time Ferndale had a student in the state spelling bee finals was the year Tammy won. Had the culprits cracked a dictionary, they would’ve also learned the word didn’t apply to her anymore. Only the paint color—bright red—seemed fitting, a Valentine’s Day gift in honor of her return. She was beginning to think maybe the counselors were right about moving back. She dropped the car keys into her purse and glanced down at her new Ferragamo heels in the same shade of taupe her grandmother used to wear, only three sizes bigger.

Central Avenue was still quiet this early. The librarian didn’t wave back when she passed by, and the manager of Food King pretended not to see Tammy as he sat on his front porch, drinking coffee, though she could feel him staring over his open newspaper. Christ the Redeemer’s marquee had a new message for the holiday: Jesus will always be your Valentine. Pastor Moore was at it again, beckoning to Tammy and the rest of Ferndale’s lost little lambs. She slipped and almost fell in front of the post office, catching herself on the bus stop bench. In Macy’s shoe department, she’d glided across the thick carpet, amazed by how graceful the shoes had made her feel. Now, on the streets of Ferndale, she was conscious of every step.

Strawberry pickers crowded around the tables at Rosita’s bakery, sipping coffee, delaying the inevitable hours crouched over the low rows. A few pulled back their hoods to get a better look when Tammy came in for a pan dulce. The stares and whispers weren’t why she’d stopped going to church. Instead, it was the stained glass Jesus above the church altar, with his somber mouth and hopeful eyes, that reminded Tammy to trust her instincts more. In the year she was gone, her parents called every Sunday. Before she moved back, her father ordered a new brass nameplate for the family pew. It was a tender offering. Whether resolved or resigned, Tom Simpson, Sr. had yet to show any shame that his only son was now his daughter.

Tammy stopped to check the front windows of Simpson’s Hardware before going around to the back door. The chubby plastic cupids were a family tradition. Years ago, Tammy’s grandmother had sewn the tiny felt loincloths and glued red hearts to their chests. This year Tammy filled their quivers with nails and perched them atop cans of roofing tar. It had been a wet winter for southern California, hard on the roofs of Ferndale, and even harder on the strawberry crop.

Tammy was already at her desk when her father arrived. His keys jangled as he made his way through the warehouse, snapping on the lights. He was dressed in his usual work clothes: khaki pants and a blue chambray shirt, both pressed each morning by her mother while he ate his breakfast.

“I didn’t think you were here yet,” he said to Tammy. He put his lunch in the refrigerator and went to unlock the safe. “Your car’s not in the back.”

“Finally, a sunny day,” she said, “I decided to walk.”

“Your mother was up at dawn, baking a cake. She wants you to come to dinner.”

“Probably her red velvet.”

“If you don’t come, I’ll be eating ham for days.” He lifted out the cash drawer and handed her the deposit.

“I’ll be there,” she said.

She slipped out a pink envelope from under her desk pad. Buying the card was one of those little risks the counselors had encouraged to help ease her transition. She didn’t know whether daughters even gave cards to their fathers until she saw the section marked For Dad. The right one took a while to find. Most were meant for little girls to give, with pictures of candy hearts and kittens. The pink envelope embarrassed her now. She handed him the card, wishing she’d taken a white one instead.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad.”

He looked at the envelope, frowning, and turned it over, as though unsure what to do with it. “I didn’t get you anything,” he said.

“That’s okay,” Tammy said. “Open it.”

The front of the card was a picture of a man holding a little girl’s hand down a set of steps. On the inside, they were sitting on the steps, the girl’s head resting against the father’s shoulder, with the caption: I’d follow you anywhere.

Her father looked confused when he read the inside. “I know it’s kind of corny,” she said, quickly adding, “there wasn’t much left to choose from.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” her father said. “Thanks.” He put the card back in the envelope and slid it into his pocket. “I gave Aurelio the day off. I’m going to need you on the floor.”

She’d worked in the store since she was a boy, running the register and helping customers. But for the past few weeks she’d been home, Tammy stayed busy in the office, a safe distance from the parade of people, some dropping by, she suspected, to get a closer look.

“The inventory isn’t done yet,” she said. “Can’t Mom come in?”

“She’s got her dinner to fix. You can work on it at the counter.”

“Okay,” she said, irritated. “I’ll run to the bank and be back to help open.”



Marilyn’s window at First Valley Bank already had a line. There was a mural on the main wall behind the tellers, painted in the 1930s, a landscape of green fields with the Heritage Valley mountains in the background. Pickers in wide straw hats were scattered through the foreground, some bent over the rows, baskets by their sides, and others walking, the baskets balanced high on their shoulders.

Tammy got in line behind Ernie Hernandez, the owner of Ferndale Auto. She tugged down her skirt, a knee-length yellow plaid she’d found at the Ladies’ Auxiliary rummage sale. The waistband pinched at her sides, and the wool itched, even with a slip underneath. Jeans would have been a better choice for a day on the floor, but it was too late to run home and change, especially without a car. She felt Ernie’s eyes on her, drifting down until she cleared her throat, and like that, the trance was broken. “The Corolla got tagged again,” she said. “Bright red.”

He let out a slow whistle. “Maybe we should just hit it with some primer this time,” he said. “Too busy today, though. Bring it by in the morning.”

Marilyn waved Ernie up, then stuck her tongue out at Tammy. When Tammy told her best friend she’d decided to have the surgery, Marilyn promised nothing would change between them, except that now they could go into Macy’s dressing rooms together, something they hadn’t done since Tammy came home.

When it was her turn at the window, Tammy slipped the deposit under the glass. “They got the Corolla again. Misspelled, of course, which narrows it down to practically the whole town.”

“Sons of bitches,” Marilyn said. “You need to report it this time.”

“No,” Tammy said, firmly. “I can handle it.” She stepped back from the window and held out her skirt. “What do you think? Used to belong to Pastor Moore’s wife.”

Marilyn peered over the counter. “Very stylish. You look just like your grandmother, right down to the shoes.”

Tammy looked down at her feet, uncertain. In the store mirror, the shoes made her feet look smaller, even shapely. Now, from this angle, they looked more like beige skis. “You think they make me look old?”

“Not if you’re going to play Bingo. There’s a One Day Sale this Saturday. Let’s go.”

Tammy tried to imagine walking through Macy’s shoe department with Marilyn, asking the salesman for her size, holding her foot aloft for him to slide on the shoe. A moment too private and pleasurable to share. “Maybe,” she said, then changed the subject. “I gave my dad the card.”

Marilyn handed her the receipt. “What did he say?”

“He looked really uncomfortable. He thanked me, then he said I have to work on the floor all day.”

“Need any change?”

“Thanks for the support.”

“Look, you’re the one who wanted to come back here. So, chin up and move along. My customers are getting antsy,” Marilyn said, adding, “By the way, your slip is showing.”

Tammy gave her skirt another tug. “Okay, okay. But if one more guy gets stuck staring anywhere below my neck, I can’t be responsible for my actions.”

“Just stay behind the register. Men are less likely to get distracted when they’re reaching for their wallets. Trust me, I’m an expert.”

On her way out, Tammy was about to say hello to her old algebra teacher when the woman began digging around in her purse. While the men searched for something the doctors might have missed, most women couldn’t stand to look. The counselors had said the transition would be easier in a bigger city, where Tammy could find her rhythm amongst strangers. But the truth was, up until now, no one in Ferndale ever really knew her.



Her father was at the counter, holding court with his morning regulars over coffee and donuts, men who stopped by every day before going to work at the gravel yard and the packing house, men Tammy had known her whole life. They got quiet when she came in and stepped back to let her get to the register. She emptied the change into the drawer as they carried on again, swapping stories about the idiot bosses they worked for and how things would be different if they were in charge. Trophies from the little league teams Simpson’s Hardware had sponsored crowded the front of the register, three from the years Tammy played third base. Back then, her father’s friends were quick with a pat on the back for hitting a home run or catching a fly ball. Now the most they gave her was a grunt or a nod when she offered to refill their coffee. Marilyn thought maybe they were afraid of calling her Tommy out of habit, something even she’d slipped up on a few times.

The counselors had thought that the names were too similar. But she’d been Tammy since she was little, playing dress up in her grandmother’s closet. They’d have tea parties with lemonade and cookies, both of them wearing hats and gloves and piles of costume jewelry. Her grandmother agreed to call her Tammy until after lunchtime, and then she’d have to become Tommy again.

The morning traffic in the store consisted mainly of housewives with clogged drains and blown light bulbs. A rancher came in to get some tractor keys cut and made a big deal out of inspecting the copies. “You know, those aren’t the first keys I’ve cut for you,” Tammy said and handed back his change. He turned red and said he didn’t have time to make another trip to town.

During a lull, Tammy dashed to the bathroom. She had to put down the toilet seat, a courtesy her father and Aurelio hadn’t figured out yet. Hitching up her skirt and slip to get her stockings down still felt like juggling. Her father opened the door just as she was finishing, her knees wide, a wad of toilet paper in her hand. He let out a small yelp, and Tammy dropped her skirt to cover herself. He stood frozen a moment, his mouth open, as though frightened by what he’d seen. Then he shielded his eyes and flustered an apology about how the doorknob never locked right before closing the door again. Tammy’s hands shook as she wrestled up her stockings, the memory of his stunned face more disturbing than her own embarrassment.

She decided to make a joke of it when she came back on the floor, to break the tension. “Couldn’t have been anything you haven’t already seen before,” she said, then instantly regretted it when he didn’t laugh.

Instead, he kept his focus on the stack of checks he was signing. “I’ll get that lock fixed today,” he said, his voice serious and low.

For the rest of the morning he avoided her, pretending to be absorbed in one task or another. These were the moments she doubted her decision to come home the most, when even her parents felt uneasy around her.

Tammy brought the inventory printout to the counter and pulled up a stool. On the wall behind her hung a plaque from the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, honoring Simpson’s Hardware for seventy-five years of service. Next to it was a picture clipped from the Ferndale Gazette of the three Simpson men—her grandfather, her father, and Tommy Jr.—with the caption: Three generations serving the Ferndale community. Tammy wondered if her father felt betrayed when he looked at the picture now.

Not long after it was taken, her grandfather died. When her grandmother passed last year, Tammy lost the only person who ever knew her. After the funeral, she emptied her bank account and headed for Trinidad, Colorado, the sex change capital of the world.

Her father answered the phone while Tammy rang up a plunger. “Pastor Moore called in a list,” he said. “He’s on his way in. Sounds like his wife is getting her honey-do’s done for Valentine’s Day.”

Tammy grabbed a basket. The store was laid out the same as when her grandfather had opened it, the people of Ferndale unwelcoming of change. Housewares was closest to the register; next came hardware and plumbing, then paint, lumber, and electrical. Her heels clicked along the store’s worn wooden floors. A blister was beginning to rise on her right foot. Her grandmother had said Ferragamo’s were the finest shoes a woman could buy. The most expensive, too. The pair of Reeboks she kept under her desk was tempting, but she resisted, accepting long ago that, as a woman, most of her choices would demand some measure of sacrifice.

She dropped the pastor’s basket on the counter and went to the warehouse for a gallon of Navajo White. There on the workbench, tucked under a case of roofing tar, was her card, the pink envelope peeking out. The counselors had said people would need time to adjust. Still, there were small surprises. Last week during dinner at her parents’ house, Tammy had admired her grandmother’s old bedroom set in the guest room and said she might try to find one like it at the flea market. The next day, Aurelio pulled up in front of her apartment building with the canopy bed and matching vanity in the back of the delivery van.

Tammy slipped the envelope back under the box the way she found it and dragged the step ladder over to get the paint.

Pastor Moore came into the store with a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover’s under one arm and a bouquet of roses in the other. He set the chocolates on the counter. “The pointy end’s crushed,” he said, a little doubtful. “I got the last one they had.”

“She’ll never notice,” Tammy said and started to unload the pastor’s basket.

“Thought we’d see you in church last Sunday,” the pastor said. “Your parents said you were coming with them.”

She turned to her father, who was working on the bathroom doorknob, the parts spread out on newspaper before him. “Why would you tell him that?”

“Your mother and I were hoping you’d change your mind,” her father said.

“We’ve been over this,” she told him and turned back to the pastor. “I went to the farmer’s market instead.”

“We miss you,” Pastor Moore said. “Jesus misses you, too.”

Tammy shrugged. “He knows where I am. He can see me anytime he likes.”

The pastor set his hands on the edge of the counter, shoulder-width apart, like he was leaning against the pulpit, ready to deliver his sermon. “You can’t be neutral when it comes to Jesus,” he said.

“Wasn’t that on last week’s marquee?” she said. Her father shot her a look.

“What you’ve done,” Pastor Moore said, then stopped himself. He shook his head, as though trying to erase the thought. “The mind and the body are inseparable, cast in His likeness.” He lowered his voice. “What you’ve done goes against His plan.”

The counselors had warned her there’d be plenty of times like these. They had even warned her about Jesus. Jesus had been one of the first things they had warned her about.

Her father put down his screwdriver. Before he could say anything, she jumped in. “Oh please, Dad, you’re taking his side. You think I need forgiveness for what I’ve done?”

“Tommy, listen to—”

“I think you’ve got it backwards,” she told her father. “I’ve been the forgiving one all my life. And now, after everything, you still think I need to be forgiven.”

Her first week back in Ferndale the church marquee had announced her return: Man can change the body, but only Jesus can change the soul. That Sunday, Tammy’s parents wanted her to go to church with them, though the sermon was bound to be directed at her. She refused, hurt they would even ask. The counselors had said no one could understand how she felt, how, for the first time in thirty-one years, her soul was finally free.

She rang up the pastor’s last item. “I like to think I enhanced his image,” she said, and then, as sweetly as possible, “Your total’s $43.89.”

Pastor Moore pulled out his wallet. “We’re not done talking about this, but I’ve got to get home. Arlene’s getting more than I bargained for this year.”

He agreed to let Tammy help him to the car. When she came out from behind the counter, he gave her the slow once-over and nodded at her skirt. “That looks familiar.”

She gave the skirt a quick tug. “That’s because it used to be your wife’s,” she said, pleased to watch his self-assuredness dissolve.

When Tammy returned, her father was still working on the doorknob, his hands black with grease. He said she mustn’t be disrespectful, that the pastor was only trying to help her. But Tammy didn’t need his help.

“I asked him to speak to you,” her father said.

“I’ve already told you why I’m not going,” she said.

He was quiet a moment as he wiped his hands on a rag. “You told us you needed to live your life honestly. How can that happen without God’s guidance?”

Before she left for Colorado, Tammy had sat her parents down and explained. Her mother cried, convinced it was all her fault, that she’d done something wrong. Her father still didn’t understand, so Tammy tried using a language he understood. She said she’d been given parts that didn’t fit. Like trying to fix a leak with the wrong size wrench: nothing ever gripped, never turned, never tightened. When she finished, the confusion had cleared from his face, and a sadness had settled in.

Tammy went to the hardware aisle and returned with another doorknob, bright brass with cut glass handles. She set it in front of him. “Sometimes the best option is to start new,” she said. “I’m going to lunch.”



Her father was bagging up a can of roofing tar and a box of nails when Tammy got back.

She went to put her purse away. The office smelled like meatloaf, her father’s lunch still in the microwave. The mail had come while she was out; she shuffled the bills into order of what needed paying first. The year she was gone, months had gone by without any getting paid. Business, like the economy, had slowed, but her father kept ordering stock in an effort to stay busy, certain things would turn around. She missed the store, especially when the hormones flooded her system, setting loose her emotions. To soothe herself, she’d go into Trinidad to Ace Hardware and walk the aisles, homesick for the smell of sawdust and paint.

She brought her father’s lunch out to the counter. He asked why she was limping, and Tammy slipped off her shoe to show him the blister on her right foot.

“That looks pretty bad,” he said.

“The one thing Gran neglected to tell me was how long these took to break in.”

He said he had to run an errand, that he’d pick up some moleskin at the drugstore for her while he was out.

After her father left, Tammy sat down to tackle the inventory again and banged her knee on the edge of the counter crossing her legs. The pages of items reminded her that the hardware business was a man’s world; everything they sold was dull, practical. Hard. Maybe selling furniture or clothes would be better, colorful things that needed to be matched and coordinated, skills she wasn’t sure she possessed.

She went down the stock list, noting reorders and markdowns. In the last week they’d sold a can of red spray paint. She considered going through the receipts to see who bought it until she remembered something one of the counselors used to say: Cracking heads didn’t open people’s minds. Gaining acceptance had to start within her first. Eventually, that acceptance would spread to others. If this were true, then these last few weeks could have had more to do with how she saw herself than how the rest of the town did.

Her father was still gone when Pastor Moore walked in and dropped the paint can on the counter. His hair and hands were splattered with white. He said Tammy had given him the wrong color. He hadn’t noticed until after he’d finished, and his wife pointed out that the walls didn’t match the cabinets.

Tammy told him she’d pulled what he ordered. “I asked for Arctic White, not Navajo,” the pastor insisted.

She checked the inventory list for the color, but they were out. “I can still get it on tomorrow’s delivery,” she said. “We’ll have it by noon.”

“That’s too late,” he said, his voice rising.

“It’s the best I can do.”

Her father came back in while they were arguing and wanted to know what the problem was. Tammy was trying to explain the mix-up with the colors when the pastor interrupted her, saying he hadn’t gone to all this trouble just to make his wife angry at him.

Her father apologized, saying he’d been the one to write down the order, not Tammy.

The pastor waved him off and turned back to Tammy. “What’s more,” he said, “my wife wants her skirt back.”

“Fine.” Tammy unzipped the skirt and stepped out of it, her slip clinging to her legs, the relief to be free of it exhilarating. “Take it,” she said and threw it across the counter.

“What are you doing?” her father said.

The pastor wagged his finger at Tammy. “We don’t like being made the fools. We’ve tried to accept you, bring you back to the fold.” He picked up the skirt. “Instead, you want to rub our noses in it.”

Her father offered to send Aurelio by the house tomorrow with the right color, but there was no calming the pastor down. After he stormed out, her father told Tammy to go home and change. “You can’t work dressed like that.”

He followed her to the office and gave her the keys to the van. “I’m sure he said Navajo,” her father said, a little shaky.

“Forget about it, Dad. The customer’s always right. That’s the deal.”

He sat down at his desk. “No, not always,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “I saw your car. Why didn’t you tell me?”

She had lied to spare him any more shame. Or maybe she was sparing herself. “I’m handling it,” she said.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

She wanted to tell him she wasn’t sure, that maybe coming back to Ferndale was a mistake. But there was a chance he’d agree. “I’ll take in the car tomorrow morning,” she said.

He stood up. “I’ll drive it over for you tonight after we close,” he said. Then he reached into his back pocket and took out a white envelope edged with tiny red hearts. Her name was written across the front in her father’s block writing. “Here,” he said.

On the front of the card was a picture of a white unicorn grazing in a pasture. Around its neck were pink hearts. “It’s all wrong,” he said. “It’s for a little girl.” She started at the betrayal, then settled into what he had meant. “We’re not leaving the church, you know.”

“I know,” she told him.

The counselors had promised there would be a moment like this, when Tammy would feel like she was finally home. Perhaps she’d taken that too literally. But she believed people could change. She had herself as proof.

Lori White’s recent stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, apt, Necessary Fiction, and Camroc Press Review. She teaches English at Los Angeles Pierce College and lives with her partner and their three dogs by a lake on the southern edge of the Los Padres National Forest.