Big Fish in a Small Pond

Willa stared through the glass at the bottles of tea. The variety was daunting. There were both green and black, sweet and unsweet, with a dozen different fruits, some of which she’d never even seen in real life. On the bottom row was a label she recognized, and though the seal on the case fought her a little, she succeeded in pulling out a lemon sweet tea. Buying something at Hale’s Chapel was a treat that Willa rarely allowed herself. Everything cost way more than she’d normally pay at Food City, and nobody whose license plates had Cumberland at the bottom bought gas there unless they had to. Who in their right mind would pay 30 cents more a gallon?

The reincarnation of Hale’s Chapel as a store was sacrilegious to some folks and foolish to others, but the juxtaposition of trying to be two things at the same time appealed to Willa. The white frame Free Baptist Church had sat unused for decades, just a marker to turn off the main road. Then four years ago some Nashville guy noticed it and the great volume of cars that drove past it to get to the new golf resort. He snapped the landmark up for next to nothing and with some architectural magic inserted a sleek modern store and gas station into the shell of the country church. Now the fashionably rubbed down and artistically patina-ed store gave the impression that shoppers were having an authentic experience in the East Tennessee hills without, apparently, leaving their need for 40 different types of iced tea back home.

Willa dressed well for her occasional excursions to the store. That was part of the draw; she wanted to slip in and out as seamlessly as the resort bound patrons. She thought her white capris and a green and white seersucker top she’d found at a consignment shop in West Knoxville last fall were excellent camouflage. Her thick dark blonde hair was pulled up in a high ponytail, and she’d even donned mascara. She felt put together and summery, not too pretentious, but definitely not like a local. She was sure Reese Witherspoon would approve. The beaded flat sandals that she’d borrowed from her sister completed the look until she’d walked the first half mile from her family’s farm under the early August afternoon sun. She was dreading the return trek, especially with the blister that had formed on her left heel, so she lingered in the cool, dry air and pretended to consider the purchase of some trail mix.

As a practice session it was kind of a flop. There wasn’t much traffic this afternoon and the only out-of-towners had left just as Willa walked in. She’d already visited the restroom, had even perused the hummus and pimento cheese selection, and still no one else had come in. She felt watched her even though the clerk’s attention appeared to be on her phone. Heck — the clerk, who she knew from school, was probably texting someone a play-by-play of Willa’s shopping trip. Honestly! What some people did to amuse themselves in this town was asinine. It was time to go. Maybe she could come back over the weekend. There’d be more visitors then, and a better chance to strike up a conversation with someone to practice her less mountain-y accent. She stood in front of the checkout counter for at least ten seconds before being acknowledged.

“Oh, hey Willa. Didn’t see you standin’ there. You come all this way for a bottle of tea?”

The clerk, Mandy, had an unfortunate constellation of pimples along her hairline which was about the only thing Willa felt she still had in common with the girl. Summers in East Tennessee were not kind to the teenage epidermis. The combination of heat, humidity and sunscreen was bad enough. Add in the dust kicked up from farm equipment, and every farm kid in the county, which was about half the population of Panther Gap High School, had bumpy skin through October.

“Course not. I was meeting Reid here, but something came up.” The lie was plausible. Everyone knew Reid and Willa had been friends since elementary school.

“Oh yeah? Y’all finally dating huh?” Mandy quirked up one eyebrow as she scanned the bar code on the bottle. In the wrong hands that could be juicy news indeed.

“Heck no! He’s just helping me with a project.”

“If you say so. That’s a buck eighty-nine.”

It took Willa an agonizingly long time to get her cash out in front of Mandy’s droll smile, but she dug the last four pennies out of her purse and laid the dollar and change on the counter. “It’s all there,” she added when Mandy counted it out a second time before scooping it up.

“Would ya like a receipt?” Mandy said with a toothy, utterly fake smile.

“Oh, please,” Willa couldn’t mask her disdain, but she consciously did not roll her eyes. “Thanks,” Willa added, only out of habit. She walked quickly to the front of the store, pulled the heavy glass door open with a jerk and stepped into the wall of summer air as the bell tinkled brightly over her head.

“See ya Saturday, Willa!” she heard Mandy yell as the door slowly closed behind her.

Just one more year she told herself, walking out of Mandy’s line of sight, but staying under the shade of the green canvas awning. Then she’d be off, diluting her accent on a giant campus full of people whose worlds started beyond these claustrophobic hills.

Her daddy had called Willa a big fish in a small pond. A mistake of birth, no fault of the pond per se. She actually loved this pond and a fair number of the fish. Except the catfish — like Mandy. They lurked in the murky parts, liking the shelter of the rocks, waiting for an easy, unsuspecting snack. She did have Reid, her younger sister Ivy, and a handful of people her age she could genuinely say she liked – and of course Mamaw and her older brother Haskell. But for the most part, Willa looked forward to being from here a lot more than she currently wanted to be here. With a sigh she adjusted the toilet paper bandage she’d rigged at her heel and started out, back up the road toward Cedar Ridge. Home–for now.

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Violets & Velour

The pale blue envelope’s ragged edge stuck out from others in the stack, nearly hidden between the loose sheets of torn out magazine pages and recipes taped to notebook paper with yellowed tape. Emma’s grandmother had saved everything. She knew a monumental amount of work lay ahead just to get this one room sorted for the estate sale only four days away. She was mentally ready for this task and knew she needed to be efficient, but thorough. Uncle King said he’d found a trove of vinyl records in the garage and stock certificates at the bottom of a dusty box of mason jar lids in the basement. Who knew what Emma might discover in Grandma Helen’s sewing room.

Sliding the envelope from the stack Emma slumped into the wing back chair upholstered in the golden velour she always associated with her grandmother. This is where they’d come after supper when Emma was little to read and play with the felt stories Grandma Helen made by hand. Emma turned her head toward the right wing and inhaled, eyes closed, trying to smell the light floral perfume that should still be trapped in the fabric. All she could smell was the punch of lemony antiseptic that had taken over the house as quickly as the cancer took over her Grandmother’s cells. Nothing would ever be the same.

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Days of the Cold Sun

Time was there’d have been opportunity for girls like me to be whatever our hearts desired. Whatever our wills could want, was possible.

So we were told.

So were we encouraged and cheered.

We were taught that hard work and talent were the only ingredients needed for success. Those days are long past.

This remnant life is a grasping thing, and my hands don’t have finger strength adequate to the task.

It didn’t take long, not through the lens of reflection. Daylight grew short over a handful of days instead of months and the sun paled, withdrawing behind the scrim of dust that settled and clung. After the initial shock and panic resolved into a baseline of leaden grimness we covered our faces and opened the doors to take stock.

It was hard going for weeks, and then years. I remember lying next to my little sister, night after night, as she coughed in her sleep. I looked still, but my soul was churning, wondering if the bleakness itself would ever settle, or if all nights would echo with the ache for before.

Step by step we began again, rebuilding what was needed for the fraction that remained. The world was a contained thing now. Everything built by human hands outside the ring road was gone, had been carried away on the wind within a week, and those who had ventured beyond the old highway to discover why did not return. Even at eight years old I knew better than to keep asking why. Whys were what made folk disappear. Whys wouldn’t do any good for anyone anymore.

The day my Aunt Hen placed a warm oatcake drizzled with a precious spoonful of honey was the day it had been determined I was now seventeen. My sister placed a small glass before me filled with green blades with a few snowdrops tucked like sleeping faeries bound together with a scrap of blue ribbon. It wasn’t a certain thing, nothing about marking time was sure anymore, but we held fast to every marker.

Aunt Hen’s ingenuity with our rations was a beacon against the dark. My sister’s tiny bouquet was a gesture of memory, a token of when our mother would ring our breakfast plates with flowers just because she could. I knew the celebration was as much for them as for me, acknowledgement we were all still here as much as of the anniversary of my birth.

Nine years past, but a world apart.

Snowdrops (5 min sketch)

Getting Unstuck

The girl stands in worn boots at the crumbling limestone lip and looks out at all the possibilities before her. She’s there an hour later, still reflecting on all the things she could become. The becoming isn’t what scares her – it’s the choosing that has her stuck.

If she jumps she’ll have to live within the boundaries of that one decision. If she turns away, that too marks her. Back and forth, over and over, the permutations of the possible coil up and spiral out. She remains a fixture of this landscape until her body’s fatigue undercuts the mind’s anxiety.

A choice must be made, and so the girl fills her lungs once more with the exhilaration of free-will, trying to loosen the slightly nauseous dread all that freedom permits. It seemed like such a gift.

With each change a new wing of the adjacent possible opens up.  — Stuart Kauffman, Evolutionary Biologist (paraphrased)

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