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.

Photo by Ana Madeleine Uribe on

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