“Let’s get married,” Cory urged as Adair gazed up at the faded sky-blue water tower in La Rue’s town park. From below, the massive ellipsoid-shaped tank reached so high it looked smaller than the tall base and four support columns holding it up. Like a tiny insect body perched on long, spindly legs.
“Seventeen’s plenty old enough,” he added, wrapping her in his beefy arms. “I’ll get a job at the plant and start saving for the diner like we planned.”
Adair stiffened against him, hoping he didn’t notice. “Gonna walk home by myself,” she said carefully. “Need time to think.”
Cory was sweet. It mostly felt like love. But that didn’t make the right direction certain, even if she was pregnant, which she didn’t really believe—probably just late again. Cory might be sure about a baby and all, but not her.
Truth was Adair had always counted on being like her big sister Caroline, long gone from La Rue—a town you could drive through in three minutes—as soon as she was able to speed away. Long gone from Missouri, too. Caroline had magic. Said Adair did, too, long as town boys like Cory Briscoe didn’t keep it for themselves.
Dizziness washed over Adair imagining Caroline atop the tower peering clear to Quincy, twenty-five miles east across the Mississippi on the Illinois side. She’d only been nine at the time, Adair still in diapers. Always told it in her storybook voice, amber eyes gleaming like she was watching a dream burst to life. “Crops danced in the fields, Mississippi waters glistened, and Quincy was vibrating and glowing like Paris,” she’d sigh, words wrapped in a layer of shiny satin with special sparkles and colors that other folks couldn’t see until she spoke them out loud.
Adair still felt magic when she and Caroline talked by phone, like she was playing in a technicolor, surround-sound movie inside Caroline’s head. But Caroline’d been gone so long, empty spaces had started popping up where the colors and sparkles didn’t quite fill in. Her magic was losing its shimmer.
Adair smoothed back her auburn waves, best feature on her, and kissed Cory before crossing Shelby Street with the burn of his puppy-dog-hurt on her back. If there was a baby—not that there was—no chance anybody’d suspect for a while due to her weight. But also because she was a Ewell. Name might not count for much outside this piece of Missouri, as Caroline liked to declare, but it sure counted here. Ewells got by on remembrances of their past prosperity, which had dwindled considerably over the generations but still impressed folks.
Adair passed La Rue Savings & Loan, Maywood Hardware and hurried past Shotz’s Feed & Supply before Mr. Shotz could poke his head out to say howdy or insist Daddy come see the newest shipment.
On the dusty edge of town past the Shell station Adair followed her favorite stretch of Highway 6 round the curve to her family’s aged farmhouse standing as it had for eons in a mess of white oaks, flanked by a giant barn, two battered cobalt-blue silos, and nothing but cattle, corn and quiet beyond.
Caroline couldn’t see a future here, not one thing to help fashion a life for herself. And who could argue with her sight? She’d gotten the dream life she called for. Believed, and it happened. Said Adair could create a new life, too. Course she was right—Caroline had the gift of utter certainty—but how on earth would Adair tell Cory and her folks she was going Caroline’s way before they dreamed her too much in their direction?
“Letter came from Desmond Beauty College,” Mom called from the kitchen as the screen door banged behind Adair.
“Envelope’s on the table,” she added without glancing up from peeling potatoes in the old farmhouse sink, same one Grammy had used, and Ma Ma before her. Caroline liked to say no farmwoman looked decent past thirty-five. Men either. Got lumpy like dough people. Like Mom with rolls of flesh where her waist and hips should be. Or they grew stringy, brown and pinched from the sun and wind. At least Adair wouldn’t be a farmer’s wife with Cory—not that she was marrying him or anything.
“Well, what’s it say?” Mom wanted Adair to go—“beef up her options”—though she never admitted it outright cause Daddy couldn’t stomach another daughter leaving.
Adair ripped open the envelope, belly flip-flopping, oddly gratified to see an acceptance—even if she wasn’t going. She hadn’t breathed a word yet, but Caroline was paying her tuition at Berkeley, out in California, where her new boyfriend was about to start teaching.
“Got in,” Adair announced, feeling a smile pull at her lips before it evaporated in the cool of Caroline’s whisper: “You can do better.”
“Ain’t pretty enough to be a beautician,” Bennett, Jr. announced at dinner, exploding into a giggle-fit that rattled everything on the table. “Or skinny enough.”
“Hush your mouth,” Daddy hissed. “Adair, what’s Cory say about this?”
She watched her pile of mashed potatoes, every eye on her, even her baby brother Wyler’s.
“Cory want you over in Quincy all the time?”
Mom gave Daddy a roll-eyed look, but didn’t speak up. Adair heard it in his voice: he didn’t trust her to keep a boyfriend solid as Cory. Caroline believed she couldn’t do worse. Daddy feared she might not do better.
Caroline saved all her babysitting money from age twelve on, plus most of her wages from the Dairy Queen over in Stebbensville. Day after high school graduation she took off for Chicago, biggest city she could imagine getting to in that old green Malibu she bought from Terry O’Brien for $200. Adair was eight, and thought she’d never lose the ache of watching Caroline roar away.
Made it far as Des Moines, Iowa, the first night where she met Dean Gebhardt, age 58, owner of the Cozy Stay Motel she checked into. Turned out he also owned three other motels and a small apartment building on the city’s northeastern edge. She never got to Chicago, but Dean gave her the start she needed to become the Caroline she was set on becoming. When he died of a heart attack four years after they married, she inherited enough, even with his grown kids getting most of it, to enroll in Drake University, located near the heart of downtown, where she began studying literature and art history.
Might seem Caroline was just aiming to appear cultured. But she’d actually been eating up Hemingway and Jane Austen—all the classics—since she learned to read, like she was born knowing the titles. She spent hours, too, in the school library poring over books about the world’s great artworks. Couldn’t tear Caroline away when she got lost in a story or absorbed in vibrating colors on canvas. Folks finally had to conclude her appreciation was as genuine as her uncommon good looks.
No surprise she and Lyman Chang fell for one another after she enrolled in his seminar on 20-century world art. He not only loved Japanese watercolors and modernist sculpture like she did, but also traveled regularly for research. With his encouragement Caroline had started collecting animal-themed paintings, ceramics and clothing on their trips to Europe, South America and Asia. She now wore snake bracelets and leopard-spot scarves and planned to launch a store in Berkeley called Wild Things once they got settled. They were also arranging an August wedding, even though she’d barely been widowed a year.
Hard to fathom such a makeover could happen so quick. Sure, Caroline was a Ewell. Family viewed itself as high-born, but not show-offy. Ewells had stayed in La Rue for generations, opting for slightly grander versions of esteemed country occupations—like farmer and town banker—over education, city sophistication and flashier vocations.
Course that never suited Caroline. She simply didn’t fit the place—arms and legs and daydreams always spilling over the edges. Didn’t quite know where to go, but her mind seemed bent on just the right path out of town, like she carried a precision compass in her genes—genes that never showed up in any other Ewell. In fact, Caroline remade herself so completely—shining herself up so brightly and unleashing her wildest reveries so fully—Adair sometimes didn’t recognize any part of the old Caroline, inside or out.
“Let’s get married tonight,” Cory’s text read.
Adair’s mind clicked into clarity, “Meet me in the park,” she texted back. Tonight was it. She had to tell him—sweet as he was, despite all the plans they’d dreamed together, even with a possible baby—she could do better.
Outside, the evening was settling in. Not a car in sight. Always felt like things were about to happen in that hush between bright day and nighttime. They never did, but the possibility felt realer then.
Sometimes, like tonight, Adair didn’t mind that nothing ever changed. Sign outside town had read La Rue, Missouri, Pop. 719, long as she could remember. Wasn’t actually too different from when Mom and Daddy were little, mostly same families and shops, except for occasional changeovers like Harold Stice selling his minimart to Debbie Burley and her husband in 2008.
Sometimes, like tonight, Adair didn’t mind the quiet either. May was her favorite month, right before the hard heat of summer when everything was just beginning to grow, sweet and young, corn barely pushed through the soil. Not a peep yet from crickets and cicadas. By July, they’d drown out every other sound.
Sometimes, like tonight, Adair even craved the coziness of Cory’s big arms forever. Didn’t mean to feel a pull toward him—Briscoes sat several steps below Ewells. Just came over her sometimes without warning. Didn’t help that Daddy talked him up—called him a throwback. To before Cory’s great, great, great grandpa, Marshall, lost most of the family fortune in a bad land deal, and proceeded to drink away what remained. Following generations slipped into stagnation … and worse.
At least Mom and Daddy could admit some families come back from ruin. Not like Uncle Glynn and Aunt Mina over in Belleview who believed they were better than everybody cause of their Ewell blood. In their estimation once folks slid into the trash heap, they were all but certain to stay trash, a black mark nothing could erase like a brand burned into flesh.
Course Caroline sounded the same, but Adair recognized something beyond ordinary snobbery. Caroline didn’t contend to be the only special one. She regarded all folks as special, even the lowest of the low. They just had to locate it inside themselves.
“Most people get locked in a box of expectations before growing into their full selves,” she explained once. “It’s a choice they make, even if they don’t know it.” Meaning no matter who you were—trash or not—if you didn’t kick up a better life for yourself, you clearly believed in limitations and were doomed to become whatever you were set to be at birth. A notion Caroline couldn’t fathom or abide.
Course anyone would tell you Adair had to eventually climb the water tower. After all, Caroline did and it changed her life, gave her answers that made everything clear. Adair needed answers, too.
She stood alone in the park eyeing the rusty steel ladder rising up one of the tower’s support columns. She scoured the horizon for Cory’s truck, heart pounding loud as it ever had. No sign yet. The stores were all dark, even Mr. Shotz’s. A ghost town. She was a ghost too, craning her head up toward the tank, a place where life might make sense.
Adair grabbed the ladder, fire-red fingernails glinting in the remains of daylight. She kicked off her favorite jeweled flip-flops and hoisted herself up rung-by-rung, above small square stores, unfussy homes and aging doublewides planted along tar-patched streets.
Two headlights made their way along Route 6 in the quiet dusk. Cory. Her stomach lurched, but she kept climbing. Had to see the Mississippi. And Quincy. Buildings just beginning to twinkle with lights. All that traffic and restaurants and movie houses a twitter.
Cory’s truck slow-crawled around the park and stopped beneath the tower. Sweat trickled down Adair’s temples and the back of her neck. She paused to rest, praying he didn’t spy her before she got where she needed to go. High enough so his thoughts couldn’t reach her. Caroline’s either. Or Daddy’s or Mom’s. High enough to hear only her own free thoughts for once. High enough for what touched Caroline to touch her.
Adair imagined Cory slouched in the driver’s seat, arms across his barrel chest, worry fastened on his face. Did she get hit by a car or fall in a ditch? Cory showed everything he was thinking. Just came natural to him.
Up she climbed and up, panting, straining to reach the balcony that circled the tank. She heaved herself over the handrail and looked out, bracing for a view of Caroline’s world. But it wasn’t there. Only the world she’d seen a million times. Red lights blinking on the radio tower to the east. Her folks’ farm to the west. Adair could almost hear the low cluck of hens settling in for sleep and barn cats readying to hunt the dark pastures.
Below on Knox Street, her best friend Kimber’s clapboard house stood same as always, rear-ended by an old summer kitchen where they’d played dress-up endlessly as kids. Next door, Miss McChristie’s family home, once the finest place in town with its cross-gabled roof and wraparound porch, sat nearly haunted. At street’s end, eroded gravestones in the town cemetery marked lives of family and neighbors stretching back two centuries.
Caroline had climbed the tower and saw possibilities splayed out forever, providing wings sturdy enough for lift-off. But Adair saw none of that. No wings sprouted for flight. There was only the great weight of her belly and thighs, maybe a baby, Cory below, a line of Ewells stretching backward and forward in time. She clung to the handrail, squeezing every muscle against the mighty gravitational pull.
Maybe she was trapped by limitations of her own making. Or caught in expectations handed down from her folks. Maybe she didn’t want to hurt them or leave their love behind. Or wasn’t gifted enough to see what made her special. Maybe she lacked imagination and guts to do better. Or couldn’t muster motivation for the tough work of reinvention. Or maybe, just maybe, the world in sight right now was just as consequential as the world that might be, more in beat with her heart. And maybe she was too. Maybe all these things were true at once.
Adair watched the familiar details of her world fade to sunset orange. A kind of magic. But not Caroline’s kind.
Fact was she didn’t feel someone different inside, no true soul waiting to take shape. Grief pounded against her, like waves buffeting the muddy Mississippi riverbanks. Helplessly, she watched Caroline’s dream for her crack open like a giant egg. Jagged pieces plummeted to earth, sending up a cloud of shame. But also the first inklings of relief.
Maybe there was a baby and she’d marry Cory. They’d build a ranch house near Mom and Daddy’s farm with flower beds and a big lot for dirt-biking. Maybe she’d go to beauty school and open a home salon while Cory ran the diner. Or just raise kids. Cory wanted four. Or she might enroll in community college and marry somebody else. Or no one at all. There were choices. Not Caroline’s life-upside-down kind, but choices nonetheless. Choices sitting squarely before her in the midst of all she knew.
Slowly, Adair lowered herself down the ladder, allowing gravity to slide her from rung to rung. She’d seen what she needed to see—wasn’t climbing higher than she stood right now.
It was her choice, and hers alone, to become who she was set to be at birth.
Sidney Stevens is an author with an MA in journalism from the University of Michigan. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Wild Word, Finding the Birds Literary Journal, Viscaria Magazine, OyeDrum and The Centifictionist. Her newest story, “Night Trolley” will appear in the Summer 2021 issue of The Woven Tale Press. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Newsweek, New Works Review, Sure Woman, and Nature’s Healing Spirit, an anthology from Sowing Creek Press. In addition, she’s had hundreds of nonfiction articles published in print and online, and has also co-authored four books on natural health. Learn more at www.sidney-stevens.com.