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The Wise County Fair is my daughter’s favorite event of the year, and I think it’s safe to say that includes Christmas. Etta has been on her best behavior for the past two weeks, so perfect down to the smallest detail (including unassigned chores like making my bed and weeding my garden) that I’m worried.
We have the window flaps of the Jeep down, and the warm August air whipping through is sweet with honeysuckle. Still, it is no match for Iva Lou’s perfume, which wafts up to the front seat whenever we peel around a curve. Etta looks out the window for road signs, searching for proof that we’re almost there. I’ve taken the quicker route, the valley road out of Big Stone Gap up to Norton. As we ascend the mountains in twilight, we pass Coeburn nestled in the valley below, where the cluster of lights twinkles like a scoop of emeralds. Etta smoothes her braids and settles back in her seat.
“Here’s the plan. First we eat,” Iva Lou announces as she unfolds the special to the newspaper. “I myself am having a jumbo caramel apple with nuts, and if I have to go see Doc Guest for a bridge on Monday, then so be it. Them caramel apples are worth a molar.”
“I want the blue cotton candy,” Etta decides.
“I want a chili dog with onions,” I reply.
“I have a lot of money,” Etta says proudly as she sifts through her change purse.
“Ask Dad to spring for dinner. That will leave you more money for the games of chance.”
Etta smiles and carefully counts her money without lifting it out of the purse. I see a five-dollar bill folded neatly into a small square (some lucky clay-pigeon operator is about to score a windfall).
“What if we can’t find him?” she asks.
“We’ll find him.”
“Just go straight to the outdoor the-a-ter. He’s up there with all them men checking out the rehearsal for Miss Lonesome Pine.”
“He built the stage,” I remind Iva Lou in a tone that says, Don’t start with that again.
“That’s as good a reason as any, then.” Iva Lou meets my eye in the rearview mirror and winks.
We find a parking spot under a tree overlooking the fairgrounds and climb out of the Jeep. Iva Lou checks her hair in the driver’s side mirror and then smiles at us, ready to go. She’s wearing a pair of dark blue denim pedal pushers and a red bandanna-print blouse tied at the waist. Her Diamonelle hoop earrings peek out from under her platinum bob like giant waterwheels. Iva Lou is ageless; you would never know she is fifty-something. Her look, however, is best viewed from a distance, like a fine painting. You don’t want to get so close that you get lost in the details.
Etta looks at the fairgrounds with a clinical eye, surveying the faded striped tents surrounded by torches like birthday candles. She smiles when she spots the Ferris wheel. “Ma, will you go on the rides with me?”
“Sure.” But Etta knows that at the last second in line, when we’re ready to go up the metal plank, I’ll send her father with her instead.
“Do we have to go to the beauty pageant?” she asks.
“I thought you liked it.”
“I like the dresses all right. The talent’s always terrible.” Etta shrugs. She’s right. Last year, leggy blond Ellen Tierney, representing Big Stone Gap, did a dance routine to “Happy to Keep Your Dinner Warm”; her tap shoe flew off when she did a high kick, clocked a man in the first row, and knocked him out. The victim was rushed to the hospital and revived, but he may have the imprint of the metal tap on his forehead for life. “And I hate the physical-fitness part when they come out and jump around in bathing suits. Anybody can do that stuff.”
“Etta, hon, it don’t take a lot of talent to look good in a bathing suit. That you’re born with.” Iva Lou breathes deeply and straightens her shoulders. “I ought to know.”
“I’m never gonna be in a beauty pageant,” Etta announces.
“Me neither.” I give my daughter a quick hug.
The benches in the outdoor theater are filling up fast. The aisles are covered in Astroturf runners; the stage is banked in garlands of red paper roses; the backdrop is a cutout of a giant pine tree with miss lonesome pine written in gold leaf.
School starts in a few weeks. I can’t believe Etta is twelve years old and going into the seventh grade. My mother would have been sixty-six this year. I feel oddly lost between them: not old yet, not young anymore. I thought motherhood was a job with security, but it’s not. It’s the least permanent job in the world, the only job in which your skills become obsolete overnight. It was that way from the beginning. When I finally got a handle on breast-feeding, it was time for solid food. I worried that Etta wasn’t turning over in the crib on her own, but soon she was crawling, and then, before I knew it, walking. When she went to school, I thought she’d need me more, but all of a sudden she had a life apart from me and was just fine. And now, after we’ve established a routine as a family, in which Etta has responsibilities, she’s developed a newfound independence and her own opinions. This is, of course, the point of all of it—preparing your children to leave you—yet I’m so afraid to let go. I don’t know how I’ll handle it when she’s eighteen and leaves for college. How did my mother do it? I wish she were here to lead me through these changes.
“Dad!” Etta waves to Jack, who waves back to her from a platform at the side of the stage. He finishes helping the spot operator set the light levels, then climbs down the ladder to join us. My husband is still agile; his strong arms hook down the ladder rhythmically. His jeans are faded to dusty blue, and his white T-shirt frames his gray hair beautifully. Sometimes, when I see him in the distance, I forget he’s mine and think, What a fine-looking man. He still makes my heart race—quite a feat after all these years. His straight nose and lips are surrounded not by wrinkles but by expression lines. He’s damn cute, my husband. I try not to hate him for aging so well.
Otto Olinger approaches, wiping his face with a bandanna. “We barely got that stage up in time. Ain’t that right, Worley?” Otto turns to his son, whose white hair makes him look around the same age as his father.
“It was rough,” Worley agrees.
“ ’Cause you ain’t got your minds on your work. Too busy ogling the girls,” Iva Lou tells them.
“We did us some looking.” Worley smiles.
Otto shrugs. “Can’t hardly help it, they’s so purty. Of course, I ain’t never seen me no ugly women, just some that’s purtier than others.”
Jack gives me a kiss and takes Etta’s hand. “You want to watch from up there?” he asks her.
“We’ve got a couple of seats down front for you.”
I turn to Iva Lou. “Do you want to stay?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I’d rather wander around.”
“Let’s wander, then.” Iva Lou turns to go up the ramp.
“Okay, we’ll catch up with you later.” Jack Mac takes Etta to the ladder and helps her to the top. She kneels on the platform as her father explains something about the equipment. She listens and nods. I can’t believe she’s my kid and not afraid of heights. In fact, she’s fearless about everything—picking up stray animals, speaking in public, boys. Etta cares about how things work; in that way, she is just like her father. She is all MacChesney, and that’s not always easy for me to accept.
“What are we gonna do?” Iva Lou asks.
“We’re going to see Sister Claire.”
“Who the hell is that? A Catholic?”
“No. She’s a fortune-teller.”
“No voodoo for me, girlfriend.”
“Come on. After she makes you drink a cocktail of eye of newt and puts a spell on you, it’s all uphill.”
Sister Claire has a small dark green tent by the edge of the grounds. Two folding chairs are set up outside the flap. I’m surprised there isn’t a line of people waiting. Sister Claire is well known in these parts; she’s from the mountains of North Carolina near Greensboro. A pharmaceutical salesman out of Raleigh who traveled through Big Stone encouraged me to see Sister if she was ever in the area. He told me that she was the genuine article, a true mystic. I’m surprised when a small, gentle woman of sixty, with a heart-shaped face and skin the color of strong tea, emerges from the tent to greet us.
“Are you here to see me?” she asks. “I’m Sister Claire.”
Iva Lou turns away and grabs my arm to return to the hub of the fair, where no one knows the future, not even the judges of the Miss Lonesome Pine Contest.
“Yes ma’am. We are.” Iva Lou shoots me a look, so I correct myself. “I am,” I say earnestly, not knowing exactly how to address a psychic.
“I think most of the people are at the beauty pageant,” I tell her, apologizing for her lack of clientele.
Sister Claire turns to Iva Lou and looks her straight in the eye. “I understand if the idea of a reading makes you uncomfortable. I don’t like to have my cards read.”
“Really?” Iva Lou squeaks.
“Really. It’s a commitment to believe. It takes blind faith. Sometimes not even I have that.”
“Well, it’s not that I’m scared, and I certainly believe in the comings and goings of the spirit world. It’s just that I, well, I live my life a certain way, and I don’t want to know where it’s all going.”
“Wait here, then. Okay?” I give Iva Lou a wink and follow Sister Claire inside. The tent is sparsely furnished with two folding chairs and a small red lacquer table between them. An electric cord attached to a small generator runs up the side of the tent to a low-wattage bulb, which dangles in a protective metal sleeve overhead. Sister Claire motions for me to sit, then pours us each a glass of water. She sits down at the table and rests one hand on a deck of large tarot cards.
“I hear you’re a Native American,” I say as she shuffles the cards.
“Cherokee. Descendant of the great Chief Doublehead. ’Course, all of us that’s Cherokee claim that.” She smiles.
“Mother and father both?”
“Yes. But I’m mixed. I also had a grandmother who was African-American and a grandfather who was Irish.”
“The green eyes give you away.”
“How did you discover your talent for this?”
“It’s not so much a talent as a way of being. It tends to run in families. My mother read cards and had visions, and so do I.” She stops shuffling the cards and asks me to pick one. “How can I help you?”
I was prepared with an answer—I have lots of questions about the future—but suddenly I can’t speak. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Let’s look at you.” Sister Claire shuffles again and places twelve cards on the table, creating a sunburst pattern.
“What is your name?”
“Especially in these parts.”
“That’s the name of the Blessed Mother. You can tell a lot by a person’s name.”
“What does my name tell you?”
“You’re named after a strong woman, some would say a goddess. You’ve been surrounded by strong women since the day you were born. You’re very lucky. You are loved and protected, and I see many women around you, almost making a fence. Your mother passed?”
“She did and she didn’t. She’s with you always.” Sister Claire sits back in the chair and closes her eyes. “She’s wearing purple.”
“I buried my mother in a purple suit. She made it herself out of crepe silk she bought on one of her husband Fred Mulligan’s buying trips to New York. She told me that, for the longest time, she didn’t want to make anything out of the fabric because it was so beautiful she couldn’t bear to cut it into pieces.”
“Fred Mulligan was not your father.”
“And it caused you great pain when you learned the truth.”
“It did. But in a way, it was also the great blessing of my life. I found my real father in Italy, and my whole family.”
Sister Claire leans back and closes her eyes. “Your mother is showing me a house with many rooms. She is hanging curtains in the windows.”
“She used to make curtains.”
“There’s a boy in the room. He just walked in. He has brown eyes and curly brown hair. Who is he?”
“He passed?” she asks me quietly.
“He was four years old.”
Sister Claire laughs. “He’s funny. He’s happy with her. She is looking out for him.” She opens her eyes and looks at me.
Sister Claire goes on to tell me lots of things—about my job, about Jack, about Etta. She sees us traveling together, and she sees Etta taking a new path, which validates my feeling that my daughter is going where she wants to go, with or without my blessing.
“Sister, how does the afterlife work?”
“What do you mean?”
“Will my son always be four years old and my mother the age she was when she died? And when I die . . .”
“What do you think?”
“I thought that they were in a holding pattern, waiting for Judgment Day.”
Sister Claire laughs, though I wasn’t trying to be funny. “That’s a possibility, and it all depends. Your mother and son wanted you to know they’re okay, so they came to me in a way you would recognize them. This doesn’t happen every time.”
“So they are . . . somewhere, right?”
“I like to think the idea of them is somewhere, but that their energy is eternal and that it’s very possible they’ll return to life as different people to learn new things.”
“So they could be here?”
“Should I be looking for them?”
“You won’t have to look for them; they’ll find you.” Sister Claire shuffles the cards and this time lines them up in a single row. She asks me to pick another from the deck. “Now for your future.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
“You’ve set many goals for yourself in your lifetime. And you’ve met most of them. But what I see here is that you have to begin anew. You have to decide where your life is going; you must redream.”
“You have to reinvent your life. You have to think about what you want to accomplish in the second half of your life. Do you understand?”
I nod that I do, but I don’t really, or maybe I’m not ready to think about the rest of my life. My present path is so clear—I want to raise my daughter, nurture my husband, and keep working. I don’t think much beyond that, though I know it is dangerous not to. “Sister Claire? I never think about what I want anymore, or about what the future holds. I barely have time to get everything done in the present. How do I redream?”
“There are two times a day when the soul is open to new ideas. The first is when you rise, in the stillness of morning. The second is at night, when you’re in that hazy place between being awake and going to sleep. At those times, ask your inner voice to guide you. Your intuition will lead to the answers you’re looking for.”
“My mother used to say that all the answers were inside me.”
“She was right. The problem is, we don’t trust our inner voice. But that voice will guide us in the right direction every time. It really is the key to happiness: just listen.” Sister Claire slides the cards into a single deck once more.
I pay her and quickly review all she said to me. There’s so much to think about. I am a little stunned that my mother and son could be looking for me but I might not know them. What good will that do? The smell of Iva Lou’s cigarette brings me back. She’s sitting on one of the folding chairs outside the tent, puffing away. “All set,” I tell her.
“Well, honey-o, since we’re here, maybe I’ll get a reading too.” Iva Lou turns to Sister Claire and points with her pinkie finger. “But I’m warnin you, Sis, don’t tell me when I’m gonna die, even if you know. Okay, I amend that. You can tell me when I’m gonna die if it’s at a hundred and one with all my faculties intact and a young man up in the bed next to me who thinks I’m better than pepper jelly.”
Sister Claire laughs. “You got a deal.”
They go inside the tent, and I can hear the quiet muttering between them. I sit down, stretching my legs and leaning back in the chair. From this angle, I can see the spotlight at the beauty pageant make a tunnel of silver light against the black mountain. It is a smoky beam, barely visible as it competes with the Ferris wheel spinning streaks of pink glitter. The mountains funnel the sound of the applause and the wolf whistles up into the night sky; the way the sound carries in these hills, the pageant could be a thousand miles from here. How easy it is to get lost in the noise of this world, to find yourself leading a life of acceptance and resignation. When will I find the time to question my life again? Is there anything new ahead of me, or is this it? Being a wife, a mother, a pharmacist? What does Sister Claire mean when she tells me I have to invent myself all over again? To be what? And how?
After what seems like a much longer time than my reading took, Iva Lou emerges from the tent, fishing in her purse for another cigarette.
“Oh, honey, I’ve never heard such good news. Sister Claire was chock-full of all kinds of information. I just hope I can remember it all so I can write it down. She said I’m an eagle.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Absolutely. I’m regal and self-possessed and all that. But of course, tell me something I didn’t already know for fifteen bucks. How about you?”
“Mama and Joe came to me.”
“What did they say?”
“They didn’t say anything. But it’s okay. They showed up; that’s all I needed.”
Iva Lou puts her arm around me as we head back into the lights and the noise, but I don’t see them or hear it. My mind is in that house with many rooms.