The Daughters of Erietown
Ada Fetters walked to the kitchen table and set down her laundry basket with the sigh of an expired hope. The morning’s conversation with her youngest son grew heavier with each passing hour. I raised that boy to be better than this. I raised him, and I failed.
She walked to the window over the sink and searched for her husband. Wayne was stepping off the tractor, and she could hear him whistling for Sheba. The dog ran to Wayne’s side and leapt for the last piece of beef jerky in his hand. Wayne rubbed the dog’s head, and both of them turned toward the house with the red sun behind them, two shadows walking into bad news.
She went over to the stove and flipped the chicken pieces sizzling in the skillet, scraping bits of char from the sides. This pan had helped her raise four kids. She had cooked with it every day for more than forty years, and brandished it countless times to bring a shaky peace to the Fetters household.
Larry was the problem. Always had been. And now this.
Wayne pushed open the back door, followed by the tap-tap-tap of Sheba’s nails on the hardwood floor. “Go see Mommy,” he said, chuckling. “Go see what she’s got for ya.” The dog raced across the room and slid to a stop at the stove, her fat tail thumping against Ada’s legs.
“Sit,” Ada said. “Sit, girl.” She picked up the boiled chicken heart on the stove and popped it into the dog’s mouth.
Wayne walked up behind her and kissed her neck. “Anything for me?”
“Supper’s almost ready.” She wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the two plates they used every night for dinner, her mind full of the changes her husband didn’t even know were coming. She’d be stacking three plates soon, setting another place. She looked over at Wayne and let out a long, slow breath.
“What?” he said.
“Larry was here today,” she said, avoiding his eyes as she set down the plates.
“What’d he want this time?”
Ada almost started to chastise him, as she always did when they talked about their youngest child, but stopped herself. No point. No defense. Not this time. She pulled out two faded napkins from the basket in the middle of the table, slid one beside each plate, and added forks and knives.
“Ada, I asked you a question. What did Larry want?”
Ada silently rehearsed her lines one more time as she emptied the pot of boiling potatoes into a bowl and pulled out a tray of biscuits from the oven. She slid them into a basket lined with a checkered napkin, then reached for a platter and started scooping up the chicken with a fork.
“Larry and Alice are getting a divorce,” she said finally, without looking up. She set the platter of chicken on the table.
“Well, that’s hardly news, is it?” Wayne said, shifting in his chair. “Even Larry can’t stay married to a woman who’s decided her hobby’s being a whore.”
“It’s worse than that, Wayne,” Ada said, setting the pitcher on the table. “Alice was arrested. Found drunk and naked in the fountain in downtown Andover.”
Ada pulled off her apron and sat down at the table. She folded her hands and bowed her head. Wayne sighed, put down his fork, and folded his hands, too. “Bless, O Lord, this food to our use and us to thy loving service,” Ada said. She glanced at Wayne. “And keep us ever mindful of the needs of others. Amen.”
“Amen,” Wayne said as he poked a chicken thigh with his fork and dropped it on his plate. “What did Larry want today? Besides pity.”
“It’s about Ellie,” she said.
Wayne bit off a chunk of chicken. “What about Ellie?”
“Larry wants us to take her in.”
Wayne stopped chewing. “What?”
Ada set down her fork.
“What do you mean ‘take her in’? For how long?”
“For good, Wayne. Larry wants us to raise her.”
Wayne slammed a fist on the table. “Raise her! Raise her? We can raise her. And what about his other kids?”
Ada shrugged her shoulders. “Well, Larry’s got a lady friend, as it turns out. Name’s Florence. They want to get married. She likes little Chrissy and Beth, but she thinks Ellie’s too old.”
“Ellie is only eight,” Wayne said.
“Old enough to grow up remembering when Florence wasn’t her mother, I guess.”
“So, he’s just gonna dump her?”
“No, honey,” Ada said, locking eyes with him. “We’re going to welcome her into our home. We’re going to raise her.”
Wayne slammed his fist on the table again, but Ada did not flinch. He was angry, but he was just making noise. In nearly forty years of marriage, Wayne had never raised a hand to her.
“We’re done raising children, Ada. I’m sixty, and you’re fifty-six, for Christ’s sake.”
“She’s our granddaughter, Wayne. Either we take her, or strangers are going to raise her. Think about that. Our Ellie with a bunch of people we don’t know. What kind of people adopt a seven-year-old girl? Who knows what they’d do to her?”
Wayne pushed his plate away and threw his napkin on it. “I’ll be damned.”
“Eat your dinner,” Ada said, reaching for his hands. He pulled away and stood up. “You spoiled that boy, Ada,” he said. “Always made excuses for Larry, because he was the baby. Twenty-five, and he still hasn’t grown up.” He walked over to the kitchen window and grabbed his Marlboros from the sill. “You want her, you raise her,” he said. “I’m done. I don’t want anything to do with this.”
Ada walked over to him and held him from behind. “You don’t mean that,” she said, pressing her cheek against his back.
He shrugged. “I do right now.” He whistled for Sheba. “C’mon, girl,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.” The dog jumped up and followed him out the door.
Ada watched Wayne march to the shed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, Sheba at his heels. She’d won, but she could already feel the cost of this victory. She walked over to the telephone on the kitchen wall, picked up the receiver, and waited for the operator’s voice.
“Yes, Joanie, get me Andover 457, please,” she said. “That’s right. Larry.”
Ellie leaned into the mirror and waved a finger at the face scowling back at her. “Give him five more minutes,” she said. “Five more minutes, and then Brick McGinty is his-tor-y.”
She tossed back her dark curly hair and tried again.
“Five minutes, Brick McGinty. If you aren’t here by then, Arnie Scribner’s name will be in every slot on my dance card.”
Ellie sighed. She’d never even seen a dance card, not in Clayton Valley, but she loved the thought of it. What sixteen-year-old girl wouldn’t? All those boys lining up to sign a little piece of paper dangling from your wrist, just like in the movies. Acting surprised. Why, Freddie Carpenter, let me see if I can squeeze you in.
How Brick would hate that. He was a jealous boy, which thrilled her. He made her feel worth fighting over for the first time in her life. And he wasn’t just any boy. He was six-feet-two Brick McGinty, point guard on the basketball team, top scorer in the county, and one of the most popular boys at Jefferson High School. Thirty-seven other girls in their senior class, but he picked her. At four feet eleven, her head didn’t even reach his shoulders. She had to stand on her tiptoes to kiss him, and even then she had to tilt her head back and raise her chin.
“My pint-size Ellie,” he called her. She loved that, how he used the word “my.”
She scowled again at the mirror. “Thinking like this is how you lose your resolve,” she said, pointing her finger again. She walked to the bedroom window, pushed apart the curtains, and poked her head out. The frigid air stung her face as she leaned out as far as she could to see the patch of gravel where Brick’s truck always came to a stop.
Ellie heard her grandmother’s voice before she saw her, standing beneath the window. “Eleanor Grace, have you lost your mind? Get out of that window before you fall and break your neck.” Ellie grabbed her books and flew down the stairs just as a gust of air ushered her grandmother through the door. “Look at you,” Ada said, “waitin’ on that boy like a lovesick hound dog.”
“I’m not waiting for anybody, Grandma. I was just checking to see if I needed a coat this morning.”
Ada sat on the bench and pulled off her boots. “I guess you think there’s nothing but corn husks rattling around in this old head of mine,” she said. “It’s snowing, Ellie. And you’re wondering if you need a coat?” She pulled off her knit cap and shoved it into her coat pocket before hanging the coat on the hook by the door. “Brick McGinty’s not picking you up for school today, honey.”