Sixty-Seven Miles Outside Jackson, Mississippi
Sixty-Seven Miles Outside Jackson, Mississippi
A Story by Megan Gordon
She stands in the backyard of her parents’ house. Her house now, she supposes, but she still thinks of it as theirs. She is watching the traffic on Interstate 49, people speeding on their way somewhere else. Who builds a house along a highway? But it seemed to be what folks did around here, the middle of nowhere special.
“Celia, go where the wind takes you,” her grandmother used to say. Celia would visit Granny Albert twice a week at the home. Sometimes she’d be present, sharp as a tack, knowing who and where she was. Other times she’d be gone, living in the little house on the wooded street in Seminary that she’d shared with Grandpa Albert and the only person she recognized was her granddaughter, although she thought the girl was her sister, after whom Celia was named. But no matter where her mind was, she always said the same thing, go where the wind takes you.
It hadn’t blown Celia far.
The wind shifts and blows her hair in her face. She’s let it go grey and still wears it fashionably long despite the church ladies clucking their tongues at her on Sunday morning. Her first grandchild will be born soon and she can’t decide if she wants to look like a grandmother or not. Celia doesn’t feel old like Granny Albert looked back when Celia was just a little girl—there were no lines crisscrossing her face, no hoods forming over her eyes. Granny wouldn’t have been much older than Celia was right now. But Celia hadn’t spent her life working on the farm. Granny wore her experience on her face. Celia did too, but most of her experience had come from books. It was only now that she’d stand outside with her face to the sun.
Growing up, her people had what they needed, but not much of what they wanted. And she might have expected her life to be more of the same, existing day to day—work, eat, sleep, and repeat—but books took her places; books were Celia’s wind.
“I am going to go to Morocco,” she told her mama one summer evening. Celia was just five and had already outgrown picture books. She sat at the kitchen table with the Encyclopedia Britannica, volume M-N open before her. The glossy pictures of the marketplaces crowded with rugs, food, and people lit up her eyes. It was colorful and busy and alive.
“Why would you want to go there, Celia?” asked Mama as she peered over her daughter’s shoulder. “It’s crowded and dirty and they don’t look like nice people.” She returned to chopping onions. “It’s too dangerous. Better to stay close to home.”
Celia carefully slid a paper clip on the page so she could look at it later, took the book back to the living room and placed it in its spot on the shelf between K-L and O-P, then walked out the back door and into the yard. On the back porch she watched the cars go by, wondering where they were headed and what they’d see when they got there, until the sun began to set and Mama called her in for supper.
The wind quiets and Celia settles in the old wooden swing that hangs from the giant oak tree. Grandpa Albert carved it out of maple when Celia’s mother was a little girl. The seat has been worn smooth and bears a slight depression in the middle from years of joyful use. Celia begins to swing. The now-familiar weight lifts from her chest as she climbs higher and higher. Long ago someone would come along about this time and tell her to stop, to slow down before she hurt herself. At the top of the arc she can see for miles; if she can get higher she can see more. The tree branch groans with the weight of her and the motion of the swing. It might break, she thinks idly. And I might fall to the ground. She swings higher.
Celia was sixteen the first time a boy persuaded her to let him take her panties off. They were pale pink and had roses on them. The boy, whose name she’s forgotten, was a year older than her; all the girls swooned over him. To Celia, he was just a boy like any other. He’d taken her to the drive-in and started kissing her neck as soon as the movie lit up the screen. It was Benji. Most of the first half of the film was spent dodging his hands and mouth, finally giving in because she wanted it to be done. She wanted to know what happened to the little dog. It was quick, like her friends had told her it would be.
Thunder rumbles off in the distance. A storm is coming. Her feet are back on the ground, her dress blowing around her bare legs. Silver hair flies out behind her. There is more urgency in the wind’s song now. Celia feels it push her away from the house, toward the highway. Only a chain-link fence separates her from the speeding cars. It would be so easy, she thinks. A few steps more, then she stops. The wind slows and shifts direction. She grips the fence and waits to see where it takes her next.
The second time a boy got her to remove her underwear she was eighteen. He was a recent MSU graduate on his way to his new life somewhere outside of Mississippi. Carter smelled like Ivory soap and Old Spice, a combination she still found irresistible. He was tall and muscular with a lazy smile and beautiful hands. You are so pretty, he told her. I’ll take you far away from here. He didn’t have to ask her twice. A month later, he was long gone and she was pregnant. Her parents wanted to send her away to have the baby so the shame wouldn’t burrow its way into their lives. Or if not, maybe you could…? She’d decided that if she went away she was never coming back; she’d keep the child but cut her family from her heart the way they really wanted her to cut the baby from her womb. Abortion should be illegal, her mother often said. Until it was her child that got knocked up.
A large gust pushes the round table in the middle of the yard on its side and upends the chairs surrounding it. The wind is getting stronger, pushing the storm closer yet. It’ll rain after a while, she thinks. But I don’t care. So much of what I am supposed to care about doesn’t seem very important, and what is essential to me they pretend not to understand. The red wolf is almost gone from the earth, people are starving in Somalia, and the man down the street beats his wife, but my hair might get wet. You can’t save the world Celia, whispers the wind. I can’t save myself either.
At church, she and her baby girl sat in the front pew so that everyone could stare at her without turning in their seats. Her parents went to a different church, driving thirty minutes just to avoid the eyes on the backs of their heads and the running mouths that wouldn’t melt butter but didn’t hesitate to form themselves around a good piece of gossip.
Mr. McCready gave her a job at his general store and let her bring Charlotte to work with her. Samson McCready was old and cranky and not well liked, but he was respected. And his store was the only one for miles. I ain’t doing this for you, he’d told her. I jus’ like making them phonies squirm. Celia liked making them squirm too.
With eyes closed, she listens, nods, then turns and walks to the porch. Perched on the top step, she takes off her sandals, puts her elbows on her knees, and cradles her chin in her hands. The sky is nearly black, the wind stronger. She nods again; she is right where she is supposed to be. Fat drops of rain begin to fall on the table and chairs, making loud plunks as they hit the rusted metal. There are several beats between each smack. The gaps begin to close, first slowly, then faster, then with a rumble of thunder, there is no sound but the rain. Celia can’t see the lawn furniture but she notices flashing lights on the highway as cars pull over to wait out the deluge.
Men drifted in and out of Celia’s life, some staying for a year or two, others for a week or two. It was she who usually insisted that it was time to go; most of the men that came her way were more interested in a meal ticket than a relationship. When Mr. McCready died, he left the store to her. He’d taught her well, and the business thrived. The smell of a steady income drew men like dogs to their master—they’d flip over on their backs for a scratch, then lay around on the couch and wait for their next feeding. But Celia liked men, the feel of them on top of her and inside her, the warmth and the smell of them, so she’d indulge them for a while— a couple long enough to give her two more babies, first Libby, then Colton.
The rain ends abruptly, the dark clouds scuttling away. The sun peeks out again. The rain has left the air saturated and heavy. Oppressive. That’s the word. An apt description of my present. The wind has settled, and she wonders if it will return. Without her guide, she is stuck on the porch, waiting for a sign to tell her what’s next.
The memory lapses started a year or so ago. First it was little things, like forgetting the word for “stove” or those things on her feet—shoes. And then one day she looked at a calendar and realized that Charlotte’s birthday was three days ago and she hadn’t even called her first born.
“You’ve been tired, Momma,” was all Charlotte said when her mother begged her forgiveness.
“But I’m not,” Celia insisted.
But she wasn’t. Sometimes Celia would be startled by the number of notes scattered around her house. Turn off the stove. Remember to pay the bills. Take a shower. There were times when she couldn’t remember the past several days, even though they’d been full of activity. She still ran the store, training Libby to take her place. On a good day Celia was confident that her younger daughter could handle the business on her own; on a bad day she couldn’t stand to have the girl touching her things. A note in her pocket remind her, Libby can handle it, and she wore a red hair elastic on her wrist which she popped when she was stressed to prompt her to check her pocket.
The wind remains still, and Celia remains on the porch. The sun is hanging low in the sky, fighting the dawdling clouds and cloaking everything in an orange haze. Traffic has picked up on the highway as people find their way home from work. She envisions cozy kitchens where families sit around the table passing plates and sharing stories about their days; she envisions herself at the end of most days coming home to an empty house full of old memories she can’t forget and new ones she can’t remember.
One man had proposed to Celia back when she was still relatively young but her kids were no longer babies. Owen Wright did not spend time on her couch unless she was there with him; he was employed and had his own money and two kids of his own just a bit older than hers. Owen made Celia feel good both in bed and out. On paper they were perfect but that wasn’t real life and the minute the words came out of his mouth she felt her heart beat so fast she thought she was going to die right there and not of happiness. She was a cornered opossum and Owen’s proposal was a broom about to come down on her head.
“I don’t need taking care of,” she snapped as she backed away from him.
“I don’t want to take care of you, darlin’, I want to marry you,” he said in a calm voice. Of all the men she’d been with Owen was the only one who really understood her. “And you can take care of me.” He smiled and winked.
“I don’t want to take care of you either,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.
“Well then we’ll just take care of our own selves.” He tried to gather her in his arms but she squirmed away.
“Why do you want to get married and ruin everything? Aren’t you happy?” She went to the refrigerator and grabbed two beers, opened them, and handed one to Owen.
He took a long pull on the beer before he answered. “I just love ya, Celia, and that’s what you do when you are in love. You get married.”
Owen persisted, and Celia relented. They got engaged. On their wedding day Celia woke up covered in hives which grew worse as the ceremony grew closer. A half an hour before the appointed time, she grabbed her intended and pulled him into the dressing room.
“I can’t do it,” she said, crying. “Look at me.”
“Celia…” he pleaded.
“I can’t. I do love you.”
They skipped the ceremony but the reception went on as scheduled. By the time she stood in front of friends and family and broke the news, the hives were gone. Six months later so was Owen.
All that remains of the wind is a faint breeze, which is only a whisper in Celia’s ear. Still, it’s enough. She stands up and walks back across the yard, past the swing, past the battered table, toward the highway. Water drips down her wrists as she grips the fence and takes a deep breath. One step, two steps, three steps and the top of the fence is ankle height. She is ten feet tall. The cars continue to pass by, day is quickly turning to night. This will be easy, she thinks. Better for everyone. Her arms are spread out as if to embrace the traffic, the darkness, the fall. The breeze strengthens and Celia closes her eyes and leans forward.
The phone in her pocket rings three times before she rescues it and presses “accept.”
“Hello?” she says.
“Momma, it’s Charlotte.”
Celia’s shoulders sag. “Hello, baby,” she says as she inches down and makes her way back to the porch. “What’s up?”
“I wanted to call to check on you and see what you were up to.”
A wan smile crosses her face as she looks back toward the fence. “Just going where the wind takes me.”