She sang in the barn until her parents would come looking for her. They knew she liked to sing but would be angry if she were distracted during chores. Her practicing was private; she didn't allow herself to feel ashamed that she was performing for bales of hay. She knew she could never become a performer, but in the barn, she trained as if she had a real chance. She found dignity in the rigor of her practice. Through routine and dedication came improvement, which awarded a satisfaction otherwise absent for her on the farm. Every day she worked, and during those minutes, she allowed herself to imagine that practicing might lead somewhere. It was impossible to work so hard without wanting to sing for an audience, though such a desire was dangerous to encourage. The possibility for heartbreak was overwhelming, but the fantasy was irresistible. But when she sang, she imagined herself selected from a pool of girls to perform on Broadway. Today it was Guys and Dolls. Yesterday, The Music Man. And Gershwin, and Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter. This time was hers.
Eleanor walked back toward the house, its paint peeling, the sun displaying the spots that needed repair. The family dog, Lou, galloped toward her and butted her with his head. She pushed him down.
Normally singing energized her, but today she felt a heavy pall. Perhaps it was because she was another year older—and each day that passed was another spent in Wisconsin and one less she might spend in New York. Another day with the pigs. She had a desperate, breathless feeling in her chest that morning, as she realized that however young she might be, her life was progressing in place. The barn mornings were hers, but they were not enough. Eleanor faced the possibility that they might have to be.
She left her boots on the porch and opened the screen door, letting it slam behind her.
Her mother was at the stove, sleeves rolled up as she poured grease into a tin on the counter. Eleanor's stomach turned; she hated bacon.
"There's the birthday girl!"
Eleanor could have rested her chin on top of her mother's head. Instead, she poured coffee.
"Rosie and I are going to the movies tonight."
Her mother made a noise. "With anyone special? Might be nice to dress up."
Eleanor pulled bread from the box and ignored her. Growing up, Eleanor's mother had described her as "the marrying kind." She was tall, with a solid figure softened by large breasts and bearing hips and reddish hair, the tone enhanced by her freckles and a tendency to blush. Her features were pretty but generic. Her appearance called to mind sensible girls rather than stunners. The only thing that distinguished her was her voice. It was low and husky, and made men turn around when she spoke in stores. When she was speaking, it was more interesting than average, enough to earn a double take. But when she sang, for all of her uncertainties, even Eleanor knew it was something.
It was not, however, enough for her mother.
"You know, your father and I will be the only people without grandchildren."
"Surely not the only ones."
Her mother intensified her whisking, scraping against the metal bowl. With another slam, her father entered, forehead already shining. "Another hot one!"