Thursday, July 19, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 2

James Curtis sat staring at the wall, his thoughts tumbling over one another in no particular order. He had assigned himself guard duty on his dad’s bed in the middle of the night an hour after Hardrock Dodrill and Boney Butcher called Doc Vance from the Grille, drove Thirl home, and then carried his bloody body into the house. James rose to his feet, numb and irritable. He stretched and stumbled to the front room where he fell into his dad’s favorite chair, facing a magnificent ten-point buck’s head hanging on the wall. A buck they’d hunted for two years, until Thirl bagged him the Thanksgiving before last. His dad killed it, and he sketched it. Charcoal drawings from the time he was old enough to hold a pencil collected in boxes in his mother’s chifforobe. A framed sketch of the live buck hung on the wall next to its dead head. He hated hunting; killing anything that moved repulsed him.

            James had ridden to work with his dad like he did every morning. It was called morning by the men who worked that shift, but to James it was still night, dark and cold and silent. He could hear his dad’s muffled voice, along with his mother’s, as they said their good-byes. The sound of his dad’s boots pacing the kitchen floor while he waited for his lunch bucket haunted him.

              Together, he and his dad walked out of their soot-coated house. They crossed the front yard, along with dozens of other men crossing their front yards wearing hard hats with lamps attached to the front, carrying lunch buckets the size of toolboxes. A mass of men leaving in their pickup trucks and cars, their mouths already chewing plugs of tobacco to lubricate their throats against the gritty coal dust.

            A first shift supervisor, his dad had worked for Elk River Coal and Lumber as long as he could remember. Mining provided a good living for his family, he’d said, and it would do the same for James. Proud to be a miner’s son, James Curtis followed as expected. He’d worked the mines from the day he graduated high school, never giving his parents a notion he wanted to leave the mountains. He’d been a company man from the day he was born.

            As a little boy, his mother had educated him in the importance of coal and how it kept food on their table and heated every home in the country during winter. “Why, without coal and the miners that bring it to the surface,” she’d said, “America is no better than some dying country in Africa with starving children.” James waved to his mother every morning, stopping at her flower garden—a giant truck tire laid flat and painted white. James had positioned it next to the dogwood tree in the front yard, a tree she’d insisted be planted the day he was born.

But it was his dad that squeezed his hand every morning without saying a word. A quick grasp just after turning the key in the ignition, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He’d never talked about their work or the dangers of it. His grip was a fast second of assuredness that everything was going to be fine—today. It was their secret, one they shared man to man.

James leaned his head back against the old chair and closed his eyes. He could smell his dad’s scent of hair tonic and lye soap. Drifting between sleep and memory, he saw himself as a child being lifted onto his dad’s shoulders in the Thanksgiving Barn. His dad’s large leathery hand covered his entire back. He remembered being made to sit still on a hard church pew, playing with the flexible watchband peeking out from under his dad’s sleeve, how the gold had worn off, and how it pulled at the hairs on his arm. His dad sucked peppermints, and whistled old country tunes when he drove the car. On his dresser, he kept a pickle jar full of change. Each night his dad emptied his pockets—nickels, dimes, and pennies into the jar, landing with tinny pings. They were the sounds James listened for as he drifted off to sleep.

Yesterday, after they’d arrived at the mine, James Curtis walked behind his dad through a few wisps of smoke left hanging in the air—the last puffs of his dad’s cigarette. He turned and mumbled to his son. “Tell your mama I’ll be home late; I have a League meeting after my shift.”

His dad was fine then, and now he wasn’t.

He couldn’t recall how long he’d been sitting there. James got to his feet and walked three steps to the gun cabinet. Selecting a twelve-gauge shotgun from the rack and a box of shells from one of the bottom drawers, he shoved three shells into the magazine of the gun. Then he jacked a shell into the chamber and engaged the safety.

James Curtis paused, peeled off his Elk River Coal and Lumber Company cap, and tossed it on the buck’s right antler. Grasping the shotgun in both hands, he opened the back door and slipped out, out of his mother’s line of sight.


Doc Vance stood, checked Thirl’s pulse one last time, then packed his medical bag. “Keep that wound clean and dressed. Send James Curtis to the office if you need me. Your lucky husband should be fine. Shove these pills down his throat for the next few weeks. We’ll watch for infection. A few more inches and that bullet would’ve severed a main artery in his leg.”

The old doctor hadn’t stopped talking since he arrived minutes after Thirl was laid on his bed. “You know, the League is a legal bargaining agency for Bradley’s employees. That committee was formed to create the company’s welfare plan for its own workforce. I helped to put that committee together. That League’s a fine a group of men as God ever made. The League of Widen Miners is company, sure, but it offers medical and retirement. Don’t those fool strikers remember the mine was open two and three days a week during the Depression even when the other mines were shut down? Don’t they remember that?”

“Lord, Doc, they’ve been trying to strike here since I was a girl. You’re really worried this time, aren’t you? How long do you think this one will last?”

“How long’s hard to say. As long as it takes. As long as the United Mine Workers provide their strike fund. John Lewis and Bill Blizzard are behind this one again, bigger and better organized than the last strike. I’m afraid it’ll get more violent before it’s over, as long as their morale doesn’t crack.”

            DeDe set her coffee cup on the table by Thirl’s bed. “I believe I’ve told you, I’m not from Widen. My family came here from Matewan to get away from the reputation of that town, the violence—and death. Daddy died here, in Widen, from black lung back in ‘44. Mama … she passed from black lung too … from thirty years of washing Daddy’s clothes.” DeDe smoothed the front of her bloodstained blouse, her stare drifting through the windows and then back to Thirl. Her voice was strained and soft. “My daddy believed Joseph Bradley owned the safest mines in the state; that’s why we moved here. But the mines will kill us all, eventually.”

Every man in her life had been or was a miner, including her son. They all learned the speech patterns of the coalface. In response to the slightest tap of a pick or a shovel, the mine communicated. Sighs, hisses, pops, squeaks, groans, crackles, gurgles—each sound spoke to them and warned of underground water, a weak wall, or a methane leak. Her own father once told her if the mine choked and found itself about to crumble, it shuddered first then screamed like a woman in childbirth.

But to DeDe, a long strike was as dangerous as a cave-in. “I’ve seen the killing a strike will bring. I’ll protect my own.” Her face already beginning to sag, the carefully groomed hair already beginning to gray, the eyes already receding into a calm, dark indifference most people chose to see as insight. She never wore makeup. DeDe looked down at her bitten half-moon fingernails, then twisted her thick copper hair into a knot and anchored it at the private part of her neck with bobby pins. She picked up her pocketbook.

            Everybody in town knew she kept a gun in her purse, including Doc Vance. She walked back into the kitchen, gripping it against her chest. Doc Vance followed on her heels.

“DeDe! Now you listen to me … I won’t have you or any other woman in this town in harm’s way. You let the men handle this. The company’s recruited its own force. Thirteen good and loyal company men, I’ve heard. Sworn in as deputies by the County Sheriff to guard the town. Stay out of it, DeDe, I mean it.” His stare like two grimy nickels and his tone—stern, “You tell the rest of the women in town, stay close to home and keep their young’uns in the house after school. I’ve always been fond of your family. Why, it was just yesterday I delivered James Curtis in this house.”

“That was over nineteen years ago. I believe you stood by us when we buried a stillborn son five years later. I’ve had enough heartache, Doc.”

Doctor Vance nodded, avoiding her eyes, then gathered his jacket and medical bag. “You know management’s secret weapon when there’s a strike? It’s the women. Mama goes a few months with only gut paste gravy and biscuits to fix for supper, the old man’s hangin’ ‘round the house drinkin’ and yellin’ because the kids’re sick and cryin’ and there’s dirty clothes everywhere and he’s gone most evenin’s to a union meetin’ or finishin’ his shift on the picket line, comin’ home tired, cold, and dirty—stinkin’ of liquor. Drives every women I know crazy. They’ll settle because their wives’ll make them settle.”

DeDe could only nod in return. She picked up his hat and led him to the door. She was the granddaughter of a much-revered Baptist minister who had also worked in West Virginia’s coal mines at the turn of the century. Surely that should count for something with God. DeDe smiled deceptively and handed the doctor his hat. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord of hosts.”

“You just remember that,” he said as the screen door spanked shut behind him.

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