Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 8

~~~Thursday, April 23, 1953~~~

            “He must be a new hire!”

            “Let’s roll him!”

            “Teach him not to take our jobs!”

            The 1947 Ford truck bounced and crashed down through a different grove of trees and brush this time. Having been removed from their previous headquarters, the striking men found a steeper embankment than the Widen hill to roll cars. Each company man rolled narrowly escaped with his life; many nursed wounds months later. Scars and broken bones were not an uncommon sight in Widen. Doctor Vance had a new patient in his office nearly every week from a fight or a car having been shoved to the bottom of a gully.

            Jonas Zirka bounded down the hill toward the truck to scare the man inside with a few pot shots and a laugh, hoping to watch him run like a coward into town—same as he’d done with the rest of the men they had rolled.

            He yelled to the men back up the hill, “You see this feller get out of his truck?”

            Somebody shouted. “No! Where’d he go?”

            “Nobody here. Not a trace of him. Nothin’ in the truck to say who he was.”


            The air was agitated and humid, rough as tree bark in the lungs. Coal dust filled the afternoon sky. Static disrupted the gospel songs of Mom and Dad Speer on the radio. An early afternoon storm rumbled in the distance. Inside, the house became dark. DeDe lit two kerosene lamps that held their flames like shivering butterflies. She thought of Savina.

Last night’s prayer meeting phenomenon had kept her awake until morning. Drowsy, she rested her head against the back of her chair. Dreamy and drifting into slumber, DeDe jerked awake in the midst of a strange dream when she heard the knock. She moved in slow motion as if wading through waist-deep water. Thunder rolled again, nudging the storm closer to the valley.

When she opened the door, it sounded as if a seal had been broken.           

“May I help you?” DeDe attempted to smother her yawn.

            “Howdy-do, ma’am. I’m looking for Odie Ingram’s place. Do you know Savina Ingram and where I might find her?”

Despite the smell of the oncoming storm, DeDe inhaled the wood-smoke of his voice followed by the fragrance of apple blossoms floating through the screen door.

“I know her, yes. May I ask who you are?” Her tone was soft and clear, with a slight touch of fascination.

He grabbed the rim of his black felt hat and tipped it. “Sorry, ma’am.” Nodding his head curtly, his rugged voice and apology drew a small smile from DeDe. “My name’s Herald. Herald Wingate.” He was an odd-looking man, thin, tall, and handsome in an out-of-the-ordinary way. His colorless eyes, long elfin nose, unshaven face and powerful hands were pale against his ragged and dirty clothes. His tattered pants ended at scuffed leather boots. High cheekbones suggested Cherokee blood, but his presence was like an offensive profanity against the backdrop of  the pink impatience in her flowerbed behind him. It was comparable to finding lice on a little girl’s head.

            “I’m an old friend of her mother’s,” he said. I want to check on the child and see how she's doing.”

            “So you’re from …”

            “Bethlehem, ma’am.”

            “Oh, yes. I remember now. Jo lived in Pennsylvania before she moved here with Odie. ‘Bout the same time Thirl and I moved to Nicholas Street in Widen.”

            “That’s right. I promised her mother I’d check on her now and then. I knew Missus Ingram was dying and I’d had a few conversations with her. She really didn’t want to leave Savina alone to take care of Mister Ingram. But these things can’t be helped sometimes.”

The brim of his hat was pulled down low enough to hide his strange-looking eyes again. Long dark hair grazed the shoulders of his blue wool jacket with holes in both elbows.

            DeDe recalled the Depression years when her mother befriended many a man walking through Matewan with his family, or alone. Ragged men, poor men—her mother had fed them and sent them on their way with a sack of salt pork and biscuits.

            All of a sudden she found herself standing in the middle of her front room with a stranger.

            “Would you like a bite to eat? I have some leftover ham from breakfast. I could fry you a couple eggs.”

            “That’d be nice, Ma’am. I thank ye kindly.”

            “You can wash up in there.” She pointed to the bathroom.

            DeDe cracked two eggs in the skillet and listened for her guest to return to the kitchen again. She propped her purse on her cutting board, just in case. When he emerged, his hands glowed raw and pink from the scrubbing he had given them, and he smelled like lye soap mixed with apple blossoms. He nodded and took a seat at the table. His left hand rested against his leg with the palm turned out and a New Testament held loosely between his thumb and two fingers.

“Smells mighty good, ma’am.” He ate slowly and articulated words that sounded like music, his voice echoing through the house. For the next hour Herald Wingate pulled topics of religious conversation from thin air and made DeDe a verbal bouquet of Biblical subjects irresistible to her. She’d never met a man with knowledge of the scriptures like this man.

DeDe stood near the stove, looking down at the dusty, bedraggled stranger. The first stranger she couldn’t peg. Her back remained gracefully straight, but the loose knot of hair at her nape quivered with her indecision. Who is he, really? Should I tell him where Savina lives?

~~~Sunday, May 3, 1953~~~

            As night faded and the morning sky drowned the stars, Thirl heard the screen door stretch on its rusted spring.

            “DeDe home, Thirl?”

            “No, Pearle … she leaves early on Sunday. Teachin’ Sunday School this mornin’.”

            “Oh, right. I suppose she told you about our prayer meetin’ last week?”

            “Sure did.”

            Pearle walked back out the door. “Guess you know then, it’s the women in this town that God talks to.”

            Thirl and James Curtis smiled at each other across the table.

            Pearle's eyes riveted on James Curtis. “Your mama tell you anything about this strange new fella, Herald Wingate? I heard he’s been spotted several times around town the past week. But seems only the women have met him. Word has it he’s a guest at the Ingram farm. An old friend of Josephine’s. You meet him?”

            James Curtis stood and walked toward the door. “No, ain’t met him, but I’m sure Odie wouldn’t let him stay there unless he knew him. Kind’ve makes me a little uneasy though.”

            “Why’s that?”

            “Savina says he’s been preaching to the women. Even been up to Colored Holler. Telling them to pray for the peace and safety of the town. To reach out to God, trust and obey Jesus. That this town is on the verge of destruction unless the women pray harder because the men, with the exception of Pastor Jessie, don’t pray at all. Just make a mess of things.”

            Thirl laid his hand on his son's shoulder. “Next time this Herald fella comes to the house, I want to meet him.”

            Pearle laughed. “If you can see him. Hardrock said Sylvia was talking to the air out in the yard a day ago, and he asked her what she was doing. She said, ‘I was talking to Herald Wingate. What—you think I talk to the trees?’”

~~~Thursday, May 7, 1953~~~

Savina stood with her colorless lips apart, while a shudder ran through her frame. “What?”

Herald Wingate sat on the steps that led up to her porch. He held his Testament in his hand and pointed in the direction of Dille. “I said your father’s in danger. The next shift of men driving into Widen for work, they’re all in danger. There’s a group of pickets at the cook shack, laying in wait. Your father’s one of them. This violence must stop, Savina. God is not pleased.”

“How can I stop it? Why don’t you stop them? How do you know?”

“Heard voices while I was praying in the woods yesterday. I came here, to Widen, for three reasons: to preach to those with open hearts and minds—turns out that’s the women, to check on you for your mother, and to warn your father. My work is done; it’s time for me to take leave.” He closed his Testament and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “I advised your father not to go to the cook shack today. He told me to mind my own business and that it was time I vacate his farm. Savina, all you can do is gather with the women in town and pray.”

“But you just got here. Is it too cold in the barn for ya? It’s not as good as the old one that burned down. What we have now is just temporary ‘til we can afford to build a new one. I'm sorry, but Daddy won’t let strangers in the house. He always sends drifters in need of a meal to the barn to sleep.”

“No, the barn was fine. The horses were pleasant company. I thank ye both for your hospitality.” Moving toward the fence gate, he pulled his hat down over his forehead.

“But ... I want to talk to you more about Mommy. Please stay a few more days.”

“Can’t. I told you everything I know about your mother. She’s in heaven now—you’ll have to be satisfied with that.

Savina strolled to the gate, dismissing his warnings. “You said you knew Mommy from the time she was born. How old are you?”

“Old enough. Too old.” He smiled. His voice was like music.

“You sure don’t look it.” A bittersweet smile eased across her lips. Lightning flashed in the distance. Savina pulled her sweater closer to her neck and shifted her gaze to the lowering sky. “I think another storm is comin’ over the mountains. I need to bring daddy home. I can take you as far as the cook shack, Mister Wingate.”

“You shouldn’t go. Go to town and pray with the women instead. My talking to your father hasn’t done any good. You’ll not bring him home, Savina. Men are creatures of free will. These men won’t stop until innocent blood is shed—the town will not recover from it. I’m off to Widen to say goodbye to Missus Nettles and a few other ladies gathering for a prayer meeting this morning.”

Savina pulled at his coat sleeve. “Maybe you should meet some of the other men in town. Try to convince them.”

“Like I said, my business here is done.”

Savina hugged him quickly, ran up the porch and into the house to grab her purse and her daddy’s car keys. When she came back out she wanted to ask him to please stay for church on Sunday. But he was gone.


            “Signs and wonders follow them that believe,” Pearle raised her hand. “I believe I have a testimony.”

The ladies that gathered in DeDe’s front room shouted, “Bless God, tell us, Sister Gibson.” “Yes, speak to us, Sister Gibson. Go on and testify, Sister.”

“I believe in miracles. I believe God is going to end this strike soon. I believe he’s given me the strength to endure until the end. Union or non-union. We’re all God’s children. I want to testify to the strength I’ve felt since the night we all heard the angels sing ...”

“We don’t know for sure what that was, Pearle!” Sylvia Dodrill shook her head.

“Oh ye of little faith.” The voice startled the women, causing them to jump and turn their heads to the screen door. Herald Wingate stood on the other side, curling the brim of his hat in his hands. No one had heard the usual sound of footsteps stomp up the clapboard porch.

DeDe stood. “Mister Wingate, you shouldn’t walk up on people like that. Would you like to come in and join us?”

“No, thank ye. But keep praying ladies; my time here is up, I have to get back home. I came to say good-bye and that there’s a storm coming. And to pray for Savina Ingram.”

DeDe felt her insides turn to mush. “Why? Herald, is Savina alright?”

“She’s gone to warn her father. There’s danger on the roads this morning, ladies. Remain here and pray through to victory. Call on the forces of Heaven to hold back the darkness that’s coming.”

“Don’t! Don’t scare us like this anymore, Mister Wingate!” Sylvia stood and stomped to the door. “He’s an old beggar that’s waltzed into town and you ladies think he’s the voice of God!” Sylvia glared at him on the other side of the screen. “Stop it! Stop scaring us. Go home to wherever you’re from. Leave us alone!”

“Sylvia!” DeDe shrieked. “Sit down!”

The sky had grown as dark as a fresh bruise beneath the skin. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled through the hollow.

            “Sorry to bother you, good ladies. Good-bye again.”

“Wait, Mister Wingate!” DeDe ran out the screen door and down the porch following him into the street. “Please forgive Sister Sylvia. Her husband’s been sick and ….”

“He has black lung. I know Missus Nettles. Mister Dodrill is dying. Somebody has to have faith for him. His wife does not.”

“Won’t you stay a while longer?”

“Actually, ma’am, my work here is done. I’ve got coal dust on my feet. It’s time to shake it off. You’ve been kind to me. I thank ye. Good-bye, now.” He tipped his hat one last time, walked down Nicholas Street and disappeared around the corner.

DeDe stood in a solemn gaze, watching Herald Wingate walk away carrying no pack, sack, or piece of luggage. Only the top of his New Testament stuck out of his pocket. Her mouth moved whispering the scripture that flowed off her tongue. “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for that city.

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