~~~Tuesday, April 14, 1953~~~
DeDe woke up, ran her tongue behind her teeth, and tasted bitter anguish. A taste as unpleasant as chicory that melts on the tongue. Another storm had moved into the valley, the wind whipping pine branches across her bedroom window. Too windy to hang out clothes and sheets, her laundry would wait another day. She hated wind with no rain. At least the rain washed the air. But this was a wicked wind that picked up the coal splinters and hurled them at your skin. She felt an uneasiness in her spirit, and the top of her head tingled.
Thirl’s Vitalis on the pillow greeted her as she stirred. Out of habit she moved her hand along his side of the bed, feeling only the lingering warmth of the empty spot. He was always up first. Hugging the abandoned pillow to her chest, she inhaled the scent of his hair, letting herself drift a while longer.
Mornings like this one she was grateful for the bathroom Thirl had built. DeDe reckoned the only thing outhouses were good for was to know the bathroom habits of your neighbors. She heard Thirl maneuvering his stiff leg through the kitchen and lay his Bible on the table, his usual morning routine. Through the curtain that separated the bedroom from the kitchen, she watched as he limped into the tiny bathroom and filled the basin with warm water to shave. It was time to get James out of bed or they’d both be late.
The morning's chill clung to DeDe through her chenille robe. Preparing both lunch boxes for her men, she filled each Thermos with boiling coffee. After stirring the coal in the stove, she glanced out the front room window at the first drops of rain pinging the panes. Her heartbeat quickened at the sight of two men rushing up to her front door.
The screen door was yanked open, causing the spring to emit a startled twang. They knocked hard and fast. Whoever it was on the other side of the door clearly wasn’t worried about disturbing the household.
Thirl poked his head out of the bathroom—shirtless, wiping the remains of shaving cream off his face with his towel. DeDe heard him pulling on his pants, his belt buckle jangling. “Who is at this time of the mornin’?” he asked.
“Company men, I’m sure.” DeDe opened the door and found Dewey Wilson standing behind Jugg Pyle. The wind flung rain in their faces like cold spit.
“Morning,” said DeDe.
“Getting ready for work. You need to talk to him now?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Jugg. “We …”
Dewey interrupted with a cold stare, “We ain’t got time for pleasantries. Didn’t come fer no tea party … we gotta talk to Thirl.”
“Hold on, gentlemen. I’ll get my husband.” She opened the door and led them to the kitchen. DeDe knew Thirl was listening and probably dressed by now. James Curtis hadn’t stirred from his room. She peeked her head inside his door. “Get up, son; we have visitors.”
A groggy voice squeaked in the darkness. “Who is it, Mama?”
“Company men here to see your daddy. Get up now. You’re both gonna be late as it is.”
Thirl had walked into the kitchen to find the men standing by the stove with their hats in their hands. “You fellas want some coffee?”
“Ain’t got time for coffee,” said Dewey.
Jugg stared at Thirl’s clean face, rubbing the stubble on his own. “Some of the men had a meetin’ at the church early this mornin’. We knew you wouldn’t want to be a part of this, but me and Dewey thought we’d at least let you know, on account of you bein’ shot and for all your misery.”
“Just tell him, for Christ sake.” Dewey blew a wrathful breath from his nostrils, while his huge brown hand came thundering down on the table. “It’s like this. From the start, the comp’ny has admonished us to avoid any action that might be construed as retaliation against the strikers. But we’re tired, Thirl, tired of turnin’ the other cheek. You know it weren’t comp’ny men that burned Odie Ingram’s barn. Strikers did it to their own to make us look like a bunch of vigilantes. Here’s the deal. Bosses don’t know yet, ‘cept you. A group of the men are takin’ a bulldozer up to the head of the Widen road. They plan to plow the striker’s headquarters off the hill. We’re through with ‘em. We want to get back to work. Comp’ny’s losin’ money, and it might destroy the town if the strike goes on any longer. We ain’t safe in our own homes. Time we did somethin’ beside sit by and let them take pot shots at our cars and our families. Tub Perry’s got a dozer he used when he worked on the roads. He’s on his way now.”
James Curtis bounded out of his room, his shirttail hanging, one boot on and holding the other. “Y’all cain’t do that! Somebody’s gonna get killed!”
“Son! Calm down. Get yourself some breakfast.” Thirl threw a glance at DeDe to keep James Curtis out of the conversation.
She laid her hand on James’ shoulder. “You men ever lost a loved one? Other than your parents, have either of you laid a dear soul into the ground? I’m not prepared to lose my husband or my son because you boys want to act like a bunch of John Waynes and plow the strikers into the dirt.”
Dewey Wilson spit a stream of tobacco juice into the pop bottle he pulled out of his pocket. A steel-eyed glare was his only response.
Jugg, the town’s undertaker for the past ten years, quoted from the book of Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.”
“I prefer Deuteronomy,” she said and looked hard at the men. “I will render vengeance to mine enemies. Vengeance is the Lord’s work … not ours!”
Suddenly, Dewey pulled an ancient gun out of his side pocket and spun the barrel like John Wayne in Red River, making a crooked aim out the window. His eyes were loose-closed; a trembling rim of white showed between his lashes. The tip of his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth. His red finger tightened on the trigger. “I’m ready to help the Lord out, what about you, Jugg? I think you need to calm your wife down, Thirl, this here talk is between the men.”
DeDe picked up a dishtowel and pretended to clean off the table. “And who do you think suffers the most? The men?”
“Dewey, put your gun away. My wife is privy to all I know. She has a say in what goes on in this house, gentlemen. I believe she’s fixed breakfast for your families a time or two. And if you want to discuss business in my wife’s kitchen, you’re gonna have to listen to her.”
Jugg nudged Dewey toward the door. “We’re sorry, ma’am.” He nodded to all three of the Nettles family. “We just wanted to let you know what happened at the meetin’. But ya cain’t stop it, Thirl. It’s already started.”
Dewey slipped his gun back in his coat pocket, spit in his bottle again, shoved his hat on his head and stormed out the door.
“Good thing he ain’t a union man.” Jugg’s nervous chuckle brought no reaction from DeDe or Thirl. “I apologize for Dewey; he ain’t been himself lately. Strikers rolled his car down the hill last week. He’ll settle down. I don’t see this as an act of violence, just us peaceful men bein’ fed up. That’s all. Rest easy, ma’am. Ain’t gonna be any killin’.”
“And a cat’s butt ain’t puckered,” said DeDe, throwing her kitchen towel on the table and leaving the room.
Off the state highway, in the middle of the company road at the top of Widen hill, the strikers had set up their field station. Benches and old automobile seats ringed a cluster of fifty-gallon drums. James Curtis had heard Odie refer to them as fire barrels.
As men for the union scattered right and left to safety, the bulldozer tracked into their camp, pushing barrels, benches, lunch boxes and accumulated trash across the road and over the lip of a deep gully.
Whooping and hollering, Dewey, Jugg, and a hundred company men drove back into town, honking their car horns and lighting firecrackers as if they deserved a parade. Their celebration could be heard from one end of town to the other.
“They’re rejoicing for the wrong reason,” said DeDe. “Strike’s not over, the battle’s just begun.” She rocked back and forth on her porch swing.
Her neighbor Pearle squatted on an apple crate and broke pole beans. “If ya ask me, I’m hopin’ that’s the end of it. I ain’t been to Strange Creek to see my grandbabies since this thing started last year.”
The people of Widen walked out of their homes that evening, gathered on porches talking and feeling free to move about. They allowed their children to roam the streets once again. A few young boys carried baseball bats and gloves toward the baseball park. A young girl rode her bike toward the Grille.
DeDe sensed the tingling in her head again … and thunder rolled in the distance.