Under a cloudless sky, p.2

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 2

 

Under a Cloudless Sky
 



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  The text this day was from the book of Exodus, about the plight of the Israelites enslaved by cruel Pharaoh and the Egyptians who used the Israelites for their own devices, having forgotten all that Joseph had done. Joseph had interpreted the dream of Pharaoh and had saved the Egyptians, but a new leader had arisen who either didn’t know the story or didn’t care. Pastor Brace reminded them that Joseph’s brothers had meant to do him evil, but God brought good from it and could do the same in their lives.

  There was a smattering of amens in the room, followed by more crusty coughing. As the pastor continued, Ruby leaned forward and noticed a commotion coming through the open windows. There was noise down the railroad tracks. The pastor continued until they heard the audible voices of miners shouting for help.

  2

  HOLLIS CONFRONTS A FRIEND

  BEULAH MOUNTAIN, WEST VIRGINIA

  MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2004

  Hollis Beasley grabbed his truck keys and headed for his F-150, which sat waiting outside like a faithful horse.

  “Where you goin’?” Juniper said from the bedroom.

  He paused, keys clinking. “To see if it’s true. I want to hear it from Curtis.”

  “They got this thing called a phone. You just dial some numbers and you talk to the people on the other end. It saves gas and brake pads.”

  He wanted to say something snippy, but he thought better of it. He’d spend the whole day and half the week apologizing and the rest of his life regretting. Best to keep the trap shut.

  “You need anything from the store?” he said.

  “I thought you was going to see Curtis.”

  “I am. But if you need something, I’ll go into town.” There was an edge to his voice and he was sorry for it.

  “I don’t need anything. But you ought to leave that family alone. It’s none of your business what they do.”

  “We had an agreement.”

  “You and me had an agreement a long time ago you didn’t live up to.” Juniper coughed and it sounded awful.

  She said things like this when she was in pain and it hurt him, but it hurt more to bite back at her, so he bit his tongue—literally put it between his teeth and put pressure on it—and counted to ten like the preacher had said when they went to their one counseling session before they were married. Sometimes love looks like a bloody tongue, he guessed.

  “I’ll be back directly.”

  She muttered something as he grabbed the doorknob and he waited a minute to see if she’d mention cough drops or the little mints she liked. The kind in the green foil that came in a box. It was funny how her face could light up from a chocolate mint that cost next to nothing or a bag of those corn chips with the chili powder. When she didn’t say more, he pulled the door closed but it didn’t click. He needed to fix that, but he’d probably have to replace the whole doorjamb because the wood was old and couldn’t hold a screw. And what good is a new door if you can’t stay on the land under the house?

  At the truck Hollis paused again to glance up the hill at the cemetery and the green vista beyond. In his mind he could lift himself straight off that mountain and look down on God’s creation and let it take his breath away. Especially this time of year when every plant and tree turned from green to the brightest colors, preparing for winter. Preparing for death.

  The view here was changing and even though he couldn’t see the machinery, he could hear it across the ridge. And he could see the white scar in the earth a mile from there. A scar is supposed to heal and get smaller, but this one expanded and moved closer to Beulah Mountain and he wasn’t sure there was any stopping it.

  Years ago he would have prayed. He would have asked God for wisdom or at least the restraint to not wring Curtis’s neck. Now he just got in the truck and pushed the clutch and let it roll down the hill before he turned the key.

  The dirt-and-gravel road wound around the mountain like red on a candy cane. There was hardly room in places for one vehicle, and Juniper complained that they were going to slide off the edge one day during a rainstorm. Maybe she was right. Maybe she’d be better off if he slid over the hill.

  At the bottom of the driveway a rusty farm gate stood open. The gate and latch were attached to telephone poles sunk deep on either side. Hollis had sawn the fallen pole in two and used the pieces to flank the entrance, like a castle gate. Posted and Keep Out signs were nailed to the poles. Underneath were Keep Out and Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted signs.

  Hollis hit the blacktop and the bumpy ride smoothed a bit until he came to the crumbling asphalt. With the onslaught of the new mining came a bevy of overweight trucks that tore up the roads. There is always a cost to progress.

  He wound down the mountain toward the town and slowed when he saw the black mailbox with Williams painted in white. It leaned out toward the road like it was looking to pull into traffic. Hollis parked behind an El Camino that had been there since the Iranians took hostages. Grass grew over the back fender. He remembered when Curtis bought it and how proud he was to have the first half car–half truck in the county. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then many things do.

  The Williams house sat on the cusp of a hill that flooded each year in heavy rain. Hollis had grown up with Curtis. Rode the same school bus. They had loved the same girl in high school and both of their hearts had broken when she left the hollow. Her name was like a song heard in childhood, a tune you remembered but words you couldn’t recall. Hollis hadn’t heard from her again and he doubted he ever would. Just thinking of her smile made him feel guilty because it would hurt Juniper to know he was thinking of another woman, even if she was only a memory.

  He rang the bell and heard whispers and creaking linoleum, then his name on the lips of Curtis’s wife, Ruthanne. He knocked and called for Curtis and they finally opened the door.

  “Hey, Hollis, how you doin’?” Curtis said, smiling at him through the screen. All three of them knew why Hollis was there, but there was a moment of silence, like the anticipation of a test that lay facedown on a desk.

  “I got a phone call,” Hollis said.

  “So your phone still works up there?”

  Hollis didn’t smile. “Is it true?”

  “Is what true?” Curtis said.

  “The company made you an offer? That little . . .” Hollis didn’t say the word he was thinking. “Buddy offered to buy you out?”

  “Hollis, it ain’t none of your business. I don’t need your permission—”

  “You’re right. You don’t need my permission to talk with anybody. But we had an agreement. That is my business.”

  Ruthanne appeared behind Curtis with arms folded. “We need the money. We can’t pay the taxes. I’m surprised you can, with Juniper and all the doctor bills.”

  “You know why the taxes were raised. You know how CCE is in with the county. What they say goes. And Buddy wants to—”

  “It don’t make no difference why they was raised,” Curtis said, looking at the floor. “We can’t pay it. Nobody can. It only makes sense to sell while somebody’s offering a fair price. If we don’t take it, they’ll get the land dirt cheap. Come on, Hollis, surely you can see that.”

  “This is exactly what he wants. He’s worked his way up and now he’s proving to the company he ought to be running the show. And you’re helping him.”

  “He already runs the show. It’s only a matter of time until he gets your part of Beulah Mountain.”

  “Maybe so, but they can’t take the cemetery,” Hollis said. “The government won’t let him. They care more about the dead than the living. And I’m ready to put up a fight he’ll never forget.”

  “I swear, Hollis, you’d still be bailing out the Titanic if you was on it,” Ruthanne said.

  Hollis stared hard at her, then at Curtis, and he saw it clearly. The conversations in the dead of night, pillow to pillow. The fear somebody like that pip-squeak Buddy Coleman could put in a man. The desire of a wife for stability. It was in a man to fight and it
was in a woman to nest, and those desires competed and wore both down until they became one flesh.

  He turned and saw the tire swing hanging limp from the L-shaped oak tree by the creek. A memory flashed of him and Curtis playing, back before the house was built. He saw his son playing with Curtis and Ruthanne’s daughter right there at that same tree. The cookouts and laughter. The floods and all the people moving to higher ground. And the coal dust that settled on the leaves and windowpanes and in lungs.

  “At some point you have to admit you’re licked. Use the money. You could move Juniper into a nice place in Charleston, closer to the medical center.”

  Hollis took off his baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. “You know they’ll level your house and doze the mountain and push it down here so it covers the creek and that old tree. Then they’ll scrape out everything that’s worth a dollar and load it up and throw out grass seed and call it good. Head to the next mountain.”

  Ruthanne turned and walked into the kitchen. Curtis stepped onto the porch and closed the screen door behind him, and Hollis felt like he could breathe, felt like he could just talk to his friend without the pressure of another.

  “I’m sorry, Hollis. I didn’t want to go back on my word. I had to make the hard choice. We have to at least salvage something.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “This is like the big flood. The water comes up and at some point you get to high ground and take what means most. Let the rest go.”

  Hollis drew a deep breath, remembering his own father’s labored breathing from his years in the mines. That he could draw his lungs full and not cough was a blessing he didn’t take for granted. “I know you got obligations. But I thought we agreed.”

  “We did. Until it got clear we ain’t never keeping this land. And even if we did, there’s nothing left here.”

  Hollis leaned against the porch railing. “I seen this man on TV the other day talking about how people give up too quick. It was one of them PBS things where they ask for money. He was saying that most people who really want something give up just before they’re about to get it. Happens in politics and war and careers. Said it’s when you’re close to getting what you want that things get the hardest. You have to choose early on whether you’re going to fight or give in because if you wait until things get hard, you’ll give up.”

  “That’s what he said?”

  Hollis nodded.

  “Sounds like that feller never run up against Buddy Coleman.”

  “I expect he never did.” Hollis pulled his cap down and held out a hand. Curtis shook it. “Have you signed the papers?”

  “They’ll be ready in a day or two.”

  “You heard about the meeting Wednesday. Would you come and listen?”

  Curtis winced. “I’m sorry, Hollis. There’s more people ready to sell. I admire you for taking a stand. I got no quarrel with your heart.”

  “Thank you for opening the door.”

  “Tell Juniper we said hey.”

  Hollis walked toward his truck and stopped. He stared at the tire swing again and then closed his eyes and could almost hear the voices from the past echo through the valley.

  3

  RUBY GETS A SURPRISE VISIT FROM THE LAW

  BIDING, KENTUCKY

  MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2004

  Ruby Handley Freeman sat at her kitchen table with the overhead fan circling lazily above, just fast enough to make her wispy white hair wave. She strung half-runners and snapped them and dropped them in a pot of cold water, the white beans squeezing out every now and then. She’d bought them at the FoodFair, along with some sugar and other ingredients for baking, which was Ruby’s love language. The few people she interacted with received care in dialects of cakes and brownies and treats that came from the cookbook in her head. No one who tried Ruby’s carrot cake ever complained of her scrimping on ingredients, particularly sugar.

  Her fingers were bent and gnarled from arthritis, but she had enough dexterity to grab the string on either end and pull, then snap the beans. When she had enough for a mess, she swirled her hand inside the pot, held down the beans and dumped the water, then ran more in until it was half-full. She put the pot on the burner and retrieved bacon from the refrigerator and put it in to boil along with the beans. She never cooked a pot of beans or ate them without at some point thinking about her friend from Beulah Mountain. Strange how those memories returned as the beans grew limp in the pot and the steam rose around the covering lid and the smell of those gifts of God permeated the room.

  The volume on the radio in the corner was turned to earsplitting levels, but it was just right for Ruby. She listened to the Christian station on the left side of the FM dial and never saw a reason to change it. The teaching was encouraging, the Southern gospel uplifting, and she got all the news and information she needed, which wasn’t much at her age. In fact, the less she knew about the goings-on in the world, the better, as far as she was concerned. Wars and rumors of them filled the papers, and she could feel the rancor rising with Bush and Kerry going at each other. Her husband had been more political than her and that he wasn’t around to see this election was a small comfort after the loss of her lifetime companion. He had listened to baseball games on this radio in his shop, and when she found it after he died, just turning the knob made her feel a little less lonely.

  Ruby lived for the afternoon broadcast—replayed again at 11 p.m.—of Reverend Franklin Brown, an old-time preacher turned radio man who made her feel like he was right there in the kitchen or in the living room if she wanted to put her feet up in the recliner by the TV. The man had a gentle way of speaking the truth without banging people over the head and was more encourager than prophet. He announced birthdays and mentioned those who supported him, and of course, she always smiled when she heard him say, “And a big thank-you to Queen Ruby from Biding, Kentucky—who lived for a time in my old stomping grounds, Beulah Mountain, West Virginia. These days the queen lives far away from the noise of strife, which reminds me, we should play ‘Dwelling in Beulah Land’ before we end today. I’ll try to work it in before the clock on the wall says it’s time to leave.”

  The daily program was just beginning when she heard a sound at the door and saw a shadow in the three small windows that ran alongside it. She turned down the heat under the beans and did the same for the radio volume and waltzed to the door, though to any objective observer it might’ve looked more like shuffling.

  A sheriff stood there. At least he wore a uniform of a sheriff. Ruby had promised her son and daughter she wouldn’t open the door to any strangers after the last incident, and she wondered if maybe this man was an impostor.

  Ruby wiped her hands on her apron. “What do you want?”

  “Can you open the door, ma’am? It’s the sheriff.”

  “How do I know you’re really a sheriff?”

  He pushed his hat back and turned, and through the window she saw the lights on his squad car swirling. Maybe some escaped convict was in the area. Or the convict had overpowered the sheriff and was dressed in his clothes. Now she was thinking like Frances, picking out the worst thing that could happen and treating it like reality.

  He held up a card to the window and the picture looked like him, so she unlatched the rickety lock and struggled to pull the door open.

  “How can I help you, Officer?”

  It was a deputy, with a closely shaved haircut and burly arms like tree trunks. He had kind eyes and a boyish face.

  “Ma’am, we got a 911 call from this location. Did you make it?”

  She pulled her head back like a turtle into its shell and furrowed her brow. “What in the world would I do that for?”

  “We got a call from this residence and we’re required to check it out. Do you mind if I come inside?”

  She shrugged. “Sure, come on in. Can I get you a slice of coconut cake?”

  The man smiled and took off his hat. “No, ma’am. I’m fine.” He followed her into the kitchen, scanning the r
oom and glancing at the pantry that served as a hallway to her bedroom. He noticed the phone on the kitchen table. “Have you made any calls lately? To friends or family? Maybe you misdialed?”

  Ruby put a hand on her hip and stared at the phone as if looking at the thing would bring back the past. “The only thing I did was call to check on something I ordered. I put in the tracking number, but it didn’t work. Then I called the cable company. The bill was ten dollars more this month and it’s already sky-high. Do you have cable?”

  “I have satellite TV and they charge like a mad bull.”

  Ruby tipped her head back and laughed, grabbing a kitchen chair for stability. “Sounds like your satellite company and my cable company are in cahoots.”

  “Do you mind if I look at the numbers you dialed?”

  “How do you do that?”

  “Here on the phone. You just press this button right here and it brings up the last number you dialed.”

  “Is that right? Well, go ahead and push it.”

  The man pressed the button three times and leaned down to get a better look. “Yeah, here it is. See this long string of numbers?”

  “Let me get my glasses,” she said, and by the time she found them and returned, the man had to punch the button again.

  “The number you dialed started with 911.”

  Ruby’s mouth dropped open and she stared up at the man with bewilderment. Then her eyes got big and she pointed a gnarled finger at him. “You know what? Now you wait right here.”

  She moved to the living room, where another phone sat on a stand by twin recliners. She picked up a blue page and handed it to him. “Right there it is. It does start with 911.”

  “You dialed the tracking number. You have to call this number down here and then you punch those numbers in. When you dialed 911, it didn’t matter how many numbers you dialed after that, it came straight to us.”

 

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