Under a cloudless sky, p.26

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 26

 

Under a Cloudless Sky
 



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  Ruby paused. “There’s some places that are always with you, no matter how long you stay. Beulah Mountain was that way for me.” She tried to stand but couldn’t push herself up with one arm, so Frances helped.

  Tiffany looked bewildered, like she’d been relieved of her job, as Ruby walked into her old bedroom. Ruby laughed. “That was not the bed in here. You folks have tried to make this a palace. It was simple. There was nothing ostentatious about the apartment. The last thing anybody wanted was to show off.”

  “You mean your father didn’t want people to think he was rich?” Frances said.

  Ruby looked out the window at the hillside and didn’t answer right away. Finally she said, “People knew he was rich. But he didn’t flaunt it. He was kind to people. If the miners were happy, everyone was. That’s what he believed.” She turned. “You tell that to the people who traipse through here. There was a difference in the way he treated people and how Coleman treated them.”

  “Mr. Coleman was also kind,” Marilyn said.

  “You didn’t know him,” Ruby said. “He hired thugs to manage things. To him people were cattle. Masters and slaves. That was his outlook.” She went to the window and pressed her face to the glass.

  “What is it, Mama?”

  “My friend and I used to run down that hill—there was a fire escape leading down. We’d go through the woods and around the bend to the little church. And they would sing. Oh, it was beautiful. That’s where I came to know the Lord.”

  “What about your father?” Frances said. “Did he go to church with you?”

  “He came once, as I recall. It was complicated.”

  Charlotte noticed Tiffany and Marilyn exchanging glances, like they were ready to move on.

  “Is there anything else you’d like to see?” Marilyn said gently.

  “I think we’ve seen enough, right, Mama?” Frances said.

  Ruby walked through the door, but instead of turning left, she turned right and headed upstairs.

  40

  RUBY VISITS THE THIRD FLOOR OF THE COMPANY STORE

  BEULAH MOUNTAIN, WEST VIRGINIA

  FRIDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2004

  Each step was a mountain for Ruby. The staircase narrowed and she felt closed in like she had when she was a young girl walking these steps for the first time. Her arm throbbed as she climbed. She focused on the shoes she wore and the tight laces through the eyelets. In a way, the shoes were carrying her, lifting her to a place she had never wanted to see again but had been drawn to just the same.

  She reached the landing and thought she knew what Sir Edmund Hillary must have felt. Behind her came the whir of a shutter as Charlotte snapped pictures. Ruby wanted to protest, but she had only so much energy. Plus, she liked Charlotte’s spunk. If the girl hadn’t been so persistent, Ruby might not have made her pilgrimage.

  For years, Ruby had considered the consequences of walking into this room, where her life had changed forever. Each time the idea surfaced, she pushed it down and vowed to keep her secret. No one would understand and certainly no one would forgive. How could they?

  She shuffled to the door as others held back as if allowing her to enter the Holy of Holies alone. By sheer willpower, she grabbed the knob, expecting it to be locked, but it turned loosely and jiggled. She pushed open the door and let go. It hit the wall with a thud and tiny bits of plaster fell to the hardwood.

  There was a new-paint smell, but she caught a hint of the past in the linseed and leather. The cigar smoke that had hung heavy was gone, but she still smelled it, still was able to close her eyes and bring it back. Funny how the mind could call into being something that had vanished, like the scent of burning leaves or the inside of a dusty hymnal or a room filled with never-worn shoes.

  She glanced at the pictures on the wall next to the window and something went numb. Those faces had blurred in her dreams through the years, but now they looked at her in focus, staring across the decades, accusing her. And why wouldn’t they? They knew the truth about what happened on that day in 1933.

  The others joined her and Frances put a hand on her arm and asked if she was all right. Ruby nodded and walked to the window, the mountain vista overwhelming.

  “I think I need to sit,” she said.

  She fell heavily into the leather chair with her back to the men on the wall. She looked up at Tiffany. “I want to hear what you’re going to tell people you bring here. I assume you will allow visitors.”

  “Of course,” Marilyn said, stepping forward. “This is part of our history, though it’s not the prettiest part.”

  Tiffany cleared her throat as if she were about to sing an aria. She brought her palms together dramatically, fingers touching.

  “Come on, let her rip,” Ruby said.

  “This room was planned by Mr. Handley to be a meeting place for the mine owners and their managers.” Tiffany spoke with a prim, proper voice devoid of feeling. She opened a hand toward the window. “From here, they could see not only the town and the railroad, but also the coal being loaded and readied for transport. It was their headquarters, if you will, and a rendezvous point for the men of Coleman-Handley. This was the central hub for their decision making, as well as a place where men could freely drink an adult beverage and smoke a cigar and unwind from the hard work. They talked of their successes and failures, accidents and acts of God. There are stories of card games that went on well into the night.

  “But make no mistake, there was much work accomplished here, too. Mr. Coleman calculated the tonnage of coal being brought out of the mine, deciphered their profit margins, and made plans about the next operation or how to best invest. So it makes sense that one of the most significant, though darkest, events in the town would happen here. It was in this room that the massacre you’ve heard about occurred. The details aren’t fully known because no one survived the attack. But the sheriff who investigated the crime and kept meticulous records believes it happened this way.

  “In the early evening of October 2, 1933, a miner named Judson Dingess entered the store just before closing. He was known in town as a troublemaker and had been arrested by the sheriff several times for being drunk and disorderly. Dingess had been slightly injured in a mining accident a year earlier and hadn’t returned to work. His wife had died in childbirth the day before, so his mental state is in question.

  “Dingess entered the store and asked to see Mr. Coleman. The manager of the store, Mr. Grigsby, told Dingess to leave. There was a protocol for meeting with management. Dingess complained but complied and left, Mr. Grigsby reported later. However, we know that Dingess retrieved his daughter, Beatrice, who was twelve at the time, and returned to the store later that evening.”

  “Hold up a minute,” Ruby said, raising her left hand. “How do you know that he went and got his daughter?”

  “Because his daughter was among those who were killed. Dingess waited until the store had closed and gained access by another entrance—the sheriff believed he used the fire escape on the back of the building. His daughter was a friend . . . well, she was a friend of yours, wasn’t she, Miss Ruby?”

  Tiffany’s speech slowed and stalled as she made the connection between a story she had memorized and the old woman sitting before her. “You knew her, didn’t you?”

  “I know everybody you’re talking about. These aren’t people from the history books. Grigsby gave candy to the poor kids at Christmas. I smelled the coffee on his breath. Coleman was as mean as a snake. You can’t tell that from looking at his picture. All of these people you’re talking about are real to me. They’re not just names.”

  “Is how she’s explained it true, Mama?” Frances said. “Is this what you were told?”

  “Some of it resembles the truth. Some of it is fabrication. But I want to hear the rest. Go on.”

  Tiffany blinked as if trying to recall her place in the story and continued. “Dingess entered the room through that door and confronted Mr. Coleman and three of his associates who were
present at the time.”

  “Associates?” Ruby said. “That’s a polite way of describing them.”

  Tiffany gave a half smile. She pointed to the pictures on the wall and said the names of the men, but Ruby didn’t turn.

  “One can imagine an argument ensuing. Perhaps shouting. Perhaps it took several minutes to escalate, or it could have happened quickly. But at some point, Dingess pulled a gun and, at point-blank range, killed Mr. Coleman. Then he turned the gun on Mr. Handley. The three associates also had guns and they opened fire and wounded Dingess, but not before he returned fire and killed them. Beatrice Dingess was also wounded in the melee and she died a short time later.

  “It was a crime that rocked the community and the company. After the incident, stringent rules were put in place about dealing with disgruntled employees. Other mines in the area did the same. And shortly afterward every mine in the state was unionized.”

  Frances looked at her mother. “Where were you when this happened, Mama?”

  Ruby looked at Tiffany as if she would know.

  “Miss Ruby had been put on a train earlier in the day and was sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. She was gone when all of this took place, thankfully, and didn’t find out about her father’s death until two days later when word reached the school.”

  “Who told you?” Frances said.

  Ruby put a hand on her injured wrist. “I met with the principal and the headmistress. They took me to the office and sat me down, offered tea. I knew it was bad. I can see his face now. The bushy mustache. And his mouth moving, telling me my father had been killed and that the school was my new home and they’d take care of me and I didn’t have anything to worry about.”

  “You must have been so scared, so alone,” Frances said.

  “I don’t think I can describe the feeling,” Ruby said.

  A silence fell in the room. Ruby ran her tongue around her dentures, staring at Tiffany. “The girl who was killed—we called her Bean. Tell me what happened to her father.”

  “As I said, he was injured in the exchange of gunfire in this room. A trail of blood ran down the stairs and out the front door. Mr. Grigsby heard the gunshots and alerted the sheriff, who rushed here and caught up with Dingess as he was exiting the store, running from the scene. Shots were fired again. The sheriff had no choice. Dingess was killed in the street.”

  “And that’s in the report by the sheriff? His recollection was that Dingess was running? He was alone?”

  “That’s correct. We have the report, written in the sheriff’s own hand, downstairs in the museum if you’d like to see it. Judson Dingess and his daughter and wife are buried in common graves in the Beasley cemetery.” She brought her hands together again dramatically and with a smile said, “And that’s why this room holds such a storied place in our history.”

  Ruby leaned forward and stared at the dim shadow she cast on the hardwood. No one moved. The only sound was the wind whistling around the windowpanes.

  “Miss Ruby, we’d like to hear what you remember,” Marilyn said. “The day you left Beulah. What do you recall about that day?”

  Ruby didn’t move, running the story through her mind. “The trunk was packed and sent ahead to the school. Everything I needed was in there. So I just had one suitcase with me when I got on the train.”

  “Your father sent the trunk ahead?”

  She hesitated. “Yes. All I needed was the small suitcase I carried and the ticket.”

  She closed her eyes and heard the train whistle in her memory. That sound had haunted her, and every time she heard a train whistle, she thought of that lonely ride. “I’m not sure you want to hear my recollections. Especially since my version doesn’t line up with what you’re going to tell folks.”

  The women glanced at each other quizzically. Only Charlotte kept her eyes on Ruby and stepped closer.

  “Well, here goes. This room was not just a meeting place for the men. It was that, of course. And you’re right about the drinking and the cigar smoking and card playing. There was plenty of that, and it’s something that became vexing to my father. He was on the outside of that group. At odds with them. So there was conflict between how Coleman wanted to run things and how my father thought things should be.

  “For example, there were shelves that ran the length of that wall.” She pointed behind them and the women turned. “On those shelves were women’s shoes. Nice ones you don’t see in a coal-mining town. Some with straps and heels you’d never wear on our muddy streets. Some boots that laced up.”

  Marilyn smiled. “Mrs. Freeman, we put that myth to rest long ago. This was a meeting room, not a footwear display.”

  “Missy, judging from the lack of wrinkles you have, I’m guessing you weren’t alive in 1933.”

  “Well, of course not. But we’ve been quite meticulous in our research. And the odd assertion that the store sold shoes up here—”

  “I never said they sold them here. I said there were shelves full of them. This can’t be the first time you’re hearing that?”

  “It’s not the first time—but only a few have ever mentioned it, and there is no historical evidence to support what you’re saying.”

  “I have evidence,” Charlotte said.

  The woman turned on her quickly.

  “I found a picture that shows Miss Ruby is right. There’s a wall of shoes in the photo.”

  Marilyn stood ramrod straight as if she were defending a castle wall. “It was probably taken on the first floor. You’ve seen the shoe display. It’s historically accurate.”

  “You’re right,” Ruby said. “The work shoes with steel toes and the children’s shoes and the regular women’s shoes were down there. I’m not disputing that.”

  Marilyn laughed nervously. “I don’t know why we’re getting hung up on this. You have a memory from more than seventy years ago. Memories can be faulty.”

  “But Charlotte says she has a picture,” Frances said. “Pictures are not faulty, are they?”

  Marilyn glared at Charlotte. “We will examine what she’s found, of course. It would have been more helpful if you had brought this to our attention when you found the picture, Charlotte.”

  “I just discovered it,” Charlotte said. “And frankly I was concerned it would be pushed aside like the Esau scrip.”

  There was an audible sigh from both Marilyn and Tiffany as if this were an old burial ground that had been dug up and found empty.

  “You don’t think there was such a thing as Esau scrip?” Ruby said.

  Marilyn furrowed her brow and tried to smile. “Mrs. Freeman, it’s clear you’ve been through quite an ordeal. Maybe it’s best if you got some rest?”

  Ruby rose from the chair and walked around the room, looking down. “I appreciate your concern for my well-being. And my mental state. But I want to show you something before you dismiss what I’m saying.” She put out her right foot as if to do the hokey pokey. “Take a look at these.”

  Marilyn looked down. “They look quite authentic. From the 1930s?”

  “Yes, 1933. They came from this room. In a way, these shoes brought me back here. The memories they stirred are part of why I returned.”

  Marilyn drew close. Her voice had been clear and precise, but now she lowered it to a guttural level, barely audible. “If it’s your intention to sabotage what we’ve worked to create, you can leave.”

  “What was that?” Ruby said loudly. She could hear what was said, but she wanted the woman to repeat it.

  “Mama, we should go,” Frances said. She took Ruby by her good arm.

  Ruby pulled away. “Missy, you listen. If you want to make everything sentimental and nostalgic, go ahead. Lies will sell for a while, but eventually people will see through it. You’ll get a lot more people here if you tell them the truth.”

  “And what is the truth?” Marilyn said. “Your version? At least what you can remember of it? I’ll remind you that your children took your car keys because you’re losin
g your faculties.”

  “Now hold on,” Frances said.

  “Those that aren’t trusted to be on the road shouldn’t be trusted with their stories.” Marilyn glared at Frances, then walked out of the room, her heels striking the hardwood. Tiffany followed and only Frances and Charlotte were left.

  “I told her she wouldn’t want to hear my version,” Ruby said, frowning. She looked at Charlotte. “I’d like to see that picture of yours.”

  “Mother, we should go,” Frances said.

  “I’m not ready,” Ruby said.

  “Why not? We agreed we would look at the store and then leave.”

  “I know. Something in that lady’s tone makes me want to stay. The only thing worse than living through something terrible is having people not believe it happened. Or that it happened another way.”

  Frances sighed heavily. “I’ve checked out of the hotel. There are no rooms available tonight. So we’ll need to get on the road—”

  “You can stay with us,” Charlotte said. “My mom and me. I’ll get the picture for you. I’ll show you everything.”

  41

  FRANCES AND RUBY STAY THE NIGHT AT CHARLOTTE’S HOUSE

  BEULAH MOUNTAIN, WEST VIRGINIA

  FRIDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2004

  Frances helped her mother into Charlotte’s house, a three-bedroom ranch at the foot of Beulah Mountain. An upright piano sat at the far end of the living room and the television was playing Wheel of Fortune with the sound up loud. There were pictures on the mantel of Charlotte with her family and a special picture of her mom and dad that looked more like a shrine. Frances recalled something about Charlotte’s father dying in an accident. The man looked like a younger version of Hollis, with the same tall frame and stoic face, though in one picture he smiled. Frances wondered what would keep them in this community after such a loss.

  Charlotte’s mother, Lillian, was a petite woman with rough hands and a kind face, though there was a sadness to her eyes. Frances guessed she and Lillian were about the same age, which was not the only thing they had in common. Both were in the same life situation—alone, without a husband. They both liked Wheel of Fortune, though at different sound levels. And they both had daughters they loved dearly.

 

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