Under a cloudless sky, p.3

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 3


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “And you came all the way out here because I did that?”

  “It’s all right, ma’am. It happens all the time. Little kids play with their phones and think it’s a toy or somebody your age misdials . . .” He saw the look on her face and quickly said, “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

  “Right. It was an honest mistake, wasn’t it?”

  “It sure was, ma’am. Now you have yourself a—”

  Ruby put up a hand. “You don’t have to report this, do you?”

  “Well, I need to let them know everything’s okay, if that’s what you mean.”

  Ruby rubbed her hands together. “I have a son and a daughter who don’t think I should be living here. They want to move me into a home or some place where they fix all your meals and tell you when to take your medicine—and I don’t need that.”

  “You like your independence.”

  “I’ve earned the right to live where I want, don’t you think?”

  “I wouldn’t argue with you, ma’am.”

  “I keep telling them that I can take care of myself. And they say, ‘Well, if you fall and break your hip’—I’m not going to fall. They’ll say, ‘What will happen if you fall going to get the mail or the paper?’ I’m not going to fall walking down the driveway. Walking keeps me spry.”

  “My mother says the same thing, ma’am. She doesn’t want anybody telling her what she can and can’t do.”

  “That’s exactly right. ‘Don’t drive to the store—we’ll take you.’ That’s what they say. Do you know how far away my daughter lives? She’s an accountant for this outfit down in Nashville. And my son’s ten miles away and he comes to mow my yard every week or so. I can’t wait a week to go to the store, and I’m not going to bother him to do something I can do myself.”

  “Your daughter visits often?”

  “No, I hardly ever see her. When she calls, she talks like she’s double-parked.”

  The deputy smiled. “Well, I’d better be going, ma’am.”

  “I feel bad about this. I apologize for the mix-up. I won’t do it again. But you don’t have to tell them, right? My son and daughter? They’d have a fit.”

  “It’ll be our secret, ma’am.”

  “Let me get you something. Wait here a minute.”

  Ruby hurried back to the kitchen and it took five minutes, but she returned with three pieces of cake on a sturdy paper plate wrapped in plastic. “This is my coconut cake that Leslie loved—that’s my husband. He passed away. He said if he ever went into a coma, he wanted this fed to him intravenously.”

  The deputy laughed out loud and took the plate, thanking her. “I’ll share this with the boys at the station.”

  “You do that, and you come back for more when you’re ready. I’m so sorry I made you come all the way out here for nothing.”

  “It’s not a problem, ma’am. Thank you for the cake.”

  Ruby watched the deputy walk to his car and get in and put the cake on the seat beside him. She closed the door and slid the lock in place. Back in the kitchen, she turned up the radio and heard the song “Dust on Mother’s Bible,” stirring the beans as she hummed along. The man on the radio followed with the song “Gone Home,” and it was all Ruby could do to hold back the memories of all the people she’d known who were no longer alive.

  The doorbell rang again and she thought it was like Grand Central Station today.

  “Here’s your mail, ma’am. I tend to agree with your kids. That’s a long driveway and it’s uneven in places. Rocky. If you fall, there’s nobody around who would see you.”

  She took the mail. “But you’re not going to tell them about the phone call, are you?”

  “No, ma’am. That’s between us.” He smiled and touched his hat. “Have a good day, ma’am.”

  Ruby locked the door and sat at the kitchen table with the mail still in her hand. She knew exactly where they’d put her. Sunnyside. It was a long brick building with little apartments on one side and a convalescent center on the other. Across the street was a storage unit behind iron bars, and she thought both were places you put things you didn’t have room for anymore.

  Franklin Brown came back on the radio after another song. He always had a devotional or some kind of teaching he gave in the middle of the songs. Once a pastor, always a pastor.

  “Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?” he said. “Now, there’s plenty of people who can believe that God forgives, as a theological proposition. God forgives sinners. God doesn’t hold bad things against us when we’re in Christ. That’s a concept we can grasp. But until forgiveness has grasped you, it doesn’t do you much good.

  “Let me explain. It’s one thing to believe God can forgive you. It’s another to believe it so deeply that you accept that forgiveness.”

  The man paused for effect, but he didn’t need to. Ruby was right there with him.

  “There’s probably somebody listening now who has held on to guilt and shame for years. Or you’re holding a grudge against someone from the past and it’s eating you up inside. I’m here to tell you today, God doesn’t want you to live in the shadow of that mistake or that grudge any longer. You can be forgiven. You can forgive. You can live again. Bring that thing into the light. Don’t let it isolate you. God wants to set you free from whatever is holding you back.”

  Ruby stared at the radio, thinking there was no way that man could know what was going on in her soul, and yet here he was saying words that cut to the marrow. She was glad when he played another song. It enabled her to focus on something other than the past or the phone call that brought the sheriff.

  She studied the mail. The electric bill was on top. Followed by coupons from FoodFair for flour and sugar and other things she bought every week. How did they know? There was a receipt from another ministry she supported and a political flyer. At the bottom of the stack was an envelope with her name written in calligraphy. She stared at the return address, then flipped the envelope over and saw an image in a wax stamp that took her breath away.

  Ruby put the envelope in the top drawer of her dresser, next to the other invitation that had come a month before, and closed the drawer. She sat and spooned beans into a bowl and put a pat of butter on top and watched it melt. Then she shook salt and pepper over the beans and when she took a bite, it was like tasting her childhood. Finally she retrieved the envelope from the dresser and read the card inside.





  Charlotte Beasley pulled her 1988 Toyota Camry over at a rest stop on I-64 a few miles east of Louisville and studied the MapQuest directions she had printed. Her grandfather had bought her this car so she could drive from her apartment to Marshall University and not have to take the bus. If she had a car, he reasoned, she could drive home to Beulah Mountain on weekends or holidays or whenever she needed a break from the “city.” She had taken one look at the repainted Toyota and said, “Papaw, it’s almost old enough to vote.”

  “It’s just getting broken in,” he had said. “That engine will probably outlive me.”

  Charlotte shook her head, but she loved him. She teased him for his frugal ways, but down deep she knew he wanted the best for her, even if the title to the car read “restored salvage.” Maybe that was why he had bought the car in the first place; their lives felt like “restored salvage.” She had named the car Black Betty, and with the excellent gas mileage she saw the gift not as a slap in the face but as a gentle hug.

  Charlotte had walked across the stage in May to receive her diploma and she’d heard her grandfather’s familiar hoot owl call from the back of the arena. Now with a degree in journalism and all the hope in the world, she was ready to use her education to change that world, though she was more unsure now than ever about how that was going to happen.

  She got back on the interstate, accelerating through the curve of the on-ramp, and heard the slight knocking in the le
ft front near the wheel. A friend had said it was probably a strut issue, though Charlotte wasn’t sure what that meant. She turned up the radio when she heard “Meant to Live” by Switchfoot and sang along.

  “We want more than the wars of our fathers.”

  She stopped singing at that line, the words bringing up something she wanted to forget. A face that hadn’t been there at graduation.

  A half hour later she pulled up the long driveway of Ruby Handley Freeman’s house. At least, she hoped it was the woman’s house. There was no name on the mailbox, just a street address, and a car sat in the graveled parking area. The house was up on a little knoll and the view seemed fitting for a rich old woman, though the house was far from a mansion.

  Someone had constructed a ramp to the door over the front steps. Charlotte assumed this was to prevent a fall. She parked and stared at the house, waiting for someone to open the front door or pull back the curtains.

  After a few minutes she walked up the Astroturf-covered plywood and took a deep breath. She listened closely and heard a resonant voice inside that vibrated the windowpanes. She pushed the doorbell and waited. When nothing happened, she pushed it again and held on. The voice stopped and the windowpanes rested. Footsteps inside now. Then white hair and two beady eyes looking out the window beside the door.

  “Mrs. Freeman?” Charlotte said with a pleasant tone, loud enough to be heard through the wood door.

  “Whatever you got, I don’t want any.”

  It was an aged voice but there was strength to it. There was a twinge of mountain in the accent but only a twinge. And something that sounded like fear. But maybe that was Charlotte’s own emotion.

  “I’m not selling anything, Mrs. Freeman. I just want to talk.”

  “I don’t talk to strangers. Now get back in your car and move on down the road before I call the sheriff. He’s already been here once today.”

  Charlotte smiled and moved to her left so the old woman could see her face better. She wasn’t blessed with height. Charlotte stood five feet four inches and that was with heels. But everyone always said Charlotte had the nicest smile and dimples, so she turned on the charm.

  “Mrs. Freeman, my name’s Charlotte Beasley. I’ve been calling your phone for several weeks. I’ve tried to leave messages and the historical society sent you two invitations. But we haven’t heard a thing.”

  “And you’re not going to hear anything. I don’t pick up the phone unless I recognize the number. And I don’t talk to people I don’t know through the door. That’s the rule. Good-bye.”

  Charlotte batted her eyelashes now like a little girl who wanted a different-flavor lollipop for trick or treat and wasn’t afraid to ask. “Mrs. Freeman, if you’ll give me a minute, I’ve driven an awful long way. I don’t mean any harm.”

  No response from inside but Charlotte still saw the wisps of white hair in the window, so she forged ahead.

  “I’m from Beulah Mountain. I think you know where that is because, as I understand it, you lived there for a while. Way back in the 1930s? Is that right?”

  Silence from inside.

  “I was hoping to ask you a few questions for the local paper, the Beulah Mountain Breeze. That’s why I wrote and called. I was hoping since I’ve driven several hours to get here that you would at least talk to me.”


  “My granddaddy is Hollis Beasley. He owns a good part of Beulah Mountain that was passed down to him. The family was probably living there when you were young. I think it was 1933 that you moved there with your daddy? Anyway, my papaw owns that land, at least for a while longer. And my daddy, his son, worked in the mines and . . . well, you don’t need to know everything about me, do you?”

  Charlotte laughed nervously, trying to gauge whether her monologue was having any effect. It was a lot like writing for the newspaper—you had to go on faith that someone actually read your words.

  “I also work for the Company Store Museum. I was told by Mrs. Grigsby-Mollie they sent you an invitation to the grand opening. Is that right? Did you get it?”

  No response.

  “Mrs. Grigsby-Mollie is head of the historical society. It’s going to be something, Mrs. Freeman. Everybody’s excited about it and all the history it represents, and people are going to come from all over. I’ve been writing these articles about the way life was and what the store looked like and I’ve come up dry on some things.”

  “What things?”

  Charlotte’s heart quickened. “Well, one of them is the Esau scrip. I was hoping you knew about that.”

  The white hair moved away from the window and Charlotte peered in but couldn’t see much.

  “I know your daddy was one of the mine owners, so I thought you could give me some recollections. They’ve rebuilt everything—even your old room over the store. The people at the museum said you don’t talk with anybody but I thought it was worth trying. They gave me the job because of the paper I wrote in school about . . . well, the history of that area. I was interested because of my family and all.”

  Charlotte wondered if any of this was getting through the thick door between them. She liked to think she had tenacity, that she wouldn’t give up with a single no. She had worked at a call center for a semester and hated it, but the dictum that you had to make people tell you no three times was something she never forgot. Her inclination as a polite person was to take the first no and walk away, but sometimes if you really wanted something, you had to keep asking. To Charlotte, journalism was a lot like digging coal, just not as hard on the back or the lungs.

  “Mrs. Freeman, you still in there?”

  “I’m here. I’m just waiting for you to leave. Now I’m going to call the sheriff. Is that what you want?”

  “No, ma’am, it’s not. Could you at least tell me if you got the invitations?”

  “I did.”

  “And you know that the big ceremony is this Saturday. Will you be able to attend?”

  “Don’t set a place for me,” the woman said.

  Charlotte wanted to open the door and walk inside. She could probably have crawled through a window, but you had to draw a line somewhere. They had talked about this in an ethics class, how far you could push the boundaries of propriety. Charlotte had walked away from the class confused. In the end she thought if you treated people like they were family, you couldn’t go wrong. Be kind and as thoughtful as you could and let the chips fall.

  “Well, we’d sure love to have you join us. You see, I graduated from college in May and I’ve been looking for a full-time job. I’m doing more historical research than news right now. I’m trying to let people on the outside know we’re not a bunch of hillbillies. A lot of classmates made fun of how I talk, but the way I look at it, they’re the poor ones. They don’t know what I know about my people. And this museum is going to change that.”

  She expected the door to open any second. The way she pictured it, the woman would invite her in and they’d become best friends and Mrs. Freeman would ask Charlotte to write her life story instead of it being a big mystery. Or she’d write an article and send it to the New York Times and just like Rick Bragg she’d be famous.

  “I also write for the Beulah Mountain Breeze, but it’s not exactly my dream. My papaw says just bloom where you’re planted. You know, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ That’s what he keeps quoting me.”

  With each peek into her life, Charlotte felt she was making headway. If the old woman was moved, she might open that door and they’d drink sweet tea and Mrs. Freeman would reveal what she knew about the massacre and the Esau scrip and the third-floor rumors.

  “If you want to check out my credentials, I can slide them under the door. All I have is my driver’s license, or you can call my editor at the Breeze.”

  She opened her purse and pulled out her wallet. There was her driver’s license and in the window next to it was a round, worn medallion with the number 736 on it. She touched it and smil

  “If you won’t listen to reason, you’ll just have to talk with the sheriff,” Ruby said.

  Charlotte heard the dial tone from a speakerphone inside and then three beeps. She was calling 911.

  “All right, I won’t bother you,” Charlotte said. “You don’t have to call the sheriff.”

  She closed her wallet and put it back in her purse and hopped in Black Betty. This was going to be harder than she thought.




  JUNE 1933

  The commotion outside the church that Sunday morning in 1933 was not a mine cave-in or explosion, though there had been plenty of those in the town’s memory. No, what sent the congregants to the windows and the children spilling out the front door were shouts of warning that trouble was coming. And then there was the gunfire.

  “What’s going on?” Ruby said to Bean as she tried to see what was happening up the road.

  “It’s my daddy,” Bean said. “I can tell by his voice. And he’s got him a gun.”

  Bean’s father, Judson Dingess, had survived so many accidents in the mine that many wondered if he hadn’t caused them himself or pretended to be part of them after the fact. Injured miners received help from the company. When her daddy was hurt, he couldn’t crawl into the mine but he found the energy to crawl up the hills where they made the good whiskey, not the stuff closer to town that was watered down. The most recent accident concerning her father was a collapse of timbers that rolled off a wagon and knocked him unconscious, and no one had accused him of manufacturing that event because there was too much blood. Plus, he had been disoriented when he finally woke up. He thrashed around like a freshly caught channel bass, thinking he was back in the trenches of France, until Bean and her mother calmed him.

  While life in the mines had sent Bean’s father running toward drink, Bean’s mother ran toward the church and the stability that a tight hold on God would bring. This was the push-pull of their marriage and Bean was caught between. She adored her mother and the rock-ribbed belief she had that God was there and cared about hard-living people. But she also loved her father in ways she couldn’t explain. She had seen him being kind and gentle, and he loved to laugh and played the fiddle like nobody’s business. There was music inside him that came spilling out and echoed off the hills. Except he had lost that fiddle in a card game when he was trying to win money for another drink, so the house had gone silent.

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