Under a cloudless sky, p.30

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 30


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  Charlotte was awakened by a crack of thunder that shook the house. She glanced at her clock, then heard voices in the next bedroom. Frances and Ruby were talking. Why they were up at this hour, Charlotte didn’t know. Ruby had to be exhausted with all she’d endured.

  She put her ear to the wall but couldn’t make out what they were saying because of the rain on the roof and window. Her desire for a journalistic breakthrough was trumped by not being too nosy, so she rolled over and went back to sleep.

  The next morning she ate a bowl of cold cereal as her mother brought in the soggy newspaper. As a child, she had watched commercials that featured the tiger from Frosted Flakes and the elves from Rice Krispies, but her mother had saved the thirty-five cents per box and bought the weirdly named generic cereal from lower-budget shelves. One day she hoped she could afford a name-brand cereal.

  She studied what Corky had chosen for the front page of the special edition and frowned.

  “I thought you took some photos of Ruby at the store,” Lillian said, talking as softly as she could.

  “Those will probably be in the next edition,” Charlotte said. “Wish I worked for a real newspaper that comes every day.”

  “You’re doing fine. Have you heard anything from the résumés you’ve sent out?”

  Charlotte shook her head, then tipped the bowl and drank the rest of the milk and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “Mom, what are you going to do if Papaw sells the mountain?”

  “I don’t think there’s any if to it, sweetheart. He has the contract and Coleman wants his signature before the board meeting today. That’s what Juniper said.”

  “I can’t believe he’s going to move away and leave Dad.”

  “I don’t think he wants to, but there’s some things you have to do.”

  “What about you? You won’t leave Dad up there alone, will you?”

  “You mean move from here? I don’t see a need. There might come a time when the dust and the machines make it too hard. They’re supposed to leave the cemetery as it is, so I can still go set with him.”

  Charlotte stared at the spoon on the table, a drop of milk still in the curve. “Mom, how much do you know about Papaw?”

  Lillian dried a dish and put it in the cupboard. “I know everything I need to know, I guess. Why?”

  “I’ve looked into the birth announcements for when he was born—”

  “You’re not bringing that up again, are you?”

  Charlotte gave her mother a sheepish look and ran water into her bowl. “I’m just curious. I get it from your side of the family.”

  “You ought to bottle up that curiosity and use it for something productive.” Lillian slapped the dish towel against her leg. “You know how Hollis felt about his mom and dad. As far as he was concerned, they were his parents, period. He’s never had any desire to go digging into the past. It would be like spitting on their graves. And you ought to respect his wishes.”

  “Don’t you think he ever got curious?”

  “And tell me why it matters. He had two good people who raised him like he was their own and he doesn’t need to know any more. That settles it.”

  Charlotte put away the cereal box in the pantry and her mother wiped the table with a rag.

  “I was going to do that,” Charlotte said.

  “Just go on. And don’t bring this up with Hollis. You hear me? You’re liable to get an earful.”

  “There’s something else,” Charlotte said.

  “Oh, boy. What now?”

  “Bean’s mother lost her baby in October of 1933.”


  “Every year since I can remember, we’ve been celebrating Papaw’s birthday in October. What year was he born?”

  “I don’t remember,” Lillian said too quickly to be believed.

  “It was 1933, wasn’t it?”

  “Might have been.”

  “And there’s something else,” Charlotte said.

  “How did I know there’d be something else?”

  “Remember the fire at the Baptist church a few years ago?” Charlotte said. “Only a few of their records survived that were stored in the pastor’s office in the back. One of them was a dedication record. The record goes all the way back to 1918. In 1933, in early October, there was a dedication of baby Hollis Beasley.”

  “And what’s so all-fired odd about that? Every baby around here got dedicated.”

  “The list of people standing up front at the dedication has five names. There’s Hollis, then Talitha and Edward, then the pastor, H. G. Brace. In all of the other dedications, only family members stand up there with the pastor and the baby. I can’t find any time when a person outside the family stood.”

  “I’m assuming the fifth person wasn’t a member of the family?”

  “That’s right.”

  Lillian put her dishrag under the faucet and wrung it out. She turned and put a hand on her hip. “All right, who was it?”

  “Does the name Tilly Mae Farrel mean anything to you?”

  Frances stepped out of the bedroom and closed the door. She had a strange look on her face and it didn’t appear to be from lack of sleep. “My mother has something she wants to tell you.”

  Charlotte glanced at her mother, then at Frances. “Is this off the record or on?”





  Despite the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Hollis had reconciled himself to sell. The closer he got to the deadline, the more resolve he’d felt. And when his resolve rose, Juniper drew close in a tender way as if all the change she wanted might not satisfy in the end.

  “I just don’t want you doing this only for me,” she said.

  Who else would it be for? he thought. But he said, “It’s the best for both of us. I couldn’t see that until now.” She kissed him on the cheek before he left. It had been a month of Sundays since that had happened.

  The attorney he asked to look at the contract suggested one minor change that Buddy could initial. There was nothing holding Hollis back now, but he put off delivering the contract until the last minute. When Buddy offered to stop by the house, Hollis said no. He’d meet Buddy at the retreat center, the one named after Thaddeus Coleman.

  Like life, selling the land was a process. Nobody signed a contract and saw machines rolling in the next day. In a way, that made it harder because once Hollis decided, he wanted movement.

  He drove down the hill and spotted a hawk in a tree about eye level. He stopped the truck and watched it survey the landscape for food. He supposed there would be hawks in the town where they would move. Juniper had mentioned a new development with cottage-like homes being built in a bigger town between them and Charleston. He supposed he’d get used to that as well as this perch he’d known all his life.

  Hollis drove past the Company Store and saw a gaggle of people that would grow later in the day. He looked for Charlotte amid the throng but didn’t see her. He couldn’t bring himself to stop.

  The venue for the board meeting was near the hospital at a retreat center CCE had constructed two years earlier. The company called it good planning and forward thinking to put a sparkling building in the middle of nothing but hills. Most people in the county were barely scraping by, so it seemed like hubris at best and maybe a little mean-spirited to build it here, but the center employed a dozen people who ran it for retreats and weddings and other special occasions.

  Hollis parked his truck and glanced at his watch. He was getting in under the wire, but it made him smile when he thought of Buddy sweating. He grabbed the envelope from the front seat and made the march of death toward the building. Two men in uniform stood in front and a couple of Coleman’s burly guards were inside with earpieces
and sunglasses. You couldn’t be too careful these days, Hollis thought.

  The security guard said the meeting was invitation-only. “I know. Tell Coleman that Hollis is here with the contract. He said he’d meet me in the parking lot.”

  The man got on the radio and Buddy strolled outside in his boots and pressed jeans and an uncharacteristically warm smile. He reached out a hand and Hollis shook it.

  “You sign it?”

  Hollis nodded. “There’s a little change Homer made. You’ll see.”

  “He told me,” Buddy said. He took the envelope and put an arm around Hollis. “I’d like you to come inside. I want the board to see the good people of Beulah Mountain.”

  Something caught in Hollis’s stomach and he pulled away. “No thanks.”

  “Hollis, I want them to see you,” Buddy said, taking his arm.

  “You want to humiliate me. You got what you wanted, now let me go.”

  “I’ve got a check for you inside. The bonus I promised. If you want it, come in.”

  Buddy walked away and said something to the men in sunglasses. When Hollis walked to the front door, they gave him a badge that said Visitor. Hollis was led to a second-floor hall surrounded with windows and a view of the countryside that took his breath away. People were dressed as casually as rich people can dress. There was a long table of food that would feed a few African villages. Shrimp on ice with dipping sauce and broiled shrimp and scampi and crab legs and crab cakes. Tenderloin and roast beef along with a fellow in a white chef’s hat cutting it and serving people as they went through the line. Some sat and ate while others milled around and grazed like cattle. A man behind the bar wore a tuxedo-like outfit and poured beer or wine or mixed drinks.

  A tinkling of glass got Hollis’s attention. Buddy called them to order and asked everybody to find a seat. Hollis wandered to the back of the room and stood with his hands in his pockets. He felt like a stranger in his own backyard, like he’d wandered into a room of people ready to play musical chairs and he was the only person without one. He thought of slipping out to his truck.

  “I have someone I want you to meet,” Buddy said from behind a lectern, his voice booming through the room and reflecting off the glass. He pulled a gooseneck microphone toward his mouth and it screeched. “As most of you know, I’ve been talking with local landowners. Well, negotiating is a better word.”

  A smattering of polite laughter.

  “There’s been one main holdout in Beulah Mountain, one man who dug in his heels ever since CCE set our sights on his mountain. His family is buried up there, along with townspeople. His son is buried there—some of you remember Danny Beasley from a few years back. You can read stories his daughter, Charlotte, writes in the Breeze. She graduated in the spring from Marshall and we’re proud of her, as I’m sure her papaw is.

  “Now the knock against me is I’m young and I’m no-nonsense. I believe in the bottom line, which is digging coal and making a profit for our shareholders. I won’t ever apologize for that. But my thought is: if the company wins, everybody does. If CCE makes money, shareholders are happy. And people have work. They can feed their families. All boats rise when the tide comes in.

  “I don’t ever want to shaft anybody. My grandfather’s name is attached to this company. I’ve spent some time down in the earth. I know how hard miners worked long ago. It’s easier today, but still tough and dangerous. And I’m proud to be part of a company that values the work and the worker.

  “That’s why I want you to meet Hollis Beasley. He grew up on top of Beulah Mountain. He and his wife, Juniper, live there, and I can only imagine how hard it’s been to come to the decision he’s made.”

  Buddy held up the manila envelope and put it on the lectern. He took another envelope from his jacket and placed it on top. “There’s not enough money in the world for his property. Who can put a price on the memories? But I’m making you this promise, Hollis, in front of everyone here. Our goal is not just to dig out the coal, but to make sure that when you come back to visit your loved ones on that knoll, you feel like you’re coming home.”

  Buddy cleared his throat as if he were getting emotional. “And when it comes your time or Juniper’s, there’s a spot for you both on that mountain. That’s my promise.”

  Someone began to clap and the whole room followed suit in a muted but warm expression. Several women wiped away tears. Hollis could see the leadership team at the head table—mostly older, portly men who leaned toward each other and smiled as if they were happy about making Buddy top dog.

  Hollis saw through the flowery words and the homespun warmth because he knew Buddy was an extension of CCE. He had dealt with the company after Daniel’s death and it had been the same flowery words with no responsibility taken. Buddy was a turkey vulture circling, waiting to pick at a fresh carcass.

  “Hollis, I’d like you to come up here,” Buddy said. “The floor is yours.”

  There was applause and Hollis glanced around the room and thought it was a generous but dangerous thing to do. Hollis could unload, just back up the truck and dump all he wanted to say. But his mouth went dry. He took off his baseball cap and scratched at his head and when people stopped clapping, there was an awkward silence.

  “If you don’t mind, I have something to say,” someone said behind him.

  Hollis turned and saw a commotion at the door. Ruby Handley Freeman stood there, backed up by her daughter and Charlotte. In front of them was a guard who was trying to corral them.

  Buddy waved a hand. “It’s okay. Let them in.”

  This looks interesting, Hollis thought.





  Ruby felt butterflies in her stomach, but she had come too far to let butterflies stop her. She and Frances and Charlotte had a difficult time with the men at the door until one of them recognized her from the missing person report. It was ironic that she entered the room by proving she was who she wasn’t.

  Franklin Brown’s words returned to her and walking into the room made her feel like a queen.

  “You know me as Ruby Handley Freeman, the daughter of Jacob Handley. It’s been more than seventy years since I set foot on Beulah Mountain. And I’ve never been to this place. I heard about the festivities and thought, at my advanced age, I ought to seize the day.”

  “Mrs. Freeman, we are tickled to have you here,” Buddy said.

  “Well, with what I’ve got to say, I probably won’t ever be invited back,” Ruby said, toddling toward the microphone. She reached the lectern and Buddy pulled the gooseneck down all the way and stepped aside.

  “I apologize for my general dishevelment. I tried coming down here on my own and I ran into a little trouble.”

  Buddy retreated to the head table and sat. He smiled politely, though there was a crease of concern in his forehead.

  “My daughter and I and Charlotte just came from the museum. Everybody is excited about the ribbon cutting you all will do later. The problem is the story they’re telling is on the opposite side of the road from the truth. I’m here to set the record straight.”

  Ruby glanced at the head table long enough to see Buddy Coleman wipe his mouth nervously with a napkin. There was only one woman on the board and the way she scowled made Ruby think she would go along with whatever the boys said. It’d been an uphill climb getting here. And the hill was about to get steeper.

  “Now, to be honest, I bear some responsibility for the confusion. And I’m not talking about incidentals like what cash register was in front or the fire escape that’s not there anymore. I’m talking about an eyewitness account of the massacre.”

  This sent the room into a general tizzy with people abuzz and looking at each other and putting down their forks. Ruby let the buzz subside.

  “I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I have a confession. You know I inherited Jacob Handley’s half of
the mine when it was sold. The man who owned the other half is your grandfather, Buddy. And I’ve got some hard news about him.”

  Buddy stood. “I think we’ve heard enough.”

  “No, I don’t think you have. I want the board to hear this story before they elect a new CEO.”

  Buddy set his jaw and looked back. The chairman, a heavyset man with a drastically receding hairline, lifted a hand and signaled Buddy to wait.

  “I’ve been told Hollis tried to get his neighbors not to sell. Charlotte showed me an article she wrote. He said this: ‘What’s so precious to you, deep in your heart, that you can’t put a price tag on it?’ And his answer was the land passed down to him. Is that right, Hollis?”

  Hollis nodded and she smiled at him.

  “Well, I understand that. Land is precious. But my answer to his question is not land—it’s truth. Truth is like an old pair of shoes you lace up and tie tight and walk around in. My faith tells me that in the end, the truth will set me free, and I’m hoping it does that today.”

  Buddy signaled for one of the guards and the man moved toward the front. Ruby looked at Charlotte, who scribbled in her notebook. Frances looked concerned.

  “If this is about the third floor of the company store, we don’t need to hear it.” The female board member spoke. “Marilyn at the museum mentioned that you have bought into those apocryphal stories we’ve heard. If that’s what you’ve come here to reveal, you’re wasting your time. There’s no evidence that—”

  “She has evidence,” Ruby said, pointing at Charlotte.

  Charlotte stepped forward and pulled an envelope from her purse and handed it to the woman, who looked at it as if it were a dead mouse. She pulled out the photographs and the chairman craned his neck to see them.

  “I think the historical society will be interested in those, but I don’t see what it has to do with our meeting,” the chairman said.

  “If you’ll give me the chance, I’ll tell you what it has to do with all of you,” Ruby said. “And with the legacy of your company.”

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