Under a cloudless sky, p.4

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 4


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “Bean, you get back inside,” her mother said from the church door.

  Bean looked back but didn’t obey. She loved her mother more than life itself but she knew only she could coax her father away from what the devil was trying to do. She had awakened early each day with the first light coming over the ridge and walked with her father to the train, carrying his dinner bucket. She’d squeeze his hand tight before he left and then watch him join the miners climbing onto the cars as those returning home spilled out so black and dirty you couldn’t tell they were human.

  Ruby stopped at the bottom of the steps and watched Bean run toward the road.

  “Ruby, come back here and stay with me,” Bean’s mother said. Ruby wanted to go with her friend, but she was gone, running toward her father, toward the shouts and name-calling. Bean flew like the wind, her feet barely touching the ground, it seemed. Just dust flying up from the shoes that were falling apart at the seams and her hair trailing behind her until she disappeared around the dense foliage that was taking over the road.

  A shot rang out and Ruby ran up the stairs as Pastor Brace herded the women inside. Several men followed Bean. One went the opposite direction, saying he would get the sheriff. The pastor closed the doors behind him and said, “It’s time to pray.”

  Ruby retreated with the other women as they knelt at the altar and the pastor raised his voice in supplication. Ruby closed her eyes and listened to the words prayed aloud and the groaning and moaning of the women. They rocked in pews, the wood creaking beneath them, as if their movement might tip the hand of God in their favor.

  “What’s wrong with him?” Ruby said. “Bean’s daddy.”

  “Judd’s got problems on the inside.”

  “What kind of problems?” Ruby said, lowering her voice to match the woman’s whisper.

  “The kind that don’t have answers outside of the Lord’s work in his heart. That’s what I’ve been praying about.”

  “Has he always been like this?”

  Bean’s mother shook her head and her eyes pooled. “Stay here where it’s safe, okay?” She stood, with some effort, and walked toward the door, reaching for a pew to steady herself. She closed the door behind her and Ruby turned back to the kneeling women.

  “Please, God,” Ruby whispered, “don’t let Bean get hurt. Don’t let anything bad happen to her mother. Do something for her daddy. Don’t let him hurt anybody. Please, God.”

  It was a sincere prayer and the words tasted sweet to Ruby. Ruby’s father was not religious and the death of her own mother had hardened him further to the thought of a deity who allowed such things. If Bean’s daddy had run toward drink to soothe and salve his life, or at least allow him to numb it enough to be tolerable, her own father had run toward building his empire, as if the things of earth could fill such a hole of hurt. It didn’t make him yell in the roadway and fire a pistol, but the effects were the same. There was distance in his eyes and a hunger no one could assuage.

  Another shot rang out and there was more shouting. Ruby finally had enough and hurried outside. Praying was fine when there wasn’t anything left to do, but it seemed like spectating would be better than sitting and just thinking. Was that all praying was?

  The putt-putt of a motorcar came from down the ridge and Ruby figured it was the sheriff. He and her father owned two of the only cars in town and most of the time they had trouble navigating the muddy, washed-out roads. She caught up with Bean’s mother and grabbed her hand. The woman was having a hard time catching her breath in the heavy mountain air.

  They came around the corner and saw several men standing cross-armed a stone’s throw away from Bean and her father. Bean was close enough to spit on him and she was pleading, holding out both hands. “Daddy, just give me the gun. Please. Nobody needs to get hurt.”

  The man swayed in the sunlight and tried to focus on her face, but he kept glancing at the men and holding the pistol out toward them at an odd angle.

  “Bean, come away from him,” her mother shouted.

  Bean’s father looked down the road at his wife and opened his mouth but nothing came out. Bean took another step closer and reached out to him.

  “I swear, that girl has more sand than any man in this town,” someone said behind Ruby.

  Pastor Brace joined them and spoke to Bean’s mother. “Cora Jean, the sheriff is almost here and he’s not going to like being drug out of bed at this time on a Sunday morning.”

  “I was on my way to church, Pastor,” Judd shouted, his words barely intelligible. “You got room for sinners in that church of yours?”

  “Put the gun down, Judd,” Pastor Brace yelled.

  “Play ‘Beulah Land’! Can you sing that one?”

  The sheriff’s car chugged up the hill behind them, laboring.

  “We’ll sing anything you want. Just put down the gun.”

  Everything seemed to move in slow motion and Ruby wondered if, in years to come, she would be able to recall this scene. Bean reached to grab the gun. Bean’s father was staring at his wife and saying something about being sorry. He made a pitiful sound like some animal caught in a trap.

  Bean had the gun now, and she dropped it behind her. One of the men came up quickly and retrieved it as she led her father toward the church.

  The car stopped behind them and Ruby relaxed. But Sheriff Kirby Banning set the brake and got out, clearly unhappy.

  “I ain’t got no beef with you, Banning,” Judd called. He was leaning all his weight on Bean as he stumbled over rocks and tree limbs by the road. “I’m just on my way to church.”

  The sheriff cursed under his breath, then glanced at Bean’s mother. He spit something black into the dirt and cinched up his pants.

  Bean’s father began singing alternate words to their beloved hymn. “‘I’m working in the mountain; I can’t see the cloudy sky. I’m drinking from a fountain I hope never does run dry.’” He laughed and stumbled and fell, Bean tumbling after him.

  “All right, that’s enough,” Sheriff Banning said, glancing at the men from church. “Get him into the car.”

  “Where we going, Sheriff? A little religion won’t hurt you.”

  Pastor Brace stepped forward. “We can take care of him. We’ll get him sobered up.”

  Sheriff Banning shook his head.

  “Oh, come on, Kirby,” Judd said, struggling to make it to his knees. “I ain’t got no problem with you. It’s Coleman and Handley I want to use for target practice.”

  Sheriff Banning waved a hand at the men and they put Judd in the car. Bean’s mother pleaded with the sheriff, “He’s had a hard time since the accident. Please, let us take him.”

  “He can sleep it off in jail. Plus, he just made a threat. That’ll have to be dealt with.”

  “Who’s making threats?” Judd said as they closed the door. “I didn’t make no threats.”

  Bean dusted off her clothes and stood by Ruby. As the car turned around in a wide place in the road and drove past them, Ruby heard someone singing “Beulah Land” and laughing.





  Hollis Beasley walked out of the Family Dollar carrying a case of water bottles and a box of green mints. It nearly killed him to buy water in plastic bottles because he had grown up drinking out of the streams and wells that dotted the hills. Water was something you took for granted and buying it made as much sense as paying for air. Now he bought it from companies that hauled it in hot trailers pulled by diesel trucks. He had tried a filtering system at home, but when he turned on the faucet, you could smell the sulfur and he knew Juniper’s health had taken a turn because of the water quality and the chalky air.

  He was putting the water in the back of his truck and the mints in the passenger seat when someone called his name. Crossing the street, from the Company Store Museum, came Randall Mullen, a man who had grown up in Beulah
Mountain and had escaped the mines by doing odd jobs and woodwork and, for a time, built covered-wagon table lamps that he sold at an antique store in Lexington. To turn them on, you pushed down on the brake, and it had fascinated Hollis’s son, Daniel, when he brought one home. It was a miniature work of art, but other people started making them for less and Randall had moved to fishing lures and cribs and rocking chairs for toddlers.

  In need of more steady work, Randall found a home builder an hour’s drive away in an area that was growing faster than autumn olives by a creek. A chemical plant had opened a new division along one of the tributaries that ran into the Ohio River and people needed cheap housing, so Randall had invested in a set of knee pads and installed carpet until his back screamed every morning and his knees turned to jelly. Now he walked stooped, though he was twenty years younger than Hollis.

  “I seen that ad you put in the paper,” Randall said.

  “It wasn’t an ad. It was an announcement.”

  “You still having the meeting?”

  “Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I?”

  Randall put a hand on the truck and steadied himself, stretching his left leg like some nerve was acting up that made it too painful to stand. “I don’t know. Just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

  “And why is that?”

  “Hollis, you’ve known me since I was coming up. I don’t want this place to change any more than you. But there’s things you and I can’t stop. CCE is giving people jobs. Randy Jr. is running a dragline now. That’s good money.”

  “It ought to be good money. He’s taking the place of a hundred miners with that machine.”

  “That ain’t his fault.”

  “I’m not saying it is.”

  “It’s how things are done now. You want us to go back to the horse and buggy?”

  “Never said I did.”

  “Well, it seems like it. You’re stirring people up. Fighting CCE tooth and nail. My son’s got a family to feed and you want to take away the only good-paying job he’s ever had. I swear, Hollis, there’s people here that don’t understand you anymore.”

  Hollis paused, then said, “I found out a long time ago that it ain’t my business to make people understand me.”

  “So what’s Randy supposed to do? You want him to build a windmill in his front yard?”

  “He can start by not being party to blowing up half of creation.”

  “There you go again.”

  Hollis turned and leaned on the truck. “Nobody is against getting the coal. It’s how you get it that makes a difference. You’ve seen what the explosions and dumping do to the streams. Possum Creek doesn’t even run anymore. It trickles, red as blood. Like some plague in Egypt.”

  “You can’t have it both ways, Hollis. You can’t say you’re for getting the coal out and then go over with the tree huggers.”

  “I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a tree hugger and you know it.”

  “You’re acting like one. Calling a meeting like you were organizing a new union. Just let it be. You used to be one of those turn-the-other-cheek kind of people.”

  Hollis groaned. “There comes a point when a man has to decide whether he’s going to move out of the way or stand up. I’ve turned my cheek so many times it gave me vertigo.”

  “Then stand alone and stop dragging the rest of us with you.”

  “I’m not forcing you to do anything, Randall. Do what you want with your land. Randy can do the same.”

  “Well, there’s people who think you ought to sell. For your sake and Juniper’s, too. You’re dragging her down to her grave. Now I’m sorry to say that. I don’t mean to be unkind. But this thing you’re doing is all about you and none about her or the rest of us.”

  Hollis looked hard at the man. “I’m sure it would be a lot easier if I backed off. I should keep quiet and let them level this place all the way to that museum Buddy Coleman shelled out for. You ever ask yourself why he wanted to restore that place?”

  “The historical society wanted—”

  “The historical society, my eye. Don’t you see, Randall? This is not about coal. This is our heritage. My people didn’t hand this place down so I would sell it to somebody who would blast the top six hundred feet off of it. I made a promise.”

  “To your parents?”

  “To them and to Daniel.”

  Randall took off his hat and wiped his forehead. He looked back at the museum as a mail carrier pulled up to the box outside.

  “What did they hire you to do over there?” Hollis said, changing the subject.

  “Fixing some stairs that curve up to the third floor. They’re worried people could fall and don’t want a lawsuit. Tightening the railings. That kind of thing.”

  “I’m sure you’re doing fine work.”

  “Beats laying carpet, I’ll tell you that. You been inside?”

  Hollis shook his head.

  “You should peek in there before the grand opening. There’s some pictures I never seen before. And Charlotte has been writing her tail off and putting up facts and stories of the different people. You oughta be proud of that granddaughter of yours.”

  “I am. But I don’t need to go inside to remember.” He tapped the side of his head. “I got it right here. And a lot of it isn’t pretty.”

  “I hear you.” Randall took in the view of the shrinking town like he was Cecil B. DeMille. “Someday they oughta make a movie about this place, don’t you think? Maybe that’s how they’ll bring back some jobs.”

  “Hollywood ain’t interested in our story, Randall. And if we’re not careful, this will all be gone.” He snapped his fingers.

  Randall cursed. “There you go again.”

  Randall asked about Juniper and told about his latest fishing expedition. By the time Hollis got back in the truck, the mints were soft.





  Ruby parked her Town Car at the FoodFair toward the middle of the lot where there were four empty spaces. Ingress and egress were paramount to her visits. She preferred going to Walmart where the prices were lower, but navigating that stretch of road and the busy parking lot made her nervous. And the place was so big she needed a nap by the time she checked out.

  Getting out of the car was as hard as driving or shopping. She had to position her purse by the door, grab her cane from the passenger side, and use it to push the heavy door open. Then she swiveled her feet onto the pavement and used the cane and the door to catapult herself to a standing position. Every time the Olympics rolled around, Ruby thought there ought to be an exiting-the-car competition for octogenarians. They could have it in summer and winter and include divisions for those with previously broken hips.

  She grabbed her purse and found an errant cart and used it to support herself. The only problem was the ramp leading up to the automatic doors. If she didn’t get enough momentum, she would wobble and fall. Coming down the ramp was also difficult, particularly if she had heavy bags of sugar that made her pick up speed. Once, a few weeks earlier, the cart had gotten away from her. She’d scraped up her hands a bit on the asphalt but the real damage was the truck the cart hit. It made a long scratch in the bright-red paint on the side and Ruby felt terrible. She stood in the hot sun for fifteen minutes, waiting for the truck’s owner, then finally sat inside her car and turned on the air-conditioning. She had cooled off somewhat when a burly, round-bellied, bearded man exited the store and headed for the truck. Ruby got her door open and had swung her feet out, but the man was in and gone in a flash. That experience had made her skittish about pushing the cart to her car, so after that she had asked one of the baggers to help and slipped him a dollar.

  Ruby needed some extra sugar this trip and the five-pound bags were right at the top end of her weight limit. The kind she liked was shelved low, which she could never understand, so she settled for the bags at eye level, which were thirty cent
s more. She didn’t want to throw her back out.

  “Can I help you with that, ma’am?” someone said behind her.

  Ruby turned to see a young woman about her height who looked to be in her twenties, but just barely. Maybe one of the store workers, but she wasn’t wearing the red shirt with the FoodFair insignia. She had on jeans and tennis shoes and a collared top. She also had a twinkle in her eyes and a voice that sounded vaguely familiar.

  “How many of those do you need?” the young woman said.

  “Well, I was just going to get one, but if I have help, I could use three.”

  “Three it is.”

  “If you don’t mind bending, I like those down there.”

  The young woman knelt and picked up two of the bags and put them in Ruby’s cart. How anybody got down that far and got up so fast was beyond Ruby, but such was the nimbleness of youth.

  “Can you put them up here on the seat?” Ruby said. “I can’t unload the heavy stuff when I check out if it’s in the front.”

  “Be glad to,” she said, placing the sugar by Ruby’s purse.

  “And leave a little space between because it’s hard for my fingers to get in there and pick them up.”

  The young woman retrieved one more bag and positioned them with a little space between, just like Ruby had asked.

  “Well, I thank you for your kindness.”

  “It’s no trouble, ma’am. Would you like help with anything else?”

  “I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than follow after an old codger like me.”

  “Oh, it would be my pleasure. I used to shop with my mamaw when I was little. She would let me ride in the cart and pick out the cereal and bread and whatnot. Made me feel special. I don’t get to do that with her anymore.”

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