Under a cloudless sky, p.9

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 9


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “Mama thinks this one’s going to take,” Bean whispered as they cleaned the plates and forks. “But all the other babies have died before they came out, so I have my doubts that this one is gonna be fully baked.”

  Ruby held up a fork and looked at the intricate design, then handed it to Bean to dry. “How come you have such nice silverware?”

  “You mean, why do we not own nothing else of value and still have this?”

  “I didn’t mean anything by it,” Ruby said.

  “It’s all right. Mama’s family gave her this set when she and Daddy got married. They gave her lots of plates and teacups, too, but most of that got smashed. You can’t smash silver. You can lose it or people can steal it or trade it.”

  “Has some of it been stolen?” Ruby said.

  Bean glanced at her mother fanning herself in a rocking chair. “My daddy traded most of it for corn mash. People up on the mountain have a still. He’s got a taste for the silly sauce.”

  “Is that where he is now?” Ruby said.

  “Mama says he’s out chasin’ the devil, whatever that means. And when he’s not doing that, he’s drumming up people for the union. I don’t know where he is.”

  “So your daddy’s a union man?”

  “You bet he is. There’s a lot of people who are.”

  “My father said the miners are a lot better off without a union here,” Ruby said.

  Bean gave a smirk. “It figures your daddy would say that. He doesn’t have to crawl into a mine. He gets to stay aboveground and make rules. The union’s comin’ whether your daddy thinks it’s good or not. From what I hear, just about all mines have a union. Protects the workers.”

  Ruby dipped the meat plate in the dirty water and scrubbed at the grease. “My father said unions sometimes take as much from the miners as the bosses. But if there are good bosses who are fair—”

  Bean leaned toward Ruby. “If my daddy ever shows up, don’t let him hear you talking that way.”

  Ruby nodded. “I’ll admit I don’t know a whole lot about it.”

  In the silence that followed, Ruby heard a creaking behind her and turned to see Bean’s mother uncover something on the wooden counter by the window.

  “Made you something, Bean,” Mrs. Dingess said. “Who wants cake for dessert?”

  Bean’s mouth dropped open and she squealed. “Mama makes the best cakes in the county.”

  “Now don’t promise something I can’t deliver,” her mother said, chuckling. “I didn’t have enough sugar for frosting, but the cake will be good.”

  “I’ll spread some apple butter on top,” Bean said. “Or just cow butter if it’s warm enough.”

  “I can get you sugar,” Ruby said. “It won’t be any trouble. We have lots at the store.”

  “No, we can’t afford it,” Mrs. Dingess said.

  “And Mama’s not big on credit.”

  “It would be a gift,” Ruby said.

  “She ain’t big on gifts, either, because it feels like credit.”

  “I only want a sliver,” Ruby said.

  “What’s wrong? You don’t like cake?”

  “I told you I don’t do well with sweets.”

  There was a peck at the screen door and Ruby saw her father. She ran and opened it, and he stepped inside and took off his black fedora. “I came to take Ruby off your hands.” His voice was high-pitched but warm and kind.

  “Oh, we love having her,” Bean’s mother said.

  He reached out a hand and took hers. “I’m Jacob Handley.”

  “Cora Jean,” she said, smiling. “Why don’t you have some cake with us?”

  “I’m not eating mine,” Ruby said. “You can have it.”

  Her father hesitated and finally put his hat on the table and sat. He tasted the cake and raised his eyebrows. “This is wonderful.”

  “They didn’t have sugar for the frosting and I said we could get some from the store.”

  “Of course,” her father said.

  Mrs. Dingess ignored the offer. “Ruby was telling us stories of the movie theater and concessions.”

  “You never told us about the hotel,” Bean said. “Or the train trip. Or what the town was like. I have a million questions.”

  “Ruby is quite the storyteller,” her father said, brushing crumbs from his mustache. “She’s dramatic enough to be in the movies, I think. Maybe one day you’ll see her up there on the silver screen, Bean.”

  The front door squealed on its hinges and Bean’s father walked inside. Swayed was more like it. He was teetering from one side to the other, squinting at the man sitting at his kitchen table like he was trying to focus.

  “Well, we need to get home,” Mr. Handley said. “Get your Bible and your things, Ruby.”

  “What’s your hurry?” Judd Dingess said, his words slurred. He steadied himself with a hand on the wall. “Stay awhile. You built this palace, didn’t you?” He banged his palm and left a dent in the plaster. “Not as nice as where you live or where Coleman lays his head, but then we’re just common folks.”

  Jacob Handley looked at Mrs. Dingess and tried to smile. “The cake was wonderful, ma’am. Thank you for your hospitality. Ruby, let’s go.”

  Ruby was out the door carrying her Bible, but Bean’s father stepped in front of the door, blocking her father. “Fraternizing with the chattel is frowned on in most coal camps, cap’n. You have your side of the tracks, we have our’n.” He cocked his head. “Unless you’re interested in something else we got other than coal.” He glanced at his wife.

  “Judd, stop it,” Cora Jean said. “Leave them alone.”

  Bean’s father threw his hands up. “Hey, far be it from me to hold a man back.” Then he leaned close. “You’d never hold a man back from what he needed, would you, Handley? You’d never stop a man from doing what he really needed to do?”

  “Daddy, please,” Bean said.

  Judd laughed and gave a crusty cough. Ruby’s father pushed past him and down the step, and Judd pushed the screen door open and spit phlegm into the yard.

  “Go on back to your store! Go on back to your fine life and moving pictures while the rest of us die in a dark hole.”

  Ruby felt a hand on her shoulder as they quickly walked away.

  “I think it might be best for you to stay away from their house.”

  “Why? This is the first I’ve seen Mr. Dingess there.”

  “Well, he showed up today, didn’t he?”

  “They’re nice, Dad. Bean’s mom is so kind. And Bean’s the best friend I’ve ever had.”

  “I know. I’m not saying you can’t be friends. But I think you need to stop going over there. The talk in the town . . .”

  “What talk? You mean about the union?”

  He stopped and stared at her. “What have you heard?”

  Ruby saw his concern and considered her response. “Bean mentioned something. But I heard Mrs. Grigsby talking about it in the store, too. I don’t understand. Why do the men want a union if you’re treating them well?”

  He took a deep breath and resumed his walk. “It’s complicated. The workers want us to be fair. That was my goal when I agreed to invest in this. I didn’t come here to just make money. I wanted this mine to be different. There’s so much greed, Ruby. So much disparity between rich and poor. I wanted to help create an atmosphere where those working in the mine and those who ran it shared success. The houses we built—I wanted them to be better than anything people like Bean’s family could afford.”

  “Her house isn’t that nice.”

  “That’s because my plans weren’t followed. And your mother’s illness prevented me from being more involved. Since we’ve come here, I’ve tried to change things.”

  “And Mr. Coleman doesn’t like that.”

  Her father’s gait slowed and he clasped his hands behind him. “He has a different agenda I didn’t see. I should have. I should have known by the men he’s hired to run things. Other mines have had skirmishes. South of
here—Matewan, Blair Mountain. It’s been brutal. The working conditions, living conditions—awful. Men have lost their lives and it doesn’t have to be that way. But Coleman doesn’t share my vision. We’ve been at odds since we arrived.”

  “What can you do?”

  “He’s offered to buy me out. He wants me to sell my half and leave. That would be the easiest.”

  Ruby stopped. “Are you going to?”

  “Don’t be upset. Of course not. Bean and her mother deserve better. The other families, too. If someone doesn’t stand up . . . I have power to help change things.”

  “Why don’t you buy Mr. Coleman’s half?”

  “I’ve offered. But these hills are gold to him.” He leaned down, his hands on his knees. “Things may get worse before they get better. I’ve been thinking that this is no place for a girl. And I don’t see myself leaving right now.”

  “I’m not going anywhere, Dad. I’m going to school in October with Bean. She explained why they don’t start until then here in the mountains. It’s going to be so much fun—”

  “Yes, about school.” His face turned grave. “I promised your mother something before she died.”

  Ruby couldn’t breathe. She knew what was coming. “No. You can’t, Dad!”

  A miner passed with a bamboo pole on his shoulder and a stringer of fish. Her father smiled and waved, then put a hand on Ruby’s shoulder and they walked toward town. “We’ll talk about it at home.”





  Frances sat in front of Eula’s Beauty Salon watching women coming and going. Jerry called and told her there was no sign of Ruby at the cemetery or in any of the surrounding gullies. The caretaker wasn’t around but he left a note and asked him to call.

  Frances put her phone in her purse. She had considered calling Eula but wanted to see her face-to-face and gauge her reaction to her questions. Sometimes the face betrays the heart. Frances had learned this the hard way. She had also learned there were times when the face told you nothing about the betrayal.

  Eula’s salon was the front of her house—she had added a different living area on the back when business took off. She hired younger stylists who then started their own shops in other towns, so Eula’s was known as a launching pad. A nicely dressed young woman greeted her and Frances explained she didn’t have an appointment but wanted to speak with Eula.

  “Eula is taking a break,” the young woman said. “But I’ll see if she’ll talk with you. Wait here.”

  After a few moments Frances was ushered to the back of the shop and through a sliding door that separated the old from the new. Eula was somewhere in her sixties with hair she had refused to let go gray. She didn’t look much different than when Frances had met her when her parents had planted in the little town.

  Eula offered tea. Frances could tell it was a polite accommodation but said yes anyway.

  “Sit, sit,” Eula said. “How’s your mother? I haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks.”

  “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to see if you’ve noticed anything different lately. I don’t want to infringe on stylist-client privilege.” Frances smiled.

  Eula put the hot water down and squinted. “Why do you ask?”

  “Jerry and I have been concerned about her driving. We talked with her about it and—”

  “It didn’t go well.”

  “That’s an understatement.”

  Eula poured hot water over a chamomile tea bag and pushed the sugar bowl toward Frances. “Why don’t you ask Ruby what’s wrong?”

  “I was hoping to get another perspective.”

  “Mm-hmm.” Eula sat back and folded her hands. “That mother of yours has so much life in her. Every time she sits in the chair, she talks about you. She wonders how long it’s going to be before you two lock her up in a home.”

  “We’ve worked hard at allowing her to be independent.”

  “That’s noble of you,” Eula said with a tinge of sarcasm.

  “We just want Mom to be safe. And to not do anything she’d regret. Like hit a child on a bike. It would kill her if she did that, but we can’t get her to see something bad is going to happen.”

  Eula narrowed her gaze. “It kills her you’re so far away, that she’s another box on the list for you and your brother to check off. Call Mom—check.”

  Frances tried to take the words as well-intended venom. “Is that what she talks about when she’s here? Jerry and me?”

  “She talks about a lot of things. Politics. The election. Jesus. What’s going on over at the church—I don’t think she’s ever been in here and not invited me to a service.”

  “And you’ve never come, have you?”

  “That’s between your mother and me. She’s tried to get me to listen to that fellow on the radio, too. The one she’s gaga about. Mentions her name on the program. Calls her Queen Ruby. I’ve told her she ought to drive down there and take him to lunch. His wife passed six months ago.”

  Frances’s mouth dropped open. “Mom is interested in someone romantically?”

  “The way she talks about him makes me think so, but she denies it. Said your father was the only man for her. But I half expect her to hop in that Town Car one day and point it south.”

  “Where does he live?”

  “North Carolina. He’s in her age range, from what she says. Grew up on a ridge close to where her father owned the mine. Before all of the ugly happened.”

  “She doesn’t talk about that with me. She never has.”

  “She doesn’t talk much about it with me either,” Eula said.

  Frances looked away through the large back window with the flower garden and a swarm of hummingbirds fighting over a feeder.

  Eula leaned forward. “I know you love her. But she thinks she’s an inconvenience. You’re off doing your important things, crunching other people’s numbers. Making a good living.”

  “Trying to,” Frances said.

  “I can’t understand why you don’t spend more time getting to know her. You’re missing out, Frances.”

  Frances knew a little of Eula’s life and family, and she wondered whether the words Eula spoke were really for her or if she was projecting what she felt about her own children.

  “I didn’t mean to step on your toes,” Eula said. “I get a little exercised about this—and I’ve been storing it for a while. Waiting to have this conversation.”

  “I want to hear what you have to say.”

  Eula stared out the window and it seemed to Frances that she was looking beyond, to something she could only see with her heart. “There’s things people tell you while you’re washing their hair or coloring it that they won’t tell anybody else in the world. Things come spilling out. I don’t know why—maybe it’s how relaxed people get when you wash their hair. Think about it. How many people have touched your hair in your lifetime? Your mother did when she combed it. Maybe your father, putting his hand on your head?”

  Frances could think of only one other person who had ever touched her hair, and she pushed the memory away.

  “Well, one day Ruby was leaned back in the sink and I was shampooing her scalp, massaging it, getting her to relax. The most peaceful look came over her. She said her mother used to wash her hair. Said it made her feel loved and cherished. I could see her going back in her memory, all those years melting away because I was washing her hair like her mother.”

  “Did she talk about her mother?”

  “Not much. She’d go down the trail talking about her and then turn around. There’s part of remembering the past that’s a comfort and part that’s a burden, and there just seemed to be some rooms she wanted to keep closed.”

  “You know her father was killed,” Frances said.

  Eula nodded. “The Beulah Mountain Massacre. I’ve heard about it. Ruby said they’re making a museum.”

  “I didn’
t hear about that.”

  “She had a newspaper with her the last time she was in and it had a picture of what they were making.”

  “She lived there for a while with her father, after her mother died,” Frances said.

  A doorbell rang and Eula stood, pushing off the chair with a grunt. “That’s my cue. Need to get back. It was nice talking with you, Frances.”

  “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

  “I sympathize with your situation. I don’t want her hitting anyone with that car. But maybe there’s a way to give your mother freedom and still keep her safe.”

  “How?” Frances said.

  “The three of you are going to have to figure that out. I wish you well.”

  Frances drove by the FoodFair and the post office, hoping to spot Ruby’s car. She had wanted to flat-out ask Eula where she thought her mother had gone, but decided to accede to Jerry’s wishes and keep quiet. As she drove, she heard Eula’s words rattle in her soul like a bad muffler.

  Sitting in the drugstore parking lot, watching cars head toward the interstate, Frances turned on the radio and tried to find the station her mother liked. When a man read a Bible verse, she knew she had discovered the right one.

  “I hope you’re having a good day and that you woke up like I do every morning and put one foot down and then the other. I stretch my hands toward heaven to say, ‘Good morning, Lord. This is the day you have made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.’ If that’s not how you started your day, do that now. Come on, stretch out and give God thanks.”

  There was something to the man’s voice that made Frances feel warm, even though the style felt hokey, a little too down-home. The man’s voice was a soothing, rich baritone. He spoke in Christian platitudes and well-rehearsed lines he had given a thousand times, but there was nothing that didn’t seem genuine. He really believed what he was saying.

  “I’m Franklin Brown and I’ll be with you for the next hour as we comb through some of the stacks of records and tapes and CDs I have of the best Southern gospel. I hope it will blow the dust from your soul and that something we play or say or pray will draw you closer to the One who loved you enough to die for you.

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