21 May, 2017
These mountains are killing me—killing all of us—though I know it’s in self-defense. Getting away from here is all I can think about as I step off the bathroom scale, skim my jeans over my pelvic bones, take up the slack inch of denim with a safety pin. Another pound has slid off me this week, even though I shoveled the last of an orange-glazed Bundt cake into my mouth yesterday. Missy’s momma baked the cake for Paw, but my father-in-law wouldn’t eat it, sent it home for Jasper and me to share. Paw won’t eat much of anything these days. He went from mining to logging when the coal dust sucked the air from his lungs, then from logging to sitting on the couch when his Crohn’s disease turned to cancer and his body started dissolving. Like mine seems to be doing.
My ribs look more like a washboard now than four years ago in high school when they nicknamed me Bony Romie. I worry maybe I have Crohn’s, too. It’s wiping out half the mountain, what ones don’t die of cancer or black lung. The GI doc in Bluefield told Paw he’d called the CDC down in Atlanta, told them they should start tracking it. Said it wasn’t normal for Crohn’s to nest in an area like it had in Stump Branch. Paw and the doctor think it has something to do with the coal mines—something they’re pumping into the ground, or something they’re pumping out—probably the same thing that’s causing the grass to burn up and the fish to swell and lay on the bank like wall-eyed shovel heads.
The smell of sweet cornbread baking wafts into the bedroom, and my mouth waters, but I ain’t hungry. Food sometimes turns against me these days, causes a quick rush of nausea. It always passes, though. Paw told Jasper the same thing happened to him right before he was diagnosed.
I put away the pink Myrtle Beach 2012 t-shirt from our last vacation, pull down one of Jasper’s bulky West Virginia Mountaineers sweatshirts instead. It’ll hide my ribs and the little swollen paunch that’s shown up low on my belly.
“Anybody home?” Jasper calls from the living room. Our trailer trembles when he slams the front door behind him, and I massage the dull ache building behind my temples.
I snatch the notice about the mountaintop-removal-mining protest from the dresser, shove it into the drawer before Jasper sees it. I hate the anti-MTR meetings and protests. The things they say about what’s happening to the land and to us who live here scare me, give me nightmares even, yet I can’t seem to stay away. The woman who invited me to my first meeting in the back bay of Walker’s Garage told me that what I didn’t know could kill me. Since then, I haven’t missed a one. I want to learn everything they’re teaching, see firsthand the changes taking place in the people of Stump Branch.
I’ve watched a dozen locals become spies or environmental activists in a matter of weeks. Men and women I’ve known all my life have turned into scientists who show us soil and water samples, toxicology reports, easily pronouncing six-syllable words and reading long lists of deadly chemicals—and one of those men never finished high school. Funny how staring at death makes people smarter.
Now I smooth back my hair and make myself smile, then head down our short hallway. “There’s my man.” I lean in to peck a kiss on Jasper’s lips, the only part of him besides his eyeballs that isn’t pitch black. “Did the nightshift treat you all right?”
Jasper nods, sets his lunch bucket on the vinyl runner by the door, slides out of his dirty twill coat. “I smell cornbread.” His blue eyes light like propane flames, their brightness intensified by the mask of coal dirt surrounding them.
“Can’t have brown beans without it,” I say.
“Mmm, lady! I’d marry you again, if you weren’t already mine.”
“Get cleaned up. Cornbread’ll be done in a jiffy.” I turn off the warming flame beneath the pan and spoon potatoes fried with onions into a blue-speckled bowl. “Might want to bring in your work boots off the porch, set them in the tub. We’re supposed to get a skiff of snow later this morning.”
“Too early for snow. I ain’t ready for it, yet.” From the bathroom down the hall, Jasper’s voice echoes as if he is still deep in the mine. “You check on Daddy after work yesterday?”
“I did.” I add a thick pat of golden butter to the fried potatoes, the same thing I made for my father-in-law yesterday, and I think of the man’s yellowing, wary eyes. Paw—I’ve always called him Paw instead of Daddy, out of respect for my own daddy who died when I was a teenager—Paw’s sliding downhill fast. It isn’t just his sickness, either. His mind ain’t acting right. He’s not himself, and I worry he’s up to something. A no-good sort of something.
A long pause settles between us before Jasper asks the heavy question I know will follow. “He send any more Oxy home with you?”
“On the bedroom dresser.” I set the table, stand by the kitchen window and watch the morning sunrise illuminate the miles of flat, beige scab that used to be a cloud-grazing piney mountain. I unclench my teeth and work my aching jaw.
Ten minutes later when Jasper pads out of the bathroom bare-chested, barefoot and smelling of soap, I slide the pone of steaming cornbread onto the table. “Want milk for dunking?”
“Heck yeah.” He flashes his white smile, and just like that, my icy mood melts.
Jasper picks up a slab of cornbread, slathers it with butter, takes a big bite and talks around it. “How many pills did he send this time?”
I look out the window again, listen to the harsh wind whistle past the windowpane. No deep folds of mountain, no heavy forest out there anymore to hedge us in, protect us. “Didn’t count ’em.” I break off a piece of cornbread, crumble it between my fingers, watch the grains sprinkle onto the plate. “Felt like too many.” I dust my hands and take a long swig of milk to wash away the bitterness on my tongue.
“You’ll wish you had more, the day comes you ever need to sell ’em.”
I set down my glass hard enough to make my fork jump. “Dammit, Jasper, you been dying since the day you walked into that mine. I’m tired of you always planning for the day you don’t come home.” I stand, rake my food into the garbage can and run scalding water over the plate.
“Don’t be like that,” Jasper says. “Sit down, honey. Eat.”
“Not in the mood for cornbread,” I say.
“Want me to make you a sandwich? Peanut butter is my specialty.”
“I’m not hungry.” I dry the plate, and I’m startled when Jasper breathes into my hair, slides his arms around me, pulls me back against his chest. I rest there, let his warmth seep into me.
“We talked about this when I started working for Prospect. You know the chances I got of coming home in a box.”
I know. Oh, yes, I know. Roof bolting is about the most dangerous job an underground miner can do. It also pays the most.
Jasper nuzzles my neck and whispers in my ear as his hands move lower on my stomach. “Babies cost money, and if we want a little Grodin some day, I need to stick around there a while.”
I squeeze his hands, slide them a bit higher. How I ache for a child in the hollow of my belly, pray day and night for a baby. A selfish prayer, premature, but one that, if God will answer, might help Jasper see the sense in leaving. Stump Branch might cradle Grodin family land, but it’s no longer the place for Jasper and me to start our family. The land is sick, the people are sick, and now I’m feeling sickly, too.
I turn around in Jasper’s arms, look up into his once-smooth face, now lined and creased a decade beyond its twenty-two years. “You promised you’d quit in five years.”
He nods, and a trickle of water sluices from a light-brown curl, skims his neck and slides onto his chest. “Still got part of one to go.”
“We could get out now, Jasper, go to North Carolina. Plenty of textile jobs down there. Construction jobs.”
“You ain’t got no reason to worry about me spending a lifetime underground. I can’t stick around there no longer than six or seven years, anyhow.”
“Six or seven years! You’d consider staying longer?”
“We’re less than a year from tearing into the last big coal seam on the property. After that, no more underground mining. Prospect’s doing everything above-ground. MTR mining all the way. I’m the last of a dying breed, baby.” He grins.
“Jasper, nobody says you got to stick out the full five you’d promised. Besides, Stinson didn’t keep his word, neither. You still ain’t got no medical card. You have to beg for a day off and lie to take one.”
He tilts his head, touches his lips to mine, and electricity snaps between us. I flatten my hands on his chest, push him away. “Finish eating, and get some sleep. I have to run into town. I’ll check on Paw again while I’m out. I believe he’s supposed to see the doc again tomorrow. He thinks he can drive, but I want to make sure.”
Jasper eases onto the straight-backed chair awkwardly, gingerly, like an old man.
“Your back bothering you again?” I ask.
“Not too bad. Big slab of roof fell today.” He lifts his palms heavenward. “Had my hands up just so, caught the edge and shoved it to the side before it crushed Jimbo. I might have twisted wrong.” He rolls a shoulder, arches, then digs his spoon into the beans. “Say Paw’s going again tomorrow? Didn’t he just go a few days ago?”
I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, quietly. “They go more often when it gets to end-stage.” I watch him carefully, but he won’t look at me. “The doctor called and said the big polyp he took out last week showed more cancer. Said Paw needs to have another ten or twelve inches cut out of there, but your daddy won’t hear of it. Said no more knife.”
“No more knife,” Jasper echoes, pushing his food around his plate.
“Sorry, Jasper. I know you hate talking about these things.”
“So . . . what’s Daddy gonna do?”
I watch my husband for a moment. He wouldn’t want me to candy-coat the truth. “He told the doc to double up on his pills if he would, but no more cutting.”
Jasper chews slowly, puts down his spoon and looks up at me.
I hold up my hand, stop him before he can speak. “He needs them pills himself, Jasper. You know he’s got to be hurting.”
“Ain’t like I’m taking anything he ain’t offering. His idea to skim off the bottles, not mine.” He breaks off another wedge of cornbread, dunks it into the milk. “He don’t take half of what they prescribe for him, anyhow. Said if he took Oxy at the rate the doctor pushed it on him, he’d O.D. in an hour.”
I turn away before I wipe my eyes, so Jasper won’t see.
“Besides,” he says, “I told him he ever needs them back, I got them right here, and I’ll come running. Told him I’d never sell them, anyhow. They’re yours for when—”
“For when you die! Hell yes, I know that!”
Jasper shrugs, bites off the sopping cornbread, swallows with hardly a chew. “It’s the only life-insurance policy we got.”
I blink hard, his words stinging me like a slap to the face. I yank Jasper’s good hunting jacket from the coat tree by the door, shove my arms into it and push the cuffs over my wrists. Jasper’s words circle through my head again. Caught the edge and shoved it to the side before it crushed Jimbo. My Lord.
“I’ll try to be back before you leave,” I say, then I catch myself and speak a bit softer. “You pulling a twelve again? What time you go in?” He doesn’t answer, and when I turn, Jasper’s eyes catch me, hold me in the way that hurts my heart.
“Baby, come here.” He holds out an arm, and before I know it, I’m wrapped up inside him, he’s wrapped inside me.
With the groceries bought, the electric bill paid, and what’s left of Jasper’s check deposited, I head back up the mountain, almost wishing I didn’t have the day off work. Not that I like calling patients who can’t afford their medical bills to remind them a turnover to collections is looming, but it beats watching Paw die.
The Jeep rocks like a boat among waves as I navigate the ruts and climb the ridge toward Paw’s place. I peer into the skeletal tree-line as the afternoon sun begins to sink, but I find no colorful fall leaves, no late green shoots, no encouragement that spring will follow winter, will ever come again to Stump Branch.
As I near the top, I slow and steer the Jeep to hug the inside of the narrow road, my stomach balling tight in anticipation of meeting one of the monstrous coal trucks that race up and down the ridge all hours of the day and night. Each year since the mine opened in ’98, someone has died either in a head-on collision or from being run over the steep embankment by a coal truck. Prospect always pays the fines, but they’ve never lost a court case, and no family has ever received reparations for loss of life. My fingers ache from gripping the wheel too tight, and I flex them, telling myself that maybe tonight I will paint my nails for Jasper, telling myself anything to get dying off my mind.
I let out a pent-up breath when I round the blind turn without meeting a coal truck. A jarring blast from the mine a mile and a half away further stretches my nerves, and I grit my teeth as loose dirt and rubble tumble from the steep shale bank above onto the Jeep’s hood and roof. You can’t ever have anything nice around here.
Topping the knoll, I gaze out the passenger window at the bleak desolation below. Another big gray slurry pond—nearly the size of a lake—burbles and pops where once a field of Queen Anne’s lace, wild strawberries, and morning glories ambled over the ground. Nearly seven years have passed since they dug the pond, and not a weed nor a blade of grass grows within a hundred yards of it. Poison slop. Full of arsenic, copper, selenium, and other chemicals I can’t yet pronounce, but have heard named at the anti-mountaintop-removal coalition meetings. I study the pie charts, and I always pay special attention to the one depicting water quality, where the chemicals cover all but a blue sliver of the pie. A pond can’t hold in that kind of misery for long. Nothing can.
After the turn-off toward Paw’s place, the Jeep travels smoother road along the man’s well-tended drive. I pull alongside his mailbox, reach out the window and retrieve a handful of doctor bills, insurance notices, and the same anti-MTR flyer that was in my mailbox yesterday. Paw hasn’t been outside since my last visit.
The house hasn’t changed much since the first time Jasper brought me home to meet his folks six years ago, right after he’d gotten his driver’s license. The white clapboards don’t look as proud now that coal dust stains the crevices, and though Paw usually keeps up with the ditch lilies Momma Grodin planted the year before she died, he hasn’t cut them back this fall, and they lay like heaps of wilted broomstraw along the edge of the porch.
Paw doesn’t come to the door as he usually does when I drive up, so I jump out of the Jeep and mount the steps two at a time. He could be in the bathroom, I tell myself, trying to banish bad thoughts.
I knock at the door, three quick raps. “Paw?” I open the door without waiting, knowing my father-in-law’s front door has never been locked. As easy to lock the boogeyman in as out, he once told me. May as well let him come and go as he pleases.
“Paw?” A rush of heat wraps around me, nearly takes my breath, and I cross the wooden floor and check the thermostat. Eighty-five. “Where are you, Paw?”
“Be out in a minute.” His voice sounds strangled, and he rattles a wet cough.
Bathroom. I drop the mail on the coffee table, shed Jasper’s coat and lower the thermostat to seventy-three. “It’s hotter than Hades in here, Paw. You got the chills or something?”
The toilet flushes, followed by running water at the sink, then Paw emerges. “I’ve been a little chilly, yeah.”
I suck in a breath. His face has grayed overnight, and his eyes have sunk so deeply into their orbits that he looks like the plastic Halloween skull I put on our front porch last week. He offers a strained smile and walks cautiously down the center of the wide hallway, as if barefoot on broken glass.
I rush to his side. “Paw, my Lord, why didn’t you call me?” Once a foot taller than me, Paw now walks with a stoop, and he levels his hollow gaze with my stare. “You look a mess,” I say. It’s an understatement.
Paw grins around his grimace, and his watery eyes make me want to cry.
“Ain’t nothing you can do for me, doll baby,” he says. “If they was, I’d tell you.” He pecks a hot, dry kiss on my cheek. “’Sides, I’m getting along just fine for an old feller.”
When I slide an arm around Paw’s back, his spine presses against my arm through my sweatshirt. He feels so light I think I could carry him on my hip, like a baby. “Let’s rest a bit, why don’t we?” I say. He leans on me more than usual as I lead him to his recliner and help him sit. “Can I get you anything? Drink of water? Coffee?”
He lifts a bent finger and points toward the kitchen. “Just put on a pot about six hours ago. Ought to be stout by now. Black. No sugar, sugar.” He grins at his joke, but his lips are thin and tight, and another cough bubbles in his throat.
“Want me to take you to the hospital, Paw?”
“No. Next time I come out of this holler, it’ll be in a box.”
I can’t stifle a groan. “Great. Now you and Jasper are both talking that foolishness.” I fill two mugs, add a spoonful of powdered creamer to mine, carry them into the living room.
“What’s got Jasper dying today?” Paw asks.
“Slab of roof fell while he was bolting. I swear, Paw, between worrying about him, and you, and the mine blasting that goes on all hours of the day and night, I ain’t had a solid night of sleep in a month.”
Paw’s gaze settles on the fluorescent pink flyer that came in the mail. “Reach me that thing.”
I curse myself for not throwing it in the trash before he saw it. “Aw, you know it’s another piece of propaganda. They’re right, of course, those protesters. But it ain’t doing no good, and it only serves to stir up trouble and hurt feelings.”
He grunts, but I don’t know if he’s agreeing or not. I push to find out. “Need to take their fight to Charleston, or maybe Washington. Only making people feel bad who have to earn a living in that mine. Ain’t like the men’s got a choice.”
“Everbody’s got a choice.” He sips the steaming brew, sets his mug on the side table. “They got a right to protest, and what they’re saying is the truth, Romie. Prospect Mining is killing all of us, what ones are working in the mines, and what ones ain’t.” He stares off for a moment, then speaks softly to the air. “I’ve had about enough of it.”
He turns and fixes me with a serious stare. “Jasper don’t know you go to them anti-MTR meetings, does he?”
His question catches me off guard, and I wonder how he knows, who might have told him. “No, sir. I’ve only been to a couple. I just wanted to see what they were about.”
“You ought to go to all of ’em. Don’t miss nary a one.” He points again at the flyer.
I hand the stack of mail to Paw, taking care to shuffle the flyer to the bottom. His words sound foreign to me. He’s long supported the miners, worked the mines himself in the years when men only went underground, gouged deep to get the coal instead of decapitating mountains. Used to say underground mining might not be the best way to treat Mother Nature, but it sure beat chopping off her head like Prospect has started doing now.
Paw’s glistening eyes rove the hot-pink page, then he lays the flyer on the table, sips again from his coffee mug. “They’re going about it all wrong.” He stares silently at the dark TV for a full minute. Then he turns to me. “Say you’ll help me, if I need it?”
I wipe the dampness from my forehead, wish I’d worn my t-shirt instead of Jasper’s sweatshirt. “Think you ought to go to the hospital, after all? Let’s get you a bag together.” I stand and head toward my father-in-law’s bedroom.
“Sit down. I told you I ain’t going to no hospital.” He stares at me in a hard way that tells me not to argue. “I want your word that you’ll carry out my last wishes.”
My throat clogs. I try to think of a joke, something funny to lighten his mood, but the words won’t come. Momma Grodin’s old cuckoo clock sounds from the kitchen, as if telling me it’s time to listen, time to do what Paw wants me to do while time is left. “Of course I will, Paw,” I whisper. “You know that.”
He points. “Reach me that Bible.”
I lift the worn, oxblood Bible from its place on the center of the coffee table, offer it to Paw.
He puts on his bifocals with trembling hands, then opens the leather-bound text to the last pages. “Let me read you something.”
I try not to look surprised, but it’s hard. Paw reads the Bible, believes in the Lord above, but he’s never preached to anyone, always says a man must find God on his own terms, and that he can find Him anywhere.
“The Book of Revelation, eleventh chapter, verse eighteen . . . ‘The nations were angry, and your wrath came, as did the time for the dead to be judged, and to give your bondservants the prophets their reward, as well as to the saints, and those who fear your name, to the small and the great; and to destroy those who destroy the earth.’” A wet cough gurgles its way out of Paw’s chest, and he snatches a tissue from the side table, closes his Bible.
He composes himself, and when he looks at me, his eyes are puddled. “You get that, Romie? ‘. . . to destroy those who destroy the earth.’”
I start to nod, but shake my head. “I get it, Paw. I think.”
“I want to be a bondservant.”
Dread slops over me like smothering mud, and I ache to have Jasper here to hold my hand, to pull me to fresh air. “I don’t . . . what are you saying?”
Paw dabs at a watering eye with the tissue, points toward the coat closet by the front door. “You done give me your word. Now look in there. On the floor.”
I stand, and my feet feel heavy, like they’re stuck to the carpet. “What do you mean? About being a bondservant?”
He points toward the coat closet, but doesn’t speak.
I think he must have taken some Oxy that’s made him loopy, and that’s good. He needs it. I open the dark wooden closet door and stare at the strange thing on the floor. I step closer, realize it’s a hunting vest that stands rigid, rust-colored sticks of dynamite holding it erect. My knees want to buckle. “Paw.” The word comes out on a half-breath.
“Destroy those who destroy the earth.”
I kneel in front of the closet. “No.”
“What time’s Jasper go in tonight? Five?”
“Look at me, Romie.”
I turn my head a bit, but my stare won’t leave the hunting vest.
“All I need is for you to drive me up there.”
“People will die, Paw! You will die. We have friends at that mine. Jasper could be in that mine!” I finally turn to meet his gaze.
His smile comes easier now; his face is peaceful. “I’m already dead, doll baby. Only a matter of timing.”
It’s a struggle, but I manage to hold back a sob.
“Jasper will be going in soon, won’t he? I could go into the mine this evening at shift change, during their meeting,” he says. “They always meet in that old office trailer. Either way, won’t be a soul underground, ’cept me.” He holds out his palms like Jesus on the cross. “You take me up there, go interrupt the meeting to see Jasper, tell him loud and clear something’s wrong with me.”
I shake my head to clear the cobwebs—can he really be saying these things?
“Say it so the others will hear. Tell them you came straightaway to get help . . . phone’s out, so you couldn’t call for an ambulance.”
Paw lets his hand fall between his recliner and the end table, and when he lifts it again, he holds up the phone line he’s cut, so I can see its frayed edges. He gives me a white-lipped grin. “I’ll mosey down past the equipment bays while you’ve got their attention. You and Jasper will be off the ridge before I let her blow. The ones atop the ground’ll shudder and shake, but they won’t be hurt none.”
He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “The shafts will collapse . . . mining equipment will blow all to pieces. It’ll cost more to wade through the EPA and OSHA paperwork and replace all that equipment than it will to shut her down . . . clear out of here.” Fresh pink blooms on his pasty cheeks.
My racing heartbeat slows, and I chew on a fingernail. It can’t be that easy, can it? Jasper won’t have a job, a place to work. If he’s unemployed, we’ll have to leave the state for work then, won’t we? Get out of here. Have a baby in a place where the water isn’t chemical soup.
“It’s my dying wish.” Another cough breaks from his chest, and this time red dots spot the tissue.
I lurch toward Paw, wrap him in my arms.
“All you need to do is give me a ride,” he whispers.
After a moment, he pushes me away from him, holds me at arm’s length. “They done killed more’n five hunnerd mountains and four times that in people. Somebody’s got to show them we ain’t gonna take it no more.” He shakes his head. “They poisoned me.” He pokes a finger at my stomach. “And they’re poisoning you. You, and Jasper, and everybody else in Stump Branch.”
I look down at the concave void just below my ribs, and I imagine a mound there in its place, a swollen womb full of Jasper’s child. I dry my wet face on my sleeve. “Don’t you want to talk to Jasper about this first?”
Paw shakes his head, and tears slip out again. “That’d hurt worse—hurt me and him both.” He looks away, wipes his sunken cheeks. “It’s better this way, he don’t know.” He motions toward the small table by the front door with a shaky hand. “There’s two more stock bottles of OxyContin sittin’ there, both plumb full. Ought to be enough to buy a new start in Carolina.”
I follow the direction his fingertip points, look at the big, white, square bottles. Has to be more than a hundred pills in each, a dollar a milligram. Thousands of dollars rolled into little blue tablets.
Paw pats my hand, rubs away the dampness on my cheek with his thumb. “I done laid out my UMWA life policy on the bed, ready for you and Jasper to take to the lawyer. Ain’t much, but it’ll help. There won’t be no funeral, nothing left to bury.”
“I know you think you’ve thought this through, but them mine owners won’t shut down. They’ll just lop off another mountain on down the road. Jasper’s already said that’s their next plan. And that life insurance policy—it won’t pay for suicide.”
Paw waves his hands, and his voice comes out in agitated wheezes. “I’m sick, Romie. They’ll say Oxy stunned me . . . old man wasn’t thinking right. He got confused . . . went to mines . . . thought he still worked there.” He swallows against the gurgle in his throat. “That much dynamite . . . all the gas that builds up around there . . . they’ll never know I blew the place. What’s left of that hollowed-out mountain . . . it will be gone. Insurance will pay, you bet. It’s the United Mine Workers Union.”
“They’ll fight it. You know they’ll fight it. Insurance companies don’t care about us.”
Paw’s bushy eyebrows lift, and again I’m struck by how gaunt his face has become. “Prospect’ll make ’em pay. You think they want word to get out . . . that one of their own blowed up a mine on purpose? That miners are turning against the mines?” He clears his throat. “No, they’ll want to cover it up quick as they can . . . money’s the best way to do that. They think money’ll shut up anybody.”
I grind my teeth, shake my head. “Paw, this is your sickness talking. I’m taking you to the doctor.” I stand and offer him my hand, but he waves it away. Instead, his gnarled hands grip the armrests, and he thrusts himself forward.
“Get my jacket.”
I take a deep breath. Finally, he’s thinking right. I return to the closet by the door and pull out Paw’s flannel coat, averting my eyes from the hunting jacket.
Hunched forward, Paw eases toward the door. “Not that one.” He points at the hunting vest. “That one.”
“Humor me, Paw. Put this on.” I hold open the flannel coat, guide Paw’s long arms into the sleeves.
“Humor me, now.” He jerks his head toward the open closet. “Get it.”
It’s not a bad idea to get the dangerous thing out of the house. I can set it over the hill and send Jasper to take it apart later. I pick up the heavy vest, surprised that it takes both hands to lift it. I look toward Paw, but he’s headed out the door, trusting me to do as he said. I slide the vest onto one arm, and then I see the two medicine bottles. I look toward the ceiling. Would it do any good to pray? I heft the vest against my hip, and my hand trembles when I pick up the bottles and slip them into Jasper’s deep coat pocket. I hurry out the door to steady Paw as he ambles down the porch steps.
When we reach the Jeep, I set the hunting vest on the ground, help Paw climb inside, and start to close the door.
He grabs my arm and tilts his head toward the vest. “I’ll take that.”
“Bumpy as this road is, we’ll blow to Kingdom Come before we get off the mountain.”
“Who’s the master blaster here? I’ve hauled dynamite around most of my life. It won’t blow unless somebody blows it.” He reaches out his hands, and his voice is stern. “I said I’ll take that.”
I peer into the bone-dry woods on the other side of the driveway. I’ve never disrespected my father-in-law. Never spoken a harsh word to him. He and Jasper’s mother treated me like their own child from the first time I stepped into their home.
My shoulders sag as I lift the awkward vest, ignoring Paw’s outstretched hands, and place it in the floorboard at his feet. I close the door, walk around the Jeep, and slide behind the wheel.
The pills clatter inside the bottles in my pocket, and Paw looks at me and smiles. “Good girl,” he says, his voice hoarse. “I hate it’s come to this. Shame you two got to sell them pills to make a life, but the Good Lord always provides, don’t He?” He clears his throat, sinks backward into the seat and sighs. “I’m looking forward to meeting Him.”
I press my lips together to keep from cursing. “Hope you know we’re going to the hospital.”
I glance toward Paw, but he won’t look at me, keeps his gaze on the homeplace as I head down the graveled drive.
“Last time I’ll be seeing this place.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Romie, I won’t last another day or two. I don’t want to die in no hospital.”
“You can stay with Jasper and me.” I reach the end of the drive, brake, and the clock on the dashboard reads 4:44. The numbers seem like a message, one I can’t decipher. I turn to look at Paw. “I’ll take care of you.”
“No pride in that. I’m a strong enough man, still got one more job to do.”
I look out across the rutted road, once smooth blacktop, now fractured into a million pieces by the too-heavy trucks hauling out tons of mountain soul. What was once the rising mountain where I picked blackberries, chewed teaberry leaves, and made love to Jasper among blooming dogwoods is now low-lying scarred craters—sterile, desolate, and barren. No place to live. No place to birth a baby. Only a place for dying. A place for destroying those who destroy this good earth.
I take Paw’s hand in mine, kiss his palm, let him go. I hold tightly to the wheel, turn onto the road and drive toward the mine.
“I love you like a daughter, Romie. You’re a real good girl. Thank you for doing this.”
“I ain’t doing nothing but taking you to see Jasper, let him talk some sense into your head. Lord knows I can’t.” I flinch when Paw’s fist slams the dashboard.
“I told you I didn’t want Jasper in on this.” Red-tinted saliva flies from his lip, and he wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, glares out the window.
“When you brought me in, you brought Jasper in.” Another blast at the mine causes the Jeep to vibrate, and I grip the wheel tighter, shoot a sideways glance at the hunting vest standing in the floorboard between Paw’s feet. “You sure that thing won’t blow?”
“Got to light the fuse, first.” Paw pulls an old Zippo lighter from his pocket, flips open the metal lid.
“For God’s sake, Paw! Put that thing away.”
Paw shoves the lighter into his coat pocket, speaks with a soft voice full of hurt. “I would never lay harm to you. You ought to know that.”
I reach the entrance, drive past the Prospect Mining sign. I want to throw up, rid my stomach of the nerves writhing like snakes inside it.
Paw touches my arm. “Stop here and let me out.” His voice warbles, and he clears his throat. “By the time you get to the trailer, I’ll be at the equipment bay entrance. You get Jasper, and y’all get off this mountain. I figure it’ll take me four or five minutes to get to her belly. That’s where I’ll . . . you know . . . let her blow.”
I set my jaw, press the gas pedal, and cut the wheel, slinging red-dog gravel and coal dirt in an arc across the wide parking area as I drive toward the office trailer. “I’ll do no such thing. I’m going to get Jasper, all right, but only so’s he can straighten you out. You’re going to sit right here while I do it, you hear me?” I turn off the Jeep and snatch the keys from the ignition. “If you can look your son in the eye and convince him to go along with this fool idea of yours, I’ll stand with you on it. But I won’t let you put this burden on my shoulders to carry alone.”
I step out, turn, and glare at Paw. “You staying put?”
I want him to say no. Want him to sling that heavy vest onto his shoulder, march like the soldier he’d once been into that mine, defend his family, defend this land, even at the cost of what few days he’s got left. My face grows hot, fired by coals of shame smoldering inside of me.
Paw’s lower lip thrusts outward, and he reaches into the floorboard, tries to lift the heavy vest onto his lap.
I hold my breath.
Paw grunts and strains. “Help me put this thing on.”
I look skyward, blinking hard and fast. Overhead, a lone red-shouldered hawk screeches, searches the gray strip mine in lonesome circles, moves on. I look again at my father-in-law, wonder if maybe I should do this God-awful thing that he asks of me. “Paw?”
Another rattling cough shakes his body. He lets the vest fall against the floor, leans back to catch his breath. He presses his steel-blue lips together, stares straight ahead, won’t look at me.
Ahead of us sits the trailer, and I know Jasper’s in there, know this is the place where he spends his nights and part of his days making a living for us, making a life for us, and in a way I can’t pretend to understand, he likes mining coal. How can I take that away from him?
Paw drops his head, stares at hands curled like dead leaves in his lap. He sniffs and turns to me, lets out a long, jagged breath. “Useless,” he whispers.
I climb back into the Jeep, pull a handful of tissues out of the console and offer them to Paw. When he won’t take them, I put all but one in his lap and dab the blood-tinged spittle from the corner of his mouth. “This ain’t the way you want to go out of this world, Paw. You’re too good for that kind of destruction.”
He looks out the window, surveying the wasted mountain. “I’m a foolish old man.” His chin quivers.
“No. No, you’re not.”
A wet cough rattles Paw’s body, and I turn my face away. “What say we go, before the men come out of that trailer?”
He picks up a tissue and swabs his damp face.
I wipe my eyes as I drive past the Prospect Mining sign.
Paw stares out the window toward the eight-mile fissure where once stood a mountain. He reaches over, pats my hand where it lays on the gearshift. He lets out a ragged sigh, turns his ashen face toward mine. “You done the right thing.”
I try to smile at him, but can’t. “It ought to feel like it then, oughtn’t it?” I glance at the dynamite, push away second thoughts, and drive down the broken road toward home.