Chapter 2

I don’t know when I slept but suddenly I open my eyes and its morning and the rain has stopped.  The rotten smell of sulfur seeps into the room, mixed with the smell of bacon frying. I pull my cotton nightgown over my head, take a fresh pair of jeans and a t-shirt from the satchel and pull them on.  I grab a hairbrush from the satchel, turn to the looking glass over the dresser, and catch sight of the old Callie. 

Standing there in the looking glass looking down her nose, as Mama used to say.  Proud, disdainful.  Then the reflection becomes me, lines forming around the mouth and eyes.

I leave the reflection behind in the looking glass and go to the front room where Joe Ray lies in his coffin, eyes permanently closed against his short, earthly life.  Touch the cold hand holding the small Bible like mine that we each earned in Sunday school one summer for memorizing twenty verses of scripture.

 And if you don’t believe, Callie Jane, you will die and go straight to hell.  Oh I believe, I believe!  I’m scared to not believe.  Let Jesus come into my heart and make me good.  I just don’t understand why the rich man who sinned all his life got to go to heaven, just cause he changed his mind when he was dying.  He got to have all that fun first and still got to go up there. But don’t say nothing to Mama, Callie!  It’s a sin to question the Bible.    

In my mind, I see Mama’s hand reach to pluck my Bible from among the many books that line the shelves along the walls of my apartment in Kansas City..  Her hand pauses, becomes still, and hangs suspended in the air as her eyes travel across the other titles there.

In front of the place where Joe Ray’s casket stands Mama had gathered us in a circle for family prayer, telling us each to name the thing we wanted most to ask God for.  Bicyles! Said Joe Ray and I.  I see again the sadness on her face; remember how I felt ashamed.  Dear Lord, she said, please keep us safe in your loving arms, and thank you for the load of coal to get us through the winter. 

In the kitchen, Lou Ann stands at the stove turning bacon in the cast iron skillet, her back to me. 

“How’s Mama?”

“She slept all night; that pill doped her up good.”  Lou Ann turns around.  “Coffee’s ready.”  Her eyes are red. 

I take a mug from the white metal cupboard Mama ordered from Sears, and pour a cup from the pot that sits on the red oilcloth-covered side table next to the cupboard. Adding sugar from the bowl beside the pot, I stir my coffee, reminded of a line from Eliot, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”  Thinking of my life in Kansas City as I watch the coffee whirl around in the mug. Not realizing I had spoken aloud until Lou Ann gives me an odd look.

“Yeah, I gotta have two cups of coffee when I get up, just to get going,” she says. 

I place my mug of steaming coffee on the table.  Like the poor of old New England who broke the law if they wore silk, and only wore their masters’ castoffs behind closed doors, I have broken the laws of my raising, the ones that say “don’t get too big for your britches, now”, or “ain’t we hifaluting!”  And here, in Mama’s kitchen with its worn linoleum on a tilting floor, Papa’s old mining cap gathering dust on the sacred hook beside the door, I see, for an instant, the tangled skeins of the different colors of my life beginning to unravel. 

“Can I help?” I ask. 

“If you want eggs.  Bacon and toast is done and there’s a jar of Mama’s strawberry preserves on the table.”

I pull out one of the white and yellow vinyl chairs at the Formica table and sit, taking another sip of coffee, strong just the way I like it.  Eggs remind me too much of unborn babies.

I watch Lou Ann as she stands at the stove lifting slices of crisp bacon from the cast-iron skillet onto a white platter, suddenly seeing Mama at the stove in the coal camp house the day of the mine explosion.  Mama in her blue-flowered apron, stirring something in a large kettle with a long wooden spoon while steam curls above the stove towards the ceiling. 

I hear the scream of the whistle from the mine, see Mama suddenly jerking around, dropping the spoon and running.  Crying “oh God oh God.”  Through the front room and down the steps, into the dirt road where other women and children run from squat gray houses.  The shrieking of the whistle drawing louder as I run after Mama, with Lou Ann, Luther and Joe Ray behind me, past the smoldering slagheap towards the fire shooting out of the mine. The scream of the whistle and the screams of the women and children becoming one long torment of sound from Hell.

We caught up with Mama and hung onto her dress and apron while she cried and wrung her hands and prayed.  All the women were praying the same prayer.  Dear Lord don’t let it be my man in there dying.  Because that’s what it comes down to, you don’t want anybody hurt, but please God spare my own. Every last one of our men died. Some burned to death, or were killed by the blast, but others, like Papa, couldn’t get enough air and smothered. 

At least with Papa we could have an open coffin. Many a closed coffin sat in the old camp houses, smelling like burnt flesh, ‘cause everybody wanted to bring their man home to be with their families one last time.  Surround their destroyed bodies with love, one last time.  And every last family of those miners who died had to move out of their run-down house that’d been bought up by those with a little money when the coal company that built the camp shut it down. Many years ago, when coal went bust for a while.  The landlords knew the mines would open up again and the miners replacing the ones who died would be able to pay the rent, not like the new widows.

Some families moved in with kinfolk, sleeping on quilts on the floor while they looked for an empty shack.  The older children went to Detroit or Cincinnati to find jobs and send money home to help feed the younger ones. We were lucky.  Papaw let us move into this house, where he’d lived alone since Mamaw died. 

Lou Ann sits across the table watching me.  Raising her mug to her mouth, she takes a sip of coffee.  “Mama ain’t doing so good.”

“I know.  I’m worried about how she’s going to come out of this.” 

Lou Ann spreads some strawberry jam on a slice of toast.  “I can’t take off work after this week, Callie.  We got a big order in for them Log Cabin quilts; Maggie needs ever hand she’s got.”

Mountain traditions on an assembly line.

“I have vacation saved up,” I say, “that I can use.”  I see the office where I work, the bright fluorescent light shining on the green vines trailing along my desk, the in-basket with its self-important mail that Rosie will screen for me, answering the ones demanding attention; and it all seems like a dream about a place I’ve never been.  And I remember how, to that other me, this place has been like a bad dream I escaped from.

Lou Ann takes a deep breath.  “Callie, I had to make a down payment on Joe Ray’s burial, and I ain’t got no money left over.”

“I’ve got some put away.” 

She relaxes, takes a sip of coffee, and then adds, “The funeral home’s coming to get Joe Ray in a little bit, to take him to the church.  You think maybe we oughta wait til they’re gone before we wake up Mama?  We got to get her to eat something if we can.” 

“Let’s wait.” 

Footsteps thump on the porch and a sharp rap comes at the door.  Lou Ann hurries to open it, afraid the sound will wake Mama, while I carry the dishes to the sink.  I hear Uncle Hiram’s rough voice and go to the kitchen doorway.  He’s bent over, hugging Lou Ann, tears running down his face.  Though a tall man, when he lets Lou Ann go and walks toward Joe Ray’s coffin, his back is hunched, his face gray, and I know the black lung is getting him.

“I loved that boy,” he says, stopping at the coffin, looking down at Joe Ray.  “I shorely loved that boy.”  He reaches out a big hand to touch the cold dead face, and then pats Joe Ray’s soft brown hair like he’s still a little boy.

He looks up and sees me then, and comes across the room, curving his long arms around me.  “Sissy,” he says.  A pet name he’s had for me since I was a child, coming from the time we’d lived in the coal camp house.  Uncle Hiram, Aunt Grace and their large family had lived down the road.  Being a tomboy, I’d often preferred to play with cousin Charlie than with his sisters who played with silly dolls.  One day Charlie had dared me to climb to the top of a Sycamore tree on their place.  Never one to pass up a dare I’d climbed the tree but when I reached the top and looked down the ground seemed much farther away than I’d thought. My heart had begun to pound hard, sending terror through me to my very fingertips and I’d froze there, my arms wrapped rigidly around the tree.  Charlie called to me to come down repeatedly but I couldn’t move.  “Sissy,” he yelled at me. “You’re a sissy.”  

Uncle Hiram had come out of the house then and thought that the funniest thing he’d ever heard, Charlie calling me a sissy, like I was a scared boy.  Chuckling every now and then, Uncle Hiram had climbed the tree and helped me down.

“I woulda come sooner,” he says now, “but the bridge to our place is washed out.  I had to come the long way round.”  He lets go of me and wipes his eyes on his shirtsleeve. “How’s your Mama doing?” he says.

“Not very good.”  I’m suddenly glad he’s here.  “We’ve been waiting for the hearse to come and take Joe Ray before we wake her.” 

He shakes his head.  “No, that ain’t right.  She got to say goodbye to him.  You can’t be sneaking him out whilst she’s still sleeping.  Take me to her.” 

He follows Lou Ann and me into Mama’s room.  She lies on the bed staring at the ceiling with a puzzled look, like she’s just waking up and is wondering where she is.  Her head turns toward us.

Uncle Hiram sits down on the edge of the bed and takes hold of her hand.  “The Lord don’t give us more’n we can bear, Sister,” he says.  “He done called Joe Ray home cause it was his time to go, and we hafta ‘bide by that.” Mama moans.

Uncle Hiram places his hand on her head, like he did Joe Ray’s, smoothing her hair back from her face, quieting her.  “Dear Lord,” he prays, “this here woman is a mama who has lost her son and we know thy will be done, oh Lord, but please have mercy on her.  Grant her peace, Lord Jesus, so she can ‘bide your will and release Joe Ray into your loving arms, and not be hanging on like mamas do, and holding back his spirit and keeping it from eternal rest, amen — now Bertie,  you say goodbye to Joe Ray and let him rest in peace ‘cause that there is the Lord’s will.” 

Uncle Hiram stands up, holding Mama’s limp hand and waiting. He places his hand on her head again as she turns to look at him, the brown eyes she got from Papaw deep pools in her lined face.  “I can’t, Hiram, I can’t.” 

Tears flow down her wrinkled cheeks.  “Why did the Lord take my boy from me!”

“It ain’t for us to know why, Sister.  It ain’t for us to know.  The Lord done wanted Joe Ray with Him, and we hafta ‘cept His will.”

Thy will be done.  How many times had I heard Mama end a prayer with those words, after praying for things she never got?  The Lord knows best, she’d say.  If he said no, he had a good reason.  But if the Lord was going to do what he wanted to anyway, I’d thought as a child, what was the use of praying.

 A loud banging comes at the front door.  I follow Lou Ann, waiting behind her as she opens it.  Two men stand on the front porch, wearing slickers, one behind the other. The big fellow in front looks past us at Joe Ray’s coffin.  “Yep, this here’s the place,” he says over his shoulder, then looks at us.  “Is there a road over to here across the creek?” 

It hits me then. They’ll have to carry Joe Ray’s coffin across the bridge.  Across flooded Hanged Man Creek.   The hearse sits beside the road like a long black vulture.  

Uncle Hiram comes up behind us.  “The road is flooded. You’ll hafta carry him ‘cross the bridge.”

We all look towards the bridge; it seems to grow narrower as it hangs there, sloping towards the creek like the swayed back of a worn-out mule.

The men shake their heads.  “I dunno,” one of them says. 

“Can’t be helped,” Uncle Hiram says.  “We got to get him to the church.  But first his Mama’s got to say goodbye to him.  You fellers wait on the porch.”

He goes back into Mama’s room.  Soon they appear in the doorway, Mama in her flannel gown, still carrying on.  Uncle Hiram holds her up, her feet barely touching the floor; making soothing sounds as he half-carries her to Joe Ray’s coffin.

“Joe Ray, my boy,” Mama cries.  With a trembling hand she touches his face, and then folds against Uncle Hiram like a puny sack of meal.  He lifts her up as he would a small child and carries her past the folding chairs that lean against the wall, to the sofa.

Laying her down, he lowers his ear to her mouth to hear her breathing. “She’s alright,” he says to Lou Ann and me.  “You girls stay with your Mama.” He goes to the door, motioning the two men in.

The tall one lowers the lid over Joe Ray’s face and fastens the hinges of the coffin.  Unlocking the wheels on the stand, the two men roll the coffin through the door and onto the porch. They stand looking at the bridge for a few moments, and then each takes a deep breath.  Stooping, and with Uncle Hiram’s help, they lift the coffin to their shoulders and start off down the path. 

Uncle Hiram follows them, giving an extra hand to the man in the rear until the men are securely on the bridge with the coffin; each holding the top with one arm to balance it, the other arm underneath to bear its weight.  With no hand free to hang onto the cables, they appear to be walking a tightrope as they take short, slow steps across.

They might’ve made it, but, at that moment, a large log comes hurtling down the middle of Hanged Man Creek and strikes the bridge where it hangs low above the fast-moving waters.   It happens in an instant: the log striking the bridge, the bridge jerking, the men grabbing onto the rusty cables to keep from falling.

Joe Ray’s coffin slips from their shoulders and tumbles into the creek, landing on its side with a loud clunk as it strikes the log, which has gone under the bridge.  The force of the blow turns the coffin upright, and the creek claims it, carrying it away.

I hear Mama’s voice screaming, screaming, screaming; feel a raw pain in my throat and realize the screams are coming from me.

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