You never saw cars on the road on Sunday mornings. Hardly ever. I liked the quiet breath of the air. I could see crows as they flew down from trees and landed nearby. They say that when you start noticing crows and counting them, more and more show up. Everybody said different things about what they meant. I heard four of them meant good luck. Two, death. Eight, pain and sorrow. There were quite a few that morning. I lost count. Nine, I think. Maybe. I couldn’t remember what nine’s supposed to stand for. I loved looking at the crows. The glistening black of their feathers made me think of peacock coal, that hard anthracite kind, not bituminous coal like we have. Peacock coal is jet black and streaked with hot pink, Indian yellow, and stripes of acid green like you see sometimes on the back of a beetle. As I neared the mine, I could hear the low hum of generators, pumps and high tension lines that kept the mine alive six days a week, and then sounded like some kind of slumbering beast on Sundays.
I’d been walking barefoot on the newly tarred road, just heading up toward the coal mine, like I did every Sunday morning. When my feet got too hot on the fiery surface, I hopped onto shady patches when I could, cool patches created by the thick, overhanging trees. Sometimes my toes would sink down into sun-softened spots of tar that covered deep potholes. It felt good the way the tar would sink in when I poked it with my big toe, and then slowly return to the way it was, like some thick licorice cushion in a hot, hard place.
At twelve years old, I was drawn to the mine like I was a spirit who walked through ghost towns. Rusted coal cars lay like skeletons on abandoned rail lines. The mine office, a once whitewashed cement block building, was now charcoal gray, like it’d been picked up and fondled by grimy hands, then plopped down onto that hard piece of earth.
There was no grass or green of any kind to be seen, except when I looked up. Up was where the trees were. Up was where the hills were which held the trees. Up was pure green coolness. That dark hooker green spotted with sunlight which somehow managed to slip past the hulking mountains that surrounded the black tar road and black coal-covered ground, and the mine with its rusted metal doors and blackened coal tipple, the rusted brown wires and creosote-covered telephone poles. Up was green. Down was dark. All my life, green had been where freedom lay. My place to play and hide in spots no one else knew about. But, that black and rust and tar? That’s where my heart lived.
I followed the coal car tracks toward the tipple and found myself in front of the rusted doors that blocked the entrance to the mine. I picked up a rock and knocked a few times. It made a loud, hollow sound. I dropped the rock and picked up a rusted railroad spike. It was a good one, and I thought I’d take it home for my collection. As I walked back toward the road, the tiny rocks covering the mine yard hurt my feet, so I scrunched up my toes to put some space between the soles of my feet and the hot pebbles.
Back at the road, I crossed over to the memorial, a large, three-paneled wood sign that reminded me of Italian paintings on a calendar at Joey Matteo’s house, with one big dirty panel in the middle and one skinny panel on each side. I’m sure it must have been white when it was new, but it had turned grimy gray, the same color as the mine office. It was hard to see some of the names, but I liked to read about the men who’d died in the mine. Charlie Foster, crushed between a coal car and a support timber. Leonard Ackerby, a ceiling gave way. Harold Barthlow, slag fall. Paul Rapach, Gabriel Blackmore, Carl Brady, black damp explosion. There were almost fifty names in all. Most of them had died of white damp poisoning. Some drowned when water flooded through.
From where I was standing, I had a good view of the mine office, so first I heard the car coming, then I saw it pull up and park in front of the office. Dr. Morris got out and unlocked the door and went inside. He came out right away and began loading cardboard boxes into his trunk. Suitcases were piled up in the back seat of the little sports car. I held my breath as I watched my mother. She was sitting in the car and wearing big sunglasses. The top was down and she had her head laid back with her face turned up toward the blue sky and green trees. She looked like a movie star in that white convertible. Her hair sparkled like it was filled with orange diamonds. When he came out with another box, he put it in the trunk, then touched her hair and smiled at her. Bent down and kissed her on the lips.
I waited for him to go back inside and then walked over to the car. I was trying to figure out what to say, but my brain wouldn’t let me keep track. At first she looked surprised, then like she was mad at me for something.
“What are you doing up here by yourself? You should have stayed home and not be running all over the place.” She checked over her shoulder then looked me up and down like she was in a store. “Where’s your daddy?” She checked over her shoulder again.
“He’s at home, sleeping.” I said. She seemed to calm down.
“You going to Pittsburgh to live?” I wanted to add “with him,” but I didn’t. “When you coming back?” She probably wouldn’t have answered me anyhow. She just looked at me through her big glasses.
“Mrs. Fortley will see to you if you need anything. You should be in church instead of running up and down this road like some wild thing.”
I could feel my bare feet burning on the hot pebbles as I stood there, but I didn’t move them. Instead, I reached down to my calf with a fingernail and cut a deep “X” through a mosquito bite that had been driving me crazy. I rubbed my thumb back and forth on the rough surface of the railroad spike and wished she’d just take off those glasses. She didn’t.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said toward my leg, and bent down again to scratch the bite. “I could help out more if you didn’t go.”
When I straightened up, she looked at my dirty blouse and jeans and said, “How often do you change your underpants, girl?”
I didn’t know what the answer should be. I was afraid all of a sudden that it would be too often or maybe too long and then I’d lose her forever. I couldn’t remember what I did. Or what I was supposed to do. My mind felt like a jukebox she could see into, big and visible, with hundreds of choices and only one dime. I remembered how we used to clean up to go up to the doctor’s office every week, so I finally said, “Once a week.”
“Once a week! What’s wrong with you, girl. You know better than that!”
Just then Dr. Morris came out of his office with the last box. He locked the door and dropped the key in the mail slot. When he turned around and saw me, his eyes got wide and sad for a minute. Just as he was starting to smile at me, I took the railroad spike and raked it across my mother’s side of the car. Then I raked it again, harder.
“You’re gonna be sorry some day.” I whispered it low, but I knew she heard me. Then I told myself when I headed back home, “From now on, I’m doin’ what I please. And I’ll change my underpants when I damn well feel like it!”
Every Sunday after that, I walked up to the mine as usual, except I kept hoping she’d be there. I didn’t know how life was gonna happen without her. One Sunday I picked Johnny Jump Ups. I put them on the window sill and made myself take a bath and wash my hair. Most Sunday mornings Mrs. Fortley came down to see how I was. That particular morning, she knocked gently on the screen door and poked her head into the kitchen.
“Addie, darling,” she said in a long, exaggerated drawl, “Why, Addie, look at you. So cleaned up and pretty. And the kitchen fixed up so nice! Where’d you get those Jump Ups?” Her huge body made the kitchen seem smaller than it was. She stood with her hands on her hips and pretended to look jealous, but I knew she had Jump Ups growing all over her yard. Violets were her favorite flower. Except maybe for white roses.
“You walk up to the mine again?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. She knew I walked up there every Sunday morning mostly. She just helped herself to a cup of coffee, put milk and three heaping sugars in it, then set it on the kitchen sink. She stood as close as she could to the sun that was coming through the window so her heavy, wet hair could dry. Mrs. Fortley washed her hair with Tide every Sunday to keep the shine in it.
Everything about her seemed heavy and wet as she shifted her weight like a wave of fat from one foot to the other and took sips of the hot coffee. She was close to 300 pounds. That’s how she’d say it. “Lordy, I’m close to 300 pounds!” She always got weighed by a doctor in Morgantown when she went to see about her diabetes. Her damp hair was the deep golden color of the sulfur creek that ran past the mine and through Flaggy. It was thick, healthy hair, streaked through with silver. It was hanging in loose, natural curls that framed her smiling, plate-sized face, freshly creamed and shiny from some mysterious beauty treatment she concocted from her garden. Her aqua-blue eyes, a little milky from cataracts, were two pools of kindness.
“Better to take a Sunday walk than go to that church, sweetheart.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes a little then blew gently on her coffee. “Not one flower growing in that churchyard. Not one! That should tell you something.” She raised a knowing eyebrow. “Especially no Jump Ups. Even if there was, those people would never let you pick them anyhow. Might give you a little too much pleasure to have them on your window sill like that.” She smiled slyly, and then shifted her big body around a bit to catch more sun on her hair. She sipped her coffee, and then tilted her head slightly to the right so she could see the flowers. And me.
“I don’t go to the church anymore,” I told her, even though I knew she knew it.
I’d tried the church after my mother left and had prayed really hard. My friend Joey nicknamed it the Holy Roller since it was a Pentecostal church. I only went there to ask God to bring her back, and I even asked him to bring my sister Marion back, too. Even before my mother left, Marion had already run off to Cleveland with Baker Hutchins to get married. Baker got a job in the Ford plant up there and we never really ever heard from them except through Baker’s mother. But, mostly, I prayed that my father would give up the whiskey and the morphine. People at the church would pump me about my mother, but I wouldn’t answer them. I heard what they said when they thought I couldn’t, about how my mother had pulled the wool over the mine doctor’s eyes. All I could think of was how Jeannie Lucas was right about her being a slut.
Nobody at the church had ever liked my mother. She never went. She was a lapsed Catholic. The only thing worse, I guess, would have been a good Catholic, or maybe a Jew. But nobody really knew any Jews, just the ones who owned some of the stores in Morgantown, and nobody actually knew them except to buy from them.
The slate dump caught on fire not long after my mother left, and Jeannie’s family saw it as a sign of God’s wrath. Everybody knew it’d burn for years. Just pump out black smoke that would eventually kill every leaf on the trees if it got really bad before it finally burned itself out. Then Flaggy would look like Everettsville at night. Pitch black everywhere except for the deep pockets of fiery red, glowing out from deep within the burning dump, a giant, over-baked biscuit that never gets removed from the hot smoking oven until it finally becomes a cinder, cooked down, I guess, to some tiny, dried up version of itself until it’s too far gone to even burn or stink anymore. I can’t believe I was only twelve years old then. Still, from that time until now, I’m twenty-six now, that’s how I felt, just like that cinder, every time I thought about her leaving us. I thought about her all the time. I didn’t know what I was to do without a mother.
So, one Sunday when Mrs. Fortley came to visit, I watched her finish her coffee and wondered if I should tell her what had happened when I took my walk up to the mine the morning my mother left, and maybe tell her how I saw her leave. Part of me wanted to keep it hidden away, though, to have it be like an open sore in some dark part of myself so I could bring it out at night maybe to lick it. Then put it away again before it had time to heal.
“I need to talk to your daddy for a minute, honey. Is he around?” I told her he was in the living room.
I listened from the kitchen as she talked to my father. “You mean she didn’t even leave a note?” I couldn’t hear what all my father said, but Mrs. Fortley sounded mad when she said, “Just left like a snake in the night.” She’d brought us a pot full of homemade chicken and dumplings. I put them in the refrigerator and kept on listening.
“Dallas, you should call up Marion in Cleveland and tell her to come home and take care of her sister, or at least come and get her and take her back with her.”
My heart squeezed up into my throat or I would have screamed, “No! I want my mother back! I hate Marion. I just want my mother to come home!”
My father must have said no or shook his head, because Mrs. Fortley kept on and sounded worried about how I was gonna do and who was gonna do for me. But she didn’t get anywhere. I could tell. She looked mad when she came back out to the kitchen. I figured I should tell her about scratching that car with the spike and that I saw them, but the look on her face said maybe I better not.
“Have some more coffee,” I said. I picked up the pot to pour her some more. “Thanks again, Addie, but I better not.” She glanced back toward the living room where my father was, and started to leave. When I thought about how my mother had talked to me that day, my heart started pounding like that rock on the mine door, so I just said it loud and fast before I lost my nerve, “You think you could start teaching me how to cook? I need to learn things.”
Mrs. Fortley’s face lost some of its anger as she looked at me. I looked back real steady, hoping that she’d say yes. All she said, though, was “Okay, I think I might be able to do that. Why don’t you come up to see me later today, or when you get the chance.” She looked once more toward the living room, and then left.