First Chapter

This was her time. The quiet time. Before the sun and the kids and the rest of McDowell County rose up to demand her attention. When she could run and be alone, and pretend to be someone else, living a different life in a different place.

The young woman slipped quietly out of bed and picked up the small pile of clothes and her running shoes that she’d set out the night before. She heard her husband before she saw him. Buck’s labored snoring told her he’d probably spent the evening at Moody’s Roadhouse again, which was more routine than not these days. The sliding door that led to the trailer’s narrow hallway rumbled and squeaked, causing a furtive look at her husband to see if he’d awakened. She reminded herself for the hundredth time to oil the track.

The small bathroom had a folding door with its own set of noises as she carefully drew it shut behind her. It was still dark in the trailer at five-thirty, even at the end of July. She turned on the small light over the mirror and slid on the baggy khaki shorts, a sports bra, and a faded black t-shirt she’d pulled randomly from the drawer the night before. It was the Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt that Buck had brought home for their son a few years earlier; the only gift she could remember him giving the boy. A glimmer of hope at the time.

The shirt was cheaply made, a size medium, snug to begin with and after many washings now too small for a twelve-year-old. She pulled it over her sandy blonde hair and leaned on the sink to find the insides of the running shoes with her toes. She never wore socks when she ran. As a child, she rarely wore shoes and ran on rougher ground than she would this morning.

She brushed her teeth, splashed water on her face, and stared into the mirror. Her hair was getting long, almost to her shoulders now, the curly permanent from four months earlier that Buck hated, now hanging limp and lifeless. Have to get it cut before school starts in the fall. Maybe she’d just cut it all off like her mother did to her when she was in elementary school, when she was more often than not taken for a boy.

The woman leaned in closer to the mirror and examined, as she always did when she was alone, the faded, two-inch scar that ran horizontally just above her left eyebrow. Another shorter scar started at the edge of her upper lip. Both scars were nearly invisible now, to everyone but her.

Her broad shoulders stretched the t-shirt a little more tightly across her chest than she preferred, while it hung loosely at her small waist. Two pregnancies had enlarged her breasts to at least a noticeable size in relation to her small frame. Her mother complained that she looked bony at a hundred and ten pounds, but she felt good physically and she was finally beginning to feel good about herself as well. At thirty years old, Natty Oakes was finally ready to admit that maybe she wasn’t so plain and ordinary anymore and that some men might even find her attractive now.

So why had Buck been losing interest lately?, she wondered. Only once since the beginning of July had Buck visited her side of the bed. The few times that she’d tentatively edged over to initiate activity, she’d been rebuffed. Probably the alcohol. Buck had been drinking more lately. She hoped that was the reason.

In the small kitchenette, she turned on the gas burner and shoveled two heaping teaspoons of instant coffee into a large steel mug. Bending low to look out the small window over the sink, she could see that the stool at the corner of the trailer across the gravel road was unoccupied. She glanced at her watch. Still a few minutes early.

She went back up the short hallway to the smaller bedroom. The room was cramped enough without the mess of clothes, books, toys, stuffed animals, and the Nintendo game, with its wires and controls and various game cartridges spread between the beds. Damn, this room sucks. It was too small for one child, let alone two.

She looked down at her son, lying on his back, wearing only jockey shorts that were too tight. He was snoring lightly, his mouth slightly open. She could see his irregularly spaced teeth – beyond the scope of orthodontics she had been told, but it didn’t matter. They couldn’t afford it, and the Pie Man was never going to be popular for his looks anyway.

In the other bed, a small girl lay on her side with her thumb in her mouth. Natty pulled the sheet up over her, gently extracted her thumb, and brushed away the strands of matted blonde hair covering her face. She sat on the edge of the bed and ran her hand down her daughter’s pencil-thin arm. Cat was a tiny girl, small for her age, scrawny some would say, but with boundless energy and a streak of stubbornness that Natty made allowances for because she knew where it came from.

Natty thought about Cat’s seventh birthday coming up in September. Seven. The same age Natty was when she first came to McDowell County, West Virginia with her mother and her sister Annie. It was 1977, the year her father was killed in the mine up in Marion County. The year they came to live with her grandparents at the farm on Redemption Mountain because they had nowhere else to go. The year the joy went out of her mother’s eyes.

Natty could still feel the icy chill of the rainy day in November, when they stood all morning in front of the tall wooden doors, surrounded by the miners’ wives who’d quietly drifted in to stand vigil, like they had for a hundred years. And then the screech of the elevator cables – a sound she could never erase from her mind – bringing her father up from two thousand feet below. She walked back up the hill in the rain to their empty house, holding Annie’s small hand, following their sobbing mother who was never the same after that day.

Sarah DeWitt wasn’t from West Virginia. She didn’t know coal mining and couldn’t understand how a man could go off to work in the morning and be brought up the mine shaft in the afternoon, lifeless, covered with black dust, and wrapped in a dirty blanket. She’d listened to some of the old miners’ wives telling stories about the day in November nine years earlier, when the earth rumbled and the Consol Mine #9 in Farmington, just a few miles up the road, exploded in an underground firestorm, killing seventy-eight men, burning so hot that the mine was sealed off, with no attempt at rescue. Sarah had passed by the monument many times, and always assumed that was how men died in coal mines, in big catastrophes that only happened in the past because mines were safer now, Tom had told her, and technology was better. But her husband died like most men die in the mines, one at a time, miles down a dark tunnel, the lone victim of a relatively minor occurrence in the business of coalmining, leaving her alone with her two girls in a strange land.

Natty stroked her daughter’s moist forehead and heard the distant whistling sound of the blizzard winds piling the snow against the windows of the farmhouse. She looked down and saw three-year-old Annie sweating and delirious from the fever. It all would have been different if Annie had lived. Mama had talked about moving back to Wisconsin where she grew up, to a city called Waukesha, with parks and streets with big houses and green lawns, and modern schools. She could hear shouts. Natty! Natty! They were yelling at her because it was her fault, for letting Annie play outside too long in the stream, breaking the thin ice with their shoes and getting their feet wet. She knew Annie’s pneumonia was her fault, with the road down the mountain impassable with the snow, but why were they yelling at her now?

“Natty, get that fucking pot! Nat, you out there?” Buck was yelling from the bedroom over the whistling tea kettle. Dammit! How long had he been yelling?

She bounded out of the children’s room. “I got it Buck. Sorry, honey. Go back to sleep,” she called out, as she yanked the kettle from the burner. She poured the boiling water over the coffee crystals, watching the dark steaming liquid swirl and bubble as she thought about her daydream of Annie. It surprised her. She rarely thought about Annie anymore, only when they went up to the farm. The nightmares had stopped years ago. She reminded herself that they needed to visit her mother soon.

Natty added an ice cube to the coffee, and a straw that hinged in the middle, and carried it outside. She stood on the small wooden deck that was their front porch and breathed in the ever-present scent of pine in the air. The sun hadn’t yet made it over the Alleghenies, but it was light enough to see that nothing was stirring in Oakes Hollow.

She looked up the hill toward the big house where Buck’s parents, Frank and Rose lived. The house was surrounded on three sides by a wide, covered porch from which Big Frank would look down over his domain, where his three sons lived with their sorry ass wives and too many kids to bother with all their names. Under the porch, one of the old coonhounds lifted his nose to Natty and barked twice before lying back down.

She had to giggle, looking over at Ransom and Sally’s house, at the overturned plastic riding toys, rusted bicycles, a broken swing set, a collapsed kiddy pool, and probably a hundred other toys that had been scattered about all summer. It wouldn’t look much different inside. Housekeeping would never be one of Sally’s talents.

Natty wondered if Ransom was still working at the cement job he talked about bringing Buck onto. She’d begun to notice his truck parked in front of The Spur, the dingy little gin mill in Old Red Bone, most afternoons when she drove through town. She’d seen Buck’s truck up there on occasion, but she knew if Buck was drinking in the afternoon, he preferred the pool room at Moody’s Roadhouse.

A light went on in the trailer directly across the road. That would be Amos. With his dead left side, it would take him a while to pull his pants and shirt on. He was careful not to awaken Yancy, or especially Charlotte, who was a bear when the old man woke her up in the morning, and heaven forbid if he woke the girls!

Natty felt sorry for Charlotte, because she was fat and dim-witted and mostly disagreeable, but she was still too young to be trapped in the mountains with two babies and an out-of-work miner for a husband. They had a lot in common. But Natty had never warmed up to her sister-in-law, from the first week that Charlotte and Yancy moved into the trailer across from theirs and Charlotte let her know “that little mongoloid boy’d be better off in a home somewhere.”

They’d had it out then. But it wasn’t just about Pie. Later, it was about her grandfather Amos who, after his stroke, Charlotte considered a burden. Beyond providing a small sleeping space, and a place at the supper table, she largely ignored him. That wasn’t fair, Natty thought. He deserved better.

She heard the old man shuffle slowly through the gravel and watched him feel his way around the corner of the trailer. He couldn’t turn his head, and his eyesight was failing, so he wouldn’t see her until she stood right in front of him. She would wait until he was ready for her.

Amos Ritter was a hard, wiry, little man with short-cropped white hair, and a perpetual stubble of white whiskers. Up close, you could look into the deep creases in his forehead and the pockmarks of soft skin under his eyes, and see the tiny, black, gritty remnants of more than four decades spent underground in the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky. His gnarled left hand was missing the last two fingers, taken off so long ago he could barely recall the mine he’d lost them to.

Every morning when Natty went out to run, Amos was sitting on his little stool waiting for her. As she brought his coffee over to him, his mouth twitched into an unsteady smile, the best he could do. He slowly raised his right arm in a kind of half-wave with his fingers pointed at her, and blinked his small, cloudy eyes in an effort to tell her that yes, he was still alive, and that she was someone special to him.

“Morning, Amos.” Natty squatted down and sat the mug on his knee until he could get his arthritic fingers through the handle. He’d spill some getting the straw to his mouth. She stood and kissed him on the forehead. “Sun’s going to be hot today, Amos, you’ll need your hat,” she said as she started down the hill to begin her run. She turned around briefly, walking backwards, and smiled. “I’ll fix you an egg when I get back.” Amos blinked and squinted and twitched his mouth. He bent his head forward slightly in a slow nod and watched until she disappeared down the road and around the corner of the woods.

If Amos could speak, he would tell Natty how much he loved her. He’d thank her for being his friend and making him feel like he mattered. For helping him forget the pain for a little while. And for being such a good mother in a hard situation. He would tell her how beautiful she was, and that if he were just a few years younger, he’d beat the living piss out of her worthless husband until he straightened up, or even better, just went off for good. And if Buck ever hit her again, he’d take a pickaxe handle to his head so bad you wouldn’t know which side his face was on.

But Amos knew he’d never say any of these things to Natty or do anything to Buck. All he could do now was enjoy the sunrise and the sunsets, the smell of the woods, and his visits from Natty.