John’s voice cracked the long silence holding the dinner table captive. “Coal’s been good to us,” he said, and Jo knew where this would end up. He looked at her and their two teenage sons sitting at the long cherry table, then back down at his calloused hands holding the silverware. Jo had seen the differences settling between John and the rest of the world. First it was with his co-workers following his promotion to superintendent. Then it was with local communities speaking out against surface mining. At that moment, it was the way his work boots and orange stripped navy uniform argued with the fancy décor of their dining room.
“Goddamn tree huggers will be the end of us,” John continued after a moment, his temper growing. “Them and the fucking EPA.”
“John! Watch your language!” Jo said, glaring at him.
Brad and John Jr. glanced up at each other, then focused their attention back to their plates, Brad smirking a little.
John returned Josephine’s hateful stare. “That’s what I get for marrying the daughter of a freewiller deacon. Told what to do in my own goddamn house.” John threw down his fork, jumping to his feet and knocking the chair backwards. “Fuck it, I’m not hungry.”
John stormed out of the room followed by the sound of the front door slamming and the roar of a diesel pickup rumbling to life. Jo and the boys exchanged looks, no one speaking until the sound of the truck was out of range.
“He doesn’t mean it,” Brad said to his mother, his eyes showing a half-hearted sympathy.
“Yeah ma,” John Jr. said. “You know how he gets when there’s problems at the mine.”
“Just finish your supper,” Jo said.
Josephine dabbled with her fork, moving the remaining piece of roast from one side of the plate to the other, leaving streaks of blood that invaded the parmesan sesame broccoli. She pulled the burgundy napkin from her lap and dropped it onto the table before freeing herself from the chair. The boys didn’t look up as she swept past them and through the swinging door into the kitchen.
The September sun was setting on the far side of the valley, its warmth spilling through the tall windows above the kitchen sink, soaking into the dark cherry cabinets and smooth stone floor. Stainless steel appliances, decorative bottles of oil, spice racks and knives were arranged along the black marble countertops. A long island stood in the center of the room with a gas cooktop set into one end where a large copper hood hung from the ceiling above. Josephine paused to take in the beauty of her accomplishment, the product of months spent pouring through Southern Living magazines, hiring and firing cabinet maker after cabinet maker.
She strode to the wine cooler set into the buffet on the opposite side of the room, stopping to look at herself in the decorative mirror hung upon the wall. Brushing her long bangs aside, she admired the new image of herself, how well the blonde blended with the light brown. She was right, Jo thought, recollecting the young stylist’s advice. The shorter cut, the slight wave, all of it did make her look younger. One hundred and fifty dollars and two hours well spent. She touched the wrinkles growing beside her eyes and grimaced.
Darlene stepped out of the basement door and into the kitchen, a laundry basket clutched to her side. She paused to watch Jo, her mouth drawn tight.
Jo tossed Darlene a brief glance before continuing to stretch the skin around her eyes, making the wrinkles disappear. “The boys are just finishing supper,” Jo said, “The dishes need done and their rooms are still a mess.”
Darlene nodded as she held an intense stare on Jo.
“Well?” Jo said.
Darlene rushed through the kitchen without speaking a word. Jo caught the stench of cigarette smoke saturating her uniform, jeans and a scrub shirt from one of the nursing supply stores that were popping up everywhere. Jo could barely stand how ugly they were. She always felt as though Darlene had a knack for grabbing the tackiest she could find. Today her shirt was covered with galloping horses, yesterday it was horses grazing, the day before, saddles and ropes. Redneck horse culture, Jo thought, horse shows, trail rides, and plenty of alcohol.
Darlene’s silence weighed on Jo though. She hadn’t spoken much over the past few weeks, just muttering one line sentences and leaving lists of cleaners that needed to be picked up. It wasn’t like Darlene, but then again, Jo wasn’t going to pry. She had no desire to hear the latest news at the trailer court. Despite her new bad attitude, Jo knew Darlene was worth holding onto, having gone through six housekeepers in less than the last five years. The decent ones were always old and dying at the worst of times, while the young ones couldn’t be trusted around jewelry boxes or medicine cabinets. Darlene had been the best so far, recommended by Doris Ramsey at the last Chamber of Commerce retreat. Still, Darlene’s mood had been unsettling to say the least. On more than one occasion Jo had watched Darlene coming up the driveway in her rusted out blue Ford Tempo, only to park and stare at the house for ten minutes, chain smoking before finally coming in.
Jo opened the wine cooler and pulled out a five year old Italian cabernet from its rack and picked out a glass hanging beside the cooler. As she walked through the den, she glanced at the boys sitting on the couch in their red letterman jackets, their thumbs tapping out an undiscernible rhythm on their phones, neither paying attention to the hosts of “Sports Center” on the flat screen TV.
Jo opened the patio door and stepped out into the evening air, its warmth folding around her like a blanket. She adjusted the plush burgundy lounger beneath the sun trellis covered in trumpet vines, stretching out and kicking off her flip flops. Crickets on the hillside above had begun their chorus, joining the occasional peeps of the tree frogs now living in the water garden. She let out a deep sigh as she settled into her glass of wine.
The patio door slid open behind her. “We’re going out, Ma,” Brad said, John Jr. loafing beside him.
“Don’t be out too late. And no horsing around in that Mustang,” Jo said.
“We won’t,” Brad said.
“It scares me to death just to think of what could happen.”
Jo’s black miniature terrier had just begun to stick his head through the bottom of the door as Brad slid it closed, catching it in the narrowing gap with a panicked yip.
“Shit,” Brad said. He opened the door and forced the dog out with his foot.
“Language young man,” Jo said, not willing to upset her mood.
Coco jumped into Jo’s lap putting his front paws on her chest to lick her face. Jo fended off the rapid assault of wet licks before setting her glass down and freeing up a hand to scratch Coco’s ears.
The Mustang started up across the fence with a deep throated roar causing Coco to jerk. Part of Jo hoped it was just the boys playing tricks on her, making her think they were getting ready to do something foolish. She never wanted John to buy that car for them. Young boys and too much power. Closing her eyes she whispered a small prayer asking Jesus to watch over them. Coco settled into her lap as she swirled the last bit of wine in the bottom of the glass.
“Tree huggers,” she murmured, thinking back to John’s outburst over supper. Jo smirked at the thought of them holding up signs and beating bongo drums. Nothing but a bunch of stinky hippies, trying to save trees and fish as if they were people. Surely John could handle a few touchy feely kids with too many tattoos and piercings. John had stood face to face with angry coal miners, after all, driving through picket lines to make it to work—to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads. Greedy unions and now the EPA with their makeshift army of out-of-state idiots trying to save trees. How do people expect a coal company to stay in business?
Jo caught herself getting worked up again and let out a long sigh. She smiled and scratched Coco’s head while letting the smell of late summer surround her. She tossed back the last of the wine like a shot of whiskey, then closed her eyes and eased her mind to the sound of cricket song melding with the splashing of the garden fountain.
Night had settled over the hills when the sound of John’s pickup woke her. She sauntered back into the house towards the kitchen with an empty bottle of wine, pausing to brace herself on pieces of furniture. She pulled the trashcan from the cabinet beneath the sink and dangled the bottle above it, hesitating a moment before dropping it in to enjoy the satisfying thud. Jo turned around and noticed a path of muddy boot prints trailing from the refrigerator to the garage.
He’s been to the mine, she thought, his damn sanctuary. Some men go to bars to deal with their troubles, some go to a buddy’s house, but not John. He went to the damn mine. Now she figured he was in the garage, worshiping his Harley with a bottle of beer and a rag covered in chrome polish.
The cordless phone on the countertop rang with a computerized voice announcing the caller ID. “Stan-ley. A. R.” Jo picked it up and clicked the TALK button, expecting Deborah, Alvin’s wife.
“Yello,” John said.
The sound of John’s voice and then Alvin’s confused her before she could think through the alcohol. She placed her finger on the off button, then moved down to the mute and pressed it instead.
“How’s it going? Heard y’all had some trouble with a bunch of bongo beaters today.”
Jo could hear Alvin chuckling.
“Yea, damn tree huggers are at it again,” John said. “Bastards took off down to the pit and climbed on the front end loader.”
“They’re getting braver ain’t they?”
“Too damn brave. Garr thought he run over one of em when they started yelling. It rattled his nerves for a minute or two from what they said, but once he got ahold of himself, he shut off the loader and climbed down to beat the shit out of em.”
“Did he hit one of em?”
“No. They was smart enough to bring video cameras, and he was smart enough to keep his temper.”
“Humph. Smart tree huggers.”
Jo heard John take a long pull from his beer through the phone.
“It’s all I needed. Treehuggers today and testifying tomorrow,” John said.
“I’d forgot about that.” Alvin said in a more somber tone.
No wonder John was eating Rolaids like they were candy lately, Jo thought. Court again.
John took a draw off of his cigarette.
“HR should’ve never hired that dumbass boy. Thirty some years, working every damn day, dodging bullets from union pukes, and this’ll be what it comes to. They’ll find some damn way to pin it on me. You watch, a jury full of bleeding heart liberals will side with the family and then the company will have my ass for it.”
“Does Jo know?”
“No. And she don’t need to. That’s all I need, her yapping on like that damn little ferret dog of hers.”
“The company is lawyered up, you’ll be alright.”
John took another drag from his cigarette. “Jo and her goddamn dream house. If they get rid of me ‘cause of this, we’re up the creek, ‘specially after taking out a second mortgage to remodel her kitchen and the damn bathroom. We’re in debt for everything except the camper on the lake.”
Jo could hear John’s voice getting louder as he approached the door to the garage. She snapped off her phone but John barged in before she could put it down. He stopped to glare at the phone still in Jo’s hand, a cigarette hanging from his lips, the cordless phone still held to his ear. “Fuckin figures,” he said.
His face turned red but he didn’t say anything else. He went to the fridge, tracking dried mud along the way and grabbed out another six pack of Bud Light. He kicked the door shut, rattling the bottles inside then strode across the kitchen and back into the garage, slamming the door behind him.
The night drifted by in troubled restlessness. Jo’s eyes remained fixated on the ceiling fan of the bedroom as she lay on her back, thoughts and alcohol spinning in her mind. The boys snuck in at two in the morning, whispering and snickering about some girl’s thong as they tiptoed into their bedrooms. Jo guessed John had his music turned up in the garage and was too busy focusing his attention on the chrome of his Harley to have noticed them dragging in so late. If he had, he would have let them have it for being out so late on a school night.
The phone conversation kept playing over in Jo’s head, tormenting her mind and the sheets beneath her body. Dream house, kept repeating, and each time her heart sank lower in her chest. Could they really lose it all?
She rolled onto her side, gazing into the darkness of the bathroom, focusing on the vague shapes lurking in the darkness. She began unveiling each item in her thoughts, filling in the blanks. The garden tub, the dual basins set into beige marble top, the large mirror with etched scrollwork around the edges. The thought of losing it all to some stranger tightened her throat, making it difficult to swallow. The gentle whir of the ceiling fan and occasional hum of the heat pump outside were her only distraction. Despair was gnawing its way deep into her mind.
Jo’s thoughts wandered, contrasting all their accomplishments, to the family farm on Bise Ridge and how much she hated that place—that life. She hated using the outhouse when she was a little girl. She hated how her brothers would peek in on her through the cracks or throw rocks at the boards while she was trying to do her business. She hated fetching water from the well on cold mornings. She hated plucking chickens, hoeing corn till her hands were blistered, and drinking skim milk so they could use the cream to make butter. She hated high school. She hated when the daughters of the coal operators laughed at her hand-made dresses.
The large red numbers of the alarm clock blinked 6:08 when Jo heard the door to the garage open and close, trailed by the thudding of John’s heavy work boots approaching the bedroom. She winced at the thought of the mud and grease being tracked onto the carpet, knowing he was too drunk to give a damn.
The door to the bathroom opened and closed. Light spilled from beneath the door, spreading out across the carpet and casting long shadows from the crumpled clothes she’d taken off earlier. She could hear the splats of water hitting the tile floor as John scrubbed away the day’s work. Fifteen minutes later the bathroom door swung open flooding the bedroom with light, causing Jo to squint until John flipped it off. She felt the moist air from the bathroom and heavy scent of aftershave descend upon her. As John stepped into the closet Jo swung her feet down onto the floor, mustering enough strength to raise herself off the bed enough to amble towards the kitchen, her head still throbbing.
John walked into the kitchen wearing the suit she’d gotten him for church a couple of years ago. The dark fabric hung off him as though he was an upright corpse. He looked like pure hell, she thought. The mine was taking more years from him than he had to give. He poured himself a cup of coffee and walked into the hallway.
Jo jerked at the sound of John pounding on the boys’ doors. “Get the hell up Goddammit. You’ll learn to stay out so late on a fucking school night.”
Jo flipped on the small flat screen TV hanging above the counter, searching the channels for Fox News, trying to find some sense of normality to distract her thoughts.
John disappeared into the bedroom, then Jo heard him go out the patio door. The low rumble of the Mustang backing down the driveway told her what she needed to know. For the first time in years she felt the loss of his love, the neglected kisses and heartfelt goodbyes she once knew when he first started working at the mine.
The boys dragged themselves into the kitchen and sat at the open end of the center island, their faces showing utter defeat. Jo dropped two bowls in front of them and pointed to the pantry before returning to “Fox and Friends” and her cup of coffee. Scolding her sons felt good, as though all was still right in the world.
Brad spoke with a mouthful of cereal, “Mom, I think dad took the Mustang and—”
“We need a lift to school,” John Jr. finished the sentence.
“Nope,” Jo kept staring at the television.
“What?” they said in unison.
“You heard me.”
“But that means we have to ride the bus!” Brad said.
“Fuck Mom! We can’t ride the bus!” Brad said.
Josephine slapped Brad across the face causing him to drop his spoon, sloshing milk and cereal across the counter. “Watch your language!” The look of surprise on both their faces only added to her anger. “You’ll ride the bus or that Mustang won’t leave this driveway again with either of you behind the wheel. Now clean up that mess and get out of my sight!”
Neither knew what to do. They got up and started searching through drawers for a towel.
Jo watched them, sympathy taking place of her anger. She’d never raised a hand to either one of them. “Just get out of here,” she said.
The new sunlight warmed the furthest fields, stirring the wisps of fog blanketing the creek. She could make out two sets of headlights snaking their way along the main road in the distance, the cars like silent toys in a diorama. No matter how many mornings she stood there peering out at the valley, she never grew weary of the view.
The boys grabbed their jackets from the back of their chairs and slung them on, then headed out the door and down the paved driveway with their hands in their pockets. A few minutes later Jo could hear the bus come to a near screeching halt. She imagined the bus driver was as surprised to see the boys standing there as they were to be riding the bus.
Jo walked into the dining room and looked out over the valley. The sun was cresting the mountain behind her, its dark shadow retreating towards her as though she were calling it back. The new sunlight warmed the furthest fields, stirring the wisps of fog blanketing the creek. She could make out two sets of headlights snaking their way along the main road in the distance, the cars like silent toys in a diorama. No matter how many mornings she stood there peering out at the valley, she never grew weary of the view.
She had yearned to live in this very spot since the first day her daddy brought the family through the gap in their old Chrysler. “No coal in the valley to speak of,” her father said each and every time, “This is what it should look like everywhere in the mountains.” Shades Valley was home to all of the doctors, lawyers, and business owners who’d made their money from coal. John had said that the geology changed at Hopewell Mountain which separated Shades Valley from the coalfields.
“That’s where the coal boundary ends,” John explained to the boys one day, “But go just a mile or so to the other side and there is coal under every mountain, in every hollow. Some of it is deep down, but what I mine is easy to get to near the top of the mountain.”
When they first moved here, the valley took on the look of a green patchwork quilt, laid into the folds of the mountains. Today the farms were disappearing, sectioned off and sold by the grandchildren facing hard times. Fields were turning into mansions, subdivisions, and golf courses.
On the other side of Hopewell Mountain it was a different world, full of dilapidated coal tipples rusting to the ground and crumbling company towns full of white trash. Coal trucks hurtle down narrow roads, choking the small houses with dust from the mine. Jo knew some of the kids who lived down in those old coal camps when she was a child. Darlene was one of them. At least we were spared the horror of having to live beside them, Jo thought. Her family owned a large chunk of the hillside in a hollow that hadn’t seen a mine since the early ’20s.
Jo watched as another set of headlights came into view down below. She smiled recalling the way she would press her face against the glass of the car window in her parents’ old Chrysler as it wound its way down the mountain side. Occasionally the view would open up through the trees and she would feel as though she were flying. Jo sat her coffee cup down on the window sill, raised up on her tiptoes and pressed her forehead to the window, spreading her arms out wide. She backed away and saw the smudge of makeup on the glass and picked up her coffee cup. Darlene’ll get it, she thought.
She strolled into the living room and sat down on the sofa, then turned on the large TV to catch the last of “Fox and Friends.” She turned up the volume to block out the echo of the television left on in the kitchen.
“President Obama is expected to address the situation in Syria in a press conference today,” the screen cut to a scene of the president walking towards one of the helicopters on the White House lawn.
“Damn Muslim president,” Jo said out loud in disgust. Had it not been for the “war on coal,” John wouldn’t be working as hard as he was, there wouldn’t be tree huggers, lawsuits, and layoffs. “Fucking God Damn Muslim President.” Jo grabbed the remote and hit the DVR button, settling on the new episode of “Beautiful Southern Homes” she’d set to record the day before.
Jo turned the faucet on the garden tub until a wide stream of water spilled out of the fixture on the side. She lit a few candles and placed them near the tub, then plopped a few bath beads into the rising water. She walked into the bedroom and tugged open her underwear drawer, searching beneath the neatly folded waistbands before her fingers came across the rubbery shape she was searching for.
She strode back to the tub where she laid down her “little pink secret” as she once described to Deborah over a few glasses of wine. She slipped off her great grandmother’s ring and wedding band, setting them aside before pulling off her robe and slipping into the water. She closed her eyes enjoying the fragrances of lavender and vanilla that surrounded her. Her deepening breaths and thoughts continued to arouse her as she reached up to find her toy. The jingle of Coco’s collar caught her attention and her fingers groped at cold tile. She opened her eyes and turned to see him trotting towards the kitchen, the pink toy flopping from the edges of his mouth.
She jumped up out of the bath, sloshing water over the side, pulled on her robe, and chased Coco into the kitchen. The door to the garage opened and John stepped into the room. He looked at Jo standing in her robe before glancing down to see Coco with the pink toy in his mouth. He didn’t speak a word. He walked over to the cabinet to fetch his bottle of Maker’s Mark and a whiskey glass. A sense of dread filled the room as she noticed the sullen look in his eyes.
Coco began chewing on the toy with low growls, managing to turn on the oscillation with its low hum, causing him to drop it and run out of the room. Jo grabbed the toy off the floor as it flopped in circles, turning it off before placing it in the deep pocket of her robe.
John paid no attention as he sat down at the center island and poured himself half a glass of the amber liquid. “Jesus,” he sighed.
Josephine stood watching him in silence as he pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his front shirt pocket. The sight of John drinking whiskey and lighting a cigarette in his church clothes struck a nerve with her, but she said nothing.
He took off the jacket and laid it across the seat of another stool and put his head in his hands.
“Well?” Jo said.
John lifted his head, and took a drink of the bourbon, following it with a draw from his cigarette to temper the whiskey. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head a bit.
“Everything.” He took another drink of the bourbon, followed by another draw on his cigarette.
A silence fell between them before Jo spoke again. “Well that doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Well?” Jo repeated becoming annoyed.
John finished off the glass and poured another. “That boy that was killed at the mine.” He paused a moment looking down at the glass. “It was Darlene’s niece’s husband.”
“She was in the courtroom this morning, standing with the boy’s widow.” John took a long draw of the cigarette and let out a slow breath of smoke, idly swirling the bourbon in its glass. “When we took a smoke break I found out from an old high school buddy who works at the court house and knows the family.”
“She never mentioned a word…” Jo spoke in a low voice.
John kicked back the rest of the bourbon and gritted his teeth. Jo hadn’t seen John like this in a long time, not since the day his father died. He put off a callousness that would fool many, but Jo could tell he was torn to shreds inside.
“I didn’t know what to say,” John said, pouring more bourbon. “The company lawyers did a good job prepping me, but it went to hell when the family’s lawyer got a hold of me.”
Jo walked over to his side and put her hand on his back.
“He tried to make it out like I forced him to work alone, kept talking about how I’d treated him before, how all the men was run ragged with mandatory overtime.” John took another draw of his cigarette. “His wife stood up in the middle of it all and told the court that he could barely walk cause of the pain; that he wouldn’t tell us about it because he was afraid he would get fired and they couldn’t afford to go on disability, it wasn’t enough to provide for the baby.”
John lowered his head. “They had a kid. A little boy that couldn’t have been more than 8 months old. I kept looking at it—remembering the boys when they was that little. The girl kept looking at me like she could kill me, hell the whole family did, especially Darlene.”
John’s voice was strained. “The judge told her to sit down or else he’d hold them in contempt. Then the baby started crying.” John shook his head, “The judge ordered them to get it out of the room. The family went to hell over that and started shouting. It took five deputies to get em all out of the court room.”
His hands began to tremble as he put the cigarette to his lips.
“When we came out they were shouting at me, calling me a liar. I’ve been through picket lines, called everything you could think of, spit on and worse. But I never…” John’s voice choked, and he looked up at Jo. “I never been through nothing like that.”
Jo held her silence, giving him a tender look and putting her hand to his cheek. She hadn’t seen him so weak, with so much hurt in his eyes.
John lowered his head. “The tree huggers even showed up, protesting outside and calling for justice. Once we got away from it all in the parking lot, Ralph told me to take a few days off. I figure we could head to the camper down on the lake for a day or two. A few days on the water with a hook on the line would do me some good.”
Outside the house a car with a broken muffler pulled into the driveway, the brakes squealing to a halt. They both looked at each other with widening eyes.
“Shit…Darlene,” Jo said.
They could hear the sound of the basement door opening and closing through the stairwell leading up into the kitchen. Jo looked at the weariness of John’s eyes and her face began turning red, her eyes lighting on fire. “Fuck her!” she said. Jo tightened the belt on her robe and turned to march towards the basement stairs.
John grabbed her arm, “Don’t say anything. We don’t need this right now. You don’t know these people.”
Jo jerked her arm away, “I’m not going to let some damn trailer trash cause this family any more heartache. You didn’t hold a gun to the boy’s head and you didn’t make him go to work! We ain’t got a damn thing to be sorry for! She needs to know that!”
Jo walked down the stairs, each footfall heavy with intention. As she reached the concrete floor of the basement she saw Darlene leaning back against the washing machine with her arms crossed, taking deep draws off of her cigarette and blowing smoke up in the air. She was wearing the same horse covered scrub shirt as the evening before.
“Put that cigarette out this instant!” Jo said. “You know we don’t allow that in this house!”
Darlene didn’t acknowledge Jo, instead taking another long draw off of her cigarette then speaking in a calm tone, the smoke rolling out of her mouth as though she had a fire stoked deep inside. “I thought about just leaving the keys in your mailbox with a note, but that’d be chicken shit.” She took another draw from the cigarette, then grinded it into the bright burgundy finish of the new front load washer. “I put up with a lot from you Josephine, you and your goddamn spoiled-ass boys.” She paused to take another cigarette out of its pack, then nodded towards John. “Hell I’ve even had to wash the skid marks out of your scabbing-ass husband’s underwear.”
John spoke up, “I think you’d better leave Darlene.”
Jo put her hand up waving John off. “No, let this bitch say her piece. We ain’t afraid of no damn pill-popping trailer trash.”
Darlene let out a hoarse laugh. “You people think you’re better than everyone else. Always have.” Her voice began to tremble as she struggled to fight back rage. “I remember living up Frying Pan and hiking up on that ridge y’all loved so much. I’d look down from the woods. I saw how you lived Josephine, just like the rest of us. You weren’t no different except that daddy of yours thought he was Jesus himself, born to save all us sinners down in the holler.” She lit the cigarette and took a draw, then held it between her fingers and began pointing at Jo, smiling as she spoke. “I remember seeing you covered in hog’s blood, shucking the lard off pig guts to render.”
Jo just stood there, shaking, laid as bare as if she’d had her robe torn from her body.
“You ain’t no better than the rest of us,” Darlene continued, “cept you’ll marry a man who ain’t afraid to have blood on his hands, who ain’t afraid to turn his back on every hard-workin man in this county to get you a fine house.”
Jo lunged toward Darlene, raising her hand. John grabbed her from behind before she could land a blow.
“Darlene, give us your keys and get out of my house before I call the law,” John said.
Darlene strode up to them, “Yeah I’m sure you would you son of a bitch, you’d call all your buddies down at the fuckin courthouse.” She dropped the keys on the floor and walked out of the basement.
John let go of Jo and she started to chase after Darlene. She stopped when Darlene slammed the basement door. Jo turned back to John, her face contorted in disbelief. “That bitch! That fucking bitch!”
John couldn’t help but shake his head and smile. He’d never seen Jo that confrontational, let alone hear her cuss like that.
Jo picked up the keys and walked over to the basement door to lock it. “John, call a locksmith to come up here and change every one of these locks. She could’ve had copies made.”
It was three hours before the school bus dropped the boys off at the end of the driveway. As Brad and John Jr. walked toward the house several boys were yelling out the bus windows. “How’d it feel to ride with the rest of us!” one called. “Ain’t so damn hot now are ya!” another one yelled.
The locksmith showed up two hours late, offering to come back in the morning, but Jo demanded he get the work done and then refused to pay the full amount for taking so long.
When all was said and done, John, Jo, and the boys settled on the couch to watch a movie for the first time in months.
The boys left for bed early, leaving John and Josephine on the couch by themselves.
“It’s been a helluva day,” John said.
“Yes it has,” Jo sighed.
“So what was it Coco was chewing on just a minute ago?” John said with a smirk, his eyes still on the television.
Josephine’s face turned beet red and she stared at the TV trying not to answer.
John leaned over and kissed her, lightly at first, then deeply. He lifted her from the couch and carried her into the bedroom, closing the door with his foot as he went.
The next morning they packed their things and loaded bags and equipment into the Expedition. Jo set out extra food and water for Coco, then scratched him behind the ears and pulled him closer to her face. “You be good. Mommy will be back in just a day or two. Okay? Okay?” She hesitated at leaving Coco behind, but John put his foot down, protesting against what he referred to as a “yapping ball of fur that’ll scare away all the fish.”
John turned up the radio, blaring country music as they made their way into Tennessee. John’s cell phone rang, intermixing a tinny version of Brooks and Dunn’s “I’m a Hard Working Man!” with the Alan Jackson that was playing on the radio. John pressed the Bluetooth button on the steering wheel, silencing the radio.
“Yello,” John said.
“John, it’s Ralph.” The voice boomed through the speakers of the Expedition, causing Josephine to cringe until John lowered the volume.
“The jury came back with their decision.”
The boys looked up from the phones that had mesmerized them for the majority of the trip.
“…they said we’re not at fault,” Ralph said.
“Hot damn!” John smiled.
“I thought you’d like to know.”
“Any chance the family can take me to court?”
“No John. The law’s on your side there. Anyways, the company lawyers were impressed with the way you handled yourself. You saved the company a lot of money yesterday.”
“Good to know.” John couldn’t wipe the grin off of his face. “Now how about a bonus?”
“Don’t push your luck John.” Ralph chuckled. “Enjoy your time off, and come by the office and see me before you go back to the mine site. We have to deal with that Wallace property somehow and I think we might have a game plan that’ll catch those tree huggers off guard.”
“Sounds good. See ya Monday.”
“See ya then.”
Jo took in a deep breath, smiling at John.
John pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his front shirt pocket and cracked the window. Jo was about to protest, but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“At least I’ve still got a job. They won’t fire me now, it will make them look liable if the family tries to appeal it,” he said.
It was late evening when they pulled into the RV Park. John spurred the boys into action by slapping the phone out of Brad’s hands and yelling at them to help their mother get the groceries into the camper. He then sent them to check on the bass boat down at the dock while he and Jo took a minute to relax on the screened in porch built onto the side of the camper.
Neither said much. Jo had felt the tension between them softening since she’d stood up to Darlene the day before. She felt it in their bed last night, in the smiles he gave her, and the way he was caressing the back of her hand with his thumb as they both looked out over the lake.
“We’ve been through a lot haven’t we?” Jo said softly.
John nodded. “Twenty-two years and counting.”
They both watched the orange sun falling behind the mountain, flickering light over rippling waters. The smell of the lake filled the air, and Josephine watched a small boat anchoring near the middle of the cove, setting up for night fishing.
On the table, the muffled sounds of Loretta Lynn singing “I’m a Coal Miner’s Daughter” became clearer as Jo grabbed her phone and turned it over to see DEBORAH spelled out on the screen. She ignored the call and turned back to John.
The final light of day was fading as they drove through town before heading up the valley. A pickup truck came racing up behind their Expedition, its red revolving light catching John’s attention. As he pulled over they heard the driver opening up his throttle to get around them.
The next day John and the boys were on the lake when he received a call from the company asking for him to come back early. It was the first time Jo had seen John frustrated at the thought of going back to work. The drive home was long, but John busied himself by talking about retirement, thinking over his 401(k), considering ways to get out from under the debt they were in. Jo listened, trying to follow the jargon of company benefits, nodding and muttering the occasional agreement.
The final light of day was fading as they drove through town before heading up the valley. A pickup truck came racing up behind their Expedition, its red revolving light catching John’s attention. As he pulled over they heard the driver opening up his throttle to get around them. Moments later the taillights disappeared around the corner leading to the volunteer fire station. As they made their way up the valley a fire truck came up behind blaring its horn. John pulled into a gravel driveway to let them by along with two more local firefighters with lights in their dashes. As John backed out of the driveway Jo looked up to the hillside at the head of the valley where she saw flames. “John! The house!”
John pushed the pedal to the floor pinning everyone to their seats. The tires squealed around each turn as John pushed the limits of every curve until he came up behind the two volunteer firefighters still following the fire truck.
Flames were rolling out of the front windows of the house as they arrived. Men jumped out of the fire truck wearing their turn out gear. One was screaming into his radio while the others pulled hose from the truck. The trees on the hillside were turning brown, their branches lifting into the air with the rising heat from the blaze.
Jo stood at the Expedition with the door open, her trembling hand touching her lips, tears welling up in her eyes.
John walked ahead not sure what to do, then stood transfixed by the flames as an ambulance pulled up alongside and then the water truck.
John Jr. yelled causing Josephine to jerk. He pointed up the road where two red taillights were sticking up from the ditch line. John and the boys took off running towards it, motioning to the EMTs as they passed by the ambulance. Jo ran behind them. The flames from the house lit the outline of a pale blue Tempo and Jo stopped short. It was Darlene’s car.
John opened the driver’s door to find Darlene slumped forward onto the steering wheel. Her scrub shirt was charred on the back, some of the polyester melted to her skin.
Jo stood above the car on the road screaming down at the driver’s door. “Why? Why did you do this to us?”
Darlene’s eyes barely opened and she looked down towards her lap, “Coco…..vet….”
John looked down to see Coco whimpering in Darlene’s lap, most of its fur singed off. John took Coco in his arms and backed away as one of the firefighters jumped down into the ditch, yelling at Darlene, “Mom! Oh God Mom! I told you not to go inside!”
John handed Coco to Jo, as she and the boys watched the EMTs and Darlene’s son working to get her out of the car. Jo was scowling, muttering under her breath as she tried to comfort Coco.
They managed to get Darlene onto the stretcher when her son caught a glimpse of Jo’s face before turning his attention back to his mother. “It’s not what you think,” he said.
“To hell it’s not,” Jo said to his back.
He stopped for a moment, lowering his head and shaking it. “She was coming to return the rug cleaner she borrowed.” He looked up at Jo. “When she got here smoke was pouring out of the eaves. She called me and said she heard Coco barking and the door was blocked.” His voice began to break. “I told her not to try but she did anyway.”
A part of the main roof collapsed with a loud crash sending sparks flying into the air amid the shouting of firefighters.
Another firefighter came rushing over. “We need you over here, I think AC broke his leg and the chief still hasn’t got here yet.”
Darlene’s son took his mom’s hand, “Mom, you’re going to be okay. I’ve got to go, just hang in there, I’ll be down to the hospital in a few minutes.” He shouted to one of the EMTs “Charlie, take good care of her, and get another ambulance on its way.”
Jo shoved Coco into John’s arms, “Take him.” She walked with the EMTs and Darlene’s stretcher to the ambulance, climbing in after they’d locked the stretcher into place. She sat down on the bench beside Darlene, ignoring the strange looks from the ambulance crew. She took Darlene’s hand speaking to her softly, “I’m so, so sorry Darlene. I didn’t know. It’s going to be alright. We’ll do whatever we can to help you.”
The clear oxygen mask over Darlene’s mouth and nose was fogging with each breath. The smell of singed hair and burned polyester filled the ambulance. Darlene strained to open her eyes and look at Jo. She pulled her hand away and turned her head.
One of the EMTs put his hand on Jo’s shoulder. “Ma’am, I think you’d better leave.”
She stumbled out of the ambulance, nearly twisting her ankle as she stepped down. The EMT pulled the rear door shut as soon as she was clear. The world around Jo began to haze, the shouting of the firefighters and the ambulance sirens came together in a muffled roar, and then Jo collapsed to her knees on the driveway.
Nick Mullins is a writer, public speaker, and advocate for sustainable living practices. He grew up in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia where he was the fifth generation of his family to work in underground coal mines. Today, he enjoys spending time with his wife and their two children as well as contributing to his blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner.