So I went and wrote a short story.
Appalachia is the inspiration. Though I have lived in Georgia for close to 20 years, I still consider myself a West Virginian. There’s no denying that growing up there made me who I am, and at the same time that I love telling people about Cranberry, Sandstone and Holcomb, and even worked in West Virginia tourism for a while, I know that I can’t go back. That story is complicated, but that’s what the state is about. It’s complex, and a few articles or recent soundbites do not begin to explain it. Whatever you imagine when you hear “West Virginia” – it’s probably there. It’s opposite is also there.
Enough rambling. Here is the story. Feedback always welcome!
Mountain Economy (AKA Matthew’s Story)
Mark C. 2018
Matthew knew there was work to do when his father woke him up on Saturday morning. His bedroom was chilly, and his father’s monotone “rise and shine” was harsh compared to his mom’s gentle wake up calls during the week. He wished he could stay in bed later, but knew there was no need arguing with his dad. He pulled himself out of bed, put on a pair of old jeans and made his way to the kitchen, moving faster when he heard cereal hitting an empty bowl. His little sister, Amber, was sitting in her high-chair, a bowl of colorful “O’s” scattered on the tray in front of her.
“Hi,” he said to his mom and dad who were preoccupied with chores. His dad, Randy, was leaning against the counter. His mom, Sherry, wiped milk from Amber’s face. He sat down and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Morning, Bub.” His mom added as she grabbed a jug of milk and filled his bowl. “Make sure you put on your heavy coat. There’s a frost on.” She sat, finally able to enjoy her own breakfast. A few seconds passed before Matthew noticed the silence and glanced at her. Her stare was partially blocked by the dark hair that had fallen from her ponytail, but it was clear she was waiting for a response.
“Yes, mom.” he answered, paying more attention to the faint noise of the weather forecast playing in the living room.
While Matthew ate breakfast, Randy gathered tools and hoses that they would need for their work. He made several trips out the backdoor and to the shed, back through the house, and out the front door to the truck. Each time, the spring on the storm door squealed and pulled the door closed with a crash. Each time, Matthew jumped. Still sleepy, but starting to wake, he shuffled to the living room and dropped onto the couch. As he leaned over to tie his shoes, he heard the truck start. Dad was ready to go.
The drive was quiet. Randy wasn’t much of a talker, so Matthew gazed out the truck window, hoping to see a rabbit or turkey leaving the woods to forage for food. The grass where the sun hadn’t hit yet was white and frozen stiff. He tried his best to ignore the overwhelming smell of black walnuts that Randy had picked up at work. The walnuts rolled under Matthew’s feet, and made bracing himself around the turns a chore. The old blue and silver pickup made its way up Smith Creek and turned up the old logging road that worked its way up to the mine. They came to a stop in a flat covered with fading, pale-yellow goldenrod. A rusty sign post was the only hint that a road once carried trucks of timber to the sawmill below.
Randy surveyed the area while Matthew sat in the open door of the truck, enjoying the warmth of the heater as long as possible. He fidgeted with the peeling Batman patch on his shoe, a bad habit, much like his dad’s nail-biting.
“Dad, there’s nothing here. What are we doing?” Matthew asked, as the tattered Batman logo fell off his shoe and into the frosty leaves.
“Gotta work…won’t take long. You’re old enough to help now,” his dad said as he handed Matthew a backpack. The supplies were almost too heavy for him, but he refused to admit it to his dad. Another backpack, the toolbox and a white tank were unloaded next. Carefully, Randy stepped over the bank and out of view. The cold ground was slick, and the trail was more of a small break in the brush than an actual trail. His grey coat kept getting caught on the briers. Little grey strings fell from the scratches.
“How’s school? Are you liking your teacher any better now?”
“She’s OK. She don’t like Jamie though. He talks too much and she yells at him.”
“You do what she says,” Randy told him, making sure he understood it was an order.
Matthew gave him a slow, slightly sarcastic, “I will.”
“That Jamie’s trouble.”
The weight of the backpack threw off Matthew’s balance as he made his way down the slick bank. He held the pack in front of his face as he clumsily slid down the last few feet, using it to shield his face from stray branches and briers. The trail met the train tracks above Price Creek and continued on over the hill.
“Bring your backpack here.” Randy unloaded a mass of blue hoses from his pack. “And go sit on those rocks over there by the redbud tree. Don’t look at the fire when I get this torch lit. It’ll be too bright.”
“OK. What do you want me to do?”
“Just go, sit and wait for me.”
Matthew returned to the spot he stared from earlier and looked out at the houses by the creek, noticing the backyards and what people had in them. It was interesting to see what people keep out back. Old campers, old cars, old dogs and little white, triangle shaped houses with roosters sitting in front of and on top of them. He had only seen the houses from the viewpoint of the school bus, only the fronts of the houses and the small front yards.
He walked farther down the tracks and sat on a prominent rock by the redbud trees. Behind him he heard a pop and the low hiss of his dads torch. He wanted to defy Randy, to turn and watch the work, but he didn’t. He watched the tiny cars and trucks driving along the creek, which quickly became boring. He picked at the hole in his shoe, and remembered that he had forgotten to pick up the Batman patch that fell off earlier. He turned to tell his dad about the realization-but quickly remembered not to turn toward the torch and stopped himself. From here, he could see the white church that his grandma attended and the road that cut back to the coal mine where his dad worked until last Fall. A steady parade of cars pulled into the parking lot, each one dropping off well-dressed church ladies, their arms full of boxes and plastic bags. He wondered if they were preparing for a birthday party. A few minutes later, one of the old ladies passed through the front doors and tied three pale blue balloons to the hand rail.
“It’s a boy!”, Matthew mumbled to himself, losing interest in the happenings of the church.
The consistent hiss of the torch followed by the clank of metal continued while Matthew thought about the church, the Batman patch from his shoe, and the church again. He collected a handful of rocks that caught his attention and stuffed them into the pocket of his grey coat. He threw a few rocks at a poplar stump, and tried his hand at making towers out of flat rocks. When the towers collapsed, he used the flat side of one to carve his initials on the rock serving as his perch. As he finished scratching “R” on the rock, Randy called out “Ready?”. Matthew quickly added a “J” to the initials. It was faint compared to the other letters, but he stood and admired his “MRJ”, then ran down to where his dad was working.
Randy was tired from having organized his work into scattered piles where the parallel tracks used to be. There was a pile for tools, a pile of track cut into long pieces, a pile of short pieces, and a small pile of spikes off to the side. He sat on the edge of the ribbon of rock that the tracks were built on, resting before starting the next chore. Though there was a frost on, he sweated from leaning over the torch for so long. As Matthew reached the piles, his dad unscrewed the lid of a blue plastic thermos and offered him a drink of water. The thermos was too big, making it hard for Matthew to drink without spilling. He handed the cooler back, Randy took another drink and put the thermos back in the backpack.
“We’ll take the tools up last. I’ll take the big pieces, you take the small pieces.” Randy said. “Can you get it?”
Matthew jumped to the pile, excited to be doing anything other than sitting on a rock, and struggled to pick up the I-shaped piece of steel almost as long as his arm. It was more stable once in his arms, and he responded to his dad with a labored “Yep”.
“We need to carry them up to the truck. Be careful going up. There’s no need to hurry.”
Randy threw a backpack on his back and started to the trail with a larger piece of the track. Matthew walked ahead of him. Going up the hill was easier than coming down. The frost had melted, and the damp leaves gave better traction than damp and frozen leaves.
Matthew grew tired after a few trips carrying the track, then began carrying the backpacks up on his back, which freed his hands to grab saplings and logs to pull himself up the hill. Randy finished carrying the steel and went back for the tank, which he told Matthew to leave for him.
The backpacks were last to go into the bed of the truck. While Matthew looked for his Batman patch in the grass, Randy opened the thermos and took a drink.
“You ready?”, asked Matthew, barely looking up from the back of the truck.
“I can’t find Batman.”
Randy shuffled backpacks and hoses around in the back of the truck. “Leave it. You need new shoes anyway.”
Matthew continued searching as if he didn’t hear his dads comment. The tailgate slammed shut.
“Hey!” Randy called with a stern, dry voice. “The leaves.”
“The tools were in the leaves when we got here because the grass was wet. You check there?” Matthew’s eyebrows lifted as he realized he was searching the wrong area.
Matthew fiddled with the patch as they drove down the hill to the main road near the little white houses.
“What’re those tracks for, dad?”
“We’ll get a good price for them.
“What about the train? Don’t the train need them?”
“Trains don’t come through anymore.”
“Is it stealing? Someone took Jamie’s 4-wheeler and his dad’s tool box.”
“It’s not stealing.”
“But what if the train wants to come through again and they need that track?”
“It’s not stealing.” Randy’s voice was tense. “It’s like….like blackberries. You like blackberries. It’s like blackberries. The mountain has blackberries and the mountain has tracks and when you need them you pick them.”
Matthew thought for a few minutes about blackberries and train tracks.
“Would we get into trouble if -?” Randy smacked the steering wheel and released a defeated sigh.
“Matthew! You..”, pausing and looking away from his son, “…you need new shoes.”