by Vic Sizemore
Two years after Oxy shut down Mom’s lungs forever, my stepdad Cecil called and asked if I would come and care for him while the coalmine finished killing him off. He’d managed to avoid suffocation down in Patriot Coal’s number seven, but the coal had collected slowly, a breath at a time, like silt in a creek bed. Now it was smothering him from inside. I knew he was bad off because all the pride he’d had to swallow to make the call, to speak up when he heard my voice say hello; we’d had our differences, almost come to blows more than once.
My first impulse was to say no, but I would be happy to send money and help get somebody to check in on him or whatever.
“I don’t need money,” he wheezed over the phone. “Believe it or not,” he said, “you’re all I got.”
I’m usually not the kind of person to fall for a plea like that, but since we’d never been close, never even liked each other, I knew he was telling the truth. He’d have called anyone before me. For some reason thinking about it like that got to me and I told him I’d come. Plus, my job at the treatment center was going nowhere and I was rolling around to my next burnout, which comes about every eight months in that line of work.
“Can you get here before winter?” he asked. He coughed and hacked up phlegm. “Last winter I barely left the house. It about did me in.”
“This one might do us both in,” I said.
Flight from a place is not escape. I should have known I wouldn’t get away. The part of my body that was water—sixty-five percent of my fleshy form—was made up of muddy creek wash. I flew from that coalmine hollow with no intention of ever going back, but the water in me pulled like the tide with the moon cycles, pulled and ebbed and pulled again. It was bound to cycle around, as all things do, and flow back into that West Virginia mud.
“I’ll come help you get set up with some help,” I told Cecil, “but I’m not staying.”
Two nights later, Jack Mullins called me on the phone and invited me to his funeral. Jack was in my class, but his sister Jeanette was the one I remembered best. Not because I’d known her, but because I’d been obsessed with her, not creepily, but as healthy teen boys are with beautiful older girls who are nice to them. She was two years ahead of us in school, and the most beautiful girl in the whole valley—not just my assessment; it was generally acknowledged to be the case. I’d never ventured a single flirtatious word or gesture. I knew better than to even try.
I’d always considered Jack himself a fuckup. Jack, who dropped off the baseball team in high school so he could give more of his time to weed and booze, and whatever else was going around town—acid was his favorite. Jack, who made a pipe bomb his one year at Marshall and blew up an old pay phone outside a bar called The Third Base. Jack, who’d begged me to punch him as hard as I could in the alley beside the Double Dribble as he prepared to fight Clooney, the six-three, two-fifty bouncer whose weed he’d stolen. Jack, whom I drove to the hospital for stitches after Clooney split his head open with a beer bottle later that same night.
When he called out of nowhere to invite me to his funeral, Jack jolted me awake to the dark panic of a three a.m. call—who is in trouble? hurt? dead? In what horrible way has life eternally changed? We’d been out of touch for over fifteen years and it took me several vague comments of pretend recognition to place him.
“You’re wondering why I called,” Jack said. “I called to invite you to my funeral.” He was shit-faced.
“Okay, sure,” I said, unsure if he was fucking with me. “Sure, I’ll come. When is it?”
“Seriously,” Jack said. “I have cancer, dude.”
“Shit. Sorry. That sucks.”
“So will you come to my funeral?”
“Say you’ll come to my funeral.”
“Okay,” I said. “Where are you having it?”
“Promise you’ll come.”
“Yeah, sure, I’ll come.”
“Dude, is somebody there with you? Are you okay?”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “I thought you were different. I thought you were cool.”
“No, I’m asking you—”
“Fuck you, you’re just like everybody else.” He ended the call.
I looked at the number in my phone. A 304 area code—he was still in West Virginia.
“Everything okay?” my girlfriend Emily asked from her side of the bed.
“A guy from high school calling to invite me to his funeral.”
“What the hell?”
“He’s dying of cancer.”
“So he drunk dialed you in the middle of the night for some sympathy,” she said, her throat clotted with sleep.
“For something.” My phone went dark and the number disappeared. I didn’t call him back and we never spoke again.
I took an emergency leave from the group home, kissed Emily goodbye, and drove across the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains toward that depressed and depressing place, my home state. I plunged into the craggy Alleghenies and the far-off horizon closed in on me with frightening speed, until it loomed above, right there over my shoulder out the car window. A claustrophobic tension built in my chest as I followed the road down into the crevices they call valleys in West Virginia. Places where snowmelt and rainwater—and poison coal slurry—crash down from above, swamp houses, fill yards.
I followed the Turnpike as it threaded its way through those ragged mountains—the leafless trees seemed to lean toward me from the mountainsides, wet black trunks, silent watchers, as I drove. I emerged from the Turnpike. I rolled through Cabin Creek. In Belle, the DuPont plant spread down below along the Kanawha River, pipes and hoses and latticed steel beams and bars, tanks in the middle twisted and connected like the giant insides of a transistor radio. Pipes jutting into the sky like smoking middle fingers. The sky was gauzy and white.
I thought of this guy Tommy Joyner I went to high school with at East Bank, whose dad worked at the DuPont plant, and I read back in 2010 that a good lungful of leaked Phosgene killed him, Tommy’s dad. Phosgene is good for making plastics and pesticides. It was also good for mass murdering a shit-ton of people during WWI. On past the DuPont plant I drove, through Marmet, Dupont City, Rand, Malden. I turned left out Campbell’s Creek.
Cecil was looking out the shotgun shack’s front screen door when I pulled into the drive across the road from the creek. He faded back into the dark house like a fish diving into deeper water, but was back by the time I’d set the parking brake and climbed out of the truck. His faded red flannel was tucked into a brand new pair of Wranglers. His work boots were brand new too, blond and unscratched. His mottled claw reached a blue can of Pepsi toward me. “I have bourbon,” he wheezed, “if you want something a little stronger.”
“I’m good right now,” I said.
“After you get settled in, I need you to run me out the road if you can.” His face was drawn, his eyes those wild desperate eyes of an addict.
I held his gaze until he turned away. I asked, “What are you getting?”
He shrugged his knife-blade shoulders. “Guy I know has Vikes.”
I stared at him.
“I’m in a lot of pain here,” he said. “I’m dying you know—goddamn coal baron motherfuckers got rich and I’m the one dying.”
“Still,” I said, “there are things you could do—”
“Really?” he said. “You’re going to start that shit?” He laughed, which sent him into a coughing fit—couldn’t seem to get a deep enough breath for a good, cleansing hack of spittle phlegm. He said, “What the hell difference does it make?”
“Let’s do your run,” I said.
“Drink your Pepsi first.” He stood staring across the road at the brown creek. A loose pile-up of broken tree limbs—giant bird nest, lazy beavers—at the culvert mouth, raked up plastic Kroger bags and two-liter bottles as the brown water passed through it.
“It was an easy drive,” I said. “Come on, let’s go do your run.”
He nodded, went and stood by the passenger door of my car.
My first morning back in West Virginia, I was surprised at how the mountain outside my window rose out of the hanging white fog so close, too close. The soft fog was loose floating water, somehow gathering light, bright of its own accord in the overcast gray morning. Everything outside was dew-wet; the inside of my room was damp—I’d left his window open a crack and it had sipped in the cool, wet air all night—even my arm, clammy to the touch.
Through my knotty pine door, Cecil called, “Are you up?”
“I’m up,” I swung my legs from under the warm blanket into the cold air of the room. For an instant, the black knots on the glistening pine door appeared to morph into eyes and stare at me, silent watchers, the dead all around this place, the poisoned ones.
Cecil shuffled toward the kitchen, coughing and hacking. Whipping phlegm around deep in his chest. Black lung. Coal mine. Lortab, Percocet. Oxy. Right now Vicodin. The pharmacy would kill him or the coalmine—either way, Cecil was about out of time.
The mountain outside rose from the fog like an island, black silhouette in a slow-shifting white sea. Wasn’t that just what islands were, mountains so high they break through to air, fish and stingrays circling down there like slow-motion birds? I rubbed my arms.
Heat from Cecil’s fresh-stoked fire emanated through the pine door, carried the smell of frying scrapple, along with the clinking of pans, plates, silverware, and Cecil’s incessant deep hacking—the noises rang clear and close, as if there were no space, and no door, between his cool room and the sweltering kitchen. I glanced once more at the mountain. It filled my window, dark and foggy.
I opened the door and the old man was walking back to the kitchen, his blue work pants cinched tight at the waist by a belt, gathered in creases around his withering bones. His shoulders slumped forward like a woman with osteoporosis, so his back was like the bony chest of a turkey carcass—under the same flannel shirt from the previous day, red faded to orange-pink.
“Scrapple smells good,” I told him.
He didn’t hear, or didn’t care to respond, kept dragging down the hallway, his slippers shifting outward so half his crusty heels scraped along the dirty floor. His frame lost dimensionality, went silhouette in the doorway, and then disappeared into the bright kitchen. There was a strange silence. No clinking silver or whoosh of refrigerator door. No creaking floorboard.
A wave of panic swept through me, as if I’d just watched Cecil being assumed into heaven like Enoch of old; he just died, I thought, just leaned over the table and stopped breathing like Mom. I hurried down the hallway and rounded into the kitchen.
I found him hunched over the sink—a skeleton with faded skin and clothes hung on it—cupping scrambled eggs folded into a slice of butter-soaked toast and raising it carefully to bird maw. A glob of yellow egg plopped into the sink. Cecil pinched it out and stuffed it in his mouth. A plate of scrambled eggs and fried scrapple waited for me on the table. Grease beaded on the mealy brown squares of pig offal.
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“Eat,” he said through a mouthful of chewed egg and bread.
“I’m sorry things turned out this way.”
“Things are what they are,” he said. “God sees. I have to rely on Him for justice in heaven. Sure ain’t going to get any here on Earth.”
“On earth as it is in heaven,” I said, not sure even why. It just popped into my head.
“Bullshit,” Cecil said. He wheezed. He stepped slowly to the table and eased himself down, sat staring ahead in his opiate haze.
When she died, Mom still owned a house on one of the less bleak stretches of Elk River Road between Big Chimney and Elkview, a drive called Riverview Road—she called it Riverview Way for whatever reason. The bank was taking it away from her when the river broke its banks and swamped Elkview. Two women on her street drowned in their house. She was out on Campbell’s Creek with Cecil. Lost everything she had in the flood, photographs, letters, books and Bibles. Out of boredom one day while Cecil wheezed in rhythmic sleep, I jumped in my Accord and drove out to look at it.
The street looked as if nothing had happened. Calm, quiet. Houses all looked intact. A white pull-behind camper with what looked like giant brown paintbrush strokes randomly swiped across it was in the driveway of Mom’s house. An orange extension cord plugged to its side ran across the driveway and around behind the house. No one was out in the entire neighborhood. Cars passed by above, the Elk River flowed calmly below—obviously not far enough below—on the other side, all the houses on this narrow terrace between the brown river and the blacktop road.
From there I drove out Elk River Road until it turned into Pennsylvania Avenue going into Charleston. In Mink Shoals, I stopped at Harding’s Restaurant for a burger and some fries. On my way out to the car, I saw Jeanette’s pure blond hair on a skinny woman getting out of a tiny lime green Chevy hatchback that was shaped like a baby booty.
“Jeanette,” I called as I walked toward her.
She turned and squinted at me the way you do when you know you know someone but can’t remember how.
“Shelby,” I said. “Shelby Epps. I played baseball with Jack.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, straightening up and closing her car door. Her crow’s feet appeared and disappeared with her squint—her eyes were set deeper somehow, peered out as if into the sun from under deep shade. “Your mom used to work at Maynor’s Market up in Blue Creek.”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“They had the best fried chicken.” Her shoulders, arms and breasts had plumped out. She wore an overlarge black tee shirt with the red Coca Cola looped across the front, blue jeans, white Nike sneakers. The years had kicked her ass, but to me she was as beautiful as ever—more beautiful even.
“I never ate there,” I said. “I was already in Virginia when she went back to work.”
The lot was newly paved. White gravel lay strewn across the black asphalt that still had the smell of fresh tar. The white parking lines were bright and crisp.
“You got out,” she said. “Seems like I remember you were kind of wild.”
“Buck wild,” I said.
She laughed and looked toward Barone Bros Pizza across the road. An obese man over there was talking on his phone beside a maroon minivan with its hood up. He had on a sagging gray hoodie and camouflage cargo shorts and he waved his arm around as he talked. Trucks clipped by on Rt. 79. The sign said one way to Clarksburg the other to Charleston. Jeanette looked back at me. “I see people around here who’ve been gone a long time, it’s usually not something good bringing them back.”
“No,” I said. “I guess not.” I looked at her hand and saw no ring. “Jack called me a little while back. Invited me to his funeral.”
“Did you go?”
“No,” I said. “Didn’t you?”
“He made his choices.” She scratched her eyebrow with her pinky fingernail. Her keyring had a furry pom pom hanging on it the size of an orange, black-tipped white like a gray fox. A small tremor started at her shoulder and ran like an electrical current out her fingertips. She lowered her hand quickly and said, “He was not a good person.”
I told her I didn’t know him well, only knew he’d been a pleasant guy, clever, fun at parties.
She shrugged. “If you say so.” She looked over at the restaurant. She looked down at the parking lot. “I wasn’t speaking to him.” She looked straight at me. “We hadn’t spoken in years.”
How I worshipped her when we were young, but standing before me now, she was so worn down, so diminished. I asked about her life. She only offered that she was divorced and had a son named Brone. “He’s my life,” she said. “He’s my world.” He had some addiction issues, she told me.
I told her, “We should get together and have a drink or something.”
“What about you?” she asked.
“I’m taking care of my stepdad. He has black lung—and he’s addicted to opiates. Pills. I’m not back for good.”
She nodded and pulled out her phone. “What’s your number?”
I ticked it off to her and she punched it in. “You won’t call,” I said.
Driving back out, I passed the Freedom Industry—montani semper liberi and all that happy horseshit—tanks over the hill on the left across the Elk River from a red and brown billboard with massive white letters reading Obama’s NO JOB ZONE. Those Freedom tanks were the ones that had leaked a substance called methylcyclohexanemethanol into the river’s flow and poisoned all of Charleston’s drinking water. People who could afford it had stopped trusting the water supply and switched to bottled, especially for their kids.
My phone buzzed and sure enough Jeanette had texted: sent me an immediate text: welcome back to hell just kidding not really
I’m not sure why I didn’t call Jeanette. I intended to call the following day, but I decided to wait one more, lest I seem overeager. Then the days just went by until it seemed the opportunity had passed. When I thought of it, I got a heavy feeling in my chest, a sad regret. I had the chance to take out lovely Jeanette Mae Mullins and I had let it pass. I chided myself, told myself just to do it; then I would turn my mind to something new.
I didn’t know how to go about setting up care for Cecil and so I decided to live with him for a week or two and get a feel for what kind of care he needed. Seemed to me he didn’t need a lot—I needed fans from Walmart to blow the stink of him out the windows. All he needed was groceries every few days—he didn’t eat much—his pills, and doctor visits for an update on his slide toward the edge of the black gorge.
The doctor sent him to All Med out in Nitro, where he saw his respiratory therapist and got nostril tubes that tethered him to a silver oxygen cylinder with a green top that he pulled around on a mini golf bag cart. The government built the town of Nitro to support a munitions plant they built there during WWI. It was named from nitro-cellulose, a kind of gunpowder. Allied Chemical is there now, and Monsanto. Avtex Fibers and FMC. Dow Chemical over in South Charleston. A number of others.
Nitro was not as inconvenient as it might have been because Cecil’s drug guy Jimmy—a stinking, toothless addict-dealer who wore a ratty blue London Fog jacket like his second skin—was on the way. He lived alone in neighborhood of shacks just past West Virginia State University, beside the Rhone-Poulenc plant—used to be Union Carbide, one of two in the world, at least as far as I could remember, that manufactured methyl isocyanate, the pesticide gas that leaked and killed something like four thousand people in Bhopal, India back in 1984. I did not feel guilty enabling Cecil. The coal silt in his lungs was killing him anyway, so I figured what the hell, let him spend his disability on whatever he wanted until he died.
I called the group home and explained that I couldn’t come back quite yet; the Program Director Kim told me she understood and it was good Cecil had me but she was going to have to hire a replacement. I fell two months behind on rent, then three, as the days bled together in a dreary haze. Emily stopped calling. That’s how two weeks turned into four months. Out of pure boredom in the winter, I started taking a quarter pill of whatever Cecil had. Then a half. Then somehow, I was buying my own stash when we drove out to see Jimmy.
Somehow, there I was, stoned and watching TV with Cecil. I only ate to have something on my stomach for the pills; I neither bathed nor brushed my teeth. My life back in Virginia with Emily and a satisfying job and a membership to the Y Express which I actually used, all of it felt like a dream faraway and fading farther, the view from down inside this valley was straight up, a narrow strip of sky—down inside this valley is the slough of despond.
The mountain outside my window crowded closer, as leaves grew in heavy on the silent watching trees, and weeds rose up and squeezed in on the road. The foliage tangled in so thick it began to feel like nature in this valley was a consuming snake, would swallow the blacktop road entirely, the wild closing in on this one strip of human passage along the creek. I had a fleeting image of waking up one morning to find Cecil’s small house engulfed in pokeweed, ragweed, kudzu leaves, so that I would need a machete to bushwhack my way back out. Which would take more energy than I could possibly muster.
The end of August trees leaves around Cecil’s house had reached its darkest—from there they would flame into bright oranges and yellows and then blanket the ground for winter again. I might have stayed there alongside that creek and died with Cecil had it not been for Jeanette’s call. I lay spread on the bed in a Lortab haze, staring down the knotty pine walls, the knots that formed themselves into smeared, distorted faces when I stared and sometimes even stared back.
My phone buzzed beside my hip. Cecil coughed in the kitchen.
“You never called me,” she said when I answered.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.” I went into this long and silly—though not entirely untrue—monologue about how I had worshipped her in school, how I had stood close to her at the locker in the mornings sometimes, when she came to school with her hair still just a little wet, to get a whiff of her shampoo. I told her how afraid I had been even to talk to her.
“You should have,” she said.
“You were a goddess.”
Her laugh was bitter. “I surely was an object of male desire,” she said. “If that’s what you mean.”
“I’m glad you called,” I said.
“They found Brone last night,” she said.
It took me a few long instants to remember who Brone was. Her son. How old was he? I didn’t remember if she’d told me or not. I said, “They what?”
“They found Brone—found his body. Somebody threw him over the guardrail at the Pinch Reunion Grounds.”
“Holy shit,” I said. It shock of the news turned my brain into a sloth crawling on the ground. I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I repeated, “Holy shit,” then managed, “I’m so sorry.”
“He’s a tweaker,” she said. When I was silent, she added, “He’s addicted to meth. I’ve done everything I can think of to get him to quit, to get some help, but you know he’s a grown man. He makes his own choices and those choices have consequences.” Her voice broke on the final two syllables of consequences and she was weeping.
Cecil coughed and wheezed down in the kitchen.
“Is anybody there with you?” I asked. “Do you have anybody?”
“Why do you think I’m calling you?” She wept into the phone. “Everybody I have is dead.” She said, “Shelby, I need money to put gas in my car.”
“You don’t have any money?”
“My boss fired me,” she said. “I’m going to sue that bitch though. She had it out for me from the start.”
“That bitch…” She started crying again. Through her sobs she said, “Please bring me some money.” Then she pleaded, “Does your stepdad have any pills I can buy?”
“You don’t have money.” I said.
I was thinking to myself that I should not have said that to her, her son just died, when she said, “I can pay you in other ways.”
“Please,” she wailed into the phone. She wept and cried, guttural moans, groans too deep for words. “Please,” she said. “Please.”
Down in that valley in West Virginia the mountains rose steep on either side of Cecil’s house. The creek ran beside the road. The water in a human body did not move down in that crevice though, heavy things—poison, unemployment, trouble—flowed down those mountainsides, came as a cataract from the creek bed upstream, swelled out and swamped houses, filled yards. Left deadly black mold in its wake.
There was nowhere for the heavy things to go. They did not flow on with the rainwater and snowmelt; they remained in polluted eddies. The moon passed above from mountaintop to mountaintop and never glanced down, moved on. I knew that if I waited any longer to make my break, I would come to the mouth of the hollow and find the flood had washed out the bridge and I would stay.
I told Jeanette I could not help her. I told her I was sorry, and I was, I was sorry; I wept as I turned her down. I left my stash of pills on Cecil’s kitchen table and bid farewell to the knotty pine faces on the walls. Judge me if you want. I got in my car and I fled. I could not save anyone else but I could escape. I left that place, that land of silent watching trees and dead souls.
Vic Sizemore is the author of the essay collection Goodbye, My Tribe: An Evangelical Exodus, and the short story collection I Love You I’m Leaving. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Story Quarterly, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, [PANK] Magazine, Reed Magazine and many other journals. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award and has been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best of the Net, and several Pushcart Prizes.
Photo: Yaroslav Maltsev/Unsplash