TRAIN NOT RUNNING, BONNY BLUE
It was still dark when he rose and picked up his boots from the side of the bed and shuffled down the hall in his bare feet toward the kitchen. She stirred and rolled onto her side and did not awake. He stepped lightly, navigating the creaking floorboards as if moving across July asphalt, eased open the first door he came to and peered inside. The child lay entangled in a knotted quilt, arms and legs entwined, mouth agape. The room was stock-still, jaundiced in dingy porch light seeping through the blinds and dusting the little girl’s cherubic features.
He stood at the stove and watched the coiled burner redden and come alive and rage like a stirred viper. The coffee bubbled and perked and the scent caused his mouth to water. He sat and listened to the caw of a nightbird somewhere in the distant dark and stared hypnotized into the blackness in his cup.
The big white house sat not more than twenty yards off the train track. At the edge of the yard the Earth sloped, and at the top of the slope lay the timbers and rails that had lain there since long before he had been born. The yard was so shallow, had a passing train managed to jump the track and fall on to its side it would have toppled the back porch and at least part of the kitchen. He finished his coffee and rinsed his cup and placed it upside down on a towel next to the sink and took an empty potato sack from a drawer and stuffed it into his back pocket where it hung down like the frayed tail of a squirrel. The sun burned a soft coral haze all about the house as he stepped out and clawed his way up the slope onto the railroad track. He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket, cupped his hands around it against the wind, lit it, and sucked the menthol smoke deep into his lungs. The tracks ran overgrown with weeds as far as he could see. He walked past rotting trailers and sinking unsquared houses where garments hung from clotheslines, swaying in the morning breeze, odd like chorus lines of invisible dancers, unconcealed only by their donning of work shirts or stiff jeans. A wiry pit-bull, with a head and jaws as wide as a cooper’s anvil, charged full speed up the slope only to be snapped back at the neck by a length of chain that kept the maniacal beast from just reaching the top. Hollis leaned forward just out of reach of the snarling fangs and spit on the dog’s forehead, the animal’s fury choking itself against the pull of the chain.
“Dumbass. It’s just gonna do the same thing every mornin’, ya know,” Hollis said to the dog.
He continued on down the tracks about a mile further and stepped off onto a faint trail that ascended into the dense growth and began his way up through the grapevine and thistle of Little Black Mountain.
Near the top of the incline the trail was intersected by a strand of barbed and sagging wire. A metal no trespassing sign, nearly rusted to unreadable, hung from the top wire. The weathered fence posts drooped like dozing guards on a remote outpost and the oxidized wire hung nearly invisible against the fall leaves of red maple, walnut and ash that set the hillside ablaze with the ascending dawn. Hollis stood and caught his breath then stepped through the slack fence and stood still again on the trail on the other side and listened. A Brown Creeper called from high above, testing the skills of a distant mockingbird who repeated every note, until an owl hooted and abruptly silenced both of the smaller chipper birds. The sun was just beginning to break over the treetops and shafts of dry dusty light shot through holes in the foliage blanket and stirred the sleeping forest below. Unseen characters rustled about, scurrying for cover from the betrayal of light. Convinced he was alone, Hollis continued up the trail fifty yards or so and turned against the incline, pushing his way through the growth. He cussed the forest under his breath as he moved along. His eyes darted back and forth at his feet searching the forest floor as he went.
The ginseng was hard to spot amidst the growth if it wasn’t in bloom. When in bloom, little red berries clustered in the center of the leaves, as bright as small advertising bursts of neon. When not in bloom, and at just a glance, the leaves alone might trick the untrained eye into thinking it was poison ivy.
The first plant lay alongside a downed tree. He stood still again and listened and pulled a knife from his pocket and locked the blade back with his thumb and stooped to the hillside, hunched and hurried about his work as if in kinship with an ancient tinker, summoned to a task by a hermit’s whore who’d promised to bare her breasts in payment. He removed the leaves and tossed them aside and dug at the earth and cut free a ropy tuberous root that looked like the dirty gnarled hand of a small witch. He rubbed the dirt from the root, inspected it, and dropped it into the sack, then continued along the same trajectory deeper into the forest, scanning the hillside about his feet as he went.
The stand of produce ran no wider than the width of the tail gate dropped at the back of Jay Boy Patterson’s hand-me-down Ford pickup truck. Cardboard boxes filled with sweet ears of corn clothed in pale green husks, fuzzy pods of okra, and bursting red tomatoes buzzing with flies. Jay Boy sat in a folding chair next to a produce scale that hung from the hinge on the tailgate and clanked when the breeze got up and hit it. He sat and watched the man approaching on the road and sat back easy again in his chair once the man got close enough to be recognized as Hollis Koker.
“Where’d you get these roots from?” Jay Boy asked as Hollis dropped the sack full of roots at the side of his chair.
“You heard me, where’d you get ‘em from?”
“Well, I got ‘em from over at the gettin’ place. What in hell you care where I’s to get ‘em from?” Hollis said and took out a cigarette, lit it and stood leaning on the truck as he smoked.
“’Cause they ain’t dickin’ ‘round with this no more, that’s what. These come outta a state park, I’d be up shit creek. And ‘sides they’s people gettin’ shot for trespassin’ over this here shit right here. It ain’t like it used to be where anybody could just tromp around and dig up roots from any ol’ place they damn well please. People’s gettin’ pissed, Hollis. I don’t want no part of no poachin’ off nobody’s land. Get my ass a whole new hole shot in it.”
“Well, hell they’s roots, Jay Boy. What, you think they’s got some kinda microchip in ‘em, or a serial number or some shit like that they can trace back to you. They’s roots. You want ‘em or don’t you? ‘cause I know somebody sure as hell will.” Hollis reached down and picked up the sack.
“Hang on now, I ain’t said I don’t want ‘em. Just ast where you got ‘em from was all,” said Jay Boy.
“Well I got ‘em over yonder, now weigh ‘em and pay me out so’s I can go on. I ain’t come over here to stand around anyhow,” Hollis said and dumped the gnarled ginseng roots out of the potato sack into the scoop of the scale.
Jay Boy sifted and counted the roots and surveyed the needle on the big dial as it danced and bobbed and came to a stop.
“I heard Westmoreland gonna go at Bonny Blue again,” Jay Boy said.
“Hell you say?” Hollis stared for a minute at Jay Boy. “Train ain’t run nowhere close to Bonny Blue since back in the seventies.”
“They say some new geologist got up in there and said they’s seams all in there that’s been completely missed.”
“Hell, Jay Boy, you know better’n that. Blue Diamond nor Westmoreland neither one ain’t never missed a damn thing. If they’s still good seams in there, they missed ‘em a purpose.”
“Well I don’t know, I’m just sayin’. Tellin’ what I heard is all. I’ll give ya two and a quarter for these.”
“You a crook, Jay Boy. You know it? Damn near a Jew. Go on and give it here. I ain’t got time to stand around and haggle with you.”
Hollis counted the cash and shoved it into his pocket and took the road home that led through town. Town nearly deserted. Apocalyptic, ashen. He passed the putty-colored Christ Church with its rotted and peeling soffit and fascia. Passed a dilapidated old building that was once the company store. Broken windows and a sagging porch now littered with beer cans from weekend teenage squatters, the hills on both sides dotted with shacks like confetti; all shape and size haphazardly strewn among the trees, same as trash thrown out of a moving car will do, scattering to hang in the weeds alongside the highway. He walked among the rows of abandoned dwellings built by Powell Valley and Blue Diamond Coal companies that once bustled with miners and miner’s families during the boom days. He felt as though he were being watched, paraded past the ancient eyes of ancestors he’d only known from stories told by his half-inebriated father and grandfather. Stories steeped in angst. Rich in martyrdom. Stories that wove a tight quilt he had wrapped himself in, breathed the musky scent of, and found security in since he was a child. He was cut from that cloth. Cut same as if a paper pattern of the men that came before had been laid out and penned to the very fabric of his existence. Coal tainted his blood, same as the blood that drove so many men through the wages and strikes and black lung deep into the bowels of these mountains for generations. He was a coal miner and would always be a coal miner, train running or not.
He felt an energy in his step, an enthusiasm he had not felt in a long time, and once he recognized it he immediately cussed it and squelched it down as far into himself as he could. He stopped and startled himself in a dirt covered glass window where a section had been rubbed clean by a looter surveying the interior of the dwelling for anything of value. A sharp silence echoed through this empty hollow at night and often pounded him awake. Sleeplessness had drawn deep creases into his face and wrenched his once bright smile into a perpetual gray scowl. He stared at his reflection in the window and tried to convince himself that he did not recognize the old man in the young man’s clothes staring back at him. He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it and stooped and picked a golf ball sized stone from the side of the road and hurled it at the glass. The old man shrieked out and shattered and disappeared into a pile of shards buried in the overgrown grass below.
Time had a habit of crawling into beer cans on the bar at the Bobcat Den. Many a man had lost countless hours idling in the cool hum of its jukebox and the senseless chatter of acquaintances and it was after nine o’clock when Hollis stepped outside and crossed the gravel lot behind the Bobcat and stepped over onto the tracks. Black pitch for night concealed all of him but the occasional orange glow of a deep draw on his cigarette. His house was dark and still as he crept down the hall and slipped into the child’s room. He straightened the quilt about her and tucked the hem beneath her chin and kissed her softly on her forehead.
He eased through the door of their bedroom, careful not to wake her, and laid the money in a roll on the dresser by her side of the bed. He removed his shirt and washed his hands and face in the sink in the bathroom, the water dripping a rusty brown as he scrubbed his leathery hands. She stirred and rolled and lay on her side watching him as he crossed the room and stood silhouetted, looking out the window at the tracks below.
“Hon,” she said.
“You know whatever they’re doin’ back up in there it ain’t gonna last.”
“Hell, I know that. But at least for a minute, I can dream, cain’t I?”
He stood a moment more and watched the rails glisten in the sallow light of the moon; miles of track cutting through the weeded slope and disappearing into the thick blackness of the hollow. He unlaced his boots and sat them on the floor beside the bed and slid beneath the cool sheets. He lay on his side and kept his face toward the window. The soft warmth of her breasts pressed against his back, the sweetness of her breath at the base of his neck slow and rhythmic.
“Love you,” she whispered.
That night the first of thirty cars backed under the flood loader at Bonny Blue tipple. A creaking, screeching cambion squalling through the night. He lay and listened to the brakes hiss and grind and squeal. The slipping of metal on metal as the wheels grabbed at the rails and pulled the next empty car up to rest beneath the loader, the tracks only yards from his room. He stood and opened the window as the train crawled past. The howl of the big Norfolk Southern engine rattled the walls all night long as he lay for the first time in a long time sleeping the sleep of the dead.
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