The Miner's Friend, by Jeff Kerr

I fight the Mack truck around the bends of the moun­tains and I’m god­damned tired. Going back to pick up the last load of coal at Num­ber 16 over on the Vir­ginia side. My arm is sun­burnt and hangs out over the truck’s dent­ed door where the name Cindy is paint­ed in icy blue fan­cy cur­sive writ­ing. Cindy is the name of my wife. I look to the right and see the stingy run of Ferrell’s Creek. I dri­ve by my home and see the dead swing set in the yard and won­der where the kids are. I won­der what Cindy is doing now. I blow the horn and lis­ten to that boom­ing moan like a ship out at sea instead of anoth­er sooty Mack truck com­ing back for anoth­er filthy load of coal.
I pass my house and I see Preach­er Dell out on his porch look­ing out at me across the way. I see him but I won­der if he tru­ly does see me for what I have become. I won­der if he sees me for what I had been. His old hand goes up slow­ly in greet­ing and I give the horn anoth­er blast.

I start mak­ing the uphill climb and around more curves, not see­ing what’s in front but only off to the side: green trees like giant heads of broc­coli, huge kha­ki sand­stone boul­ders, lime­stone rocks shaped like bro­ken dag­gers, patch­es of hous­es whip­ping through the trees. Keep my eyes on the road, I tell myself and let out a bunch of air from inside me. It’s a liv­ing, like they say.

I pass on over into Vir­ginia and go past shacks falling into them­selves and know that some­one still lives there. On the side of the road, in the grav­el and sand, a once pret­ty dog is now splat­tered, pink insides out of itself like a mel­on fall­en. Poor dog, I think. The road nar­rows more and I go by a row of just alike hous­es, the old coal com­pa­ny hous­es of way back old timey days. I’m glad I got my own place even it is man­u­fac­tured hous­ing. Ain’t nobody going to put me out. Not if I got any say.

My eyes dart side-to-side and I slow down and watch myself when­ev­er I pass over into this part of Vir­ginia, going around that uphill curve and then down into the val­ley. I dri­ve past the Miner’s Friend Tav­ern and I see the paint­ed sign with the pic­ture of a miner’s hel­met and burn­ing lamp and I tense up. There are coal trucks parked out front in the grav­el lot and I rec­og­nize a few of them and con­nect names and faces to those trucks. I feel my hand drift over the paint­ed let­ters that spell out Cindy. I don’t stop at the Miner’s Friend no more. I don’t stop nowhere no more but work and home. That’s the con­di­tions of my parole.

It used to be that I liked to par­ty. I hauled coal all day, got off work, show­ered the coal dust and grit from my body best I could, rub­bing every nook and cran­ny of my body. Then I but­toned up a clean shirt and my good jeans and went out to see what was going on. Some­times I’d sit in a friend’s house smok­ing dope and drink­ing beer. Oth­er times I’d be over on the Vir­ginia side where it was wet and sit in one tav­ern or anoth­er, drink­ing and lis­ten­ing to juke­box music. On Fri­day and Sat­ur­day nights a band might be putting down some boo­gie or pick­ing moun­tain music and

I’d go and lis­ten to it, dance with a girl lone­ly as me and drink in and out of what I thought was love.

My dad­dy would lec­ture me about my drink­ing and dop­ing and how it wouldn’t do me no good and mom­my would watch me with bit­ter eyes. She went to Preach­er Dell at the Free Will Bap­tist and prayed for me every Wednes­day night and Sun­day morn­ing. She even tried to get Preach­er Dell to come talk to me but he told her, “Wouldn’t noth­in’ to do for a riv­er but to let it run it’s course.”
Some­times some­thing stronger than a joint or a shot of whiskey would pass across the bar. Lit­tle fold­ed paper squares of cocaine or meth and I’d snort it in the tiny Lysol reek­ing bath­room and par­ty time would roll on to the dawn. My pay­check would be gone before Mon­day and the bills would pile up and would have to be late again.

I had me a daugh­ter by a fat girl named Bern over near Fish Creek. The baby was named Claris­sa. I got to see her every now and again, brought her a dol­ly or goody of some kind or oth­er. Some­times I brought them mon­ey, more often than not I didn’t, I’m ashamed to say.

I was in a tav­ern clear over near Grundy in Vir­ginia called the Ridgerun­ner. I was bent over a shot of Jim Beam and a Bud­weis­er, my head nod­ding and lis­ten­ing to Ricky Stum­ley talk my ear off about the good recep­tion his satel­lite dish was get­ting when I seen her in the cor­ner sit­ting with a cou­ple of oth­er girls. She was pret­ty, but not all made up. Had blonde hair falling down her shoul­ders. Built good and strong, but not what you’d call fat. Had dark eyes like oil. Sad eyes. She was look­ing at me and I smiled at her.
Lit­tle while lat­er she was sit­ting next to me and I was buy­ing her drinks and she was lis­ten­ing to my trou­bles. She told me her name was Regina.

We went and made out in my truck. The hours become a hot blur and then she told me she had to go. We met up at the Ridgerun­ner a cou­ple of times a week. Some­times we went back to my trail­er. I nev­er got to see where she lived. She always changed the sub­ject. I didn’t press it; she was fun to be with. She took my mind off of the coal truck, she made me for­get about Bern and my guilty mind over Claris­sa. Regi­na nev­er talked to me about get­ting saved or any of that. Her life was shots of Jim Beam, snort­ing lines of crank and turn­ing up the stereo when­ev­er the Ken­tucky Head­hunters was play­ing. She loved the way they did “Walk Soft­ly On This Heart of Mine.”

I was sit­ting in the Miner’s Friend. It was an Octo­ber Sat­ur­day after­noon, the leaves orange and red like fire made out of paper. The air out­side an ear­ly cold like the inside of a meat freez­er. The lights in the tav­ern were dim, the juke­box play­ing qui­et­ly. Old men and young men going to be old men soon were up and down the bar, talk­ing qui­et­ly, drink­ing. I had a beer in front of me and was star­ing down into it’s gold when they came into the bar.

They were Hutchin­sons, I knew that much. They were from some­where near Grundy and I had heard sto­ries about the Hutchin­sons all my life. Sto­ries about how mean they could be and all the guys they’d messed up. It was known that their dad­dy, Bobo Hutchin­son, had killed his own broth­er over an insult years ago and the law did nothing.

John Hutchin­son was weav­ing on the tav­ern floor look­ing up and down at all the faces at the bar. He had dark unruly hair in need of a cut. His beard was dark like the fur of some ani­mal. His broth­er, Sean, was a small­er shad­ow of him­self. He had green eyes that glowed like a bobcat’s. Sean was but thir­ty years old and was miss­ing most of his teeth. Nei­ther one of those boys held a job in their lives. They grew dope and sold it. They bought hous­es, insured them and burnt them down for the insur­ance mon­ey. They col­lect­ed wel­fare checks and spent the mon­ey on meth and booze. I didn’t want noth­ing to do with no Hutchinsons.

Hey, you Mullins?” asked John, look­ing at me. He had a wild smile break­ing up the tan­gle of his beard. I nod­ded my head.

Bud­dy, you been messin’ with the wrong bitch, you know it?” he con­tin­ued, look­ing side­ways at Collins, the bar­tender, who was reach­ing under the bar.

Leave it there, Collins,” said Sean, his hand dart­ing under his coat.

John came over to me. The smile was gone. I could smell whiskey on his breath. His eyes were red around the edges like he’d been up all night crying.

Stand your ass up,” he said.

I sat there on the barstool.

He grabbed me by the front of my jack­et and pulled from the barstool. The stool clat­tered against the curl­ing linoleum of the tav­ern floor.

I done told you to stand up!” he yelled.

Men left their stools and stood back. Some left, the door swing­ing open and the bright Octo­ber light a shin­ing rec­tan­gle against the tav­ern darkness.

"What’s he done?” asked Collins.

Sean turned to him, “He was messin’ with my brother’s wife. That’s what he done.”

I nev­er messed around with nobody’s wife,” I said, pulling away from John’s hold on me.

You tellin’ me you don’t know a girl named Regi­na Hutchin­son?” asked John, spit fly­ing from his mouth as he reached out and shook me by the arm.

She told me her name was Regi­na Thomp­son,” I said.

He’s a lyin’ stack of crap,” Sean said.

You think I’m goin’ to let you lay out a‑doin’ my wife and then sit in here brag­gin’ on it with these coal min­ing ass­es, you got you anoth­er think comin’ there, bud­dy,” said John.

I could see Sean pulling his hand out from under the folds of his coat just over John’s shoulder.

We’re goin’ to learn you but good,” said Sean.

I pushed against John and he stum­bled back. I punched Sean in the face, feel­ing the knuck­les of my hand break. I shoved past bar stools and pushed out through the door. Sun­light hit me and I squint­ed. I ran cross the grav­el lot to my pick­up. I got in, my hands shak­ing, blood run­ning in lines across my knuck­les. I start­ed the truck and heard the Hutchin­sons slam out of the Miner’s Friend. I heard their voic­es loud as I pulled out of the lot, grav­el spit­ting behind me. I got on the road and start­ed­back to the Ken­tucky state line. I saw a beat-to-hell Dodge pick­up pull in behind me through my rearview mir­ror. The truck rode my bumper around curves. I couldn’t con­trol the truck and slid off the road and bounced against lime­stone boulders.

I was shak­ing in the cab when they turned their truck around and drove back slowly.

They parked in front of me. The Hutchin­sons took their time get­ting out of their truck. They walked towards me. I could see them through the cracked wind­shield. I wiped the blood from my eyes. John had a Bowie knife about as big as a pirate’s cut­lass. Sean had a .38 with a butt bound with elec­tri­cal tape. They were both laugh­ing and jok­ing, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

I didn’t even think about it. I reached behind me and the shot­gun from the rack behind me in the cab. I broke the breech and saw there was a shell. I got out of the truck and snapped the breech shut.

He must think he’s a‑goin’ squir­rel huntin’” Sean said.

He hain’t goin’ to do noth­in’ but lay down and die,” John said, all the jokes and laugh­ing left his face. He held that knife in front of him and start­ed towards me.

I raised the shot­gun and didn’t even think about it. I fired and my ears filled with a cloud of noise. John stag­gered back. The front of his shirt bead­ed with blood. The beads grew dark­er and filled and he went to the ground on his knees like he had been knocked down into prayer. Sean dropped the .38 and bent over his brother.

John? John?” he kept say­ing, his voice break­ing like a scared child’s.

John’s eyes went pale and he mouthed some­thing I could not hear.

Sean bent his ear to his brother’s mouth. I saw Sean nod his head and whis­pered, “I will.”

John fell back on the ground. He looked up at the Octo­ber sky and shook like he was freez­ing. Sean held to his hand.

I threw the shot­gun across the seat of the truck and got in. I start­ed the igni­tion and looked at the Hutchin­sons there next to the road by the lime­stone bluffs of Ken­tucky. Sean looked up at me.

I pulled the truck back onto the road. I passed by the Hutchin­sons. Sean stood up from his broth­er and I heard him yell, “Mur­der­er! You killed my brother!”

I watched the Hutchin­sons dis­ap­pear in the rearview mir­ror, a bluff of lime­stone final­ly tak­ing them away from my eyes. My hands shook on the steer­ing wheel. I thought about dri­ving as far from trou­ble as I could get. I drove past my mom­my and daddy’s house. I drove past Preach­er Spivey’s house and the tears came.

I pulled off to the side of the road and sat in the truck with a mil­lion things going through my mind. I looked down at the shot­gun beside me on the seat. I knew I had to face things.

The judge gave me five years and let me out after one. The Hutchinson’s moth­er said that John prob­a­bly deserved the killing. She also said I should’ve put the gun on the girl while I was at it.

All I want­ed to do was straight­en the rags of my life out. I got my old job back haul­ing coal and I put a down­pay­ment down on a man­u­fac­tured home. It was real nice and came with every­thing you need­ed. I stayed away from dope and just a lit­tle beer now and again. I don’t hang out at the Miner’s Friend no more. I don’t go to the Ridgerun­ner. I keep my ass out of the taverns.

Some­times I go to the Freewill Bap­tist Church and sit with my hands fold­ed in my lap. I let Preach­er Dell’s words wash on over me like a hot riv­er of tears. I lis­ten to the choir sing their songs of redemp­tion and I shake sit­ting there in the pew, my hands fold­ed in my lap. It was there at the Freewill Bap­tist that I met a pret­ty girl named Cindy. She sang in the choir and was kind to me. She didn’t care none about my past. We got mar­ried and start­ed a fam­i­ly. I had her name paint­ed on the door of my coal truck in icy blue let­ter­ing like a tat­too. I want­ed peo­ple to know that she was always with me. I always run my hand over that name when­ev­er I dri­ve past the Miner’s Friend.

Jeff Kerr cur­rent­ly lives in Mil­wau­kee, WI. He has deep roots in the south­ern Appalachi­an moun­tains of the Ken­tucky and Vir­ginia bor­der coun­try. His work has appeared in Appalachi­an Her­itage, Now and Then, Hard­boiled, Plots with Guns, Hard­luck Sto­ries, Crim­i­nal Class Review and oth­ers. He has been a fea­tured read­er at Book Soup, San Quentin Prison among oth­er venues. His short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Hill­bil­ly Rich, can be ordered direct­ly at JeffKerr1965@​gmail.​com.

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