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.