Mine Fires: An Excerpt from Valerie Nieman’s ‘In the Lonely Backwater’
Fiction by Valerie Nieman (Val Nieman)
When he left West Virginia, Dad says, he shook the dust of that place offen his feet forever. Weird sayings he comes up with, from back there. His own daddy was a coal miner (dead, roof fall) and his mother a store clerk (dead, lung cancer) and his brothers worked the strip mines. When they weren’t on an excavator they were in jail for drinking and fighting. Sometimes with knives. Drew must have been the pick of the litter. He finished community college and went to work at a marina up there at Stonewall Jackson Lake, until he broke out and headed for blue water.
The first job he found in Carolina was doing repair work at Filliyaw Pointe. Fate intervened, as they say. Angela’s family had a Sea Ray on B dock. She and Dad got together, despite what all the Alfords and their kin had to say, and they got me started and got married that summer just before I arrived. A real comedown for her, marrying a grease monkey from West Virginia, which in North Carolina is like saying the ghetto. We knocked around the state, Dad working at marinas here and there until we landed at Oriental. That’s about where his telling ends and my memory kicks in. I started school there and learned to swim and learned to sail and was just beginning to understand two-stroke engines when my biological mother decided that this daddy’s-girl stuff had gone too far. She wanted to get back to her momma and the red dirt and a “proper environment for Lenore.”
Mr. Malouf already knew Dad’s work at the boatyard, and with my so-called mother’s family working the other end, Dad got the managership at Filliyaw Pointe. We lived with the Grands, in a wing of the plantation house, so that I could “get to know my heritage.” And get properly broken to being a female like my mother. That didn’t work out any better than the marriage. When she took off, we moved out of the big house but Dad stayed running the marina. He was sure she would come home eventually and he wanted to be right here waiting. He has the true-believer thing going, but if she wasn’t coming home for her momma then she sure wasn’t coming back for him.
I miss the ocean. I even miss the shack we lived in, with shower curtains for room dividers. We go to the coast now and then, to pick up a boat or some parts or something. It’s never for long except at the Christmas break. Dad fishes and mopes, and I catalog what washes up on the beaches. Summers are too busy for vacation, and I guess I’m okay with the winter because I’d rather look at birds and shells than people anyway. I plan to major in marine biology down at UNCW. If I get a good-enough grade on my SATs.
So I don’t have any family. I do, in a physical, genetic sense, but not in the way of having people that you go see at holidays. Cousins that you roll around with and play Wiffle ball with and torment.
As I’ve said, the Alfords don’t like to claim us, my daddy being one of the wild mistakes that my so-called mother made on her way to Florida and a “good marriage.” Husband Number Two is twenty years older than her, some kind of financier, and Dad says his ex-wife is just a hood ornament on a hundred-foot yacht. And he’s Cuban, which is barely up the road from Black for people like the Alfords, but money works wonders on the complexion. So, I don’t mingle with the Alford clan, and the Warshauers are all in West Virginia and would be as mythical as unicorns except for one trip we took a couple of years back.
I had looked forward to that trip after hearing all my classmates talk about family reunions and Christmases, never having a thing to say back when they asked how I spent Christmas, other than on a smelly houseboat sloshing around in a deserted marina. Just me and Dad and Rudolph on the VCR. Or in some ratty apartment that his buddy let him use at Atlantic Beach. When he said we were going to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, I thought that was Disneyland.
West Virginia wasn’t something he talked about a lot, but I had a pretty good idea, Hatfields and McCoys, miners, lots of wildlife such as bears. I read somewhere that there is only one real lake in the whole state, the rest of them all being rivers that had been stopped up by dams.
He said we were going to Fairmont, look on the map. I looked it up. “Pretty mountain.” I was eager for mountains.
It was a long drive. I-77, I-79. The hills and curves wear you out, leaning. I’d see a church steeple, maybe, or a little town wedged down between the mountains, but mostly just trees and the names of places on the interstate signs. We made each other silly with them, Flat Top, Lost Creek, Nutter Fort. The trees were mostly bare except for oaks, so everything was smoky looking, with bands of pine trees dark as scars against the purple-gray hills.
We saw some coal mines. One had a conveyor belt coming all the way down the mountain. The buildings at the top seemed flimsy and old, just sheet metal. A railroad track curved around the bottom of the mountain. It was an awesome thing to see, the coal pouring down, the cars ahead out of sight around the curve, all full, and more waiting to be filled. They did that every day.
“Not that kind of mine,” Dad said when I asked about where our family worked. “Strip mines. Surface mines.”
We finally drove past one. It didn’t look like much.
“That’s the reclamation side,” he explained. “All finished up. You cut the trees and peel off the ground down to where the coal is, and shovel that off, and then put back the spoil. Carve it into benches so the rain don’t just pull the whole thing down the side hill. Plant some grass, and there you go.”
And there you go. I wondered how people could live where the land around them was being torn up and reshaped all the time. I wondered how the mountains even stayed standing, with the insides being pulled out.
Turned out we weren’t heading to Fairmont. That was just the name on the exit. We were headed out to some little town with a single stoplight on the main street. That might not have been much different from the boonies where I live, but everything else was. The houses were made of round stones or wood, but small, and pressed up close to the road, right against it — a slice of grass and then the house, right there, and behind it a river or a hillside. Everything looked gray, maybe from the diesel smoke of the trucks running by so close. None of the businesses looked like they were open, except for a convenience store at the edge of town and the post office and the Word of God Church.
We drove right through that place, Grant Town, and kept going. The roads got smaller and smaller, like rivers going backwards to streams and brooks and then springs that rise out of the ground. We turned across a rickety one-lane bridge, then took a narrow road that went along the edge of the hill, riding above the creek until it was level with the tops of the sycamore trees, and hardly a shoulder to the road and just a section of guard rail here and there where it looked like you would just slide right to death. Another turn, and now the road was so narrow that there were pull-offs so cars could pass each other on one thin strip of blacktop. When he turned at Rock Hill Run, I thought they had to be joking — the road was just dirt and went straight like a driveway, but there were mobile homes and little houses along it, until we were nearly to the top. We gunned up a dirt path with grass growing down the middle. The hill leveled off and there were open fields around an old two-story farmhouse with barns and other buildings, beat-down ground where a garden had been, and then more woods, like a watch cap pulled down over the top of the hill.
“There’s your Uncle Philip,” Dad said.
Coming around the porch was a skinny version of Dad, with the shadow of a black beard and going bald. I knew he was younger than Dad but he didn’t look like it.
He’d tried to fill me in before we came, but the family tree was a mess, the lines broken and tangled, like trying to sort fossil strata after an earthquake. His older brother Simon was in jail. James was out west somewhere for reasons no one was talking about, his wife here at home with the babies. Sisters Johnna and Barthie had moved in together after Barthie lost her baby and she and her husband split up. Philip worked the coal mines — this was his house, his wife and his sons and one grown daughter living there with a baby while her husband was in the Army. Just regular old family dysfunction.
“Hey, bro, good to see you!” Philip came up and grabbed Dad’s hand and slapped him on the back. “This your girl?”
“All mine, right, Maggie?”
“Well she favors you no doubt of it.” He bent closer, as if he was looking for my mother somewhere in my face. His breath smelled of Tic-Tacs and coffee. “You’re in luck, Maggie, they’s a couple girls here for you — the Warshauers most all make boys. C’mon in, c’mon in.” Philip motioned like a carnival barker, like we might reconsider, run away, bounce down the road and back to Carolina. Maybe he could read minds.
The house was overheated and packed with people, along with a hyper Chihuahua. From the tiled fireplaces to the heavy dark woodwork with carved circles at the top corners of the doors, you could see someone had put a lot of care in building it. Lots of cigarette smoke, and a familiar sweet harsh smell of liquor, but mostly noise. Noise thick as smoke. Dad and Philip, Uncle Philip, took me around the room to meet “the family,” aunts and uncles and cousins, a screaming baby, a hand-wave at some boys out back.
“Glenanna — meet your Rebel cousin.” Philip turned the dark-haired girl around from where she was watching a video with another girl. “She’s Simon’s daughter. And this is Faith.” Faith had hair the color of a squirrel. I don’t know whose she was.
“Hi.” Faith kept looking back at the video. It was Britney Spears, dancing with every corner of her body.
Glenanna tossed her hair and moved her shoulders up and down in time to the music. “Who do you like?”
“Me? Like as in?”
“Music, you know, videos and stuff.”
“I mostly read.”
Faith turned to look at me like I was a strange specimen formaldehyded inside a jar. “What grade you in?”
“Ninth.” That was two years ago, almost three. Seems like longer ago, but I remember, ninth.
“Gawd I bet you don’t even wear makeup do you?”
I was saved from having to answer when the little rat-dog bit one of the men on the ankle. He cussed and kicked and the dog flew into the corner, where it backed up and showed its pointy teeth, yipping and quivering.
The TV blared and the dog yapped and that started the baby crying. Then the adults, so-called, started arguing. I slid out the back door to where the boys were.
“What’s going on in there?” said a boy with black hair, thick and wild. He stood by the back porch, apart from the three bigger ones who were clustered around a stack of hay bales back by the woods.
“The dog bit someone.”
“Goddamn thing.” He swaggered his cussword. “That ain’t no kind of dog. We got coonhounds, beagles, a whole pile of dogs. You got dogs?”
“You’re from down South.”
“Gary. Me ’n’ the others are shooting. Bow and arrow.”
He started walking toward the others. As we got closer, I saw that one of the boys looked like him, kind of fat, but that same coarse hair. One was taller, older, and the last one could only be Faith’s brother. They were trying to stand a plastic dummy of a buck deer against the hay bales, but it kept falling over. The dummy already had holes in it, places the arrows had been pulled out. Finally they leaned it far enough back that it stayed upright, though it looked sort of like it was lounging.
The boys were around my age, I guessed. They were all shy and wild, cutting their eyes at me, but none of them said anything to me. They had compound bows, all wheels and pulleys, not elegant like a long bow. It must have been familiar for men who were used to car engines and mining equipment to hunt with those things.
We walked back toward the house.
“You see Keith’s deer?”
“Yeah, I seen it. Eight points.”
“Can’t eat horns.”
“Can’t eat horns. Now a young doe, that’s good eating, Dad says.”
“Wouldn’t mind a set of eight-point antlers on my wall.”
They nocked arrows and got ready to shoot. Faith’s squirrel-haired brother stood first, pulled the bow back to where the pulleys took over, sighted and let fly. The arrow went over the deer’s shoulder and into the haystack.
“I was going for a backbone shot — you know, the really tough one?”
“Stupid anyway,” said Squirrel-Hair. “I’m gettin’ a thirty-aught-six next fall for sure.”
“Ain’t happening. It’ll be more ‘just remember what happened to Eli’ and that’s all she wrote.” Big Bear-Hair had spoken.
The tall kid hit the deer right in the middle of the body. Lots of talk about gut-shots and stinky innards and waste of meat. Then Big Bear Hair shot wide. Finally Gary had his turn, the arrow taking off with a whuuusssht and hitting the dummy right where the back leg met the belly.
“Shoot it off why don’t ya?”
“Right in the privates.” Squirrel-Hair glanced at me and snickered.
“Right in the dick.”
“HEY!” Apparently, Big Bear Hair was in charge, even if he wasn’t the tallest. They snorted and poked each other for a while, while I did what Dad always said, consider the source, and ignored them.
Gary held out his camo-painted bow. “You wanna try?”
I’d never shot anything, even a BB gun, even at a plastic deer. The bow looked like some medieval torture instrument, an evil twang in its cables.
“Go on, it don’t take no strength, the compound does it all for you,” Gary urged, setting an arrow to the string and showing how it worked.
“She looks strong enough,” said Squirrel-Hair.
The fourth boy, the tall one who didn’t look like much of anything, or have anything to say, was smirking at me as he ran his forefinger back and forth through the V of fingers on his other hand.
I grabbed the bow and leveled it at an old car, rusted and sun-faded, and I pulled back the string and let fly. The arrow thudded into the door and stood there quivering. It was done before I could understand why I was doing it, and the boys just stood open-mouthed. I threw down the bow in front of the tall boy, went up the steps into the house and didn’t look back.
The Bear-Hairs came boiling in after me and told. “She shot Uncle Jimmy’s car! Put a’ arrow right through the door!” It was easy enough to say my finger slipped. The adults believed that, of a girl, though the boys knew better and gave me the stink-eye for having pulled it off without getting a whipping.
I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging with the adults in “the den.” It had wood paneling and a scabby deer head (six points), and one of those talking plastic bass on a plaque that would go off when people walked past it. I saw bows and arrows hung up, but strangely enough, not a single gun. So much for mountain feuds. The TV cycled through soap operas and judge shows and talk shows. Like they were part of the TV, the adults went around and around the same topics, who was sick, got the cancer, probably from smoking, no it was black lung, well he’s just a-wasting away, who’s out of work, who’s got work, who’s knocked up, what happened to Tony, his momma would roll over in her grave, bail bond, Eye-talians’ll take care of their own, put up the place, when’s the trial?
Sometimes when you are categorizing you have to sit still, like in a blind. Just blend in with the flowered furniture. There are country people and rednecks, that’s what I learned. Country people know how to do things — make jelly and slaughter hogs. Rednecks get their moves from beer commercials and the country music station. The older folks had skills, but I don’t think the Bear-Hairs or the Britney watchers would ever know how to do anything worthwhile.
After they had dissected the lives of everyone up the holler and down the run, the women drifted off toward the kitchen. The men were mostly drinking beer, but some had pints in their pockets too, and Dad was right there with them. I could see him getting red-faced, and Philip looked just like him, except he was too skinny to swell up and look intimidating, mostly just thin-lipped nasty like a rattlesnake.
The death-and-misery talk slid over toward politics. I don’t know who got onto that topic, except it was a bad idea, with some of the room shouting they were “yella dog Democrats” and others mad about the “damn rich bastard Republicans” and glaring at each other. I never knew Dad was a Democrat, never remembered him voting, but he was howling mad now at his brother over something with the mines, like he should care, being in North Carolina.
“Can’t see any farther than the end of your nose,” he said.
“Man’s gotta eat, Andy.”
“What you gonna eat — or drink — when the mine acid poisons all the rivers?”
Then they were all shouting, and Dad hit his fist on the arm of the chair and said we were leaving, but everyone got quiet and Philip said it was growed dark, and no sense to running off into the night. “We ain’t but started to get to know each other again,” he said, almost pleading. Next thing I knew they were all settled down to watch “Sports Center” and talk football.
The next morning, the men held their coffee mugs with both hands while Mrs. Philip (I don’t remember her name) made eggs and greasy fried potatoes and bacon cut thick. I stuck to Coco Puffs.
We left as the sun was climbing over the ridge top. There was still fog in the creek bottom. We threaded down the narrow roads, meeting a coal truck on one turn and hitting the gravel shoulder as the truck was over on our side of the road. We were near Grant Town when I saw ghosts.
Thin gray threads emerged from the ground. A person who was superstitious would take them for ghosts.
“What is that?” I asked.
Dad slowed down and stopped. “Mine fire,” he said. “The coal is on fire underground.”
I looked carefully and saw a couple of dim red places at the foot of the smoke columns, and saw how the smoke didn’t come evenly but in gaps and belches, one puff rising and then another. He rolled down the windows and I could smell sulfur, like a box of matches all going off. “That’s the sulfur in the coal here, what mixes with water and makes acid mine drainage. Kills ever’thing it touches.”
I imagined the rivers bubbling with acid, burning things to the bone. I tried to imagine it, anyway.
We kept driving through the ragged fields and places with beat-in and rusty mailboxes, in some ways like home, the poorer parts of home, but more angry. The houses hunkered under the mountains and seemed to glare at you, dare you to step foot, and the people were the same way, mean as chained dogs. We may be country in Carolina, but we have blue sky above and ground underfoot that is not just a thin crust over hell.