My uncle watched me as I tried to ignore him. My boots were miles away, perched as they were at the end of my legs. All I needed to do was tie them and our strangely quiet conversation would be over. My mother watches quietly from her solitude over the kitchen sink, amidst the bubbles and effervescent warm water that would make clean what was once dirty. Three is a kerplunk of a pan, which held eggs and melted cheese, along with toast and grits, my favorite breakfast with black coffee, only a moment before as it plunged into the water. It was early in the morning. Very early. The night sky still rode across, as Orion ran upon Aries in the southern solstice to the west. A mist had fathered at the gurgling creek, laughing quietly as it prepared itself for a day of dappling about in the mix of sun and shade, cool and comfortable in the day’s heat to come.
A fox barked softly, once, nearby. My Mom’s favorite hens, small and black, still warm with feathers fluffed against the soft cold of the night, gentle with their brooding, pecked about my feet.
I was bruised and beaten to a pulp. One eye was black and swelled nearly shut. Grotesque bruises ran round my rib cage, radiating out from my lower back, where my fall had been broken the day before. My hand was twice its normal size, wrapped in gauze from the tending of my mother. One lip was split and I could still see a ring of fog about my inner eye if I focused too much. I didn’t.
I tied my boots anyway, despite their distance from my head, which loomed unnaturally large and heavy. My mother and her brother watched me still.
He dug in his pocket for his chewing tobacco. His first chew of the day appeared immensely satisfying, even to me. First, there was the careful placement of chew into his right hand, measuring exactly the right amount, a movement perfected by years of practice. Then the characteristic three dip – shake over the pouch, flinging free any wayward bits of black, uncured plant matter back to join it’s fellows. Then the mass would be inserted into his mouth, where it would be chewed, mauled, and positioned into the perfect plug, dripping its heady concoction into the distended capillaries screaming for their addiction.
I had fallen the day before. We had a brief rain just after our morning break, while the railroad operators were switching out cars into our siding for cleaning. We were contracted to clean out the one-hundred ton cars of detritus before they were tracked into coal preparation plants for loading. The caveat was we could keep what was in them. The downside was we didn’t know, unless we looked, what was contained in the cavernous, echoing, clanging metal beasts.
The easiest way to look was to walk the cars, dropping from a vantage place just above them as they trundled to their stop against the deadman. Once upon the roughly four-inch wide side, it was a simple matter to navigate ones way from car to car, marking ones full of coal, keepers, and ones full of trash, the cleaners. No simple task, unless you were a circus performer, or a nineteen-year-old boy with a superman mentality.
Except this superman couldn’t fly. Not up. I had avoided the worst of the fall by pushing my way off and away from the metal ladder, which would do nothing but lacerate and maul. I landed, rolling, by some miracle, on the sloping lower sides of the car and gathered my wits just enough to slide through the doors on the bottom into the lower hopper feet, rather than head, first. I bounced hard off the rail for the locomotive and spun down into the plastic-lined chute, where I was rudely deposited onto the moving conveyor belt. I had just enough time to flatten out on the hot rubber before I was swept under the lowest overhang of sheet metal and out into the sun, ringing my head on the side for all my quickness.
My mother had frowned when I came home, stiffly unmounting my highly customized cycle, my vehicle of choice in those days. She had doctored me as best she could, which was more than the local hospital would have done, with their patchwork of drunken, castoff and foreign doctors, all of whom had ended in this place in Appalachia in disgrace or from lack of options, not by choice. She had nothing to say. She was the daughter of a coal miner, the mother of a coal miner – a champion raiser of children and constant warrior in the face of keeping seven children happy and fed. She had patched us up, held our heads, prayed over us in the dead of night when the coughing would not stop and the pox ran amuck and roughshod over our family. Her face, lit by tears and holding the golden reflection of our wood stoves light from her Bible, is permanently engraved on my conscious to this day.
My uncle shifted uncomfortably as I finished lacing my boots. I held my breath at the bottom of my stretch, by abdomen resting comfortably on my thighs as I drank in the morning’s redolence.
“Can you work or not?” My uncle’s impatience, heightened by both the irritation of an injured relative and the knowledge that, if hurt, an injury report would need to be filled out in accordance to the law and insurance requirements. This would result in a possible investigation into safe work practices and environment, something that could kill a small enterprise in the communistic zeal about which underworked and overstaffed agencies latched onto any small slight of the law, real or imagined.
I nodded. My mom sighed and went about her work. She bustled about for a moment, then appeared on silent bare feet with my lunch pail, where a bologna sandwich, made better oh so much by her sourdough bread, homemade sweet pickles, sliced onions and giant wedges of tomato, stored in a separate Ziploc to keep the bread dry. There would be two of these, I knew. Along with a peach or two, just ripened yesterday and hastily picked in competition with the chickens, children, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons and all other lovers of good things.
There would be a small container of soup beans from the night before, with a portion of fatback and the remnants of biscuits and cheese from this morning. It was worth going to work for.
I straightened my younger self against the pain and walked stiffly off the porch to the truck. My uncle made a quick detour and grabbed two peaches. My mother handed him half a loaf of sourdough. There was not another word.
The sweet spring air poured through the cab as we munched our peaches, wrapped in paper towels soaked by the escaping juices. We were soon drenched in sweetness as we gobbled greedily, our appetites huge against the work to come. The stiffness passed from my young muscles and bones as the hereditary healing gene, a blessing and a curse, bumped into play against the injuries, which time and again helped me avoid hospitals and emergency rooms. It would also wreak havoc on me later in life as it allowed me to drink myself nearly to death before succumbing to the side effects of thousands of gallons of alcohol.
That morning, the peach alone, with the smell of the warm earth and work to follow, was enough for me. I grinned at my uncle. “Did you think me hurt bad?” He grunted, and grinned in reply, hunched over his steering wheel, trying to wipe peach bits from his beard.
We rode on through the gathering morning.