Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
The Diamond State
The Appalachian Mountains rise a darker blue on the washed horizon if you’re driving east from Indiana in the morning. The green hills of the piedmont brace the wooded peaks like sandbags against a rising tide. The first settlers were hunters, trappers, and then farmers when the game went west. In between the hills and mountains are long, narrow hollows where farmers and cattle scratch a living with equal frustration. And under them, from the Tug Fork to the Clinch Valley, a thick plate of the purest bituminous coal on the Eastern Seaboard.
June was midway to my fifteenth birthday and I remember the miles between Redhill, Indiana, and Medgar, Kentucky, rolling past the station wagon window on an interminable canvas of cornfields and cow pastures, petty towns and irrelevant truck stops. I remember watching my mother from the backseat as she stared at the telephone poles flishing past us, the reflection of the white highway line in the window strobing her haggard face. It had been two months since my brother, Joshua, was killed, and the invulnerability I had felt as a teenager was only a curl of memory. Mom had folded into herself on the way back from the hospital and had barely spoken since. My father emerged from silent disbelief and was diligently weaving his anger into a smothering blanket for everyone he touched, especially me. My life then was an inventory of eggshells and expectations unmet.
Pops, my maternal grandfather, suggested Mom and I spend the summer with him in the hope that memories of her own invulnerable childhood would help her heal. It was one of the few decisions on which my father and grandfather had ever agreed.
The town was positioned in a narrow valley between three sizable mountains and innumerable hills and shelves and finger hollows that ribboned out from the valley floor like veins.
We had not visited Pops since Josh was born three years before, and as we came over the last hill, down into Medgar on that Saturday, the citizens stared at us like they were watching color TV for the first time. A fat woman in red stretch pants dragging a screaming child stopped suddenly; the child jounced into her back. Two men in eager discussion over an open car hood turned in silence, hands on hips. Booth four at Biddle’s Gas and Grub immediately discontinued their debate about proper planting cycles and launched wild speculation about the origin and destination of the blue station wagon with suitcases and a bike bundled onto the luggage rack. People just didn’t move into eastern Kentucky back then.
Twenty‐two Chisold Street sat straight and firm behind the faded white fence that aproned its quarter acre. The front porch was wide and friendly, with an old swing bench at one end, a green wicker sofa and chairs at the other. The house was a three‐ bedroom Southern Cape Cod with white pillars on the porch, double dormers jutting out of the roof like eyes. One broken blind closed in a perpetual wink. The yard was trim and perfect.
We drew up in the wagon, a thin smile on my mother’s face for the first time in months. My father touched her arm gently to tell her she was home.
Pops had been vigiling on the wicker sofa, chewing the end of the long, straight pipe he never lit. He slapped both knees, bellowing an abundant laugh as he raced down the porch steps before the car was even at a full stop. He reached in the window to unlock the door, opened it as the engine cut off, and pulled Mom out of the front seat into a bracing hug. “It’s good to have you back home, Annie.”
She nodded blankly and hugged back.
I exited the car with my backpack of essentials. “Kevin, I think you’ve grown six inches in two months,” he said, fingering a line from the top of his head to my chin. He bear‐hugged me, then gave my shoulder a squeeze. The strength in his grip left me flushed. He spun to Audy Rae, his housekeeper of thirty‐seven years, who had come out to the porch. “It’s about time we had some life in this old house. The conversation has been wearing thin lately.” He turned back to me and winked. She dismissed him with a wave, swept down the steps and over to the car.
Audy Rae Henderson was five feet four and fireplug solid, her face furrowed with wise creases and unmissing eyes that burned brightly from her dark features. She reached up and placed a hand on each of Mom’s shoulders and held her at arm’s length as if to verify authenticity.
My father came around to the passenger side and stood until Pops acknowledged him. “Edward, how are you?” Pops asked. They shook stiff hands.
The inside of Pops’ Chisold Street home was sparkling clean— Audy Rae saw to that—but to me it smelled old and empty. In the living room, two matching wing chairs with eagle‐claw feet and brass buttons tacked down the front faced a worn light‐blue sofa with doilied arms. Three of my mother’s paintings hung over it: a man canoeing on a river; wild horses splitting a canyon; the Chisold Street house sometime in the sixties. The room was alien and unused, but anything was better than the throttling silence of our house in Redhill.
Audy Rae led me up to the spare bedroom. “Bet you’re glad to be done with freshman year,” she said, helping the bag onto the bed. I grunted and slumped next to the suitcase.
“High school, my laws. I remember when you was no biggern my knee and now you’re taller than your Pops.”
I was silent, examining the way my interlocking fingers roofed my thumbs.
She came over and sat next to me. “Kevin, you and your mom been through a bad thing—bout as bad as life gets. I know it’s gonna take a while for her and you to heal.”
“He blames me, you know. Says it was all my fault.” She let out a long, slow breath. A tear dropped down and splashed my hand. “What happened wasn’t your fault, child,” she said softly. “But if I’d...” The sadness and choking anger of the last two months began to close out the thin light in the room. She put her hand on my leg. I could feel her eyes peering into me. “It all may seem black and desperate now, but you gotta just trust that the Lord’s gonna take care of you and your mom.” I pulled at a stray thread from the white cotton bedspread as more tears came. “If he was taking care of us, none of this would have happened in the first place.”
She pushed out another long breath, then let it fall away. “Kevin, I can’t say why the Lord took Josh and why he took him the way he did. I don’t think we’ll ever puzzle out the answer. But I’ll just keep praying that one day you’ll find a peace with it.” She stood and moved to the door. “I’ll leave you to be putting your own things away.”
I finally looked up. She smiled. “It’s real good to have you here, child.” Her face was filled with fifty‐three years of stocked kind‐ nesses. I smiled sadly back.
She held out her hands. “Come to me, honey.” I pushed off the bed and took three quick steps into the cradle of her arms. She wrapped them around me tightly and squeezed, as if to try to turn me into a diamond.
Monongahela Mining Company opened its first mine in 1912 on the gentle shoulders and under the stretching peaks that surround Medgar, Kentucky. Mr. William Beecher Boyd himself drove down in his brand‐new automobile to supervise the acquisition of the land after a survey team from Wheeling pulled core samples so thick and pure they made his heart race.
The citizens were roundly suspicious of William Beecher Boyd, seeing as he was from Pennsylvania, and his car caused a consider‐ able disturbance. Story goes, he entered Missiwatchiwie County through Knuckle, and by the time he passed Jukes Hollow, he and his top‐down Model T, with its shiny black paint and head‐ lights that looked to folks like the bug eyes of a birth‐defected bovine, were trailed by a raggle of shoeless children, eight of the county’s laziest farmers, three Negroes, assorted dogs, and seven cattle. Dogs running ahead, barking, and boys fighting for position as each passing farm added to the entourage.
Word spread faster than the Model T, and by the time the car worked itself up the last hill before town, most of Medgar had already changed clothes and assembled outside of Hivey’s Farm Supply. Women in their Sunday hats, men with fresh pork fat in their hair.
Boyd parked the car at the hitching post in front of Hivey’s, jumped onto the car’s red backseat, and stood stock‐still, one foot on the spare tire, both hands on his knee, and said nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It was the kind of thirty‐second silence that made some men look at their shoes and kick stones. Others rubbed their Adam’s apples wondering if they should be the first. Women fanned themselves faster and even the children stopped pushing, every‐ one silent in suspicious anticipation.
William Beecher Boyd smiled, then cleared his throat. “Friends,” he said, “you’ve a fine town here. A fine town.”
William Beecher Boyd’s Monongahela Mining Company started first on the north side of Hogsback Mountain with Juliet One driving true into the heart of what came to be known as the Medgar seam. Juliet Two and Three followed hard by, and people after that—like a rock thrown on a lake in the morning, sending out ripples in unstoppable waves.
Lew Chainey was the first to sell, then John van Slyke, then Mrs. Simpson. The surrounding fields suddenly became the town, with bright black asphalt instead of dirt and mud, new pine‐board and shingle houses instead of struggling corn. A bank, another church, and two more blacksmiths took Medgar into 1917, all courtesy of William Beecher Boyd and the Monon‐ gahela Mining Company.
The 1920s saw Medgar grow to two thousand people in the finger valley between the Hogsback and White Mountain. A school, a jail, traffic.
The Depression came and went like an unfamiliar cousin. Depression or not, people still burned coal and Medgar still dug it because the Monongahela Mining Company made it so.
The opening of Miss Janey’s Paris Hair Salon and Notion Shop in 1965 brought Missiwatchiwie County into the modern age. Miss Janey’s cousin and partner, Paul Pierce, spent two years of military duty as first tenor in the Army Band and Chorus, culminating with a weekend stint in a muddy tent on the out‐ skirts of Paris, which, when he was back in Medgar, conveyed him instant credibility on all questions of fashion and style and made Miss Janey’s an immediate success.
The next decades were Patsy Cline singing on the radio in the afternoon and thick chrome shining on Saturday night. Crew cuts close and tight to the neck and white cement sidewalks too new to spit; television antennae like Easter crocuses breaking through the last mutter of snow. Band concerts and commu‐ nists and tea dances with the Medgar Women’s Club. JFK, Alan Shepard, Bay of Pigs, and a second bank. Negro rights, the Tet Offensive, Martin Luther King, RFK, and Miss Janey’s addition. Nixon/Agnew, Walter Cronkite, George Jones, the Apollo moon landing, and an Italian restaurant. Kent State, Gerald Ford, the Statler Brothers, Jimmy Carter, and the mines. Always the mines.
Until 1978, when they extracted the last ton from the Medgar seam and most miners followed the work south, leaving a peeled‐ paint husk of a place with fewer than seven hundred inhabitants. The once‐thriving west side of Medgar, with its Italian restaurant and theater, was shut completely. A strip of businesses still clung to the frayed Main Street: Smith’s Ice Cream, Hivey’s Farm Sup‐ ply, Biddle’s Gas and Grub, the Monongahela Bank and Trust, Dempsey’s General Store, and, of course, Miss Janey’s Paris Hair Salon and Notion Shop.
Before the breakfast dishes were cleared my father talked of get‐ ting a jump on the highway truck traffic, talked of garage organizing and critical toolshed repairs.
“Let me put these sticky buns in some Tupperware for you,” Audy Rae said.
“Nope, I’ll just take this one to go.” He grabbed the center bun and poured coffee into a travel mug. “Call you when I get home, sport,” he said as the screen door creaked and slammed on his exit.
With him gone I immediately began exploring Medgar and the surrounding mountains in expanding circles from my base on the front porch of 22 Chisold Street—a seething, spinning fury in my head and a pack of matches in my pocket.
On the first saddle of mountain outside of town, I gathered up a knee‐high pile of tinder‐dry leaves and threw a lit match into it. A pencil of smoke rose from the middle, then dissipated as the flames took. A moderate wind fed the fire and I watched impassively as the flames shot up three feet, consumed the fuel, then settled into smoldering embers. I wanted to feel something other than the stifling sadness and rage that had overcome me these past two months—guilt, excitement, brio, embarrassment, anything—but even the heat of the flame failed to penetrate.
I had started with fires in Redhill about a month after Josh died: first a small trash can in the backyard, then a pile of dried grass clippings in the woods behind my house; a stack of deadfall at a construction site, then three tires at the town dump; a few other minor lights around Redhill, until I set an old wooden shed ablaze on city park property. That one brought out fire engines, police cars, crime scene investigators, but nothing from me.
Farther up the mountain I pulled together another pile of leaves, larger this time, and finally felt the heat of the flames as they licked at the low branches of a maple sapling. Then two more fires, each bigger than before.
And so it was my first week in Medgar—a Dumpster fire in back of Hivey’s Farm Supply; a grass fire on a clear hillside that got taken by the wind and nearly lost control; an old foam car seat that burned ugly black smoke and stung my lungs when the wind shifted.
It was on one of these burnings that I first met Buzzy Fink.