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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