“Wes, the kids are tired. We should stop.”
I looked in the rear-view. Both Ted and Marty were slack asleep. When Cindy wanted something, she always used the kids as an excuse.
We’d been driving eleven hours, our second day out of West Virginia. Whenever I left West Virginia I still felt the coal dust in the creases of my knuckles, still tasted the canned peas. I told myself I wasn’t that boy any longer, but I wanted to drive fast and far.
We were in the middle of nothing much nowhere, flat as flat. The glow against the empty sky showed we were coming up on one of those turn-off places left behind by the Interstate.
“The kids need to stop,” Cindy said, arms folded. She was still a pretty lady, a frosted blond who kept her nails polished and her mascara fresh. My friends were jealous. She still had her pretty lady ways, though, the ones that expected doors to be opened, even if my hands were full. That expected me to wait on her if she was late. That expected a dozen red roses on her birthday, even when money was tight. Her attitude said she was a little more trouble, but she was worth it.
I turned off the Interstate, onto the bumpy kind of patchwork road that did not make you feel good about the town you were heading to. Sure enough, the main drag had a dollar store, a darkened café, a closed gas station, a strip mall of haircuts and insurance and real estate—all with that dingy small-town look that made me queasy. I lived in Sacramento now, but the gut remembers. The lone motel was one story, splayed under a lit sign proclaiming it the It’ll Do Motel.
“Let’s keep going,” I said. Cindy looked ready to agree for once, but as we’d slowed, the boys had wakened. The youngest, Ted, started his hiccupy prelude to a tantrum, and I knew once Ted started, Marty would join in. Misery loves misery.
Cindy shook her head. “It’ll do,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was making a joke or if she was just so tired she hadn’t seen the sign.
She wrinkled her nose when we opened our room door. Old cigarette smoke haunted the space. The smell reminded me of my father and my uncle Theo, coal miners who fearlessly chainsmoked Marlboros until they died coughing.
We pulled back the queen beds’ scratchy comforters to expose thin, threadbare sheets. The grayed towels had skinned places where the nap had worn away. I hated old sheets and towels—and the stiff polyester blankets that never seemed to keep me warm during those cold mountain winters.
Cindy took the boys’ shoes off and tucked the kids into one bed, clothes and all. We brushed our teeth in silence and slid into the other bed. She lay with her back to me. I snuggled behind her and tucked her under my arm.
When I closed my eyes, I was back in the mine, tons of rock and earth above me, the dark seams running through the lighter rock like cracks through plates. The machines echoed so loud down there you thought your head would shake loose. And always that underground air, cold, smelling of rock and earth and engine oil and squeezing your chest. I was a red hat, trying to be like the older men, who called me “Junior” even though my dad’s name was Martin. All the while, my application to college down in Huntington ticked away like a bomb I thought would explode me out of that life forever. I didn’t know that even after I blew loose, West Virginia would stay with me, a phantom limb, still mining.
Cindy wriggled out from under my arm, giving a put-upon sigh. A streetlight beam through the curtain gap showed the sad room, my two boys snuffling into their dreams, anchoring me to this life, to this woman, the way we kids had anchored Dad to the mine. Though he never said so, we all knew it. In the darkened room, Dad and Uncle Theo shared a cigarette that glowed red. “Coal mining ain’t the best job,” Uncle Theo said, “but it’ll do.”
Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, The Laurel Review, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been presented onstage by Stories On Stage in Denver and Davis. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.