a literary review
Mr. Johnson never worked the mines.
He hauled sand in rickety gin wagons
To build all these box-frame houses.
He made pocket-knives and repaired
the wheels of mine cars. He was good
with his hands, he made ends meet.
Today he tells me about the biggest man
in the world, Martin Van Buren Bates,
who traveled in the circus but settled down
here in the isolation of the mountains.
People thought the man had powers,
so they called him Devil Van Buren.
They were afraid of him, they kept
their distance, there were whispers
of a murder, they loved him like God.
And Mr. Johnson built the casket
they buried him in—ten feet long,
six feet wide, and the whole town
came out for the funeral, like a holiday.
The ropes snapped as they lowered
Devil Van Buren into the ground,
and the casket clattered in the hole.
The lid cracked a little, and the box
lay at an angle. It was like something
inside them all had snapped, like old twine,
clattering down into a deep dark hole.
Mr. Johnson says he looked down
into that grave with fear, and shame,
and they all did. They wept together
because there would never be another giant
in Jenkins, and the tears just came on
and on—the Company laying people off,
everyone knowing it could only ever end
like this, everyone knowing that the new
highway zipping through Whitesburg
and Pikeville would never really end.
Everything just keeps going on and on.
Mr. Johnson looks down at his hands a lot,
as though trying to remember all the things
they’ve done. Today, he thinks they might
like to try something new, but he has
trouble, he says, holding onto things.
Mrs. Johnson looked out the window on the ride to Pikeville,
and she saw women, she saw women in backyards rushing
to take their sheets off the lines so they wouldn’t get covered
in train-soot. Then she headed to Jenkins on a hack driven by mules,
a little baby on her lap and a big suitcase at her feet. In the seat
next to her sloshed a keg of good beer. The driver turned around,
offered her a sugar cube for the baby to suck on. She bit it in half
and put the smaller piece on her son’s lips. It was a warm morning,
and the driver told her it would be dusk before they arrived.
And when they arrived in the half-light of the mountains,
the place looked rough—no school, no church to speak of,
and the Company buildings were just weather-bolted shacks.
The tipples were roaring big as hell. She checked herself into
the Old Jenkins Hotel, over where the Bradley Apartments
are now, and she got herself a job filing papers in the hospital.
She put her baby in a maternity ward crib and spent her breaks
and lunch nursing him. They hadn’t started building the dam yet,
So the water came from deep wells. The creeks already stunk
with coal dust—you had to let the water set up overnight
in a bucket, then roll the skim off in the morning, like cream.
But they did have a sawmill, a makeshift ice plant
and a bakery over in Ratliff Hollow. You could get lumber or ice
or bread delivered on a dray, but for milk you had to swap
over at Shelby Gap, and where the boarded-up C&O depot is now,
they had lodge meetings and dances and preaching services.
It was there on a Fourth of July that Mrs. Johnson met
her future husband, a handsome young man standing in a corner,
smoking a briar pipe with Bad John Wright, both of them tall
and slender and dark. She carried her baby on her hip, and the men
lowered their pipes and tipped their hats. Mr. Johnson tapped
the tobacco from his pipe on the bottom of his boot and said,
This here’s John Wright. She asked if it was true what she’d heard,
that he’d killed nineteen men. John Wright smiled and winked.
He touched the bare head of her baby boy and said I been meaning
to make it an even twenty. And though the baby wouldn’t survive
the winter, she sits now in her double-wide in my own family’s
ancestral holler, telling me these stories with pleasure, refilling
my coffee, looking at me with watery eyes as if I might’ve been
her baby boy, the one whose head was touched by an outlaw.
~ ~ ~
<strong>J.D. Schraffenberger is the Associate Editor of the North American Review and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of the book of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, DIAGRAM, Mid-American Review, Paper Darts, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.