Carrie Martin: Tuesday Afternoon (short fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in TN, but have made the Southern circuit. I currently reside in Greenville, SC.

Tuesday Afternoon

“We gotta git the house ready for visitors,” she stated, matter of factly. The screen door slammed behind her, worn with generations pushing through, smoothing the wood into a darkened dent. Adelaine sat on the worn rocking chair, softly tearing the strings off of the green beans and then breaking them into threes, dropping them in the dingy blue bucket at her feet.

“Who’s comin’?” she asked with curiosity. They rarely had visitors. There was no room, barely enough in that two room shack with her mother, father, two brothers, and sister. A curtain served as a wall between the boys and girls, one bed on each side. The parents took the other room, barely large enough to hold the strawtick mattress that lay dumpy on the wooden frame her father had built.

“Yer cousins, Junior and Iris. Jest for the day, that’s all. Got the letter this morning.” Phones were not to be had in this small coalmining town in Kentucky, tucked up in the mountain with neither money nor sunlight. The air was always a smudgy gray, partly from the mountain, partly from the coal.

Her mother urged her to quickly finish the beans and Adelaine complied, excited for something different than her everyday existence. The oldest, and not yet married at sixteen, most of the housework fell on her, but she found she did not mind. To sweep was to sweep minutes, to wash dishes was to wile away seconds. She had yet to figure out what she was counting down to, but there had to be something.

They began dusting with an old rag and sweeping the hard wooden planks with a straw brush. The windows were washed and the beans put on to cook. An iron skillet held a plump mix of cornmeal and buttermilk, ready to go in the iron stove, where it would cook to a crispy brown. The curtains were shaken and the mattresses flipped, giving them a healthier appearance.

It was then that the siren wailed. It sang its song of death and bitterness, winding into a frenzy, ebbing into a moan, winding again. Their eyes met, both knowing what it meant. Cave-in.

“No use going down there,” the mother stated gently, but with steel in her eyes. Her husband, both her boys, they were all in that mine. Adelaine continued to clean, but worry furrowed her brow. Now the minutes seemed to multiply with each swipe of her hand on the round, cracked table or on the small, neglected glass panes. An hour passed, then two. The siren had long been silent and not a peep was heard around the tiny house, not even the cicadas singing their summer song. The siren silenced nature itself.

As both women stood for a moment, each wiping wisps of sweaty strands from their neck and cheeks, there was a knock at the door. Hope held out for Mama suggested maybe it was their cousins.

Adelaine walked to the door, tugging on the rusty iron handle. It was Clay, a man who lived in the cove below them. He worked in the mine and his face was ashy, his eyes blue marbles in stark contrast to his skin. He quickly took of his wide-brimmed hat, twisting it in his large hands.

“Is yer mama here, too?” he asked, quietly. As if she heard him, Mama came onto the porch and took one hard look at him.

“Which one is it,” she asked coldly. Her eyes were hard, but her wiry arms were wrapped around her torso, as if to stave off the onslaught.

“Harold.” Clay said softly, then louder, “See, he was down in the new part, digging. One of the posts got hit by a cart that flipped on the track. Knocked the whole section down.” He kept wringing his hat, sweat trickling a clean streak of white down his jaw.

Mama pulled tighter on her stomach. Her husband. The man who had built this house, built these babies, built this life. She bit her lip.

Adelaine heard the words like a dead woman underwater. Her mind catapulted through all the memories of her father in a moment. The year he had spent a little extra at Christmas and bought her a doll, the times he would kiss them goodnight and you could smell the moonshine like a promise from his breath. How he would tuck the tobacco deep in his lip and how he sometimes came through that curtain at night, the alcohol taking his mind, forgetting they were his daughters. Still, this was her father, and the thoughts came in quick snippets, unfinished sentences, like the quick clip of the shears that were in the drawer in the kitchen.

Looking again at her mother who was desperately trying to hold herself upright by sheer will, Adelaine asked: “Are the boys ok?” Clay nodded. “Daniel is busted up some, but he is ok. Luke was towards the front, finishing up lunch. “Well,” he stated, finally firm, “I just thought someone should come tell ya.” He turned and began to walk away when Adelaine called softly, “Thank you, Clay.” He tossed up a hand in answer.

She turned back to Mama, who was now standing as tall as her 5’3 frame would let her. There were no tears, no tell-tale red eyes. Even her iron gray hair seemed to hold itself like a battleship.

“Come on. We gotta git the house ready for visitors.”