Dec '02 [Home]
Chapter Nine from Oradell at Sea
by Meredith Sue Willis
Mike Brown had told her he'd come back in a week or two, but he was gone three weeks, then five. Oradell hand-sewed flowered curtains for all the windows in the house. She got dressed up and ate Sunday dinner with the Howards, read magazines, and visited Sarah Ellen Talkington. She missed Mike, but wasn't sad. It was a quiet time; the Polks weren't fighting, and the Pierces gave Oradell tomatoes and beans from their garden. She did a lot of sitting on the porch looking alternately at the farms on the back side of the hill and then at the mine tipples on the other side of town. She thought about how she and Mike and this little baby were going to travel all over the world in Mike's car and make everything right for All the People.
On the sweetest Indian summer morning of all she was sitting there in the golden haze when Mr. Talkington's green Nash came up Mud Street. Mr. Talkington was alone in the car, and he pulled it up near her house and got out. He took his time. He had on his suit jacket, and he was holding a little yellow paper. He said, "A telegram came in for you, Mrs. Brown."
It was the first time anyone ever called her Mrs. Brown. She took her bare feet off the porch railing, but kept her hands in her lap.
Mr. Talkington said, "It's for you, Oradell." She didn't like the looks of that yellow slip of paper. "You have to read it."
In the next day and a half, a lot of papers got stuck in her face, and she didn't read most of them very well. She didn't read the words of this one either, but it seemed to say that there had been an accident in Kentucky, and she was supposed to call a certain phone number and reverse the charges.
"How come it says Kentucky?"
Mr. Talkington cleared his throat. "Well, Oradell, I think it means Mike—Mr. Brown—I think there was a accident, Oradell. But you better come down to the store and call that number and find out for sure."
"But he ain't in Kentucky," she said. "That's not Mike. Mike was going to Pennsylvania."
She went barefoot into the car. She kept staring at Mr. Talkington's pant leg as they drove down Mud Street. He parked between the store and the gas pumps, and they went up the steps, across the oiled boards of the main room, between the butcher's counter and the cash register and into his office with its ceiling as high as it was wide. He offered her the rolling chair and the telephone.
They accepted Reverse the Charges at the number in Kentucky, and the man she talked to was very polite. He called her Mrs. Brown and explained that they were wiring her a train pass.
They were going to meet her at a certain station in Kentucky, he said. They would give her the money and the remains.
Oradell couldn't get her mouth open to say: What money? What remains?
The man told her all she had to do was sign a receipt, and then she could go home. They were very sorry about the accident, but this would be the smoothest way to do things.
She understood that the man talking was named Timothy McClain. He was polite, but he talked fast. He gave instructions, and he didn't answer questions.
"Now is it clear, what you're going to do, Mrs. Brown?" he asked. "Because we'll have someone to meet you when the train gets in. Once you get the ticket and know which train you're on, you have to call back so we can meet you."
She kept nodding her head and forgetting to say Yes.
Finally she managed to say, "Listen here. Mike went to Pennsylvania."
"We want to offer our deepest condolences, Mrs. Brown," said Mr. McClain. "We know this is a difficult time for you."
She said good-bye and hung up the phone and stared at Mr. Talkington. She couldn't answer any of Mr. Talkington's questions, so he called the number back and spoke with Mr. McClain. Oradell stared at the picture of a light house on the wall calendar.
Mr. Talkington got off the phone and said, "I'm real sorry, Oradell. I can't tell you how sorry I am."
"But it's a mistake," she said. "Mike's in Pennsylvania."
"Wherever he went to, Oradell, he ended up in Kentucky. I'm real, real sorry. Mike was a fine man, of his type. I mean, of any type. Just a fine man."
Stupidly, Oradell said, "Oh, it's all right."
When she looked back at her life, Oradell never felt particularly sorry for herself about anything but that trip to Kentucky. She wasn't sorry for herself about marrying Mike Brown and having the baby, in spite of all the trouble that caused. But it still made her want to cry for how they let her get on that train all alone. She was sixteen years old. She had never been more than fifteen miles from West Fork. She didn't know what to wear, what to ask. She was feeling queasy in the stomach. It wasn't just Mr. Talkington either. He called up Grace Howard, and Grace told Oradell she was real sorry about Mike, but Grace didn't stop her from going.
Of course, in defense of Mr. Talkington and Grace, they didn't think the coal company was the enemy the way Mike did. They thought the coal company was being good to her, doing the right thing.
She might have gone to the Union Hall, if she'd been thinking, but she wasn't thinking. Or rather, she was thinking, but she was thinking once she got there, Mike would take care of everything.
Mr. Talkington sent her home to get dressed. He would make sure the ticket got wired in, and he would drive her to the train. She nodded her head, concentrating on how to do what she was told. She walked back up the hill, passing the little house where her mother once lived.
There were huge blue morning glories on a trellis there. Somewhere in the distance was an impact: the whack! of an enormous hammer.
She washed her feet and put on her open-toed red high heels. She didn't have any stockings without runs, so she went bare-legged. She wore the same seersucker dress with the little short-sleeved jacket that she got married in, even though the belt rode high over her belly now. At the last minute she remembered to get up on the shelf and take down the red leather pocketbook Mike had bought her to match the shoes. She didn't have anything to go in the pocketbook, though, except fifty cents' worth of change and a lipstick. She forgot her hat, and during the whole trip kept thinking it was a big mistake not to be wearing a hat.
Mr. Talkington came up the hill in the car to get her, and he drove her to Clarksburg so she could catch the westbound train direct. While they were waiting for the train, Oradell said, "I doubt it was really Mike. He said he was going to Pennsylvania."
Mr. Talkington said, "Honey, Mike traveled around quite a bit. I think that Mr. McClain knew who they had." He kept looking over at her. "Are you going to be okay, Oradell? Be sure you get the money, Oradell. Do you understand?"
"Nobody's going to put anything over on me," she said.
"You'll be fine," said Mr. Talkington. "You just act like you're a tough cookie."
He gave her ten dollars and put her on the train. She rode the train in her high heels with her pocketbook on her lap all day. She was afraid to get up to go to the bathroom or to look for something to eat. She was afraid if she moved something would break. Sick with hunger and weariness, she kept dozing into the afternoon, changed trains in Cincinnati, rode into the sunset and the night.
The conductor woke her. "This is where you get off," he said.
It was black outside. Struggling up out of sleep, she asked "What time is it?"
"Two-thirty," he told her, leading her to the end of the car, helping her down. "Don't you have a suitcase? Didn't you bring a suitcase?"
"A.M.?" she said, stepping awkwardly into the cold damp night. Her knees were buckling. "I don't know if this is where I'm going," she said.
The conductor waved, the wall of metal clanked and growled, and pulled away. She didn't even have a sweater. She hobbled a couple of steps back from the moving train. She was on an unsheltered platform, misty in the night, with a sharp smell of unfamiliar vegetation. The mountains were blacker and taller than the ones at home.
She was alone on the platform. Her train chugged, whistled, its rear lights receded and flickered away. For a while the rails hummed, then stopped. She strained her ears. The stillness was thick and cold. Then she began to feel motion again, but it was her knees shaking. She was not conscious of being in danger or frightened, but the knees and then the whole front of her thighs began to shudder. She turned herself around in a circle, looking for something.
There was a building on the other side, and standing apart from it, near the tracks, was some kind of bench with no back rest.
Three men in suits came out of the building and crossed the tracks to Oradell.
Her breath was coming fast and her knees and her thighs wouldn't stop shuddering. In her mind her own voice said clearly: I'm cold as the dickens. The three men all wore suits with vests.
It was hard to see their faces, because the lights were behind them. One was big and fat; one had especially broad shoulders; the smallest one was rumpled and weighed down with a briefcase.
He was the one who removed his hat first, then the other two did. "Mrs. Brown?" he said. "I'm Timothy McClain. We spoke on the telephone." He kept right on talking, whether she answered or not. He was so sorry for her grievous loss. He hoped her trip had been as comfortable as possible, given the circumstances. "Let's cross over to the other side," he said. "The eastbound will be coming along, and we want to put you right back on the train so you can return to your loved ones as soon as possible." He pressed close on one side of her and took her elbow. The man with the big shoulders pressed close on her other side.
They helped her across the tracks and the riprap stones that made her heels slip and sink. The fat one breathed loudly behind them, and they all came to a stop next to the benchlike box. They kept their hats off.
Timothy McClain wished there had been a kinder way to break the news to her. The fat man cleared his throat. "We have some papers for you to sign," said Mr. McClain.
Oradell kept staring at the box. It was too dark to get a good look at it, but she thought she recognized the shape. She said, "Is Mike in that there box?"
"Yes, Mrs. Brown," said Mr. McClain, "I hope you'll accept our deepest condolences."
She finally looked at their faces: Timothy McClain was chubby and had wrinkles in his forehead and needed a shave. The one with the shoulders was good-looking and had a toothpick in his teeth. The fat one kept his head up so that his eyes were always hidden from her.
Mr. McClain squatted down beside the briefcase, shuffled through the papers, saying How sad, a terrible thing, the company was sad, he was personally sad. Here was her pass home, with a special receipt for the box. And all she had to do was sign here. And here. He stood up and extended a sheaf of papers to her and a fountain pen.
More distinctly than their faces, she always remembered the material their suits were made of. Mr. McClain's was thick and nubby, and the lights cast a shadow beside every nub. The young man with the shoulders had a pale stripe running through the fabric of his suit, and the fat man's suit was plaid, something almost as fine as dress fabric with an open ladder of lines.
The fat man said, "Well, here comes the eastbound train, on time for once. Give her the money and let's go home."
Oradell stared at the extended papers. The train pulled in, hissed to a massive stop.
Mr. McClain said, "I think you'll find it's just receipts, statements that you've received what's yours."
The porter got off and watched them from a distance, a silhouette with fuzzy light around his edges. There were dim orange lights in the passenger compartment, and an elderly man looking out.
Mr. McClain touched her shoulder to get her attention and pointed out spaces that needed her signature.
The conductor got down and stood with the porter. They were all looking at Oradell and the box. The conductor took out his watch and said something to the porter. The porter came over and asked the fat man. "How long you holding us for, Boss?"
It was one of Mike's words. These men, who did not even offer her a pop or ask her if she needed to go to the bathroom—they had the power to hold the eastbound train.
"Not long, boy," said the Fat Boss.
McClain wiggled the papers. Oradell clutched her purse with both hands.
"Show her the envelope, Tim," said the Fat Boss.
McClain reached into the briefcase again and came up with a thickly stuffed envelope.
He pulled back the flap, ran his thumbnail along the edge of a lot of dollar bills. Then he extended the papers to her again, showing her the money at the same time. She knew she should at least read the papers, but if she tipped her head down to read, tears were going to pour out.
So she said, "How come Mike wasn't in Pennsylvania?"
The Fat Boss answered. "Now how are we supposed to know that, Miss? Maybe he just told you he was going to Pennsylvania. Maybe he had a girlfriend to visit."
"It's a terrible thing," said McClain, "to lose your husband at such a young age."
She said, "Do those papers say what happened to Mike?"
Fat Boss said, "We're giving you cash. Do you want to count the money?" McClain put the papers under his arm and opened the envelope and rifled the dollar bills again.
"Twelve hundred dollars," said Fat Boss.
The one with the big shoulders said, "I wisht somebody paid me that good."
"You'll be home soon, Mrs. Brown," said McClain. "Back with your own people. You'll have a nice funeral."
Oradell thought it was too much money. She knew they were doing this because they wanted her to sign the papers and go away. Something had happened that they wanted ignored. If she signed and took the money and they loaded up the box, it was all over. Whatever had happened to Mike would be done and paid for.
She wondered if the eastbound train had a dining car, and did it serve breakfast. She said, "What did he die of?"
At the same moment, the Fat Boss said, "Natural causes," and McClain said, "It was a mine cave-in."
Fat Boss looked irritated. McClain said, "Just sign the papers, Mrs. Brown. Really, it's the best thing you can do. The papers are just like a receipt. They say you received the body, unfortunately crushed by natural causes in a mining accident, and you received compensation."
The train was hissing, and more sleepy faces were looking out the windows to see what was holding them up.
Mike would have made a speech to tell the people to get off the train and give Hell to the Bosses. But Oradell was on her own. The conductor looked at his watch, and the porter looked at the coffin box.
Oradell said, "I don't think a cave-in is exactly goddam natural."
Fat Boss put his hat back on, and so did the one with the shoulders. "You get a ton of coal and rock on your head, you'll be natural dead yourself. Listen, lady, I'm getting tired of this. You're running out of time. Your old man was a Commie. I'm beginning to think you're a Commie too. Your man, he was a goddam red commie, feeding everybody his goddam Commie Baloney. If you're full of goddam red Commie Baloney too, we can just take this money back and leave you here. Is that what you want?"
She wanted to say, Yes! I'm full of whatever Mike was full of! But instead, she was just
full of pee and tears. If she signed, she could go to the wash room, go back to sleep, get some bacon and eggs.
McClain said, "Mrs. Brown, we want you satisfied. We don't want you to have any doubts."
She clutched the pocketbook, but knew she was going to open it soon and let them pour the money in. She whispered, "I just don't think a cave-in is natural."
"Well shit," muttered Fat Boss.
"Now, now, she's bereaved," said McClain. "She's mourning the loss of her dear deceased." But then for all him saying Now Now and keeping his hat off longest he was maybe the meanest one of all. He said, "Why, we can just jimmy open this box right now and let Mrs. Brown see the way that big chunk of coal stoved in poor Mr. Brown's head."
The one with the big shoulders started to laugh. "Yeah, let's look at how all the blood and guts and brains came squeezing out the corners of his eyes. "
Oradell had a strong stomach, but her body was playing tricks on her tonight, and even with red high heels on, she was the shortest one here.
So when Mr. McClain repeated, "Let's just pry the lid up, honey," Oradell whispered back that was okay, he didn't have to.
"So you're satisfied then?" said McClain.
"Give her the papers, goddammit," said the Fat Boss.
"Here's these papers then."
She signed wherever he pointed: Mrs. Oradell Mike Brown, she wrote. On one line she wrote Oradell Riley Brown, but then she went back to Mrs. Oradell Mike Brown. They didn't care what she wrote. She could have signed Eleanor Roosevelt for all they cared. The one with the big shoulders started to tease her again. "Aw, you better let us open it up, Mrs. Brown. We don't want you to go away thinking there was any foul play. We're sorry for you, honey."
"Just let her finish signing the goddam papers," said Fat Boss.
So she kept signing, and the porter got a rolling cart for the box. Then the Bosses gave her the envelope.
"I want to count it," she said doggedly.
"You just stand here and do that," said Fat Boss. "You just take all night and count it. You can miss the train for all I care. Let's go, boys."
And they turned on their heels, and even McClain didn't say anything else about how sorry he was. They just left, and the conductor said, "All aboard," and the porter said, "You get on board now, Miss."
And she did, without counting the money.