"Appalachian Phone Call" by Rebecca Burns

“Appalachian Phone Call” by Rebecca Burns

The call came just after breakfast. Dad had already left for the mine, Angie was rummaging in her room for textbooks. Cory had answered, expecting Billy Ray to be on the line, suggesting they go out with their rifles. They had yet to shoot a coyote this year, a fact which nudged at Billy Ray more than Cory. But it was not Billy Ray and, after hanging up, Cory came back to the table. He refilled his coffee cup, pouring hot liquid into his twisted stomach, and took the last piece of toast. Mom stood by the sink, watching, wiping her hands.

“That Billy Ray?” she asked eventually.

Their eyes didn’t meet.

“Nope. Minis Jackson. There’s a spot come up , if I want it.”

Mom cleared her throat and turned back to the sink. Cory stared at the frayed hem of her house-coat and, again, wondered when she planned on getting a new one. He could remember her wearing it as she walked Angie around the yard, his sister’s fat legs drawn up by shouty colic. That must have been – sixteen years ago.

Dad’s shift supervisor hadn’t introduced himself on the phone. “Bruce Raleigh’s boy?” he’d asked, and Cory knew what he was calling for straight away.

“Mr Jackson, sir.”

“Been let down this morning. One of the bolters would rather be at home with his new wife than come into work. Spot’s yours if you want it.” Minis Jackson’s voice rose and fell like a gnarled branch and Cory could almost taste the nicotine down the handset.

“What answer you give?” Mom asked, still with her back turned to her son.

Cory said nothing but drained his cup. After a few moments of waiting, Mom sighed and walked from the room. He heard her climb the stairs slowly, and the soft murmur of her voice as she talked to Angie.

The truth was that Cory did not know how to frame his thoughts, let alone respond to his mother. The truth was that, from the moment he replaced the handset, he had begun to feel a slipping within, like plates shuffling on top of each other in his mother’s dresser. The phone call lasted seconds, but the speed with which it nudged aside something he had hoped was fundamental astonished him. He had, after all, been working on an integral part of himself for many years until it was near perfection; now his shaking hands stripped away all certainty. What he had been so sure of was this; that the tough, West Virginia upbringing on offer at home had over time and after many nights twisted around a tear-damp pillow, finally marshalled his body into stillness even when a tempest raged beneath his skin. He had learnt how to arrange his face into granite, so that his thoughts could not be cracked open or sear upwards through his skin. It was a necessary technique, for Cory’s father had not tolerated teenage shows of frustration or temper. So Cory the boy, and latterly the man, had become used to choking back on his feelings, the way a child might force down mashed potatoes and gravy, in hope of canned peaches later. But a tick now settled beneath his left eye, and he felt his flesh contort.

Minis Jackson, that most unlikely of combustibles, had exploded beneath his skin. The reassuring slate Cory had taken as his shape had been smashed aside by one simple offer. Come and work down the mine. Crouch beside your father in a tunnel three feet high as he bolts the roof secure. Spot’s yours if you want it.

He remembered his father’s tales, shared – not with him – but with Bruce’s pals as they sat in the Raleigh’s small lounge on Friday nights. Their stories and memories were vivid in their understatement. The chintz carpet became awash with water, pouring through cracks in black rock, furious at the chisel-tipped intrusion into aquatic slumber. Mom’s flowered wallpaper was peeled back to release clouds of choking dust that the men swallowed down with their Bud. It was not unusual at some point during the evening for one of the men to get up and walk into the kitchen where Cory, hiding at the top of the stairs, could hear him cough into the sink and take in shaky breaths.

One night Bruce spoke of a friend, dead some twenty years. Cory had never heard his father talk like that before. His voice became smooth and loose, free of the barbs that caught his throat when he yelled at Cory in the day time. The friend had died when a blade of coal angled and spitefully buckled itself, slicing his heart clean out of his body. The man’s separated flesh lay beside him like a quiet, smaller twin, until they were both found. It was Minis, Bruce said, who came upon him. Cory had curled behind the banisters as his father lurched into the kitchen after finishing his tale, knowing what would come his way had Bruce seen him.

At the table, Cory felt his own heart pound painfully in his chest. He laid his hands flat on the cloth, pressing down the way he might on the ribs of a drowned man. Above, Angie yelled something to their mother, barrelled down the stairs and into the kitchen. She slapped Cory’s shoulder as a goodbye and was gone, up the road to school. Her brother watched without really seeing, following her determined path as Angie marched to class. She had always been determined.

Then, for the first time, he envied her. School had never been for him, but watching her, he felt formless, as though emptied of shape.

Angie’s path was ringed by the corrosive line of the Appalachians, drifting in and out of view, dipping through the morning mist. Many times during his childhood, Cory had been marched by Bruce along the narrow ridge behind the house. The boy had trailed after the slab of muscle breaking his way through fir trees and had flinched under the barked instructions about an animal track or a useful plant. Down the mine Bruce worked alone. He burned through apprentices quicker than batteries in a headlamp. Cory made a small smile. Perhaps the absent bolter so infuriating Minis Jackson this morning had worked with his father.

Minis had wanted an answer, but Cory had mumbled something unclear and said that he’d speak to his mother, and call Minis back within the hour. Mom was moving around upstairs, probably making the beds. He could imagine her face if he sat her down and asked for advice. Minis Jackson had accepted this, though, and grunted that he needed to know sharpish. Otherwise he’d have to get a replacement from over in Richland.

Perhaps he could go back to wanting to be an astronaut. Even Bruce had found that amusing and bought him a rocket one Christmas. Billy Ray planned on the army. He wanted to be a marine and swap the damp cold of Virginia for the dust of some far-off, dangerous place; this was to be their last summer. Cory envied even his friend now. If he had something else to hold on to – well, that would make the fight a little easier. But, apart from running with Billy Ray and returning empty-handed from shooting trips, what else was there?

He did not need to wonder what it would be like to work underground. It would curl him up into that boy again, hiding at the top of the stairs. He remembered following his father through the trees, throat bursting as he struggled to keep up with the orange shirt. It was tough above and below, living here. The hills framed the house, jutting skywards, persistent and present like an unmade reply, as black as the telephone waiting in the hall.