Just before the hay needed to be cut on Willis Camp Road, Jackson Davis hung himself in his barn loft with his church belt he bought at the Oaken Dale County flea market and nobody knows why. The days that followed were as Myers’s father told him they’d be, rainy and empty, a kind of reality that he felt was somewhat justifiable even though he worked and tried to pay little mind to it. On weekends, he’d put the hay up he and his father had bailed, tossing it into the barn loft, stacks falling side by side, wet dripping out. In the evening, Myers thought about how different the rain sounded on the roof of the house, on the pond beside it, seeping under the cracked barn door, probably under his father’s grave.
But Myers always wanted to quit the mine that he worked full time for, to fold his workpants up, shove them into the woodstove, beat across Field’s Church Road down to the riverbank, and slowly drown himself, strangling on the water, washing the ash and dust out of his eardrums, and die in a pure way, natural, so he wouldn’t end up dirty like his father, hanging from the main beam, filthy as a day’s work.
And these are things him and his father would talk about together while hand feeding the new calves. They never mentioned it to anyone, just back and forth, playing out scenarios, carefully.
“What about jumping into a Christmas tree bailer, ever thought of that one?” Myers said to his father.
“You’d have to get damn lucky for that thing to strangle you just right.” The three-month-old calve took grass from Jackson’s hand.
“Jumping off the ridge would do it, its up so high.” Myers raked the cow shit off his worn boots, put his hands in his pocket and spit.
“Boy, you’d have a heart attack before you’d hit the ground.”
Lots of folks in town tried to visit with Myers. He was staying in his father’s farmhouse, about 50 feet from where he was cut down by the sheriff’s deputies. Sue, the choir director at the church Jackson and Myers stopped going to, stood in the rain and said that suicide was an unforgivable sin, that Myers needed to hear that, that his Daddy was engulfed in hellfire, below the earth, that his father couldn’t pass God’s test of life, the struggle that came with it too, and was sentenced to his punishment. She looked at him with conviction, a way that made his heart ache, lonesome. Myers never stopped shoveling though, just nodded his head and said he was sorry.
“Don’t you understand that your father is in hell?”
Myers didn’t look her in the eyes. He thought about hay.
“He’s paying for his sins, get it?”
After she left, he put down the shovel and walked around the perimeter of their land, half shaded by the Blue Ridge Park way, other half jarred against the Tennessee line. His hands blistered guilt from shoveling, from his father. When he got to the flooded flower garden by the wooden fence he and his father built last August, he knelt down and prayed for his them both. He wanted to speak for his father, channel his voice from below, and relay it above. He didn’t pray like he was taught in Sunday school, to call out and address God like a friend. Now he prayed as if he was talking to the earth herself, deeper than the rain swamped spring mud, the water table line, prehistoric bones, deeper and deeper, sifting through. His knees eased into to the wet grass with control. He kept his eyes open. Just under the overpass of the parkway, two deer stood in the highway, their heads pointed back over their shoulders, eyes in the sunset, looking at Myers, still.
They were the first to break focus and run away.
The diner, up the road from the Davis farm, is where all the miners went on Saturday lunch, when they had weekends off. The iridescent sunbeams through the windows tracked coal through the air like the floaters Myers saw in his eyes when he laid down. Black tracked them to the big table in the back corner they always sat at.
Y’all know why Jack killed himself, right?
His boy’s head ain’t on straight, but tore up when they put him down.
I heard it’s cus his old lady was sleeping with Pastor Levis.
Poor bastard is buried in his cemetery.
Ain’t nobody thinks he went to heaven, that sum-bitch.
Just another miner dead, either here or in that hole.
Say that years in the mine will drive you crazy, outta your mind.
He sounded well off to me, all that land.
You’d have to be a little crazy to kill yourself in a barn.
Why ain’t we crazy then?
We are, just living through it like other folks here.
Only dead, crazy folks in hell.
The day before Jackson hung himself, Kathleen’s Ford was parked in the driveway. Myers could see their house from the hill the diner sat on. His mother wasn’t welcome in the Davis house after she stuck the left side of her face in a pan of boiling grease when Jackson said he heard about her sleeping with the preacher. That was last Christmas. Jackson never told Myers what brought it up, only that he confronted her about it and she thought it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. Kathleen said it was about as ridiculous as her putting her face in that pan of frying fish. Myers imagined his father didn’t try to stop her. Sometimes he wondered if his father was heartbroken enough to hurt his mother, throw the grease right in her face, but she never said anything to him about it. Her scars made her look older than she was, just seventeen when she had Myers. The last time she saw her son was on his thirtieth birthday in March. She came in the backdoor when Jackson went out to feed. Folks said they’d seen her driving around town with a few different men since they got separated, always wearing the satin black scarf her Momma gave her like a shawl.
Myers wondered if he should stop by and go inside, maybe see what they were up to, if she was getting hurt. He left his truck parked in the woods atop of the hill, about a hundred yards from the house and walked down, as quietly as he could. He imagined he was in ROTC, like before he left school, marching down the football field, presenting the colors, proudly, of America, the way he held his chest back, his boot heels soft. He walked up the back porch steps the same, to the back window facing a deer feeder hanging from the white oak.
Into the kitchen, he saw the left side of his mother’s face for the first time in years, her knees bent down as if she was praying. Jackson’s 65-year-old knees buckled, standing bare ass, head cocked back, his right hand holding her hair. Myers watched for a few seconds, just as quiet as they were, not talking, barely breathing. The whippoorwill’s evening songs were playing out through the pines behind him. He looked down at the ground, his boots, the porch, below that, the grass. He looked up one more time, into the scars and pits of his mother’s face and then walked, carelessly, back to his truck.
On the ride, Myers tried to not to think about his day, the mine, the breathlessness, his mother, and his father. He stopped by the gas station in town to buy a scratch-off, a five dollar one since today was Friday. He told himself that if he could just win 500 dollars, he would help his mother pay for surgery on her face from some doctor in the city. If he won more, he’d tell his father to retire from the mine, to just tend to his land and just worry about paying all the taxes on the land, every dime on his family. He wondered if that would be enough to keep him happy, the land, and the earth, what’s here for folks like them. He won 2 dollars and bought a candy bar and waited for his lady to get off work.
Myers was spending some nights with a young girl he knew from the diner, Suzanne. They’d been together just over a year, and her house was about fifteen miles from the farm, just on the edge of the county. She lived alone since her both her parents died last winter in a car crash coming across the mountain from Bristol. Myers never brought it up. They’d just focused on what they had together, a future of some kind. At night, Myers would wake her up coughing.
“Dammit, I don’t see why don’t work on the farm and quit that mine,” she said.
“Ain’t no money in it. Daddy can’t pay the taxes without coal, he said.”
“You’re just too damn dumb to know.”
Myers stood up from the bed, purposefully, just in his boxers. “Hear Daddy? His voice in hell?”
“Your daddy was baptized.”
Myers pulled his underwear down to his ankles and walked toward the sliding glass door, parting the curtains and staring outside. Suzanne came over put her hand on his stomach, slowly. He kissed her, tasting like the mine. Proudly he looked out the window, thinking Jackson was watching him.
Sunday night, Myers dreamed he visited his father’s grave behind the church and saw straight through the earth, down deeper, not quite to hell, but saw roots of tree mangled in clumps of dirt, the core and felt the heat but bet his voice wasn’t far behind. He woke up and walked into the barn and stared at the high-rise of beams. He thought about how he would get up there if he was going to hang himself, maybe stand on the bucket of the tractor lifted, could use that ladder for cleaning out the gutters. He saw no trace of his father. He took down the old road signs that hung on the barn walls. State workers would bring them over to Jackson after they paved a road next to his property, his driveway the only gravel road on that side of the county. He walked outside beside the pond, the clouded sky did not reflect on the water, and took up his shovel.
He kept digging like he had all weekend, trying to get his height right, about six feet tall and three feet wide, knew he would have to go further. He thought about the humid summer air as his back dripped sweat shown through his grey nightshirt, only a little rain now. He thought about his mother’s face, how, in the last moments of his father’s life, he saw her on her knees, vats staring back at him, not quite healed over even after years. He thought about Suzanne, how her mouth. He thought about the obituary printed in town paper. He thought about his dream. He remembered the last sermon he heard Pastor Levis preach, John writing the book of Revelation, exiled to the island of Patmos, seeing visions of the end, of beasts engraved with numbers on their forehead, white horses, blood swelling in rivers, and thought of his father, how he looked ahead and said it as over as ever, the beans were picked and just stomped on by the cruelty of earth, how the looming danger of the end makes no sense, either you hang yourself in a barn loft, letting the oxygen squeeze from your brain, eyes twitching like he imagined his fathers did, seeing the crooked visions only they could conjure.
He laid down his shovel beside his feet and stood in the hole upright. He closed his eyes and listened, dug his toes in the dirt, webbed his fingers between crabgrass roots, stretching in all directions. Quiet as he could, he didn’t hear his father, didn’t feel him reaching back from below. If anyone had been watching Myers, they might’ve seen his face turn up with disgrace, his lips curling, dripping sweat, wanting to be in the earth, further, like his father, under the pond with a grasshopper leaping on top water, under a coyote stalk to the edge of the woods, but he just thought of what Jackson left behind. This place in wet summer. He thought about the mine, how much deeper he would have to dig tomorrow.