Poppa was dead, no disputing that. He lay still in bed with the sheet tucked up to his chin, his hands outside resting on his chest and that little half smile he always wore. Doc Flimsy, standing at the bedside, was in the process of making a complete ass of himself. If she hadn’t known better Megan would have sworn Poppa was lying there enjoying the hell out of it.
“Natural causes,” said Doc Flimsy, pulling his hunter out of his pocket, flicking open the cover and, it would seem, avoiding eye contact with the family.
Momma stared at Doc Flimsy like he’d just called a hog a dog. Beti, older than Megan by two and a half minutes but more mature by two and a half years, said nothing although the rapid click-clack of her knitting needles spoke of tension underneath. Megan’s head bubbled like a geyser. A dozen questions jostled to be the first to fly out. She clenched her jaw to keep them in. She clenched her fists to help her jaw. She tightened every muscle to help her fists.
Doc Flimsy glanced at the three of them for less than a second before shifting his gaze out through the window towards the large house on top of the hill, Big Jake’s house, right smack dab in the middle of the frame. Fumbling his watch into his pocket he shrugged, “Cigarettes didn’t help I expect.”
Neither did thirty-five years hacking away at a coal face, shot through Megan’s mind. Under those circumstances death from black lung at forty-eight would be considered quite natural wouldn’t it? Half of Megan wanted to scratch Doc Flimsy’s eyes out. The other half wanted to be like Poppa always was.
Poppa never shouted. Poppa never flew into a rage. Poppa never lost his head, not even in the stormiest of disputes and he always managed to pull out the pith of the argument, most often with a little wit. Saying that Poppa also had fire, the fire of right and wrong and his fire burned hotter, cleaner and brighter than the purest anthracite. That was why, so most folks reckoned, Poppa was offered a desk job by Big Jake, owner and operator of the Pyramid Mine Company. Poppa never belonged behind a desk. Big Jake knew that. He just didn’t want Poppa’s words falling into young ears and filling young minds; words of wisdom if you lived in the valley, socialist communist revolutionary treasonous propaganda if you lived up on the hill.
The Reds also tried to get Poppa to join them. He turned them down too saying the only Reds he ever cared to join played in Cincinnati. He said it with a smile. The Reds took it with a scowl. That’s the biggest trouble with the Communist Party of America, Poppa said many times on the long walks he and Megan took together. No sense of humor.
So despite the fact the dust and dirt of the mine was already killing him Poppa stuck with his crew. Shepherding them around danger and helping those that wanted it to find ways out of the mine. As his back got bendier and bendier his stature within the valley rose straighter and taller while Big Jake, the mine administration and the Reds tried every dirty trick they knew to grind Poppa’s bones back into dust.
Funny thing was, according to Poppa, if Big Jake and the Reds could bring themselves to use a civil tongue toward each other they’d have managed the job a lot quicker but each was far too busy painting the other as the incarnation of absolute evil. Like Democrats and Republicans it was impossible to see those two ever finding out they actually agreed on something.
Doc Flimsy cleared his throat and made as if he wanted to say something. He shifted his eyes between Poppa and the big house on the hill, back at Poppa, back at the big house, back at Poppa, back at the big house. He had the face of a cat stuck up a tree asking itself how it expected to get out of such a fix while at the same time wondering how the devil it got there in the first place. “I’ll contact Mr Thorndyke for the arrangements.”
The hairs on the back of Megan’s neck flew to attention. Thorndyke!! Big Jake’s cousin or nephew or illegitimate offspring of some ancestor or other. Another member of the extended dynasty that held tight onto every business in town. They owned the butcher, the baker, the grocery store, the hardware store, the funeral home, half the rest of the county and every one knew Doc Flimsy was in Big Jake’s pocket and that his primary occupation was to keep the mining company’s liabilities to a minimum. Patients came second.
“Don’t blame Doc Flimsy,” Poppa coughed a few months back as news filtered through that yet another miner’s death was signed off as unrelated to activities at the mine. “He’s a symptom, not the disease.”
Megan could do nothing but blame Doc Flimsy. The dozen questions got shoved out of the way by a half dozen invectives. Quicker and slipperier than the questions it took every twitch of muscle tension for Megan to keep quiet, but somebody had to say something. Bound up by these bastards in life only to be boxed up and buried, buried and forgotten, by those self same bastards in death! Somebody had to say something!! The rush to speak welled up inside her. Megan renewed her efforts to stifle the urge. Her jaw shuddered with the tension. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes. Her entire body began to shake. Unable to keep silent any longer she turned to take Doc Flimsy full in the face, her mouth opened, —
“No need,” said Momma.
Doc Flimsy looked at Momma as if he hadn’t heard correctly. Momma’s eyes, full of purpose, stayed steady.
“But … ah … but … ah …,” sputtered Doc Flimsy like a badly tuned motorcycle.
The click-clack of Beti’s needles settled into a steady rhythm. Her eyes mirrored Momma’s. She too gazed steadily at Doc Flimsy. Megan, suddenly calmed, crossed her arms, copied Momma’s gaze and hit Doc Flimsy with it from a third angle. He wilted like a thirsting flower under a midday sun.
“Then …. I’ll … be .. going … I’ll see myself out,” said Doc Flimsy and he scratched his way backwards like a cat crawling down a tree until it reckoned it was safe enough to jump the rest of the way. A rush of footsteps and the slam of the door told them Doc Flimsy flew out of the house as fast as he could once he thought it was safe to do so.
The town bell struck nine. “Should I get us some breakfast?” asked Beti.
“You two go on ahead. Call me when it’s ready. I’d like to sit with your father for a bit,” said Momma.
Megan descended the stairs she’d descended a thousand times yet this time each step was new and unfamiliar. At the bottom she turned back on herself to enter the kitchen she’d entered a thousand times. It too was new and unfamiliar. Beti took over preparations for breakfast. She’d mastered Momma’s art of stretching food for three into dinner for four long before Megan had managed to boil water. Megan set the table. About the time Beti had everything ready Momma came down. Breakfast was silent save for the occasional scrape of a spoon against a bowl. After she’d finished Momma pushed her bowl away, leaned back in her chair a little, made a church with her hands in her lap and stared out the back window. After a minute she said, “I guess we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do once we’ve taken care of your father.”
“What do you mean?” asked Megan.
“Can’t stay here. House is rented from the mining company. They’ll want it, ” turning towards Beti, “besides even if we could stay, we’d never be able to afford the rent on what the two of us are likely to scrape together.”
“The two of you?” asked Megan.
“You’re going to college, girl.”
“I thought there wasn’t any …”
“There’s enough, for a start.”
“How are we going to take care of Poppa?” asked Beti.
“That’s all planned,” said Momma.
“He’s not going into a Thorndyke box is he?” asked Megan gripping her spoon tight enough to change it’s shape.
“No, he’s not,” said Momma. “He’s going to float down the Susquehanna. It was a dream he had. He told me about it on the day he proposed.” Momma checked her mug and finished her coffee. “I swam out into the middle of this big ‘ole river, he said. Spun over onto my back and drifted free and clear in the arms of nature to wherever the current should lead.” Momma set her mug on the table. “He’s going to get his dream.”
“Can we do that?” asked Beti. “I mean, is it legal?”
“Who cares if it isn’t,” said Momma.
Just about the whole valley turned out for the funeral. Those that could walk supported those that found walking a struggle. They all gathered on a gentle hillside overlooking the Susquehanna River. Poppa in his urn sat on a flat rock next to the river. Nobody bothered to stand up to make a speech of any sort. There was no eulogy, but there was a picnic, children running around playing and, towards the end of the afternoon, a choir. About the only time this choir ever got together was for funerals which led them to being tagged The Coffin Choir. Judging from the way they warmed up Megan wondered if the real name wasn’t The Coughin’ Choir. Regardless, after a phlegm saturated warm up lubricated with ale and punctuated by a few surreptitious shuffles behind a large tree that wasn’t quite large enough. As the sun began to sink eight crystalline voices rose up from the river bank creating a canopy of sound over the crowd. They sang Welsh folk songs, about the only thing the original miners brought with them four generations ago. As they struck up Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau Momma stood up, took Poppa to the edge of the river and sent him drifting on the gentle current.
Tears dampened the corner of Megan’s eyes.
“Aye, that it is,” interrupted her reverie. “It’s a bit mucky downstream, but that won’t bother your Pa none,” said Gristle Ned who seemed to have read Megan’s thoughts. “He’ll sail straight through that just as he sailed straight through everything else. He’ll hit that great green ocean and, I expect, one of these days a little bit of him will find its way home.”
Within a matter of days the house was packed up. Momma and Beti decided to head back to the dirt farm community Momma had escaped from when she was Megan’s age. She’d left, so she said, because she couldn’t see herself stuck in such a dreary setting all her life, but having wound up in a mining town she’d decided that maybe dirt farming wasn’t all that bad after all. At least your labor was your own, or at least some of it was.
Throughout the summer Meghan stayed with friends. Last week of August she settled herself in a window seat on a bus heading west with a large wad of dollar bills secreted in the folds of her clothes. Poppa would have had an ironic quip about getting an education with dirty money. The bills were covered in coal dust, a gift from the community.
A middle aged woman stood in the aisle next to her and asked, “Is this seat taken?”
“Not at all,” said Megan squeezing over a little to give the lady room.
The lady sat down, got herself arranged and said, “Going far?”
“I’m going to college,” said Megan unable to suppress the pride in her voice.
“I see,” said the lady nodding her head. “What are you going to study.”
“Sociology? What’s that?”
“It’s the study of social life, social causes, social change and how to make society better … more fair.”
The lady pursed her lips a little and said, “Sounds like a heap of studying, good luck with that. Where are you going to go with that once you’ve finished studying about it?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” said Megan as the bus backed out of its bay and pulled into the street. With an eye out the window for one last glance at the town she hoped she’d never see again she said, “I might just let nature take its course, wherever the current should lead.”