From WTP Vol. V #7
By Bob Beach
A company town in the coal country of West Virginia offered a bleak existence for a child growing up. The dust that sifted daily from the mine shafts settled into every crevice of our community, painting it a thousand shades of gray. It seeped into our food, our clothes, our lungs—no scrubbing with soap or bleach or vinegar could banish it.
My father came home every day from his shift at the mine gray-faced and exhausted, and collapsed into bed. Mother sewed our clothes by hand, cooked from scratch, and cleaned with an old straw broom.
Our town, like the rest of the country, was gripped in the teeth of the Great Depression. Lean times dictated efficiency, and nothing was wasted. Mother patched pants until they fell apart, then cut them up to make patches for the next pair. When we had the luxury of oranges, we scraped the pulp and crushed the peels to make marmalade. Dinner scraps became the next day’s vegetable loaf.
At age five, I was assigned the job of collecting bits of string and tin foil into large balls, which were hoarded and meted out only as needed. I scoured the neighborhood for wayward nails and screws, usable bits of wood or sack cloth. I stocked shelves and ran errands for Mr. Barone at the company store, who rewarded me with the occasional tin of peaches or bag of flour.
But even in the worst of times, Mother found pennies to put aside for the future, against a day even harder than today.
It wasn’t all work. I found other children to play with, although we knew nothing of conventional toys. Old tires became our swings, our targets, and sometimes our roller coasters; discarded pick handles made excellent baseball bats; and the occasional frog or snake from the creek behind the mine kept us occupied for hours at a time. We explored the hillsides and played practical jokes involving frogs and snakes on Susan O’Hara, and Mr. Barone let us listen to baseball games on the radio in the store.
In the evenings, Mother and Father and I played Hearts or Slapjack or Canasta while violin concertos from Mr. Halloran’s phonograph next door floated in the dusty air like echoes of a distant past.
Then one day, my father didn’t come home.
After a period of mourning, we tried to return to our usual ways. But a living wage in a coal town was beyond the reach of anyone who couldn’t drive a pickaxe. The hard West Virginia anthracite defied all Mother’s efforts to put down roots.
Leaving was a bitter decision, since Mother’s family lived close by and Grandfather was in rapidly failing health. One dark September morning we stopped at their tiny cabin to say our last goodbyes.
Grandmother opened the door to the bedroom and we filed in. The shade was drawn on the room’s only window, and the room was dark except for a small table lamp. The overpowering reek of sickness engulfed me like the maw of a giant beast, turning my stomach: infection, sweat, urine, alcohol.
Grandfather lay in bed, his skeletal body propped against a mountain of pillows, his covers gray and slick with sweat. In health he had been a frightening presence, but in this dark and foul place he seemed a demon, his thin white hair wild about his knobby head. Ferocious eyebrows dominated his face and overwhelmed his small, sunken eyes.
I shrank back and huddled in a corner while Mother and Grandmother sat at the bed in whispered conversation for what seemed hours. Finally, they rose. I turned to leave, but Mother stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
“He wants to talk to you—alone.”
I stood frozen with fear against the wall as Mother closed the door behind her. After a moment, he spoke.
“Come here, boy.” His voice rattled softly in his throat. He lifted a pale, ghostly hand to beckon.
I edged closer to the bed, my heart beating loudly in my ears. Suddenly, he shot out his bony arm and grabbed my wrist. I squealed and tried to break free, but he was surprisingly strong, and pulled me closer.
“Sit.” He nodded at the chairs.
I sat. He released my arm and examined me.
“Boy, yer pa had a short, hard life.” His voice dropped to a whisper and I had to lean in to hear him. “Never had no chance to leave ye nothin.’ Me an’ Gran got precious little ourselves. But it ain’t right to send a boy off into the world with nary a token from his kin—some bit to warm yer spirit when the night falls chill.”
He reached behind him and handed me a roughly hewn box about the size and shape and weight of one of Grandma’s meatloaves. I ran my fingers across the rugged wood. At the front there was a small clasp and a lock. I turned the box over. Taped to the bottom was a small key.
“My own granddad gave me this box when I was a sprout. But what’s important ain’t the box. It’s what’s inside.” He hunched himself further up on the grimy pillows and fixed me with a fierce glare.
“Reckon yer life ain’t much better now then yer pa’s—long on labor, short on hope. Hard times ‘round every corner. But this here’ll pass them times easier. No matter what this world throws at ye, boy, ye can use what’s in here to help ye through it.” He reached out and clutched my arm again.
“But hear me, boy—ye can only open this box once. Then it’s gone. Life’s cruel, and every bad hand it deals ye, it deals a worse next week. So be loath to open it less’n ye got no choice.”
He fell back against the pillows, his eyes closed. I saw no signs of breathing. Not knowing if he was asleep or dead, I backed slowly away and fled out the door, mindlessly clutching the box.
We packed the suitcase with what remained of our worldly possessions: spare clothing, a few trinkets of Mother’s, photographs, several of our precious books, and, of course, the box. The rest we had sold to finance our journey. That night, we boarded the crowded Greyhound bus to chase the elusive dream of good paying factory jobs to the north. But the steel mills of Pittsburgh had little use for women and children. A hungry flood of new immigrants battled for the few jobs available—Greeks and Syrians from the Middle East, Welsh and Italians from Europe and negroes from the south.
We resumed our pilgrimage northward, winding among the mountains of Pennsylvania through the barren communities of Moon, Beaver Falls, and Ellwood. By the time we reached New Castle, our energy and funds were both exhausted, and we debarked to face our new reality.
We arrived in a vacuum created by the closing of the local steel mill, and nearly half the community depended on public relief in some form. However, work programs like the WPA and CCC had relocated many of the town’s able-bodied men to construction sites away from town, so when the new Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Company opened its doors, Mother and other women from town found a few hours of employment each week.
The depression still raged. Mother waited tables at Dominic’s Diner, mended clothes, and cleaned offices. When winter arrived, we ate from cans in our thickest coats in our basement room as the night sent frigid fingers down the chimney to pick from our pockets any last shred of warmth. Eventually, Mother found full employment at the factory. I made new friends at school, and life fell a little lighter on our shoulders.
The box lay undisturbed for years.
At seventeen I fell violently, agonizingly, wonderfully in love with Sandra Shannon. Her legs were long and smooth and perfect, and blonde hair swirled about her head like golden silk. I contrived to sit behind her in study hall, and when she wore her hair up, the light shining through the golden strands at the nape of her neck sent spasms of sweet torment across the ganglions of my architecture.
But I was neither handsome nor athletic, the traits which tempt girls of such an age. Each day I lay in wait to greet her with “Hi, Shannon.” And each time she would look up in blank surprise and respond: “Oh, hi,” followed by a smile which never reached her eyes.
After school she would vanish into a cluster of fawning older boys, zooming off in cars to the soda shop or ball field or wherever older boys took their trophies.
It seemed my life could not go on without her, and I dreamt of leaping off the railroad bridge near the fireworks factory into the Beaver River. Instead, I unearthed the box and went so far as to insert the key in the lock. But Mother insisted life would go on and true love would not pass me by.
And when Linda Longyear moved in down the street in the spring, I admitted Mother probably was right. I had passed the first test, and realized how foolish it would have been to waste such a gift on a passing fancy.
Two years later, Mother was dead. A stroke, they said, as she worked on the line at the fireworks factory. Never knew what hit her, they said. Better this way than dragging on, they said. They said. I raged at the world for taking her and at God for abandoning me. But the wrong could not be righted.
Grandmother and Grandfather were gone—there was no turning back. The rent still came due every month and I still needed to eat. The box lay on the dining table for a week, but each time I resolved to open it, Mother whispered in my ear, “Not yet.”
Without my notice, Mother and I had become part of a community. Neighbors frequently invited me to dinner and sent me home with food enough for days. My landlord agreed to forego my rent until I could find decent work.
My friends from school were no more affluent than I, and our mutual poverty drew us close. We played ball, sneaked into movies, and chased girls, most of whom seemed to enjoy the sport as much as we.
By this time, the depression had eased its grip, and I took my turn waiting tables at the diner, begging for a few hours of work each week at the factory and delivering newspapers. I worked nearly every daylight hour, but somehow the time passed quickly and I, like Mother, began putting aside a few pennies each day for the future. For college. And I realized that the second test had not been so hard as I thought it would be.
Eventually, I earned a degree. I married. And at age twenty-eight, just as I feared my life’s adventure would be buried in the mountainous backwoods of Pennsylvania, I was offered a job in Pittsburgh. Virginia and I struck out for big city life, where rumor had it there was a chicken in every pot and the streets were paved with gold.
Suddenly, life was large. The summer sun was warm; strangers smiled and spoke; we collected friends. We had the wherewithal for books, movies, and restaurant meals. We cheered the Pirates at Forbes Field and took long walks up and down the hills of our Beechwood neighborhood. The future spread infinitely before us, shining with hope.
A year later, the company had gone glimmering, and with it my job. I was set adrift in a suddenly indifferent world, with no employment, no prospects and my own child on the way.
I brandished my resume and answered ads. I walked the streets knocking on doors, but one by one they were closed again. I was underqualified, I was overqualified, maybe next month, maybe next year. As days passed, irritation turned to anxiety and finally to panic.
I retrieved the box from its hiding place at the back of the closet, hoping for a windfall to stave off disaster, if even for a while. But there would be medical expenses soon, my wife reminded me. Greater need. We should save the box for that.
Surely other jobs existed in a metropolis such as this, and I determined to find them. I arranged interviews, stood in unemployment lines and ate at soup kitchens, leaving with pockets stuffed with rolls, small boxes of cereal, jam packets. It became a game between us—what small delights I could pilfer or smuggle out to brighten our cold dinners.
Within weeks, my industry had paid dividends, and a good paying job presented itself. We survived. And, eventually, prospered.
Many times in my life I have held the box in my hands and challenged fate. And each time I found it easier to resist its call, more sure of my own strength.
This evening I sit in a nursing home, the sun serenading me through the window in a thousand hues of red and gold as it kisses the horizon. My life is nearly over, and it has been good.
As a young boy, I was sure the box was magic—some ancient backwoods spell to ward off misfortune, and I feared the box as much as I feared Grandfather that day.
Later, I believed the box contained money—some secret hoard Grandfather had scrabbled together over the decades. Later still, I thought it to be gold or stocks bought in the first years of General Electric or Sears, Roebuck & Co.
And when I suspected that even these were beyond the means of my grandparents, I was sure it was a Bible, and I resisted opening it for fear of disappointment. At times, I believed it was empty.
Yesterday, I opened the box.
Over the years, I’ve had no fewer and no more crises in my life than the next man, but I have survived each and prospered. Whether Grandfather was wise or foolish or simply addled in his mind when he conceived this legacy, it has nonetheless served its purpose.
And in a few moments, I will pass the box on to my own grandson. When I am finished writing this story, I will fold it and slip it into the box to replace Grandfather’s letter to me. For you, Jason. May you never read this letter in need.
I hold the box in my lap one last time. I run my fingers once again around the rough wood, feeling traces of the tools where they have left their marks, much like the mark Grandfather has left on me.
My eyes wander again to the western sky, where the sun now casts its brilliant reflection on the clouds from beyond the horizon—a sailor’s delight, promising a bright new tomorrow.
Bob Beach has been published in the Saturday Evening Post, Penny Shorts, Dime Show Review, and Deadline. He holds BSc and MFA degrees from Bowling Green State University.