From Marrowbone Marble Company
The ground was the color of rust. Holes the size of half-dollars were every where, some encircled by tiny mounds of dirt. This was hard earth, nearly frozen. Dried-up leaves and spruce needles turned brown. A hush had befallen the land, as still as the inside of a coffin. Such quiet recalled a time before timber had framed houses and a church, before plumbing hooked in hot and cold, before electricity snaked conduit. The trees slept. The creek was iced over.
At the back of the hollow, there was piled ash and shingle. Sheet metal lengths. Two-by-fours at peculiar angles, their surfaces bubbled and cracked and black. There was a furnace stack, fifty feet high and made from fieldstone. It towered above all that fire had taken, but its mortar was crumbling. A strong wind would soon enough knock it down and stir the ash and frayed black picture-frame wire and lamp- shade bones below.
Snow came. It landed silent on a thick sheath of glass, the size and shape of a backyard pond. This glass had run molten, but now it was cooled, its edges rounded, frozen in rolls. A woman walked a circle around it. She held in her hands a Bolex 16mm movie camera. She filmed the glass. Thought for a moment she had seen a fish eye looking up at her from beneath.
This tract of land had known many names. Bonecutter Ridge, Marrowbone Cut, the Land of Canaan.
A German hog butcher named Knochenbauer had settled it in 1798. He entered into common-law marriage with an Indian woman and they raised children and grandchildren and made their surname Bonecutter. The Bonecutters lived on these five hundred West Virginia acres for 150 years. They were hard, proud people who prospered some times and went hungry others. They witnessed love and murder, fire and flood, until only two remained. It was left to them to hold on to the land. They did so with the sure grip that hill people possess.
Loyal Ledford came to this place in 1948, and for a time people again walked the ground. They followed paths beaten by the feet of those who’d walked the same routes before them. House to church to meeting hall to woods-edge, and back to house. The people here made something real and good. They built with their hands. They put down roots. Ledford put his in deep. But his blood carried memories and his temper ran hot. In his dreams, hollows were flooded and people hid in holes they’d dug in the ground.
Ledford was apart from this world, and yet the people followed him. “Tell you what,” he once said to them. “We can stir the creek and wake up the trees. We can be a people freed.”
A Line in The Dirt
Six brick chimney stacks stood at a hundred feet each. This was the
Mann Glass Company, a ten-acre factory tract straddling the C&O Line
at Huntington’s western edge. Machine-made wide-and narrow-mouth
bottles had been blown inside since 1915, and later, prescription and proprietary bottles. Eli Mann had opened the doors of a handblown specialty shop here in 1908. Now, at ninety, he owned a factory with one thousand employees and two 300-ton furnaces.
Inside, Loyal Ledford worked the swing shift, four to midnight. He’d done so since graduating high school in June, and before him, his father had done the same.
Ledford was a long, sturdy young man with big hands. At thirteen, he was a Mann Glass batch boy. At eighteen, he bid on and got his job as furnace tender. It suited him. He was careful to respect the fire, as heat will sometimes break even a young man down. Inside a glass factory, a furnace roared at 3,000 degrees.
Ledford squinted hard. Checked the gauge and eyeballed the furnace fire one last time through the barrier window. As was his custom at the end of a shift, Ledford stared at the fire until his peripherals went white. Then he closed his eyes and watched the little swirls dance across the black stage of his eyelids. He pushed his scoop shovel into the corner with his boot tip and walked blind down the dark east aisle. The wall bulbs had surged again. Popped open like fireworks, muted by the rest of the racket inside. Ledford clocked off at a minute past midnight.
Saturday turned into Sunday, and Ledford sat alone in the dark in front of his work locker. The sweat sheen on his body dried up. His wet-collared shirt turned cold and stuck to him. He coughed. Pulled off his split-leather work gloves. They rode high, all the way to the elbows.
Inside the factory cafeteria, Ledford looked for Rachel. She was the plant nurse on the four-to-midnight shift, and they’d been eating together for two months. Rachel’s mother was Mary Ball, formerly Mary Mann, Eli Mann’s daughter. Rachel’s father was Lucius Ball, plant manager.
She was three years Ledford’s senior. She’d grown up easy in a big house on Wiltshire Hill. He’d grown up hard in a little one next to the scrapyard on Thirteenth Street West.
She was easy to spot. Her posture was spike straight and her hair was coal black. Ledford followed her from the milk bin to the table, put his tray down across from hers. “What say, Jean Parker?” he said.
“What say, Pittsburgh,”Rachel answered. They’d had a date to see The Pittsburgh Kid a week prior. After, she told him he looked like Billy Conn, the Pittsburgh Kid himself. He told her she looked like Jean Parker, only younger. They’d kissed.
“Tired?” he asked.
“A little.” She wore a purple flower on the breast of her nurse’s uniform. Her silver watch was loose on her wrist, thin as twine.
“Hungry, I take it.” Ledford cut his steak, as she did hers. They always ate the same meal. Steak, eggs, chocolate cake. It was the second thing he’d noticed about her.
“Did you read about the Navy destroyer? The torpedo attack?” Rachel chewed while she talked, blocked his view with her napkin.
“Off of Iceland? Didn’t sink it though, did they?”
She liked to talk about the war raging in Europe and in China. He didn’t. Always, with wars, Ledford had liked to read, not talk. And so he did, in the paper, each day as he ate breakfast before class. But mostly, his reading came by way of books. History books, like the big old red one that had been his father’s. The Growth of the American Republic it was called, and Ledford had read it thrice before enrolling at Marshall College as a history major.
The sound of stacked glass shifting echoed loud from the kitchen. Mack Wells walked past. He was the swing-shift janitor and the only black man at the plant. He nodded to them and they nodded back. Rachel had bandaged his hand the night before. He’d been scorched by a valve exhaust.
“Mack Wells’ wife is pregnant,” Rachel said.
“How do you know?”
“He told me while I wrapped his hand.” She’s due at springtime.”
“Is that right?” He shook hot sauce onto his eggs.
“Yes.” She’d stopped chewing and clasped her hands together on the table. “I think springtime is the finest of the seasons for a baby, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t look up at her. His pinbone sirloin was cut to gristle.
“What season were you born? I know you’ve told me, but I’ve forgotten.”
“July the eighth,” he said. He looked over at Mack Wells, who sat alone, his back to them. A line of sweat traced the spine of his coveralls.
“A summer baby,” Rachel said. “Your mother must have hated carrying that weight in the heat.”
Rachel wanted to get married and she wanted to have a baby. Sometimes, she talked in ways that betrayed those facts. But when it went quiet, as now, she quit her talking and let it lie. They didn’t yet speak on serious things. She hadn’t told him of her mother’s cancer, and she knew not to ask much on his family, his boyhood. He’d asked her on their first date if she knew what had happened to his mother and father, his older brother. Yes, she’d answered. “Well,” Ledford had told her, “good. We don’t have to talk about it then.”
By all accounts, Bill Ledford had been a good husband and father, a baseball star and a glassblower from Mingo County who gave what he could to his wife and children and gave the rest to the bartender and the bootlegger.
In August of 1935, Bill Ledford killed his wife and oldest son when he fell asleep drunk at the wheel of his Model A Pickup. Young Loyal had liked a hard wind, and so he rode in the bed. His brother preferred the warm space between his parents in the closed cab. One boy was thrown free and one wasn’t. Loyal was thirteen when it happened. Eli Mann, his father’s old boss, promptly bought the Ledford home from the bank. He told them keep their mouths shut about it, and he told the same to people poking around about the boy who lived there alone. Eli Mann gave Ledford a job, something to get up for every morning.
Ledford picked up the bone he’d been staring at and gnawed it. Rachel had walked away. She bussed her tray and approached Mack Wells, who stood and said, “Miz Ball.”
“No need to get up, I just wanted to check on that hand.”
“It’s just fine. That salve done the trick.”
She told him to change the dressing when he got home, and then she came back over to Ledford.
“You eat like a caveman,” she said. “You chew with your mouth open.”
She smiled and her eyelids got heavy. Ledford wiped his mouth and loosed a cigarette from its pack. The matchbook was damp with sweat, and it took four swipes to flame.
“I can make us a pot of coffee,” Rachel said. She had a new apartment on Eleventh Avenue. Lucius Ball had wanted her to stay under his roof, but after nursing school and a couple of Mann paychecks, she’d packed her things.
“Watered down or thick?” he asked.
She watched him through the smoke. Everything about Ledford seemed older than he was. “I bought a percolator just yesterday, and I’ll make it any way you like.”
Outside, the rain was picking up. It beat a chorus on the roof above them, and the people eating raised their voices to hear one another, and the dishwashers slept standing up.
Ledford stood in the entryway of the small apartment. He hung his wet coat and watched as she walked away barefoot on the hardwood. The place smelled of women’s powders and hand cream. Such a scent reminded him of his mother’s room and the small cracked mirror she sat in front of all those years before. Putting her face on, she called it. As a boy, he’d sneak up behind her when she sat in front of her mirror. But she always heard him and scooped him into her lap and tickled him. She claimed that the ticklish among us were guilty of crimes. Over his laughter, she’d ask, “You been stealin sugar, sweetie?” and then she’d hug him to her neck, and all was still and safe.
Rachel brought him a hand towel to pat dry. It was fancy, monogram-stitched, and Ledford hated to use it. She turned from him again and walked past the sofa to the kitchen. “Should I take off my shoes?”he hollered.
“If you want to,” she said.
He did not. He walked to the fireplace mantel and studied the photographs there. They were lined up for the length of it. They told a story. Babies dressed in christening gowns and men with sly grins and bunny-eared fingers behind the heads of their gentle wives.
“Do you like music?” Rachel asked him. She’d started the percolator and was crouching at the cabinet beside him.
Her Philco had a phonograph right on top. She pulled a record from the cabinet and set the needle down. “Do you like Claude Thornhill?”
“Never heard of the man,” he said. Piano keys tinkled soft over the quiet hum of clarinets. Ledford’s neck and ears were getting hot.
When the horns came in, he nearly jumped out of his socks. She laughed at him, brought her hand to her mouth to stifle it. He rested his elbow on the mantle, knocking over two framed photographs. When he went to fix them, Rachel grabbed his hands in hers. “Do you want to dance with me?” she asked.
When she laid her head against his chest, it seemed to Rachel that she’d danced with Ledford a hundred times before.
Ledford was trying not to upchuck his steak and eggs and chocolate cake. He’d not held a woman the likes of this one before.
“Do you know what this song is called?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but only swallowed instead.
“It’s called ‘Snowfall,’” Rachel told him. They swayed. He looked at her hand in his, then down the length of her.
Barefoot in her nurse’s uniform, she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever beheld.