JUBILEE’S JOURNEY

The Wyattsville Series – Book Two

As It Was

On an icy cold November morning in 1956, Bartholomew Jones died in the Poynter Coal Mine. His death came as no surprise to anyone. He was only one of the countless men forever lost to the mine. They were men loved and mourned by their families, but to the world they were faceless, nameless people, not worthy of mention in the Charleston Times.

Morning after morning those men descended into the belly of the mountain, into a world of black dust that clung to their skin with a fierceness that no amount of scrubbing could wash away. In the winter the sky was still black when they climbed into the trolley cart that carried them into the mountain. And when they returned twelve hours later, daylight had already come and gone.

None of the men complained. They were the lucky ones, they told one another. They were the ones who slept easy. Their family had food on the table and coal for the stove when winter blasted its way across the ridge of the mountain.

At one time Bartholomew thought he could beat the odds, break the chain of events that carried itself through generation after generation. His daddy had grown up in the mines, starting when he was barely big enough to carry a bucket of scrap coal from the chute to the hopper. His granddaddy had done the same. It was the way of life, a dirty, lung-polluting job handed down from grandfather to father and ultimately to son.

But Bartholomew had different plans.

In 1932 he left home to join the navy. “Go,” his daddy said happily. “Go and don’t ever look back.” A life built on a hunched back and blackened skin was not something any man wished for his son, and even though it meant he might never see the boy again he was glad.

After two months of basic training Bartholomew was assigned to the Norfolk Navy Yard and for the next six years he loaded and unloaded machine parts on the ships that sailed in and out of the port.

Norfolk was where he met and married Ruth.

It was love at first sight. Ruth was in town visiting her sister, and as fate would have it he happened to be standing in back of them while the girls waited to buy tickets to see “The Big Broadcast” with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. To Bartholomew’s eye Ruth was far prettier than Dorothy Lamour, and he said so ten minutes after they’d struck up a conversation.

“Aw, go on,” she’d said with a smile.

As they eventually made their way down the aisle of the strand, Bartholomew followed the girls. Before they’d gone nine rows in Ruth pointed to a spot with three empty seats together. “Let’s sit here,” she said. She looked back at Bartholomew, an invitation in her smile.

After the movie Bartholomew took Ruth and her sister, Anita, for ice cream sodas. Before it came time to pay the check, he was in love. Forever, eternally, and deeply in love. With her soft brown eyes and lips that fairly begged to be kissed, Ruth was as warm as a wool coat on a blustery day.

Anita was the exact opposite.  She frowned for the entire two hours they lingered over sodas, and on three different occasions tapped her finger against the face of her wristwatch indicating it was time to go. The glares she gave Bartholomew were so icy they froze in midair.

When Bartholomew asked Ruth if she’d like to go to dinner the next evening, Anita spoke up.

“I’ll not hear of it!” she snapped. “The Walker girls are not the type to date total strangers!”

“Oh, Anita,” Ruth said with a laugh. “Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy. Bartholomew’s not a stranger.  Why, we’ve spent the entire day with him.” She turned to Bartholomew and told him she would be delighted to join him for dinner. From that day on they were inseparable. Two months later, on the day Bartholomew was discharged from the Navy, they were married. Anita, who was Ruth’s maid of honor, never once cracked a smile.

Bartholomew got a job making twenty-eight dollars a week at a warehouse where he and thirty-seven other fellows crated replacement parts for tractors. Confident that good times were here to stay, he and Ruth moved into a two-room walk-up and bought a used bedroom set and a brand new radio.

Nine months later the warehouse closed its doors without paying the men their final week’s wages.

“Don’t worry,” Bartholomew told Ruth. “I’ll get a job. A week, two at the most.”

But other than strength and a willing heart, he had no skills. A month passed, and he found nothing. First they sold the radio; then the bedroom set. After that they moved to a furnished room so small Ruth had to walk sideways to climb onto her side of the bed.

For three months Bartholomew looked for a job. He left the room early in the morning and returned long after dark. He went from door to door asking for work. “I’ll do anything,” he said, “wash dishes, mop the floor, scrub toilets.” But he always got the same answer. “Nothing right now, try again next week.” At night he’d drag himself home, ashamed of returning empty-handed but so weary he could barely manage to slide one foot in front of the other.

Ruth stretched what little money they had and made every penny count. She ate the tiniest scraps of food and used a single tea bag for a week, leaving it to soak in the hot water just seconds before pulling it out and setting it aside for the next day. There were no more movies, no dinners at restaurants, no ice cream sodas. Many nights they shared a half can of Campbell’s soup. Ruth would eat two or three spoonful’s, then suggest Bartholomew finish the bowl. By that time she had begun to look pale and hollow-eyed. Several mornings in a row she could not hold down even the weak tea she’d brewed. But when Bartholomew asked what was wrong, she simply smiled and shrugged it off.

When he finally insisted, Ruth told him she was carrying a child. That’s when Bartholomew made the fateful decision—the decision he swore he’d never make. It was the one place where he knew he could find work. The same work his daddy and granddaddy had done.

They packed one small bag and walked to the railroad station. Using their last three dollars, Bartholomew bought two tickets to Coal Fork, West Virginia.

That spring Ruth gave birth to a baby boy, and they named him Paul.

“He’ll grow to be a man of wisdom,” Bartholomew said. “As soon as he’s old enough to speak I’ll teach him what he needs to know so that one day he’ll leave this mountain and never look back.”

Before the boy was three Bartholomew’s hands had become blackened and his soul weary, so it fell to Ruth to teach the boy and she did.

The second year Ruth planted a garden behind the house. She grew corn, tomatoes, string beans, and summer squash. When the bounty was harvested, she planted turnips and potatoes. She planted more than they could eat in a summer, and when there was plenty she cooked the extra and packed it in mason jars sealed with a layer of wax. She continued to do it year after year, so Paul grew healthy and strong. She nourished the child’s body with the food she’d grown and his mind with words and stories from the books she loved.

Then the summer Paul turned nine, Ruth again grew pale and queasy. Most mornings she’d turn away from the strong coffee sitting atop the stove and drink only a cup of weak tea. Even then, she’d start to gag moments after the second swallow.

“Do you think possibly…?”  Bartholomew glanced at her stomach.

“After all these years, I doubt it,” Ruth answered laughingly. But by November she knew for certain. By then her breasts were swollen and tender. She could not stand the smell of tomatoes, and even the briefest glance of raw meat made her retch. In late December Ruth felt the baby move for the first time. It was different from the way Paul had moved. He’d shifted himself slowly from side to side in movements that were barely perceptible. This baby kicked at Ruth’s ribs as if it were anxious to be free.

“This one is certain to be another boy,” Ruth said, laughing, “and a feisty one at that.”

Pleased with such an idea, Bartholomew began thinking of what he would call the boy.

Bartholomew trusted that choosing a name from the Bible brought special blessings, so each night he sat in the rocking chair and turned page after page looking for the right name. With Paul he had wished for only wisdom, but that was before he spent nine long years hacking bits of coal from the hardened walls of the mine. Nine days later Bartholomew settled on the name Jeremiah. This boy would be named after a man who could look to the future and be wise in the ways of the world. Surely he would be a child not destined to spend his days in the mine as Bartholomew did.

“Such a big name for a little baby,” Ruth said, but since it was Bartholomew’s will she accepted it. That winter Ruth bought several yards of bunting at the company store and hemmed in into four soft baby blankets. In the center of each one, she embroidered a large “J”.

In February, two days after a blizzard passed through West Virginia and left the mountain covered in snow so deep the mine closed down, Ruth’s labor pains began. For almost forty hours she was wracked with pain, and by the time the baby passed through the birth canal her eyes had rolled to the back of her head.

“No!” Bartholomew screamed and lifted her into his arms. “Please, Ruth, please don’t leave me.” He held her for hours as little Paul wiped the baby clean, wrapped her in a warm blanket, and placed her in the same cradle they’d used for him.

Just before dawn, Ruth’s eyelids fluttered open and she asked, “Jeremiah—is he okay?”

For the first time in many hours Bartholomew smiled. “Your prediction was wrong. Jeremiah is a girl.” He placed the baby in Ruth’s arms and sat beside them. “I think maybe we’d best come up with a new name.”

Ruth looked up at her husband. He was so strong and yet so gentle. He was a man who asked for little and gave much. She thought back on how this baby had kicked, how she’d struggled to be free. Paul was like Bartholomew, strong but gentle. This child was stronger. She had a lust for life and a fierce determination to live it. She’d waved her tiny arms and legs and celebrated life even before the time had come. The words Ruth spoke were her gift to Bartholomew.

“We’ll name her Jubilee,” she said, “because this child is a celebration of our love.”

Bartholomew smiled and nodded his approval.

And so it was.

Cruel Winter

They called the child Jubie for short. Right from the start she was small, undersized even for a girl. Whereas Paul had been a content child who slept for hours after being nursed, Jubilee was a red-faced, squalling bundle of energy who cried through the night and slept during the day.

Before she was a year old, Ruth could see the girl was the spitting image of Anita.

In the winter of Jubilee’s first birthday, a plague of influenza came to Coal Fork. First folks stopped going to church; then children dropped out of school. The company store closed down for a full two weeks, and half the men who worked the mine stopped showing up. The men who did continue to work, the men like Bartholomew, carried heavier loads and worked longer hours.

The week before Christmas Ruth began coughing. “Just a cold,” she told herself and continued with her daily chores. After three days she could no longer hold food in her stomach and was weakened to the point where she had to sit and rest after walking across the room. Sitting in the straight-backed kitchen chair, she’d explain to Paul how to make the biscuits and stoke the stove.

When Bartholomew returned from the mine a warm dinner sat atop the stove just as it always did, but Ruth was in bed.

“Mama’s not feeling so good,” the boy told Bartholomew.

After a long day of hunching over a pick and shovel, Bartholomew was weary to the point where he could barely lift the spoon to his mouth and he had no strength to question the boy.

Day after day Paul cooked the food and tended to his baby sister. “You’re such a good boy,” Ruth gasped, but even speaking those few words exhausted her and she fell back into her pillow.

Finally one night the boy went against what Ruth had asked of him. When Bartholomew sat down at the table, Paul said, “Mama told me I ain’t supposed to worry you with this, but she’s real bad sick. She don’t get out of bed no more.”

Bartholomew looked at the boy quizzically. “Since when?”

“Monday.”

“Monday?” Bartholomew repeated. “Why, that’s five days back!”

Bartholomew left the food and hurried into the bedroom. Leaning close to Ruth he placed his hand on her forehead. Despite the coal dust still clinging to his fingers, he could feel the heat of her skin.

“Good God!” he shouted. He turned quickly and headed for the door of the cabin. As he passed through the kitchen he gave Paul an angry glare. “You should’ve told me sooner, boy,” he said. “Your mama’s got the fever!” With that he slammed out the door.

Bartholomew ran three miles down the mountain, once sliding partway into the creek bed and twice stumbling to his knees. When he reached Doctor Hawkins’ house, every light was turned off and it was obvious they’d all gone to bed. Bartholomew pounded on the door with such ferocity that lights popped on in the house next door as well as Doctor Hawkins’ bedroom. “You’ve got to come right now,” he said. “Ruth’s come down with the fever!”

It seemed the doctor pulled trousers, boots, and a jacket over his pajamas at a pace too slow for even a snail. “Hurry,” Bartholomew urged repeatedly.

Riding in a car the return trip up the mountain took nowhere near as long as his journey down. But the moment they entered the house, Bartholomew could hear the wheeze of Ruth’s breath.

“Get a pot of water boiling,” the doctor ordered. Bartholomew waved a finger at Paul, and minutes later the boy had the coal fire blazing and a full pot of water atop the stove. Bartholomew followed the doctor to the bedroom and remained there, his hand clamped tight around Ruth’s. The doctor wiped Ruth’s face, arms, and legs with clean diapers dipped in icy cold water, and when the heat coming from her skin lessened he gave her pills to swallow and moved her to a sitting position so she could breathe in wisps of steam from the boiling water.

For three days Bartholomew did not go to the mine. He sat beside his wife repeating prayer after prayer, beseeching God to save her from the fate that had fallen upon so many others.  It was Paul who kept a pot of water boiling and brought it to his mama’s bedside hour after hour. It was Paul who cooked the food and fed the toddler who had begun to cling to his leg like a koala bear.

On the fourth morning when Ruth could sit up and sip a lukewarm broth and sassafras tea, Bartholomew returned to the mine. Although Ruth’s temperature went back to normal and she claimed that she felt almost as good as new, the truth was she had become frail and weak. For the remainder of that winter, Paul stayed home from school. Once Bartholomew had gone off to the mine, Paul did the cooking, cleaning, and tending to Jubilee. Ruth told him how to do each task, and he followed her directions so precisely that Bartholomew never thought to question the change.

When the weather finally turned warm Ruth could sit outside and a hint of color gradually returned to her cheeks, but the weakness never left. Her back ached constantly, and at times taking a breath seemed to require more effort than she could muster. Although she did small bits of cooking there was no garden that year and the care of Jubilee, who was not yet two, was left to Paul.

Jubilee learned to call Paul’s name whenever she wanted something. “All,” she’d say, holding out a cup that needed to be filled. She hadn’t yet learned to say the first letter of his name, and that’s when Paul began teaching her.

“Pa…” He said repeatedly. “Pa…”  Paul put his lips together, then rounded them open as he pushed the sound out emphasizing the P. “Pha..aul.  Now you try it.”

Mimicking what her brother had done, Jubilee scrunched her face, squeezed her mouth closed, then spit out, “All.”

That summer he worked on getting her to say his name but to no avail. He continued to be All. Paul read the same books Ruth had read to him and the words came quickly to Jubilee, but the sound of a P was never there. “All, leese lay wif me,” she’d say.

“You mean, ‘Paul, please play with me’?” he’d ask tolerantly. Then he’d stop what he was doing and follow along to see what she had in mind.

On the second Tuesday of September Paul did not return to school when the other children did. The week prior Ruth had collapsed on the kitchen floor as she stood there trying to slice apples for a pie. “Mama!” he’d screamed, then lifted her from the floor and carried her to the bedroom. By that time Ruth was thin as a skeleton, and her bones were lighter than those of a sparrow.

“Please don’t tell your daddy,” she begged Paul. “He’s already got enough worry.”

“But, Mama,” Paul argued, “maybe Doctor Hawkins can—”

“There’s nothing.” Ruth grimaced, remembering the blood-stained hankie she had tucked in the pocket of her apron.

That evening Paul told his daddy what had happened.

“Is that the honest truth?” Bartholomew asked. “Because your mama don’t look sick.”

“It’s just pretend, Daddy. That’s all. Mama puts pink stuff on her face so you won’t know. But when she coughs, blood comes out of her mouth.”

“Lord God,” Bartholomew said with a moan as he dropped down into a chair. “How long has this—?”

“A long time,” Paul answered tearfully. “A real long time.”

And Thus It Happened…

Ruth died of tuberculosis in early December. The hard part of winter that crusted the mountain with layers of ice and snow came early that year, and with it came the heartache of reality. On the day Bartholomew returned from work to find Ruth gone, he howled with such heartache that it shook the mountain. It was said that men working the night shift deep in the belly of the mine felt the earth tremble beneath their feet.

Paul was the one who explained the situation to Jubilee. Although the two-year-old girl’s eyes often grew teary and saddened, she was too young to accept that gone meant gone forever. For months afterward Jubilee would speak of Ruth as if she’d be back momentarily.

“Where’s Mama?” she’d ask, then look around with a puzzled expression.

“Mama died,” Paul would explain patiently. “She’s gone to heaven.”

“Oh. Okay,” Jubilee would answer. Then she’d turn back to whatever she’d been doing.

Unfortunately, Paul did understand. And at times the weight of understanding was more than a boy of eleven could carry. The day his mother breathed her last, he stumbled into the woods behind the house, sat on a felled tree, and gave way to all the fear and sorrow he’d held inside. It started with a silent stream of tears, then, feeding upon the ugly truth, it grew into heartbreaking sobs heard a mile away. Lost in a misery that went far beyond words, he sat with his head dropped between his knees and his back hunched. When he heard the small voice it startled him.

“Don’t cry, Paul.”

He lifted his head and gave a weak smile. “Jubie, you said Paul!”

She nodded and smiled. “Paul,” she repeated.

He pulled his baby sister to his chest and held her there for such a long time their heartbeats mingled and bonded them one to the other for the rest of their lives—however long or short that time might be.

With Ruth now gone, Bartholomew became a lost soul. He moved through the days putting one foot in front of the other and thinking about nothing. He rose early in the morning and went off to the mine. When he returned there was always a warm supper atop the stove, but both children were sleeping. On Sundays the mine closed so Bartholomew washed the coal dust from his hands and face, and with his children trailing behind the pitiful threesome trod the dirt road of the mountain and took their seats in the last row of the Pilgrim Faith Church. With the last “Amen” still hanging in the air, Bartholomew took Paul by the hand and started for home.

In the five years that followed he never really came to know his daughter. Some believe he held the child responsible for her mother’s death; others think his soul simply died along with Ruth and he no longer had a heart capable of love.

For the next two years, Paul was not in school. In places like Coal Fork, mining families came and went. Children were there one year, gone the next, so no one questioned the boy’s absence. It was simply assumed that his family, like so many others, had moved on to a place where there was more work, better pay, or less danger.

In those years Paul became both mother and father to Jubilee. He taught her to read and write, he taught her numbers, and explained how the money Daddy put in the sugar jar each week paid for food and clothes. He showed her how to make biscuits and pull weeds from the garden. Patiently and lovingly he shared with her all the things Ruth had taught him.

 When Jubilee turned four, he carried the girl down the mountain on his back and returned to school. Jubilee was smaller than the other children but she was smarter, and in that first year she jumped from a group learning their ABCs to a class adding two-digit numbers.

Paul was not so fortunate. In the two years of being away, his earlier classmates had learned new things and moved on. It shamed him that he now had to sit with a group of children who were both younger and smaller.

One evening when Bartholomew came in from the mine, Paul was at the kitchen table working on long division problems he couldn’t seem to grasp. Bartholomew washed his hands, carried his supper plate to the table, and sat alongside Paul.

“Whatcha working on?” he asked.

“Long division,” Paul answered. “I just ain’t getting this.”

“Let’s see,” Bartholomew said. “Maybe I can help.”

Wide-eyed, Paul turned to his father. “You know long division?”

“I sure enough do.” A faint trace of fond remembrance twinkled in Bartholomew’s eyes. “You might not think it by what I am today, but I got a high school diploma.”

That evening father and son sat together and talked long into the night. Bartholomew told Paul how he’d left the mountain with intentions never to come back. “Once you get a speck of coal dust on your hands, you’re doomed forever,” he said remorsefully. “There’s no escape.”

For a short while Bartholomew forgot the sadness that was his constant companion and allowed the muscles in his face to relax. With an expression that was the closest he’d come to smiling in more than two years, he shared stories of the life he’d had in Virginia and how he’d met Ruth at a movie show.

“Your mama was with her sister,” he said, “and if Anita had her way, they’d have gone on without me. But the minute your mama and I set eyes on each other, we knew.”

The mention of an aunt Paul knew nothing about prompted him to ask, “How come Mama never spoke of Aunt Anita?”

“They had a falling out years ago,” Bartholomew answered wistfully. “Anita, she was a lot different than your mama.” As the memories settled in, he repeated, “A whole lot different.”

That was the night Bartholomew elicited an oath from Paul: a promise that Paul would continue to study until he was smart enough to leave the mountain and find work elsewhere.

“Swear,” Bartholomew said, “that you’ll never step foot inside of a mine.”

“I swear,” Paul replied, understanding that it was a promise he would have to keep until the day he died.

That night Bartholomew pulled his son into his arms and held him closer than the boy had thought possible. There were no words spoken, but Paul could smell the black dust of the mine mixed with love, regret, and sadness.

Two years later there was a knock on the door late in the evening. It came at just about the time Paul expected his daddy to come home from the mine. It was Harold Brumann standing at the door with Bartholomew’s hard hat in his hand.

“I’m real sorry to bring you this bad news,” he said. “A trolley cart broke loose, and your daddy was killed along with two other men.”

Paul stood there looking expressionlessly into the face of the man who spoke.

“I brung you his hat and pail ‘cause I was thinking maybe you’d want to—”

“Daddy’s dead?”

Harold Brumann nodded. “It happened quick. The cart broke loose and came at them faster than—”

“Daddy’s dead?” Paul repeated.

Brumann nodded again.

Paul reached out and took the hard hat and lunch pail from Brumann’s hands. “Thank you for telling me,” he said and closed the door.

That night he again sat with seven-year-old Jubilee and explained how Daddy had gone to be with Mama in heaven.

“What about us?” she said tearfully. “Who’s going to take care of us?”

“I am,” Paul answered.

Jubilee cried for hours on end, and each time she voiced the same fear of who would take care of them. The questions went from a simple unadorned “why” to concerns that stretched far into the future. They circled around and around with each answer generating another question. Was Paul going to work in the mine? If he did work in the mine, would he die also? Did Mama die because she worked in the mine?

“I’m not going to die,” Paul said. “I’ll always be here to take care of you.” His voice was soft but reassuring until at long last Jubilee’s tears stopped.

That night after she had gone to sleep, Paul sat at the table and counted up exactly how much money they had. He tried to figure how he could make it last long enough for him to finish his final two years of high school. Maybe if he was lucky and could get some odd jobs, he could stretch it out to six or eight months. But two years?

When Paul spread his money on the table and counted it up, he figured on staying in the cabin they’d been living in ever since he was born. He didn’t figure on the fact that the mining company owned the cabin just as they owned everything else in town.

And he sure as hell didn’t figure that less than a month later the foreman would come knocking on his door.

“This ain’t my doing,” the foreman said. “It’s company rules. You gotta be working for Poynter Mining, or you gotta move out.”

“My daddy worked at that mine for almost seventeen years!” Paul argued, but he could just as well have saved his breath. As far as Poynter Mining was concerned he was nothing more than a squatter…unless he went to work at the mine.

 That night responsibility weighed heavily on Paul’s shoulders. He had Jubilee to take care of and he had made two promises, both of which he intended to keep. The first was to his mother when he swore he watch over Jubilee no matter what. The second was to his father when he swore never to step foot into the mine.

Two days later Paul and Jubilee walked down off the mountain, never to return again. He carried with him a small bag with a few clothes, three photographs, the family Bible, a remembrance of Bartholomew, and five faded letters he’d found in his mama’s keepsake box. They were the last letters she’d received from Anita. No return address, but it was postmarked Wyattsville, Virginia.

Many Miles Away

No one knew where Hurt McAdams got his name. They only knew that he lived up to it. George McAdams, Hurt’s daddy, was said to be the meanest man in Pittsburgh and every bit as hard as the iron he welded into grillwork day after day. When Hurt was fourteen his mama had all she could take of George and walked out the door, leaving Hurt and his mean-ass daddy behind. When she disappeared as suddenly as she did, neighbors speculated that George had done something unthinkable to Brenda McAdams. But the simple truth was she’d hitchhiked across nine states and settled in Arizona.

By then Hurt had already developed a pattern of following in his daddy’s footsteps. Before he had made it to sixth grade Hurt had been thrown out of school five times, and the last time the principal told his mama not to bother with bringing him back.

It started when he was not quite five. Hurt, small-boned and short like his mama, had come in from playing with his mouth turned down in the sort of pucker that holds a person back from crying.

“What’s wrong with you?” George asked.

“Alfred took my scooter and won’t give it back,” Hurt told his daddy. George flared up like a Fourth-of-July rocket. “And you let him get away with it?”

Five-year-old Hurt let go of the tears he’d been holding back. “He’s bigger than me,” he said with a moan. “Way bigger.”

With a calloused hand as hard as a rock George whacked Hurt across the back of his head.

“You chicken-shit! Get back out there and get what’s yours, or I’ll give you a beating way worse than what that kid can do!”

“But Daddy—”

“Get going!”

When Hurt went back out the door George followed a few yards behind, still yelling insults. “If you ain’t got the guts to clobber him yourself, grab onto a baseball bat and swing it.”

Alfred was almost a foot taller than Hurt, but more afraid of his daddy than he was the boy Hurt tore into Alfred with a vengeance. Twenty minutes later Hurt had his scooter back, and his daddy said how proud he was of the boy.

That did it. Hurt, who’d been trying to please his daddy since the day he was born, went from protecting himself to picking a fight with anything that moved. It didn’t matter that almost all of the kids were bigger than him; Hurt was meaner. When neighbors began to knock at the door complaining Hurt had beat up their boy, his daddy’s smile was wider than ever.

In the early years it was mostly kids and neighborhood animals who felt the sting of Hurt’s aggression. Then when his third-grade teacher Missus Kelsey tried to discipline him for fighting in class, she too became a victim. While she had hold of his arm, Hurt kicked her shin so hard she had to let go. He hightailed it out of the classroom and didn’t come back. That afternoon when Missus Kelsey went to get her car for the drive home, she found it had four flat tires and a shattered windshield.

For almost three years the teachers tried to ignore Hurt’s behavior. Although no one said so, they were silently grateful when he failed to show up for class and never questioned his absence. But things finally came to a head when Hurt threw a rock that missed the math teacher’s head by inches. Fearful of the boy, Mister Riffkin threatened to quit. That’s when the principal telephoned Brenda McAdams and told her Hurt was not allowed back in the school.

Whatever meanness Hurt had got worse when he met Butch Muller. Butch was twenty-eight at the time. Now, you might wonder why a twenty-eight-year-old man would have an interest in being pals with a seventeen-year-old kid, but the truth is they were kindred spirits. By that time Hurt was almost as mean as his daddy, and whatever evil-doing he didn’t know about Butch taught him. First it was just snatch-and-grab robberies, but before long they’d gotten to a point where either of them could clobber an unsuspecting passerby on the head, take his wallet, and walk off without a look back to see if the man was dead or alive.

After two years of doing what proved to be less profitable than they’d originally thought, they moved up to robbing stores with a fistful of dollars in the cash register. They went in with kerchiefs covering the lower part of their faces. At first they were armed with just a crowbar and the machete Hurt bought second-hand. But when they eyed the jewelry store, Butch said he thought they’d be better off with guns.

“That way we’ll know they’re taking us seriously,” he said, and Hurt agreed.

Butch knew a pawn shop owner on the far side of town who was short on questions but plentiful on what he sold in the back room. As far as Hurt was concerned it was a worthwhile trip, because he came away with a Smith & Wesson .38 special and more confidence than he’d ever known. Just holding the gun in his hand felt good. With the gun Hurt was bigger. He was stronger. He was unstoppable.  With the gun, Hurt didn’t have to take any guff from anybody—including his daddy.

The jewelry store was a pushover because Eloise Mercer, the woman behind the counter, was well into her sixties and nervous as a cat. “Please, please,” she cried. “Take whatever you want, but don’t shoot me.” They didn’t, but it was a decision Hurt later regretted.

The Stop n’ Shop was also a breeze. They were in and out in less than a minute and with a whopping three-hundred–and-six dollars from the register. Having a little money made Hurt feel good. Having a lot of money made him feel better. He wanted more. They began to look for bigger stores, the kind of stores that kept a lot of cash on hand.

The 24-hour drugstore promised to be an easy target. If they waited until after midnight, the store would be empty. With no one there but Old Man Hamilton, they could take their time. Rumors were he had a back room safe where he kept a wad of extra cash. Of course, neither Butch nor Hurt knew that more than a year ago Gus Hamilton had installed a silent alarm that was wired directly into the police station two blocks south of the store.

Hurt was the one holding a gun to Gus’s head when the police walked in. Butch saw the patrol car pull up, and without shouting a warning to his partner he slipped out the storeroom back door.

It was Hurt who was arrested. He was the one who sat in the holding room for nine hours straight without even a drink of water. He was the one bombarded with questions. And he was the one who refused to say where he’d gotten the gun or who was with him.

“You’ll get off a lot easier if you give him up,” the arresting officer said. Still Hurt refused. Butch was his friend—so he thought.

Since Hurt’s description matched the one Eloise Mercer gave when two men robbed her jewelry store, he was put in a lineup and identified as one of the perpetrators in that robbery also.

With two counts of burglary and not a twinge of cooperation, the judge didn’t feel one bit lenient when he handed down the sentence. Hurt spent the next seven years in the Camp Hill Correctional Institution, and every day he was in there he grew meaner. He’d counted on having both his daddy and Butch Muller stand by him, but not once in the whole seven years did he hear from either of them.

When Hurt was released they handed him a bus ticket back to Pittsburgh, thirty-five dollars, and a note with the address of his parole officer.

Before he boarded the bus for Pittsburgh, Hurt wadded the paper in his fist and tossed it in the trash can.

Once he was back in town, Hurt’s first stop was the pawn shop.  He got what he came for, but it cost him twenty bucks. He then went in search of Butch. Nine stops later Hurt stood face to face with Butch in the alleyway behind the Bluebeard Barbershop.

“I thought you was my friend,” Hurt said. Then without so much as a wince, he pulled the gun from his pocket and shot Butch in the head. “You just can’t trust nobody,” he mumbled as he turned and walked away.

Twenty minutes later Hurt stood in front of the house he’d lived in as a boy. When he started up the walkway the next-door neighbor leaned over the porch rail and called out, “You ain’t looking for your pa, are you, boy?”

Hurt looked over. Old Man Kubick had become white-haired and so hunched he was almost unrecognizable. “Yeah, I am,” Hurt answered.

“He’s gone. He been gone for three, maybe four years.”

“Gone where?”

“South. Miami Beach maybe.” The old man scratched his head and hesitated a minute, trying to recall where George McAdams had said he was going. “Come to think of it,” the old man mused, “I believe it was Myrtle Beach,” but before he got the words out, Hurt was gone.

It was late in the afternoon, and the Greyhound station bustled with people. Hurt got in line behind two men and a small woman wearing the same perfume his mother wore. It was the smell of gardenias. Without thinking he leaned forward and sucked in the smell. If Daddy hadn’t driven her away years earlier, Mama would have come to visit. “He’s the cause of everything,” Hurt grumbled.

The woman turned. “Excuse me?”

“Wasn’t nothing,” Hurt answered. Then with barely a breath in between, he asked, “You got a boy, ma’am?”

When she smiled, she bore a strong resemblance to how Hurt imagined his mama would now look. “I sure do. Four of them.  I’m off to spend some time with my boy in Kentucky right now.”

“Ain’t that nice,” Hurt replied; then he looked down at his shoes and quit talking.

When the woman left Hurt moved up to the ticket window.  “How much for a one-way to Miami?”

“Miami…let’s see…” The clerk ran his finger down the list of fares. “Ah, yes, here it is. Miami, twenty-eight seventy-five. That’s with a three-hour stopover in Wyattsville, Virginia.”

“You got anything cheaper?”

The clerk ran his finger down the list again. “Afraid not.”

“Nothing?”

The clerk shook his head.

Hurt had fifteen dollars and no desire to remain in Pittsburgh. “What was that place in Virginia?”

“Wyattsville?”

“Yeah. How much to Wyattsville?”

The clerk looked at the book again. “Thirteen seventy-five.”

“Gimme that,” Hurt said. He pulled the three wrinkled five-dollar bills from his pocket and pushed them through the window grill.

Forty-five minutes later Hurt was on his way to Wyattsville. He had a score to settle in Miami, but in order to get there he’d have to stop and pick up some cash along the way. The three-hour layover was plenty of time.

Paul

Walking down that mountain was the scariest thing I ever done. I was remembering how Mama used to say people ought not burn the bridges behind them, but that’s just what it felt like we was doing. It ain’t right when a person’s gotta choose between keeping a promise and putting food on the table. 

We was all the way down to where the creek bed ends when I come within a whisker of turning back. I’d stopped so Jubie could rest and was thinking how she’d be sleeping in her own bed if I’d do what maybe I should do. Then there was this loud crack of thunder, and I heard a voice say, “Keep going!” It sounded the exact same as Daddy. I ain’t saying it was Daddy, and I ain’t saying it was the Almighty. But I am saying you don’t argue with something like that. “Yes, sir,” I answered, then picked Jubie up and carried her the rest of the way.

When Jubie said she was scared of going to a place she didn’t know, I told her not to worry. I said it was a good thing, ‘cause we was going to see an aunt we never knew we had. Then she started smiling. The whole time I was telling her how good everything was gonna be, I was wishing I had someone to tell me the same thing.

Looking for Anita

Paul and Jubilee boarded the Greyhound bus at the Campbell’s Creek Depot. He had a ticket; she didn’t.  When he’d asked the clerk at the window how much for two tickets to Wyattsville, Virginia, she answered, “Eight dollars and fifty cents.” While Paul stood there counting out the quarters and dimes, the woman peered over the counter at Jubilee. “Make that four-twenty-five,” she said. “There’s no charge for kids under five.”

“Oh, Jubie just looks small,” Paul started to say, “but—”

“Maybe you don’t hear so good.” The ticket clerk cocked an eyebrow and looked Paul square in the face. “I said we don’t charge for kids under five,” she repeated. then cranked out a single ticket and handed it to him.

 Once they were settled on the bus Jubilee leaned over and whispered in Paul’s ear, “I’m hungry.” He reached beneath the seat and pulled a jelly sandwich from the bag he’d been carrying. After the sandwich was gone she settled back into her seat, and for a while was content to watch the scenery fly by. When darkness dropped a blanket over the countryside, she scooted closer to Paul and began a barrage of questions.

“Is Aunt Anita nice?”

Paul shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose, like everybody else, she’s got some good qualities and some not-so-good ones.”

“Oh.” Jubilee hesitated a moment then asked, “Did Mama think she was nice?”

Paul shrugged again. “Hard to say. Mama never talked about her, leastwise not to me.”

“How come?”

“Judging by the letters I read, Mama and Aunt Anita didn’t get along real well.”

“What if we get to Virginia and Aunt Anita don’t get along with us either?”

“You ask too many questions. Stop worrying. Try to sleep.” He wrapped a long arm around her shoulders and nudged her closer. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a big day.”

Jubilee closed her eyes and before long drifted off to sleep. For Paul, sleep was impossible. He kept asking himself the same questions Jubilee asked. Unfortunately, he knew something she didn’t. He knew what Anita had written in those letters. Paul thought back on the last letter, the letter dated just two months after Jubilee was born. The angry words were written in a heavy-handed script, and even after seven years the smell of bitterness still permeated the ink. If you refuse to listen to reason, Anita had written, then I wash my hands of you.

Since there were only a handful of letters, five to be exact, Paul had no way of knowing what Anita wanted his mama to do.  He could only pray that by now her anger had subsided.

 The bus pulled into Wyattsville shortly after daybreak. Paul gave Jubilee a gentle shake to wake her. “We’re here,” he whispered.

The bus station was something Paul could have never before imagined. Four buses stood side by side, each one coming from someplace far away and heading to someplace else. A loudspeaker crackled the last-minute warning for folks headed to Chicago. Men and women moved through the terminal without slowing, each one confident of where they were headed.

Wyattsville apparently was a lot larger than Paul had anticipated. Finding Anita might not be that easy. Holding tight to Jubilee’s hand, he made his way toward the front door of the station.

Their first stop was a luncheonette where they sat at the counter. Jubilee whirled herself around on the stool three times; then Paul told her to stop. He looked down the menu prices, then ordered a glass of milk and biscuit for Jubilee and coffee for himself. He was on his second refill when the waitress, a woman with a badge indicating her name was Connie, asked, “Can I get y’all something else?”

“You got a telephone book?”

“Sure do, honey.” She waggled a finger toward the rear of the shop. “Right past the restroom.”

Jubilee’s eyes widened. “You got a special room for resting?”

Connie laughed then leaned across the counter and whispered, “It’s a toilet. We just call it a restroom for the sake of politeness.”

After warning Jubilee not to budge from the stool, Paul headed toward the back. The phone book, nearly three times the size of Charleston’s, had way more names than he was hoping for. He turned the pages to W. He knew two things: Anita was supposedly their aunt, and her last name might be Walker like his mama’s once was. None of Anita’s letters mentioned a husband, so Paul was hoping she was still a Walker. There was a full page of Walkers. Not one of them was an Anita.

As he made his way back to his seat Paul began rubbing his hand across the back of his neck, the way his daddy did when he was worrying.  Sitting at the counter he pulled the remainder of the money from his pocket and counted it again. Twelve dollars and eighty-seven cents.

When Connie poured a third refill, Paul pushed two dimes and a nickel across the counter and said, “Thank you, ma’am.” When she came back with another biscuit for Jubilee, he asked if she knew of any rooming houses in the area. “Not too expensive,” he added.

“I sure do,” Connie answered. “Missus Willoughby has a real nice place, and I think she only charges two dollars a night.”

“Two dollars just for sleeping!” Jubilee exclaimed.

Connie leaned closer. “’Course, if you was to mention you were short on cash, I think she’d be willing to let you stay in that upstairs room for a dollar.”

Connie then explained how they were to get to Missus Willoughby’s boarding house. “You can’t miss it,” she said. “It’s a big three-story house with a yellow sign out front.”

 Fifteen minutes later Paul and Jubilee started walking north on Rosemont, and when they reached Main Street they turned right. “I think it’s less than a mile from here,” Paul said, but before they’d gone four blocks a sign in the grocery store window caught his eye.

“Help Wanted” it read. Underneath in smaller print was “Stock Boy—$30 a week.”

A few doors down, on the opposite side of the street, Paul spied a park bench. “Come on,” he said and took Jubilee by the hand as they crossed.

* * *

The Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh pulled in ten minutes after Paul and Jubilee left the station. They were nine blocks from the luncheonette when Hurt McAdams walked in. He looked down the long row of stools, and on the far end he saw the back of what he believed to be a uniformed policeman. “No sense asking for trouble,” he mumbled. He turned, walked out the door, and started toward what looked to be the center of town.  He strode with long deliberate movements, his eyes fixed straight ahead and his features locked in a look of determination.

In three hours he had to be back on that bus. He had to get back to the station, buy a ticket, and be sitting on the bus when it pulled out for Miami. Hurt glanced down at his wristwatch. Two hours and twenty minutes left. Forty minutes already gone. He had to hurry.

Hurt turned off Rosemont and walked along Washington Street. There were plenty of stores but none of them open. He reached into his pocket and wrapped his hand around the gun. He could feel the energy coming from it. It had power, and with it he had power. The butt of the gun could smash a window to smithereens. He considered the thought, then pushed it away. If the store had alarms they’d be all over him before he could get back to the bus. No good. He turned east, walked three blocks, and took a left onto Main Street.

Hurt glanced at his watch again. Two hours. He had to find something soon. He looked down the long street. At the far end he saw a Wonder Bread delivery truck pulling away from the front of what looked to be a small grocery store.

Perfect. No people. He’d grab what he came for and leave no witnesses. Before anyone knew what happened, he’d be back on the bus headed for Miami.

Hurt began walking toward the store.

* * *

Paul took the small bag he’d been carrying and sat it on the bench alongside Jubilee. “I want you to stay here. I’m probably gonna be gone a while, but don’t worry. I’ll be back soon as I can.”

“Why can’t I come with you?”

“Jubie,” he said with a laugh. “Men don’t bring their baby sister when they’re asking for a job.”

Giving him a look that argued the point, she griped, “I ain’t no baby!”

“I know you’re not. But right now, I need you to be a really big girl—a really big girl who can stay here and keep an eye on our things.”

“You’re trying to trick me.”

“Not at all,” Paul said, holding up his right hand. “That grocery store’s willing to pay thirty dollars a week. If I get a good job like that, we won’t need to find Mama’s sister. We’ll have enough money to get ourselves a nice room to live in and good food to eat.”

Finally, Jubilee agreed.

Before he turned and crossed the street, Paul shook a warning finger. “Now don’t leave this bench, no matter what. And don’t talk to strangers.”

“Everybody in this town’s a stranger,” Jubilee grumbled resentfully.

“In time they won’t be,” Paul answered and turned toward the street.

* * *

The bread truck blocked Hurt’s view of Paul crossing the street. And the girl, small as she was, sitting on a bench party hidden by an oak tree, was beyond the scope of where he’d fixed his vision.

He moved down the street with long strides. No cars out front: good. No passersby: good. Hurt had to make sure there were no witnesses. Witnesses only meant trouble. He’d gone soft in the jewelry store heist when Eloise Mercer had whimpered and cried, and what did he get in return? She pointed an accusing finger at him, and he spent an extra five years in prison.

“No more,” he mumbled. “No more.”

Paul was standing in front of the counter asking Sidney Klaussner about the job when the store door opened.

Sidney Klaussner was fifty-eight years old but sharp as a tack. He was also damned and determined that nobody was ever gonna rob his store again. A year earlier three thugs who had jumped off a freight train came in waving a gun and walked off with more than four hundred dollars.  For a good six months Sidney berated himself for letting them get away with it; then he went out and bought a Browning 16 gauge shotgun. It was an automatic that could fire off five shots faster than a rabbit could run across the yard.

Whenever the store door swung open, Sidney always looked up and nodded a hello. It was his way of greeting people. When Hurt walked through the door, Sid saw him reach into his jacket pocket and pull the gun out. Before Hurt closed the gap between them Sidney pulled the rifle from beneath the counter, and without taking time to aim he began firing.

Hurt was faster. His bullet tore through Sidney’s chest like a cannon ball.

Sidney squeezed off two shots as he fell. The first one hit Paul in the head. The second one went wild and lodged itself in the ceiling.

Hurt stepped over Paul and banged open the cash register. He grabbed all the bills, then turned and walked out of the store like a man who’d just stopped in for a pack of cigarettes.

He never noticed Martha Tillinger. Without her hearing aid she’d been unaware of what was happening until she heard the bang of gunfire and that’s when she squatted down behind the cereal boxes.

Martha, afraid for her life, stayed behind those cereal boxes for nearly twenty minutes before she found the courage to venture out. When she finally tiptoed out and saw the bodies in the floor, she screamed so loud that Mario Gomez heard her two doors down. He came running from the barber shop, and that’s when they finally called the police.

By time the patrol car pulled up in front of Klaussner’s Grocery, Hurt McAdams was five blocks from the bus station.

Angry Faces

The Klaussner’s Grocery Store robbery occurred at 8:06 on the first Wednesday of March. By 8:30 there were two ambulances and five patrol cars sitting crosswise on Main Street. Cars were rerouted to Washington, but those on foot could cut through the park and come out on Main. Within twenty minutes there were nearly fifty people who had come from out of nowhere crowded in front of the store.

Ethan Allen left for school at 8:40. It took ten minutes to get there and he had ten minutes to spare, so when he bicycled across Ridge Road and saw the flashing red lights a block down on Main he turned and headed in that direction.

Leaning his bicycle against the lamppost, he edged his way into the crowd and looked for a familiar face. Seth Porter’s was the first one he saw.

“Hey, there, Mister Porter,” he called out.

Porter turned and scanned the faces in the crowd.

“It’s me,” Ethan Allen called and pushed past a hefty woman who’d been blocking his view. “What’s going on?”

“Ain’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Yeah, I’m on my way.”

“Then you’d better get moving.”

“What’s going on?” Ethan Allen repeated.

Porter glanced at his watch and thumbed his finger in the direction of the school. “Get going. It’s five ‘til nine.”

“School don’t start ‘til ten today,” Ethan answered. “So what’s going on?”

“A robbery,” Porter finally said. “Sidney Klaussner got shot. They’re saying he shot one of the bandits, but the other one got away. ” He eyed Ethan Allen suspiciously. “You sure school don’t start ‘til ten?”

“Positive.”

Moments later Carmella Klaussner jumped out of Henrietta Banger’s car and pushed her way through the crowd screaming, “Sid! Sid!” The poor woman was almost hysterical, and it was all anyone could do to hold her back. She screamed, cried, and pleaded, but still Ed Cunningham refused to allow her past the barricade he’d set up. It was Ed’s third day on the job, and he was starting to think that maybe being a policeman wasn’t what he was cut out for.

“This is a crime scene,” he kept repeating, “and no one except the police and medics are allowed in.”

Of course the crowd of onlookers sided with Carmella.

“Let her in!” somebody shouted. “She’s got a right to see her husband!”

“Yeah!” several others yelled. “Let her in!”

“Nobody’s allowed in,” Cunningham repeated, but by then beads of nervous perspiration were building on his forehead.

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“Crosby has an unbelievable gift for creating fleshed out, unique and lovable characters. She draws you in exposing their quirks, flaws, gifts and very soul”
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