Tap. Tap. Tap.
The curtains, pulled tight on the front door of the small one-bedroom home, muffle the early morning knocking. Martha closes the lid on a bottle of hand sanitizer, returning it to the circular glass-topped end table beside her leather recliner—leather cracked from years of being massaged by her alcohol laden hands. Trailing dollops of sanitizer on the chair’s arms before rubbing the rest into her hands and forearms, she pushes herself up from the chair and turns for the door. A silent fireplace is at Martha’s back as she saunters toward the rapping. The barrage continues, crying for Martha’s pace to quicken as she sees the figures of two individuals silhouetted through the curtains by the morning sun.
Martha’s frail voice greets the visitors as she pulls back the curtains, “Can I help you?”
Two gentlemen dressed in dark grey pants with navy blue shirts—the long sleeves rolled up to their elbows—sporting a patch with Cayden County Gas Company logo over the right pocket are visible through the glass.
“Ma’am, we’re from the Cayden County Gas Company. There is a suspected gas line rupture in your neighborhood and we are evacuating all residents.”
“That is so nice of you young men.” Martha’s attention is drawn to how much the men’s shirts with the rolled sleeves look like her father’s when she was a little girl.
“Ma’am, we need you to leave your house immediately. For your safety. If you don’t have a way to leave, we can provide a way to a safe location.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
The young man’s voice becomes more urgent, “Why will that not be necessary—”
“Because I will not be leaving my home.” Martha’s voice reverberates with a strength that catches both men off guard.
“Ma’am, you must come–”
“Son, I know your mother raised a well-mannered boy. I don’t care how much you ma’am me, the only ones leaving this house are the two of you—Off my porch.” Martha gives the curtains a brisk tug closed as she recedes into the depths of her sanctuary.
She sets a slow, deliberate pace toward her recliner. Without thought, she squirts a blob of hand sanitizer onto her hands from a bottle retrieved from the end table. As she sinks into the familiar leather, she finishes rubbing the liquid into her forearms and hands. Hands that are beginning to blend in appearance with the leather whose embrace she craves.
Martha scoots deeper into the comfort of her chair feeling the cushion, worn to cradle her body, welcome her into its depths. She strokes the arms of the chair as she pictures the rolled sleeves of those two men on the porch—her own father returning home from the mines with his sleeves rolled to his elbows and his forearms caked with grime retrieved from the bowels of the earth. Grime that seems to spill out reclaiming everything it touches.
“Martha. . . Martha! . . . You got my shirts washed yet?” Daddy’s voice carries all the way down the street—probably is still echoing inside the mines.
Martha’s knuckles redden as her blood seeps through skin worn clean from the washboard—blood mixing with the dark sludge of the coal-water filling the washtub.
“Most done daddy.”
“Martha, ain’t got all day. You still got more chores. Need me to get down there and speed you up?” Daddy’s hand reaches for the buckle on his belt.
“No, daddy. This the last one. I most done.” Martha quickens her pace before the plea has left her lips.
“Best get this one too,” Daddy strides toward the washtub ripping the buttons of his shirt open with each step.
After the last button is freed, he jerks the shirt off trailing a cloud of black dust and throws the wadded ball into the tub, splattering Martha with the sudsy sludge. She wipes the back of her face clean as best she can with the back of her forearm. Working the linen hard against the ribs of the washboard, she watches her daddy amble back to the porch. He turns, straddling a chair while he watches his daughter finish the wash.
Martha hangs the last of the shirts from the clothesline and stares down at her hands and arms. Why’s daddy gotta make me do this all time? Milly never has to do no washin’. Her skin’s brightest thing in this town. Everythin’ else covered in soot and coal dust. Is turning me into one those negros. Daddy’d send me cross town to live but wouldn’t no one be here to do his wash.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The curtains are unable to muffle the louder knocks this time. Martha’s eyes spring open searching for the mines of McDowell County but only finding the hardwood floors of her living room. Her Daddy’s stern gaze turns out to be the vacant stare of that empty fireplace across the room.
“Ma’am. . . Ma’am?” The voice carries into the room as if a man is standing behind her. “I’ve spoken with the sheriff’s department—”
The sheriff? They’re trying to take me back. I won’t go back. I left that life and McDowell County behind, just like my momma did before me. Daddy’s Lil’ Martha died and was buried long ago.
Martha tries to jump up from her seat but with feet slipping on the floor only succeeds in falling back into the chair.
“—a deputy will be here to escort you to safety.”
With a firmer grip this time, Martha pushes herself to her feet. It was such a long time ago. I left it all buried in McDowell County. Never told a soul after I left.
She turns toward the door, “I told you get off’n … off my porch.”
Martha trudges toward the kitchen—her feet scooting across the wooden floor. As she nears the doorway into the back of her house, Martha reaches out to touch a glass frame on the wall. It has been many years since she could read the words on the framed parchment, but she has known them by heart for decades—the University of Georgia confers to Martha Dea Jessere the degree of Bachelors of Science in Commerce. Martha touches the bottom of the glass frame remembering how the embossed insignia feels under her fingertips.
This was supposed to be a new start. Everything would stay buried. I worked so hard to get shed of that life. Why did that mine have to take him? Why did Momma have to leave me behind?
Martha stumbles catching the toes of her right foot on the flashing between the living room floor and the linoleum of the kitchen. Reaching for the door frame, she steadies herself. She grips the backs of the vinyl-covered chairs maneuvering around the table toward the sink. Martha removes a dishrag from the front of the counter before reaching into the sudsy water and begins to scrub the breakfast dishes she has left to soak.
“Your momma teach you rub them clothes like that get em clean? Betcha can rub other things too, huh girl?” Tobacco juice drips from the corner of Uncle Earl’s lips as he flashes a yellow-toothed grin at Martha from his perch on a straight-backed chair leaned against the big oak tree in his backyard. He wipes the juice across his dust-covered jaw.
“Momma showed me to clean daddy’s shirts so’s his be clean for work.”
“Yeah, but you ain’t got to clean your daddy’s clothes no more girl. Not since he got imself buried in that mine.” He spits a heavy stream of tobacco juice into the dust beside the washtub Martha is kneeling behind.
Martha says nothing as tears start rinsing the dust from the corners of her eyes cutting lines down her cheeks. Keeping her head down, she scrubs the blue linen shirt hard against the washboard before squeezing the life from it through the ringer—imagining the entire time it is her Uncle Earl.
“Honey, is Earl’s little girl gettin teared up over her daddy?”
“I ain’t your little girl.” Martha jerks her head up to stare through her uncle’s eyes—soulless orbs harboring no emotions, just vacant pits ready to devour.
Earl splatters the side of the washtub with a second stream of spit. “No matter. Uncle Earl knows what make you forget bout all that.”
“I ain’t never forget bout my daddy.”
“Oh, I think you will. Uncle Earl make you forget. And you make your Uncle Earl feel real good.”
Martha places the plate she has just rinsed into the plastic dish drainer on the countertop beside the sink. She grabs steel wool from the mouth of the ceramic frog perched on the windowsill and starts scrubbing the burnt crust from a skillet in the sudsy water. She puts all her strength into each scouring pass of the course steel mesh.
Martha stares at the water watching it grow redder with each stroke. No matter how fast or how hard she scrubs, the blood does not leave the bottom of her nightgown. How will she get it out? Will she have to look at it every night? A reminder of those visits from her Uncle Earl? Why daddy have to die in that mine?
She is scrubbing harder even rubbing her forearms up to her elbows. How do I wash this off? How can I just wash them all away?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The absence of a reply is met with knocking that has grown in force and urgency.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
“Ms. Jessere. This is the Cayden County Sheriff’s Department. We need you to open your door, Ma’am. We have to get you to safety.” The voice echoes through the rooms of the house, deeper and more formal than the earlier ones.
“We don’t have any time to waste. The leak is likely inside her house,” a second voice interrupts the first.
“Okay, okay. I get it.” The deputy speaks through the door, “Ms. Jessere, if you don’t open the door, I will be forced to. . . Ma’am for your protection we must get you to safety.”
The deputy’s words ricochet within the walls of Martha’s home. Reverberating from the front door, into the kitchen, bouncing off her framed diploma in the living room before skipping around her recliner, and being engulfed unanswered by the gaping maw of the fireplace—empty save the three small gas logs that the Cayden County Gas Company installed twenty years earlier when Martha decided it was too difficult to keep firewood to heat her home.
The door jamb splinters under the force of the deputy’s violent kick. The front door springs inward providing access to the living room beyond. The deputy and the gas company supervisor both recoil at the sudden overwhelming smell of skunk—an odor the supervisor recognizes as mercaptan, which is added to the odorless natural gas. Driven by a renewed sense of urgency, both turn their heads away from the doorway to suck in deep breaths of fresh air before plunging into the home to rescue Martha.
The men discover her slumped over the sink in the kitchen. Her head is bobbing in the dishwater—a red-tinged, coal-colored sudsy liquid whose surface is broken only by the handle of a submerged skillet and Martha’s lifeless head—as she hangs by her waist on the edge of the countertop. Both men grab the elderly woman and lower her to the floor, neither realizing the horror in front of them.
Martha’s lifeless body is now sprawled on the linoleum reminding the deputy of all the cold stiffs he’s witnessed on slabs at the morgue. The gas company supervisor regurgitates his breakfast all over the linoleum splattering dozens of empty plastic bottles scattered under the kitchen table. The scene before them pushes the gas leak from their minds.
Water drips from her wet hair and mingles with blood from her arms as the pool spreads out across the kitchen floor. The flesh of her hands and lower arms glistens in the afternoon sunlight beaming through the window above the sink. The skin of Martha’s arms has been torn violently from the tips of her fingers to above her elbows revealing muscle, tendons, and bones beneath. Blood continues to trace intersecting rivulets across the floor—a macabre version of the tributaries of dry cracks in the leather of Martha’s recliner.
Howard Shipley is an emerging author from the Foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. He has found lifelong inspiration from the mountains and its people that can be found in his Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. He is currently studying English and Creative Writing in the graduate program at Southern New Hampshire University.