The house looked different.
Sam gazed at its dark form as he killed the truck engine and then checked his flip phone. Its service had been cut off months ago, but it still showed the time: 3:08 a.m. A pale orange wash of light from a nearby coal mine outlined his childhood home. On either side, mist clung to freshly plowed fields. He sat in his truck at the end of the gravel driveway, headlights off, tracing the structure against the glow. The chimney had crumbled some more, and the aerial antenna still rose at a slight angle, though they’d gotten cable twenty years ago. Hanging plants drooped from either end of the porch. He’d never known Dad to have a green thumb. A girlfriend? Not likely.
The night felt humid for May. There would be mushrooms to hunt in the spoil banks tomorrow morning—something Sam hadn’t done in years. Mushrooms didn’t grow in downtown Nashville. Not the edible kind, anyway. He rolled down the window and sniffed the air, full of earth and fertilizer. No moon. Dad slept light, or had in the years since Mom left, and Sam suspected a bulb would soon snap on in the living room, followed by the front door swinging open, framing Dad in his underwear as he shouted, “Somebody out there?” But the lights stayed off. Sam would have to wake him up. “Hi, Dad,” he’d say. “Been a while.” Granddad’s funeral. Five years at least.
Heaving the dented truck door open, he stepped onto the gravel. Large chunks, not the finer stuff they used in town. It took longer to grind into the soil, Dad said. “Sissy gravel,” he called the other kind. Sam eased the door closed, trying to avoid the metallic pop from where the two cratered panels touched. They groaned instead. Again, he wondered if Dad would wake. Sam had passed a sign reading “Leaving Gibson County, Entering Pike County” a few miles back, but it hadn’t registered until now, as his feet scraped the rocks with each step. Home. The last place he wanted to be.
He eased up the stairs, avoiding the squeaky third one, and stood on the porch. With the glow of the mine fully behind the house, his eyesight grew sharper. The slatted porch swing still hung low on the left side, though it appeared to have been painted. More plants hung from screwhooks in the ceiling, unfamiliar blossoms spilling over the pot rims. A flag jutted from a pole at each end of the porch. The one on his left was the same Stars and Stripes Dad always kept hanging, but Sam couldn’t make out the other one—dark on both ends and lighter in the middle, with an odd shape in the center. A new IU flag, maybe. Dad never missed a game of Hoosiers basketball unless he had to work.
The screen opened with a low screech, and Sam tried the door. Locked. The only lock Dad had ever needed before was the one on the gun cabinet in the coat closet, but he’d been alone for a while now, his wife and sons long gone. Danny had been dead for, what, almost thirty years? Mom had disappeared shortly after, and Sam and Jake had tripped over each other to grow up and get out the door as lickety-split as they could. Some mistrust of the world on Dad’s part was understandable.
Sam reached up to the spider-webby porch light to unscrew its bottom. It didn’t move at first, but then twisted with a rusty grind. As it came loose in his hand, the porch shook violently and the familiar tremor of a mine blast rattled his legs. The house jolted like a truck full of furniture slamming to a stop. The one noise Dad could always sleep through.
The lamp base lay in Sam’s hand, an oxidized door key stuck at its center among dead flies and a shriveled spider. He blew them aside and pinched the key between the callused tips of his fingers, rubbing them back and forth against the rust.
He and Michelle had fought earlier that day, and she’d tried to keep his guitar as he slunk out the door. His only possession worth anything, she’d told him, and she could sell it to help pay the three half-months of rent he owed her.
“Why don’t you sell the ring?” he asked her as he tightened his grip on the case handle.
“The guitar’s worth ten times what you paid for this.” She nodded toward her left hand and gave the case another violent tug.
She was right, almost to the dollar. She’d helped him make payments on the guitar when he’d needed an upgrade two years ago. An investment in their future, she’d called it. The ring, though he’d never told her, had cost him $249.99 at the jewelry stand in the mall. Nothing else in the apartment was worth half that. Posters from Sam’s local bar gigs hung on the walls, some framed and some not, along with album posters signed by some of Nashville’s hotter names from the last decade. The exposed brick walls were otherwise bare. They’d lived there for five years, and been engaged for two.
“Keep the ring,” he said, “but I need the guitar.” He gave it a final tug, knocking her off balance. She fell to the floor, sprawled against the scuffed hardwood. He wanted to drop the guitar and see if she was okay, but instead he slipped out the door. It creaked shut behind him as he walked to the stairs.
“What for?” her shout echoed down the hallway. “Firewood?”
An hour later he sat in a Waffle House, eating breakfast for dinner and trying to keep the image of Michelle hitting the apartment floor out of his head. Two hours after that, he spent the last of his cash on enough gas to get him to the only place he wouldn’t have to pay rent. As the sun sank beneath the rolling hills west of Nashville, he crossed the Cumberland River and headed north.
Now, as he stood on Dad’s porch in the middle of the night, the walls shook from a second mine blast. He pressed the key into the loose doorknob. It didn’t fit at first, but he held the knob tight and wiggled it. With a sandpapery sound, it slid home. The door opened into darkness as he eased the screen closed behind him. Inside, warm bread and spices hung on the air, not Dad’s skunked beer and unwashed sheets. The whiff of coal dust, though, stale and oily, was still unmistakable. Stepping forward, Sam’s feet tangled with a pair of unlaced boots. He caught himself with a hard hand against the wall, and the sulfurous smell grew stronger. Why were Dad’s work boots inside the door when he always kicked them off on the porch? Sam flipped the lights on, tired of sneaking.
“Dad?” he said, but the sound died on his lips. Nothing looked right. Bright red curtains covered the back window, not the yellowed blinds he remembered. An equally red couch sat beneath them, with a dark wooden table in front of it. A bright, woven cloth ran the length of the island between the living room and kitchen, a half-covered basket of bread holding it in place. To his left hung three framed pictures he’d never seen before. Each looked hand-drawn, showing strange buildings and oddly dressed figures with an unreadable language coming from their mouths in word balloons. Large phrases in the same language ran across the top of each drawing. Sam looked back at the entrance behind him as if it had become the floating door from the old Twilight Zone episodes he’d watched as a kid. Dad would get a kick out of this, wherever he was. Sam ground his teeth together, tasting the metal of his fillings.
“Do not move.”
The voice made Sam jump and spin back to the room, his insides going cold. Behind the kitchen counter stood a short, brown man with dark hair and a mustache. Just above the surface of the island he held a pistol-grip shotgun leveled at Sam.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Sam sputtered as he put his palms up toward the man.
“I said, do not move.” A strong voice, but brittle. Sam froze, glancing around the room in search of familiar sights. Even the paint on the walls had changed. He resisted the urge to place a steadying hand on the closest one.
“Guaman?” This voice, female, came from somewhere down the hall. Both had heavy accents. Mexican?
“Stay quiet!” the man said. “Call 911!”
“Why?” the woman shouted.
“Why are you asking me this?” His eyes had grown round. “Just call!”
Moths slapped against the back of Sam’s head as they flitted through the holes in the screen door. The man’s finger rested on the side of the shotgun, away from the trigger. Sam’s fear drifted toward anger at Dad. “Who are you?” Sam asked.“You don’t need to know that,” the man said, jostling the shotgun as he reapplied his grip.
“Okay, I’ll go first. My name’s Sam, and this is my house.” Dad’s house. His teeth clenched again.
“It is not,” the man said. “Pilar, did you call the tombo?”
“911 is not working!” Pilar’s voice came back, slightly hysterical. Then a child’s cry erupted from the same direction.
“Mierda,” the man whispered. He gripped the gun again, his finger slipping toward the trigger guard.
“911’s been spotty around here ever since they turned it on,” Sam said, trying to sound calm. “Just try the sheriff’s number on the front page of the phone book.” He nodded toward the slim yellow volume on the counter below the kitchen phone. A deputy could straighten this out. “Tell them you’re on Muren Church Road in Arthur.”
The man looked at him for a long moment, the gun raising and lowering by fractions of an inch. “Who are you?” he said at last, hitting the first word hard. The child wailed in a raspy, high-pitched tone as the woman made hasty soothing sounds.
“I’m Sam,” he repeated. “Sam Hightower. This is my dad’s house.”
The man blinked a few times, then let out a breath and lowered his gun. “Put away the phone, Pilar,” he said. “This is Torrealta’s boy.”
“You couldn’t have called and told me?” Sam looked at Dad, sitting across the table. “Or sent a letter?”
“When have I ever written a letter?” Dad said, spitting tobacco juice into a Pepsi bottle.
The new kitchen was bright, with a large window over the sink looking out on a backyard full of trees and a large corrugated-steel outbuilding. The first rays of morning sun lit the kitchen’s mostly bare walls, but Sam couldn’t make out the color. The gray in Dad’s curly hair and beard shone almost silver when his head slid into the sunbeams.
“Besides,” Dad went on, “they didn’t change my number just because I moved across the road.” Another juicy spit. A puck-shaped can of Skoal sat on the table between them, tiny in the spacious new kitchen.
Birdsong began to replace the cricket chirps outside.
“Your brother’ll be glad to see you,” Dad said, more to the room than to Sam. He tucked the can into the front pocket of his faded flannel shirt and stood up.
“Still teaching and preaching?”
“What else would he do?” Dad opened the door and walked into the garage, moving just a bit slower than when Sam had last seen him. Still lean, though, like water poured from a pitcher.
Dad wanted to know why Sam was there—why he would show up in the middle of the night unannounced. But Dad didn’t ask questions. He waited for volunteered information. Silences between them had always felt like the moment in war movies when the grenade lands but doesn’t go off. Sam often yammered to fill the void.
In the garage, Sam found Dad sitting on a stool, pulling on his blackened work boots. His eyes flicked up, then back to his laces. “You put on a few more pounds,” he said, a faint emphasis on “more.” Sam had been skinny like Dad through high school, but studio musicians don’t get much exercise and eat a lot of fast food.
“So what’s the deal with those people living in the old house?” Sam asked.
“G-Man? Works out at the mine with me. Runs the safety monitor in the control room and checks the sensor line sometimes. Good guy, except when he comes over the radio and you can’t understand a damn word he says. Always takes overtime, though.” Since Sam was a boy, this had been a benchmark Dad set for manhood.
“His name’s G-Man?” Sam said doubtfully.
“No, but it’s something like that. Foreign-sounding.”
“Where’s he from?”
“Mexico, I guess.”
“Are you back out at Number Five?” Sam asked. “I saw lights off to the east.” The Number Five mine had been strip mining off and on for the better part of two decades, creeping slowly back through the woods that had grown up over older, long-closed mines. Most of the county’s terrain rose and fell in sharp spoil banks, formed over more than a century of stop-and-start surface mining.
“Nope.” Dad popped a foot into an unlaced boot. “Number Seven opened up again. Two years ago.”
“Yep.” Dad laced his boots tight and reached into a fridge in the corner of the garage, pulling out a battered plastic lunch bucket with a faded UMWA sticker on one end. After a moment’s thought, he grabbed a second can of Skoal. “You be here when I get off at three?”
“Okay, then. Got to get to work. Chips in the cabinet, beer in the fridge.” He slipped out the side door and closed it behind him.
Sam stood awkwardly, as if ready to say more to the empty room. As the rumble of Dad’s truck faded, he walked from room to room. Each one swallowed the tiny furniture Dad hadn’t upgraded in the move. No decorations, except for a few cheap paintings and a gold-framed mirror Sam had known his whole life, one of the few reminders of the time before Mom left. There wasn’t much color—eggshell walls and beige carpet. The color scheme, mixed with the faint smell of new paint, made Sam feel like he’d checked into a decent hotel. He’d probably find a Gideons Bible in the drawer of Dad’s nightstand.
Trees dotted the backyard, as if Dad had left some and cleared the rest to make room for—what? Mowing? Walking? The whole area suggested a rough truce between grass and woods, until the woods took over fifty yards from the back door and sloped up into spoil banks. The grass looked patchy and rough, not yet filled in where Dad had ground the stumps of less fortunate trees. Still, as Sam walked in his socks beneath the oaks, his feet felt more at home than on the beige carpet. He walked toward the first spoil bank, enjoying a humid afternoon breeze. He would have to explain himself, not just in this new house, but in other houses.
In Nashville, he’d be halfway through a session by now, or would have been a year ago. He’d done good work at the studio. Better than many of the vanilla guitarists he’d worked with toward the end. After high school, he’d spent a semester at Oakland City College to refine his mostly self-taught technique. He’d planned to learn what he could from the second-rate professors and then head west, but money had been tight and Dad had fought him on it, so he picked Nashville as a more attainable short-term goal. That had been fifteen years ago. His fingers still had calluses, but lately, when he picked up his guitar, it took an hour of playing to numb the faint pain in his fingertips.
Dad pulled into the driveway a little after three, the gravel grinding under his truck tires with dull pops. Sam, sitting in a lawn chair, rose to meet him. No sense in putting things off.
Dad slid the Chevy into park and eased out onto the paved carport, another upgrade from the old house. He stretched and looked up at the clear sky, his lunch bucket dangling from one hand and his white belly peeking from under the flannel. “Turned out warm today,” he said toward Sam.
“Yeah, it did. Can we talk for a minute?”
“Sure thing.” He slipped through the side door into the garage, boots and lunch bucket in tow. Sam followed. “What’s on your mind?”
“Aren’t you wondering why I’m here?” Sam asked.
“You mean you didn’t come to see me?” Dad said, tucking his boots by the kitchen door.
“I did, but for a reason. A few reasons, really.”
“I’m all ears.” Dad dumped the trash from his lunch bucket into a small garbage can by the fridge, then faced Sam for the first time since he’d arrived.
Sam stared into the bright blue eyes, rimmed black with coal dust. The concrete garage floor chilled his feet. “I left Michelle.” He thought of her again, falling to the floor as he yanked the guitar away.
“Did I meet her?”
“You know you didn’t.” He leaned against a table piled with empty boxes. “But I called and told you we were engaged.”
“You left a message.” Dad worked his tobacco around his bottom lip. “What happened?”
“Things got complicated, I guess.” The words felt like a mouthful of saltines.
“Things tend to do that,” Dad said. “But that’s not why you’re here.” He turned and picked at some dried food on his lunchbox. “You lived down there for a long time before you moved in with her.” The timbre of his voice rose slightly. Moved in with her. Not the Pike County way. “You just come up for some sympathy?” He snapped the lunchbox shut and turned, looking through Sam more than at him.
“Not likely.” Sam kicked at a loose washer on the floor, skittering it to the wall. The echo died before he spoke again. “I’m not playing at the studio anymore.”
Dad perked up. It had been his prophecy for years. Music’s fun, but it’s not a living. Sam had been hearing it since high school, when he played in the pep band instead of on the basketball team. As if basketball was a safer career choice.
“Sorry to hear that,” Dad said.
“No you’re not.”
“So what do you need?”
“To pay some bills.” Sam looked for another washer to kick, but Dad kept a clean garage. “Somewhere to stay while I save some money.”
“Well, you’re welcome here,” Dad said. “Got a guest room downstairs. Have to clear some hunting stuff out, but it’s yours if you need it.”
“But if you’re sticking around, you’ll have to pull your weight. Get some work.” He said it as if Sam were still sixteen and asking for gas money.
“That’s what I’m looking for. I need cash.” There it was, dropped on the concrete slab between them. The refrigerator compressor kicked on with a whirr.
“Lot of bills?” Dad asked.
“Not many, but I’m done in Nashville, and I need enough money to get set up somewhere else.”
Sam took a deep breath. “California.” Dad worked the Skoal around his mouth more urgently, and Sam added quickly, “No arguing. I should have gone fifteen years ago.”
“Seems to me you had the same problem then,” Dad said, stepping to the door and spitting the wad into the yard.
“I’m going this time. And I don’t need your opinion on it.” He waited, but Dad stayed silent. “I’ll be out of here in two months if I can find work. Anywhere hiring?”
Dad wiped his chin with the back of his hand, squinting at Sam. “Oh, I can help you out with that. You took auto shop in school, right?”
“For a semester, I think.”
“That’ll do.” Dad turned and walked through the kitchen door.
Sam didn’t see much of Dad for the next several days. He’d picked up some overtime, and Sam spent long stretches out of the house. The weather stayed warm, and the country air seemed to wash the worst of Nashville off him. He drove his pickup down all the backroads he could remember. Some had been paved in his absence, but plenty were still gravel. He fishtailed from place to place, stopping often at old iron bridges or railroad trestles to hear the muddy Patoka River cut its way through the county. The gentle splishing mingled with birdsong and the intermittent rustle of animals scurrying in the brush. Even with the rust and graffiti on the bridges, he enjoyed the reduction in civilization.
Occasionally, he’d glance at the deactivated phone resting on the console of his truck. He’d never call Michelle on it again. Or the studio. He only kept it because it held the phone number of an L.A. producer—a guy who had visited Nashville a few years ago for a pop/country crossover album and heard Sam play some old Brian May licks between takes. He told Sam to look him up if he ever made it out to Van Nuys. When Sam headed to California, it would be the place to start.
He took to sitting on front porch, looking over a small patch of cornfield and the few neighboring houses. Once or twice he saw G-Man or his wife working in the old yard. He wondered if they’d found the dented frying pan that had once been first base, or the pocket change they’d tossed into the grass to test the metal detector they were given for Christmas one year. Once, Sam got the impression that the wife saw him, but only G-Man would occasionally wave. Sam returned the gesture, hoping it would make up for the home invasion. Dad had built his house back from the road, too far away to speak.
After a week, Sam brought his guitar case onto the porch to practice, but he hadn’t yet opened it when Dad stepped out the front door.
“How’s living rent-free treating you?” Dad asked, sitting in a lawn chair opposite Sam.
“I’m happy to do whatever—”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist. You’ve got plenty of time to make up for it.” Dad put a Pepsi can to his mouth and spat. “What’s G-Man up to over there?”
“Weeding, I think. Or planting something.” The little mustachioed man had been on his knees at the base of the house for the better part of an hour, moving slowly east to west.
“Takes better care of the place than we ever did,” Dad said. “You ready to start earning your keep?”
“Absolutely.” Each day ticked off the calendar without income felt like a waste. What would it be? Maybe a job at a garage in Winslow or Petersburg. Dad knew everybody. In any case, work was work, as long as it got him to California.
“Good deal. Better find yourself a lunch bucket, because starting tomorrow we ride to work together.”
We Eat This Gold tells the story of a failed Nashville studio guitarist, Sam Hightower, and his reluctant return to his father’s home in Pike County, Indiana. Jesse, a coal miner with little patience for his son, finds work for Sam in the mine’s machine shop. Living with Jesse, Sam struggles with his family’s painful past—the loss of his younger brother and his mother’s subsequent abandonment. After a work accident mutilates Sam’s hand and wrecks his music career forever, he finds himself adrift, buoyed only by Guaman, a miner from Peru, and Julie, a high-school girlfriend turned miner. Out of options, Sam returns to the mine to work underground. Then, on a rainy November day, water busts into the mine from an older excavation, trapping Sam, Jesse, and the others, who struggle to escape the crumbling mine before their air packs expire.
That’s the basic story of We Eat This Gold. So why did I write it? Lots of reasons, I suppose, but the one I keep returning to is something William Faulkner said in an interview with The Paris Review. When asked why he wrote about his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, he explained that his “own little postage stamp of native soil” contained all the stories he would ever need to write. My book exists for a similar reason. I grew up in a small patch of the Midwest, more confetti flake than postage stamp, tucked between corn fields and coal mines off a state highway that threads together towns no one’s heard of. It exemplifies the sort of rural isolation that hasn’t changed much since Sherwood Anderson wrote about it. He had Ohio, Faulkner had Mississippi, Louise Erdrich has the northern Great Plains. So far, though, writers haven’t done much with the worn towns and rolling spoil banks of southwestern Indiana. It’s perceived as a place you drive through on your way somewhere more interesting. We Eat This Gold is my attempt to disprove that assumption.
I confess, I’m too Midwestern to embrace even Faulkner’s slight pretension of fictionalizing his home county, so you’ll find a real Pike County on the Indiana map, tucked in the state’s southwestern toe. Because of this, friends and family sometimes ask if the book’s characters are based on real people. In the strictest sense, no. I knew some Hightowers growing up, but they weren’t miners, and they never lost a son that I know of. More generally, though, my characters are based on everyone I knew growing up. The miners with the coal-caked boots, the minister preaching to his diminishing congregation, the handful of immigrants who mostly kept to themselves, and the families that gathered around the table most Sunday afternoons for fried chicken and mashed potatoes. As Faulkner was drawn to his abstruse Southerners, my interest and purpose are tied up with these Hoosiers—hardworking and amicable, but also skeptical and a bit desperate. I want readers to get to know them and their native soil a little better.
Chris Drew is an assistant professor of English at Indiana State University, where he teaches Creative Writing and supervises the English Teaching program. His writing has appeared in various publications, including Bellevue Literary Review, Quarterly West, Mad River Review, and Floyd County Moonshine.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018