“Molly Anne McCoy!”
That was my name. It had a nice ring to it, I thought, as I rolled over on my side and wriggled under the covers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of soot and coal that was ingrained into my blanket.
My two-year-old sister, sleeping next to me in the narrow bed, kneed me in the back. I inched a little to the right to give her some room, coming dangerously close to falling out onto the floor.
As I balanced on the edge of the bed, the entire house rattled and shook. Being no more than thirty feet away from the railroad tracks, our house did that a lot. I drifted easily back to sleep, the comforting rumble of the locomotive like a lullaby to my ears.
I smiled to myself. In my dreams, I hopped on board and rode the train down the Tug Valley. A cartoon sun, smiling above, cast its gentle rays down on me as trees and flowers happily swayed to and fro, singing my name.
“Molly Anne McCoy!”
Yeah, like that. Except not as angry.
I don’t know what we’d do without the trains. We ordered our lives around them. They’d rumble by, one after the other, loaded with coal from the mine. I liked to watch them go by as I made breakfast in the morning…
Morning. It was morning. I jerked wide awake. “I’m comin’!” I hollered to my Dad.
My brothers, snug and comfy in their bed, started to stir, “Did Molly fall out of bed again?” my little brother Bobby murmured, cracking open one bleary eye. Frankie groaned, “Molly’s late. The usual.”
Ignoring the March chill, I tossed on some clothes and ran out into the kitchen. My father was sitting at the table, reading his copy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the way he did every morning without fail. He was dressed in a freshly cleaned shirt and overalls, his face pale with a bushy brown mustache. By the time he returned from work, he’d be totally transformed, grimy and black from head to toe.
“’Bout time,” he muttered, never looking up from his paper, “Said to give you five minutes. That was fifteen minutes ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, lighting the stove. My father couldn’t make breakfast anymore than I could mine a seam of coal. It was up to me to fix the meal, put together my father’s lunch, get my siblings out of bed and my brothers ready for school, all as the first light of dawn was brightening the sky. Then there’d be the rest of my chores to get to.
My father grumbled unintelligibly as he read, only pausing long enough to thrust out his empty cup so I could pour him some coffee. I didn’t dare say a word. It wasn’t worth the risk to talk to him before he had had his mandatory dose of caffeine.
For an entire two months now his mood had been foul, with only a few breaks of good cheer appearing, and disappearing, as quickly as a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
“Coal’s not going to mine itself,” my father noted as he waited impatiently for breakfast. I swore there was a direct relationship between how hungry my father was and how slowly the food cooked, it’s almost as if my stove was conspiring against me.
There were a whole host of reasons for my father’s perpetual bad mood. There was the downturn in work over the winter. Ever since the Great War had ended and peace had broken out, coal just wasn’t in demand like it used to be.
The Stone Mountain Coal Co., where my father worked, had no choice but to cut the miners’ hours. If my father wasn’t working, he wasn’t making money. To make it worse, and there was always something to make it worse, things like beans and flour, the basics we relied on for our meals, cost more than ever before.
Then there was the reappearance that winter of the dreaded influenza, a disease our family had particular reason to fear. Several local coal companies responded by raising the price of a visit from the company doctor. It was a slap in the face to the miners. An act of bad faith they vowed not to forget.
Prices were going up, wages were going down, and my father couldn’t even drown his sorrows in a pint of beer. Prohibition had officially gone into effect on January 29, 1920, outlawing the sale of alcohol, much to my father’s dismay. He blamed the little old ladies and their temperance leagues. This was their doing, he said, conveniently ignoring the fact that my mother had quietly championed the cause as well.
Though Prohibition had come early to West Virginia, starting in 1914, that had never stopped my father from getting a drink before, national Prohibition certainly wasn’t going to stop him now. It just made it harder, and things were hard enough already.
I was putting some eggs on my father’s plate when he broke the silence with a string of curses, enough to make me cringe, and it took a lot of cursing to make me cringe.
Looks like he had found something else to add to his list of problems.
“Twenty-seven percent!” he exclaimed.
Did I even want to know?