Writer's Workshop

Up the River

© Clara Hume. All rights reserved.

Full disclosure for those who do not know. This is Mary Woodbury, and my pen name is Clara Hume. This book is slated for publication in 2020. I’m still working on it, and the date might get bumped up due to fossil fuels being such a ridiculous problem. When we should be moving away from then, the US elected a leader who relies on them. This novel is about an oil spill carrying Albertan bitumen in a pipeline through the southeastern US. I will most likely be sharing several excerpts here, and recognize the rough draftness of them. I am not trying to dominate the drafts. I just want to help kickstart this site!

Chapter 1 – Pretty Polly

A foul stench swept into the Collins’ place on the third of June. The chemical, acrid, nose-wrenching invasion toppled over the old estate, which sat in a jungle of trees, vines, and flowers north of Mosstree, Kentucky. Winding through the valleys surrounding the mountain that arose beyond the Collins’ woods was the Overmountain Creek, a distributary of the Kentucky River up north and then, along its twisted path, fed into the South Fork Kentucky River southeast of the homestead. Maybe the smell came from there. Or the forest. Or a factory way down in Manchester. The patriarch of the family, Cecil “Pappaw” Collins, said out loud to his bored wife Mayme that he’d never smelled anything like it. She hadn’t either. Later the wind would shift, the deathly odor going out of focus, like a dream temporarily diving back to its depths, sinking into a mystical ocean beneath consciousness.  

Throughout the sultry, uncomfortable day, hot winds floated through the valley, swooping down from the highest green hills and the sky above them, and the wicked odor became annoying and mysterious. Pappaw figured they’d hear about it soon enough, maybe on the afternoon news, but the reporters said nothing about it. Mammaw called around, and the neighbors smelled it too, some more strongly, especially the Amburgeys up north aways up closer to White Ash. But nobody could pinpoint it. Out back, beyond the Collins Estate–the yard, pond, and gardens–the rolling hills of Kentucky’s Appalachians melted into an endless sky shadowed by rainclouds to the west and windy sunshine to the east. The smell, he figured, was somewhere in the hills.

Pappaw forgot about it when the winds shifted and took the smell away. He sat in his favorite whittling chair on the front porch. His face looked like a raisin with brown dimples and crinkled thoroughfares revealing the years he had drank Overmountain Creek Bourbon and then the subsequent years he dried up after dropping that habit, due to his liver. His hazel-brown eyes had sunk into his face, as he was a skinny man, and his high cheekbones stuck out prominently like bookends. His stately face was a parchment with its lines and furrows and many tales.

He chewed tobacco and whittled pine while sitting on his favorite chair made of wrought iron; its white and lime paint had peeled away throughout the years. He would stop working to look at the sky or wipe the pine resin off his pocket knife or look at the yard or talk to his wife. On the seat of his wrought iron chair was a cushion Mayme had made decades ago. Its stuffing was nothing to be sentimental about, but she had embroidered on the cushion’s fabric, in a homemade script, lyrics from a love ballad called “Pretty Polly.” With beige thread, Mayme had sewn, “My mind is to marry and never to part. The first time I saw you, it wounded my heart.” The thing had intended to show her fierce love for him when they had met at age 16, but in reality the song was a murder ballad, which had gone through different versions throughout time; in the lines of the song Mayme remembered there was talk of a man who had led his mistress over mountains and into the forest.

“So he could stab her in the heart and bury her in a shallow grave,” Pappaw had said laughing, so long ago. He never told her just how much he treasured the cushion (he did claim it was good enough for his butt), but it was like a security blanket, and he faithfully sat on it every day, with a good supply of tobacco, sweet tea, and pine wood nearby.

He didn’t make delicate pieces or really anything at all. He just liked to scrape wood and let the shavings amass on his lap. He’d whittle on the porch through winter melts, white umbrella skies, soft jasmine mornings, giddy afternoons, willow green summers, and golden and brisk autumns. He’d whittle and chew until it was time for bed–only moving to join Mammaw for meals or to go to the bathroom or to watch the news. One day a year, he would watch the Kentucky Derby too. Whenever he went inside, he would stand up and let the wood shavings fall around his feet. He liked the feel of it–the soft, flakey accumulation of the day’s subtle moments falling away. But Mammaw always yelled at him about it because it was she who had to sweep them up. Sometimes she waited a few days to see if he would clean up his own mess, but she knew better.

He was the most stubborn man in all of Lee County, and all the surrounding counties, and even the state of Kentucky. She had tried, when they married at age 18, to get him to pick up his dirty socks, and it never worked. Not even when she let them pile up till he had no clean socks left. He just put on a dirty pair of socks, and he never yelled back at her for not warshing them. It bothered her so, just like the collection of wood shavings did–especially as the pile got bigger and bigger, cluttering their porch. Eventually she would give in, but not without a lecture.

If there was one thing Mayme Collins did well, it was to scrub and iron and cook–and those things indeed were singular if you thought about it: housework. She was proud of their porch that wrapped around their two story house, which, to her husband Cecil’s credit, was kept in good form. He’d always regularly fixed things, painted, sanded, rewired, flushed, you name it–until he got old and got his sons to do these things, which, they did, except for Jimmy who had moved to California and whom Mayme and Cecil wished would come home someday.

They’d raised five children–all boys except the youngest, Lily. And the house was big enough for all of them, though in their part of Kentucky, after small farms and coal-mining went by the wayside, and even before then, the Collins were always struggling to make ends meet. What they did have, land and a house, were now sought out by rich city folks as a sure commodity. A house like this in a big city would cost a million dollars or more, definitely more if you included the land around it, which was five acres of green Kentucky bluegrass and pine forest nestled between the crevices of Appalachian ridges. In the front yard magnolias bloomed with white and pink delicate petals in the spring, bald cypresses cried, a large weeping willow tree spread its shade, and oak trees rose from the soft green grass to the sky, standing like statues of gods. Spanish moss and bougainvillea and jasmine sputtered about trees and grass, and they were nice to look at if you sat on the porch under soft sunlight while drinking a mint julep. When Mammaw had company, she liked to set a spell out on the porch while involving herself in gossip and getting a little buzzed on bourbon. Even though her Baptist upbringing spoke of the drink as the devil, she had justified it in moderation. Peer pressure. She hadn’t drunk while growing up, no sirree. Her parents would have whipped her. She saved that silent rebellion for her post-childbearing years. By the time you’re over 40, she always said, you deserved a little tottie. Anyway, Pappaw needed to get one of the boys to repaint the front porch, but she’d been slow on reminding him, what with John’s wife just having given birth to their third kid and Bobby just losing his job, Cletus just having graduated college and looking for a job, and Lily getting ready for her final year at college –well, the paint job could wait, she supposed.

Mammaw sat down in her wooden rocker on the front porch, adjacent to Pappaw, and he gave her no mind as she spread out a newspaper on her lap and began to snap beans, throwing the good beans into a colander. Under the newspaper was her flowery apron and under that a cotton dress that sacked over her robust body. Hadn’t always been like this. She’d been a thin woman until after having all those children, but even then she hadn’t ballooned up too much until she after raising kids and her metabolism and energy began to turtle.

“Lawdy, that smell is back,” Mammaw started. “Hey, I hear Rosie Gibson got pulled over for a DWI,” Mammaw said.

Pappaw said, “Now that’s a tangent if I ever heard one. Did Rosie get arrested?”

“Naw! Peter Mackenzie was the officer what stopped her. He has a thing for the young girls. He let her go home, but followed her and then went in to tell her mama all about it, all on account Rosie wouldn’t accept a date with him. Can you imagine? Anyway, Ellen still yells at her kids like it’s nobody’s business. I reckon that’s worse than a ticket or going to jail.”

Pappaw thought about that, and while he thought, he stretched his mouth into a coy grin and blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth. He was facing the big willow tree that centered their blue-green lawn.

Mammaw said, “You blowin’ smoke in my face again.” She contorted her cheeks and flapped her hands about, fanning the smoke away. “How many times do I have to tell you to blow the other way.”

Pappaw sobered up but let out a snicker a moment later when she stopped giving him the glare of death, turned her face away, and went back to make sure her beans were good, with no dark spots.

“Well, serves her right,” he said. “I guess.”

Mammaw nodded. “She done got one before already, when she was just seventeen. Why, she takes right after her daddy. You used to be that way too,” she reminded him.

Mammaw was the biggest Reminder. She would never let him forget his years of drinking. He’d never been a mean drunk or a cheating drunk. He had never even driven drunk unless it was a hay wagon or a horse. He only drank at home, and only did it to zone out from a nagging wife along with five independent and stubborn children, but he was still nice as a butterfly about it. He fell asleep at the proper time, though not always at the proper place. Sometimes in the front yard or on his settee–once down at their pond when he had gotten the bright idea to catch some catfish to surprise Mammaw with, for she would be mad he was drunk again. But it took forever to find his tackle box in the old shed, and by the time he’d resolutely marched across the back yard to the pond and sat down to begin to hook the bait, he’d realized he was so tired and fallen asleep right there.

“It’s a good thing Lily don’t hang out with that girl Rosie,” Pappaw said. While Mammaw could remind him of everything under the sun, he was a good distractor.

“Lawdie, yes,” she agreed. “Lily don’t hang out with anyone though.”

Pappaw nodded and said, “Mmm hmm,” similar to the way a congregation would agree with their preacher.

“That girl has a weird way about her, that Lily of ours.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“I ‘spect she’s smart enough to graduate college soon. But she doesn’t jive with the rest of her peers.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“And she feels awfully funny about her webbed toe.”

“Mmm hmmm.”

Mammaw threw a bean at him. “You sound like a moron.”

“Mmm hmmm.”

At that moment, their daughter Lily stepped out to the front porch, delicately placing her bare feet one in front of the other on the gray peeling wooden planks of the porch. She didn’t talk much because she was usually surrounded by big talkers and hadn’t ever gotten a word in, but there was no more beautiful woman in all of Lee County or the surrounding counties or possibly the state of Kentucky.

She’d been born a towhead with olive skin, and into her 21st year now, she still had light downy hair just at her forehead, while the rest of her head was covered with golden-brown curls that flowed down her back, but her eyes were what really threw one off. They were mostly light green with hints of blue and gold. Mammaw always said she looked like an Eastern European, though their family had been Scottish and Irish.

“Hi, pumpkin,” Pappaw said to his daughter.

“Hullo, daddy,” she responded. She sat across from Mammaw, who handed her some beans. Lily began snapping them and throwing the good beans into the colander. She was dressed in a white cotton dress that women would have worn several decades before and which looked completely out of place in the modern age. While snapping beans, she looked out at the yard, her expression tired and bored, her eyes settling on nothing in particular.

“I hear Rosie got pulled over last night,” Mammaw said. “DWI.”

“Mama, just what is that smell?” Lily said. She avoided the gossip her mama always tried to start.

“Tangent,” said her father.

“I am glad you ain’t like Rosie, Lily. And we don’t know where that smell is coming from. The sheriff is supposed to let us know,” her mama said.

Lily switched her eyes to the willow and focused on the old tire swing that was her favorite thing as a child, and she still liked swinging on it. She didn’t respond to her mama, for she could give two shits about Rosie Gibson. Her mind was on finishing her forestry degree this coming year.

The phone rang, and nobody moved to answer it. They did not have cell phones, not even Lily, for she was anti-technology. Lily disappeared into the house, like a cloud, and Mammaw finally finished her beans.

“Want some sweet tea, old man?” she asked Pappaw.

He did not immediately answer because he was lost somewhere in a different realm where all his kids were here, running about the house screaming, except for Lily who had always been quiet. He missed those times and the way Mammaw’s aprons and soft dresses would float with her movements and the way her hard but worn shoes would clomp around the upstairs as she yelled and cleaned and reminded. But he did like life now, he admitted to himself–the peaceful porch and yard, the sounds of crickets at night, the flickering of June bugs and moths at the porch’s night lamp.

Mammaw huffed and said, “I think your mind is going, old man.”

“Huh?”

“I asked if you wanted some sweet tea. I reckon you are having a slight fit, staring off into space.”

“I’ll take some tea,” he said.

At that moment, Lily came back out, phone in hand, and said, “Bobby said that he got a job.”

Mammaw grabbed the phone from Lily and said, “Bobby, it’s about time, son. Where’d you get a job at?”

There was some silence, and Pappaw went back to dreaming and Lily slouched down on her chair again with her mouth becoming petulant. She looked up at Mammaw who was suddenly frantic on the phone and whose face was going ashen.

“I’ll be darned, Bobby!” she said. “Can’t believe your luck, though the circumstances are awful, indeed. Should we come up?”

After a few more moments, she hung up the phone. “Well, Bobby got a job with the pipelines. Only, it was sort of an emergency crew job. There’s been a spill up on an Overmountain Creek tributary. Happened late last night, and only this afternoon has the oil company from Canada sent down engineers and put together local cleanup crews. That’s the smell.”

Lily sat straight up. “I’ll be damned,” she said. Her golden curly hair had a halo of light from the sun behind it.

She walked quickly into the house, leaving her parents to only guess what might be going through her mind, but they had long ago given up on figuring that out.

Mammaw had the look of worry on her face, but it was more about how to house and feed a bunch of young men. “I’m going to snap some more beans. Bobby said he is up at the river now and will be done around eight. He and some buddies are coming over for supper. Those boys’ll eat like horses, I reckon. They might spend the night too.”

Pappaw had that faraway look in his eyes again. “I knew those pipelines on were up to no good,” Pappaw said.

“That’s what everyone says, but they still drive anyhow,” Mammaw said.

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