Kelsey Maki is an assistant professor of English at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. As a writer, Kelsey’s first love is literary fiction, but she also writes travel articles, dabbles in magical realism, and pens an occasional poem.
Her writing has been published in the print collection Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women—Volume I and online at Panoply, WritersResist.com and WhatTravelWritersSay.com. Her website is available at kelseymaki.com.
People in my town don’t have time for abstractions. Some of us can barely breathe, let alone listen. We have black lung and kidney disease and cancer. Our kids are overdosing on painkillers. We don’t want to hear about the root causes of income inequality or listen to a lecture on the declining market value of metallurgical coal. No. We want someone who’s willing to raise a little hell, flush out the system, clear whatever shit is stopping the flow of opportunity to our tiny town. In Clemency, West Virginia, we pick politicians who have the most hate, turnip-faced men who articulate the anger we’re told not to feel.
Clarification: When I say “we,” I don’t mean me. I would never vote for a snake-oil salesman who has stupidly stumbled into success, a small-minded narcissist with his eyes in the rearview mirror. I stand proudly with the 17% who went the other way. But the dissenters in my town aren’t talking, and the other side—after so many years of being overlooked—is acting bold. I’ve seen them with their shotguns, standing on slanted porches, daring me to encroach with my peace offering. When this happens, I raise my plastic jugs and wait for them to lower their weapons. Most do, but the ones that don’t will have to figure out another way to get clean water.
Shari says I need to stop provoking people. She says I should’ve known better than to slap a “Feel the Bern” sticker on the back of my pick-up. It doesn’t matter that I’m a fourth-generation West Virginian. It doesn’t matter that my father, a miner, was killed six years ago in a Black Mountain Energy explosion. It doesn’t matter that two years after Dad died, my mother went off the rails, out of her head on meth. Everyone in town knows my story, and they were proud to claim me as their own when I won the state wrestling championships, but the same people who cheered when I placed in nationals, when my success in sports was a point of pride in our small town, now see me as a traitor, an outsider, the enemy—a view that has remained despite my diagnosis.
It’s been two months since the doctor spotted my inoperable brain tumor and I’m still on the fence about chemo because I’ve seen too many people bed-ridden by the so-called cure. Other than an occasional headache, I feel fine. I’m still working as a medical transcriptionist, still trying to decipher the garbled recordings of nurses as I attempt to create a written record of other people’s health problems. When I’m not working, I deliver clean water to the people affected by the chemical spill, filling plastic jugs from the faucet of a relatively rich friend that lives three towns over.
Since the spill, people have been paying attention to our town. Case in point: in a few short hours, my face will be beamed across the country as I attempt to give “the West Virginia perspective” on what happened. Excitement spins in my stomach as I roll down the highway on a Greyhound bus, wondering why—out of all the residents in my great Mountain State—they picked me. It might be my blog, which has seen a steady uptick in followers, or it might be that viral video: one minute and fifty-two seconds of footage that shows me doing something stupid, a drunken prank caught on someone’s phone and posted to YouTube.
The woman from the network assured me she wouldn’t bring up the video, and WFUN was footing the bill for my hotel and transportation, so I thought what the hell? Carpe fucking diem. People in my town don’t listen when I’m standing right in front of them, but my words might resonate when I’m shouting through a screen instead of shouting in someone’s face. These days, I’m always shouting. Shouting about our shitty water, about big coal’s decimation of our land, shouting about the politicians who refuse to protect us, and the idiots who deny climate change despite all evidence to the contrary. I feel like I’m screaming at a world that’s completely insane, hollering into a huge storm, my tiny voice powerless against this great, roaring ignorance.
My heart is racing. I’m sweating. Breathe. It’s a trick Shari taught me, and for a moment I almost miss her. My mind slows and slips back into the present. I stare out the windows, as my New York-bound bus bumps over hills and slides through secret hollows—passing towns where people still live in trailers or coal-company shacks. On the highway, we flash through Maryland and roll into Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, on a four-lane road that runs past refineries, the summer sun slants through the windows and I feel suddenly tired. The air up here is different, orange-hued and heavy. Stuck in afternoon traffic, sweating through my shirt, I close my eyes and nap. In Port Authority, I wake up to some dude shaking my shoulder. Time to get off the bus, buddy. His words hang in the air, and for a moment he looks like a sage or a specter, floating off before I have a chance to ask about the best place to hail a cab.
On the street, everyone is moving. Fast. I stumble into a place where people are waiting for taxis. The man driving my cab has dark skin and neatly combed hair. Beads of sweat dot his upper lip. Strings of beads dangle from his rearview mirror. His dashboard resembles a shrine in which so many tiny gold Buddhas—some fat and smiling, others slim and meditative—have come to mingle. I watch the meter tick and hope WFUN will make good on its promise to pay. The cab takes a tight corner and rolls to a stop in a suspiciously empty parking lot.
Where I’m supposed to go next is unclear. I pull a paper from my pocket and call the number. The woman sounds surprised when I tell her I’m here. She orders me to wait outside the building, which is windowless and black. Everything is starting to feel a little surreal. I stand beside a door without a handle, sparking cigarettes to pass the time. My excitement turns to apprehension as I run through my pack. I’m trying not to think about all that could go wrong, opting, instead, to take in my surroundings, the looming buildings and complicated cacophony of street noises. It’s uncomfortable: standing in the sweltering parking lot, smoking cigarettes with a change of clothes draped over my forearm, carrying my pants and shirt the same way a butler carries his white cloth, trying to act dignified despite feeling demeaned.
I wait twenty minutes before calling again.
“Oh my God! I got totally sidetracked!” The woman, recognizing my number, offers an apology before I have time to speak. “I’m coming right out!”
The door swings open and a blast of cold air hits me. In the threshold, blocking the entrance, stands a blandly attractive woman with hair that’s yellow and hard. Her lips are parted and it’s impossible not to be acutely aware of her teeth, which are unnaturally white. I’m about to smile back, but I stop myself, remembering my two dead teeth, which, unfortunately, are in the front. The woman’s eyes graze my clothes: a sweat-stained Steelers tee and basketball shorts that hang past my knees. I have no idea what she’s thinking. Her skin is pulled tight; her face, a mask. I look down, pretending to be suddenly interested in my funeral clothes, in my pants and shirt, both black, but not the same shade. The dry cleaner’s protective sheath is thin and warm and I’m worried that the blazing sun might melt it, leaving a layer of goo on my one nice outfit.
“Noah Bainbridge?” The woman smiles and extends her hand.
“That’s my name.” I wipe my sweaty palm on my shorts before shaking.
“Misty Walton, W-F-U-N News.” She pumps my hand. “You really should stay in your street clothes.” She smiles again, a blinding white flash, more disorienting than the heat.
“Okay.” I’ll agree to anything as long as it gets me inside.
Misty raises a slender finger and motions for me to follow her, which I do, ducking inside the building, trailing her down a series of secret corridors, my eyes adjusting to the darkness.
The building is strangely silent save the clip-clap of Misty’s shoes and the swish of sheathing against my leg, a shivering metronome keeping time as I follow Misty down the dim hallway, which eventually empties into a large room, where floodlights are focused on a newsdesk. Beside the desk stands a table with sparse offerings: fruit, bottled water, bags of chips. People wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “WFUN CREW” are milling around the table. Misty points to the corner, to a small dressing room where she tells me to wait. I grab a bottle of water and two bags of chips before retreating to the room.
In my plywood cave, I sit on a metal folding chair beside a tiny table and a stack of stupid magazines with blurbs intended to con people into feeling unworthy or unprepared: “10 Tricks to Banish Belly Fat,” “Summer Sizzle: All the Best Gear for Grilling,” and “Man Think: How to Seem Smarter than You Actually Are.” I eat my chips, drink my water, and wait, wishing I’d brought some books. Most people don’t know this about me, but I’m addicted to non-fiction. From science, to politics, to history—I read it all. People in my town think I’m part of some left-wing conspiracy when I refute their opinions with actual evidence: I’m talking unbiased statistics and shit. I take a deep breath and contemplate putting on my funeral clothes. For one, it’s cold. Also, I’m curious to see what will happen if I defy Misty’s directions.
* * *
Noah Bainbridge roars up my gravel driveway in his pickup, plastic jugs rattling in the cargo bed. The jugs are dusted with dirt by the time he arrives, but at least the water is clean. I watch him out the window and wonder what it would be like if we were the same age. I’m twenty years too old for him, but that doesn’t stop me from fantasizing.
“It’s about time.” I punch open the screen door and step outside in my slippers. It’s still early and I’m too tired to put on proper clothes.
“Good to see you too.” Noah speaks with an unlit cigarette hanging low on his lip. This takes talent. I always think it, but I never say it. He places two plastic jugs on my porch and goes back to get more, his head brushing the Make America Great Again! flag I’ve strung above the stairs.
“I heard you was going on television.” I say this with suspicion, hoping he notices.
“Somebody should.” He drops two jugs—thump, thump—then mumbles some “truth to power” nonsense, which I ignore.
“Where’s Shari?” I ask.
“She’s home contemplating the nutritional content of kale,” he says, sparking his cigarette.
I smile. “Sounds about right.” Since Noah’s diagnosis, Shari has turned into a health nut. We all laugh at her, but I can’t say I’d act any different if he were mine.
“I’m tired of her telling me what to eat. God forbid I do anything fun.” He takes a long drag and blows the smoke out the side of his mouth.
“Bet your drunk ass got in trouble after that video!” I’m speaking a little too loudly, trying to embarrass him. It was a dumb prank, and I know some people in our town are seriously pissed, but not me. Actually, I thought it was funny. Even after the tenth time watching, I still laugh.
“Shippenblank wanted to have me arrested. He dropped that shit as soon as he found out how my dad died.” Noah stands still. A cone of ash forms on the tip of his cigarette. He has that wounded, thoughtful look in his eyes.
“Thanks for the water,” I say. I’m trying not to look at him. It doesn’t matter. The outline of his body—strong shoulders, tight butt—is burned in my brain.
“I know it’s not enough. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He leans over the railing to ash off my porch.
“Not on the fucking flowers!” I yell.
“Shit, sorry.” He jumps back, squints, then laughs. “Plastic flowers? That’s some country shit, Lorelai.”
I laugh too, but my laughter feels a little too intimate, so I shut it down by saying something mean: “Your secondhand smoke is gonna kill me before the water gets a chance.” I stare at him with a scowl I’ve perfected. I’m angry at how he makes me feel. This dying kid and his sexy arms. I watch his smile fade. He drops his cigarette and stomps it out. Sure, the paint is peeling, but my porch is my porch and stomping out a cigarette is an asshole thing to do.
* * *
I’ve been sitting here—freezing—for more than an hour and still no sign of Misty. The crew, when I ask, says that everyone is new and Misty is the only one who knows what’s going on. It’s an upstart network whose goal is to be “CNN for the next generation.” I want to tell them that their target audience doesn’t watch TV, but I keep these comments to myself.
Misty strides into my small dressing room and gives me a sympathetic look. “I’ve been reading about you on the internet. Who would’ve thought that a wrestler from such a tiny town would medal in the national championships!”
“I haven’t wrestled since my junior year. Knee injury.”
“That doesn’t matter. I think you’ll be a great subject. And handsome, too.” Misty smiles aggressively. “Do you really have a blog about your brain tumor?” Her smile is gone. She leans in, demanding an answer.
“It’s not a regular thing. I write when I have a realization that might help someone.” I speak while digging for my cigarettes. I’m not bothered by her question, but her tone, her air of entitlement, makes me mad. I light a cigarette and take a drag, ready to raise my middle finger to the NO SMOKING sign.
“You’re like a saint or something. Saint Noah,” she says.
“No.” I tell her. “They call me ‘No’ for short. Spelled N-O. Or maybe K-N-O-W on a good day.” Bad jokes are a nervous habit of mine, and if anyone can appreciate homophone humor, it should be a newscaster, right?
But Misty doesn’t smile. “You shouldn’t be smoking,” she says, pointing to the signs. “Besides, we’ll be live soon.” She strides across the room and takes a seat at her desk. “If you need to do anything, do it now.”
“I’m fine,” I say, sinking into the seat on the other side of the desk. I wait while Misty fluffs her hair beneath the floodlights. She looks relaxed and poised, which is the opposite of how I feel. A red light flashes: ON AIR! and my stomach spins in sync with the flashing. I close my eyes and try picturing a positive outcome, a mindtrick from my wrestling days, but instead of pinning someone to the mat, I imagine myself engaged in a complex dance of logic and wordplay. I’m saying something profound, uttering words that will make people realize the truth about Black Mountain Energy and CEOs like Shippenblank.
“I’m here with Noah Bainbridge, lifelong resident of West Virginia. He’s going to tell us what it’s like to live in a place where the people are poor and powerless.” Misty feels far away, her words wiz by like asteroids. I say nothing and float on. There’s a pain—sudden and sharp—in my shin. Misty doesn’t apologize for kicking me. “Noah, tell the good people of our country about the work you’re doing delivering clean water to the residents of your town.”
“There are people doing a lot more than me . . .” My voice sounds distorted, as if some strange gravitational field is stretching and bending my words. In front of me, Misty is receding, her form a shrinking blur. I look around. The faces of the crew appear as bright and barren as tiny moons. Never in my life have I felt so far away.
* * *
“I know you didn’t just drop your cigarette on my porch.” I’m angry. There’s no point trying to hide it.
“I’m sorry, Ms. McCoy.” Noah picks up the stomped cigarette and puts it in his pocket. He thinks this “Ms. McCoy” act will get him off. “There. All gone.” He wipes his hands on his tee shirt.
“You shouldn’t be smoking.” I say it mean, not wanting to sound sensitive, not wanting to show my concern, my fear, which is mixed with anger and made to look like something else.
“It’s not like it matters.” He smiles, but I can see he’s not amused.
“Poor you! Stop moping. We’re all dying, most of us just aren’t aware of it.” I don’t know the details of his condition, why they can’t do anything to help him, and I don’t ask.
“The famous McCoy family finally has a philosopher? No shit.”
“Time to grow up, Noah.”
“Time to take down that fuckin’ flag, Lorelai.” He’s pointing at my Make America Great Again! banner, which is already starting to fray.
“Stop acting like you’re so evolved! It’s a free country!”
“Is it?” Noah asks. I can see that he’s thinking. “Freedom of speech, right to bear arms,” I rattle off a few Rights then pause, waiting to see if he’s listening. He isn’t.
* * *
“How would you respond to those who’ve never been to your state, to people who don’t understand your problems, to those who would label you and your family, and pardon my rudeness, ‘rednecks’ or ‘white trash’?” Misty’s eyes are cool and hard. She doesn’t look like she gives a shit about offending me.
“The term ‘white trash’ is a slur. People like you are only making things worse.” As soon as I say it, the world draws into sharper focus and I feel strangely lucid.
“You sound like a serious person who wants serious change. Yet some would say the stunt you pulled at The Freedom Festival distracts us from this.” Misty adjusts her earpiece and signals to someone I can’t see. Behind her desk, a large screen descends. A feeling of dread washes over me as I wait for what I know is coming. From the phone call, to the bus ride, to the dressing room—I’d been worried it would come to this.
Onscreen, a pixelated cellphone video plays. An aging rocker in a cowboy hat stands surrounded by flags. He strums his guitar and a mess of distorted sound floods the newsroom. It’s as if the Star Spangled Banner is being shredded then sloppily restitched. On the side of the stage, stands the union-busting CEO of Black Mountain Energy, the man with the worst mine safety record in the country, Thomas “T. Rex” Shippenblank, who looks more than a little ridiculous in his red, white, and blue costume, a spandex outfit that highlights his girth. Seeing Shippenblank, even if it’s only on a screen, makes my heart race. My muscles tense as I think about my father’s death and Shippenblank’s lack of concern for anything other than the bottom line.
All of this happened exactly one month earlier, on the Independence Day celebration at the so-called “Freedom Festival,” a pro-coal rally designed to turn the people in my town against each other, to convince us of an either-or-fallacy: jobs or the environment. Why people are still falling for this shit I’ll never know. I blame Shippenblank for the death of my father and the toxicity of our water. I blame Shippenblank for the pro-coal propaganda that has poisoned the minds of people in my town.
In the video, Shippenblank thanks Ted Gunnison for his rendition (read: destruction) of our national anthem then proceeds to insult the “greeniacs” and “elitist enemies of coal.” The crowd is getting rowdy and the shaky video pans around to show people, patriotically dressed, jeering and booing. Before long, the jeers and boos coalesce into an organized chant: “Coal Pride! Coal Pride! Coal Pride!”
My buddies, the men in this town who know what’s really going on, had wanted nothing to do with The Freedom Fest. But earlier that day, sucking down some cold ones as we sat beside my barbeque, we began to bat around some ideas. The people at the rally would be drinking and most of them had guns, so we knew that if we did anything, it would have to be more practical joke than protest. Dixon suggested dumping buckets of slurry-infused water on Shippenblank, which seemed like a good, albeit implausible, idea. Then Jeff jumped up and said he had the perfect thing. We stayed seated in our lawn chairs while Jeff ran to his house, which was further down the dirt road that we all lived on. When Jeff returned, he stepped into the center of our circle and held up a small canvas cradle from which dangled a series of resistance bands.
“Behold the balloon launcher!” Jeff shook the contraption for dramatic effect. “We fill some balloons with our shitty water, stake out a spot on the outskirts, and fire during Shippenblank’s speech!”
“Fucking genius!” Mutt grabbed a handful of balloons, colored green and ribbed to resemble grenades.
“Whatever’s in our water will eat at those balloons. No way they’re gonna hold,” I said, filling the role of skeptic, a role I felt entitled to after my diagnosis.
“Let’s test it,” said Dixon.
“You’re about to be disappointed.” I motioned for Mutt to hand me some balloons and ducked inside.
At my kitchen sink, I filled three balloons with water that still smelled like licorice and let the balloons set for a while, thinking they would pop, surprised when they didn’t. I took the balloons outside and placed them in the grass beside the cooler.
“Looks okay. Looks like it will hold.” I said, still waiting for one to pop.
“We should finish the beers, then fill the cooler with ammo,” said Dixon.
“Gotta drink the beers. Except you, No. You’re driving,” Mutt grabbed the last few beers and gave one to everyone in our crew except me, a move that would’ve made Shari proud. He tipped over the cooler and left the ice to melt on the grass. I went inside to fill the balloons, handing them off to Dixon, who stacked them in the cooler.
Water grenades loaded, we piled in my pick-up—Dixon in the front, Jeff and Mutt in the cargo bed in the back. The concert was being held at a “repurposed” mountaintop, where hydroseeded grass is sprayed over scorched earth, in a practice akin to rolling cheap carpet over the site of a nuclear explosion. I was driving slowly, afraid to take the bumps too fast, not wanting our ammo to explode, fearful we’d arrive with nothing but some ruptured balloons sloshing inside our cooler. I knew the boys were getting rowdy when they began to sing “We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn!” The thought that this prank might not be our best idea crossed my mind, but we were having too much fun to stop. On the neon-green grass, we staked a spot on the outskirts of the rally and waited for Shippenblank’s speech.
The video, of course, shows none of this. There’s no footage of the launch: Dixon and Mutt, standing a few feet apart, each holding his separate handle high. You can’t see me as I place the balloon in its canvas cradle and take several steps back, pulling the cords taut, setting my sights on Shippenblank, trying to gauge the trajectory of the grenade I’m about to launch.
Misty—her head turned, her eyes fixed on the screen—watches while a water balloon shoots toward the stage. There’s a collective gasp, then a hush, as the grenade sails past Shippenblank and knocks off Ted Gunnison’s cowboy hat. Shippenblank drops the microphone and stands stone-still, staring dumbly at the crowd. A few seconds later, another balloon flashes across the screen, flying fast and straight, smacking Shippenblank in the middle of his fat face. People yell as Shippenblank falls to his knees and shields his head. There’s a swirl of people as the cellphone videographer spins around in an attempt to locate the shooters. By this time, Dixon and Mutt have dropped the handles of the launcher and are running toward the truck.
The video zooms in on me, holding the launcher while trying to drag the cooler across the grass. The crowd is chanting “Lock him up! Lock him up! Lock him up!”—like I’m some kind of criminal. I ditch the launcher and the cooler and sprint across the grass, slowing only when my foot snags on someone’s discarded blanket. My stomach spins as I stumble, taking two unstable strides before accelerating across the parking lot. The chant is louder now. Fortunately I’m no longer in the picture, peeling out in my pick-up somewhere outside the frame. The video ends, the screen goes blank, and Misty turns her attention to me.
“Shippenblank said he would’ve sued had your father not been among the brave men lost at Black Mountain.” Misty says this matter-of-factly. I’m trying to control my anger, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of seeing me react. What I want to say: You lied, Misty. You’re a liar and your viewers need to know this.
What I say instead: “Why don’t you report on the unsafe mining practices instead of making a story out of some stupid water balloon? Don’t you trust the intelligence of your audience? Why don’t you tell them about how my father wasn’t allowed to take his safety equipment into the mine? You know how precautions can eat into profits . . .”
Misty is not moved. She refuses to respond to my point. “Did you read what people are saying in the comments section below your video?” Her voice is high-pitched and abrasive. “Some are saying you’re a fool, while others claim that you’re pioneering a new form of environmental protest that weaponizes water balloons. Was bombing Shippenblank with the water he poisoned a deliberate attempt at irony?”
My response is reflexive, quick: “I don’t consider a water balloon a weapon. Most people I know would find your questions ridiculous.” And suddenly I feel a strange solidarity with the people of Clemency, even if most of them disagree with what I did.
“So,” Misty’s brow is furrowed and her eyes are stormy. I can see she’s contemplating a counterpunch, payback for my previous comment. “You seem to be saying that the residents of your town are apolitical.”
“That’s not what I said and if you’d really done any research, you’d know that.” Sweat pricks my underarms. My head is hot with anger. “Here’s a history lesson: in my state, there’s a long legacy of activism. The real rednecks were pro-union miners that signaled their solidarity by wearing red bandannas around their necks. Some were black, many were immigrants, but all were poor. I know this doesn’t neatly fit into your narrative about us ‘intolerant hicks.’”
Misty is stunned. She says nothing, so I keep going.
“At the Battle of Blair Mountain, people from different cultures stood shoulder to shoulder, seeking safe working conditions and fair pay, standing up to the state police and the US Army in the largest confrontation since the Civil War.” I feel a surge of confidence. Me vs. Misty: it’s a match I can win. I feel the stories—the ones I’ve read and the ones I’ve lived, everything in my swirling experience—coming together and rising in a cresting wave containing my knowledge, my history.
* * *
“Really, Lorelai?” Noah shakes his head and smiles devilishly. “You want to get into an amendment fight? Do you have any idea how many books I’ve read?”
“Stop lookin’ so smug. You and your frigging books! And you wonder why the people in this town don’t like you? A local boy who does good by bringing us clean water, one of our own who will soon fall to cancer, you’d think everyone would love you! But no one does!” As soon as the words are out, I realize I’ve gone too far. It’s the meanest thing I’ve ever said. I shake my head and sit down on the steps of my porch. I’m remembering Noah as a boy, then a man, holding his championship medal on the front page of our paper, back when our town still had a newspaper.
I am a hard woman, a sour woman, a strong woman. Yet I feel as if I want to hang my head and cry: for Noah, for me, for all the forgotten people who live in our tiny town. I wonder if there will ever be a way for us to get past this meanness. It’s a question I want to ask Noah, but when I open my eyes and look up, he’s gone.