"He wasn't just posing either, like a lot of lefties were back then, like college lefties, who you just knew were going to cut off their hair in a few years and go to work for some company, or keep it long and get tenure. He was the real deal. And it was Robbens County, too." She looked at Marlene and saw the incomprehension she expected.
"No, you never heard of it. Neither had I before I got there. They used to call it Red Robbens. The unions against the owners, like it was all through the coal country back around the turn of the century, but in Robbens it was different, and worse. The labor stuff was just overlaid on top of a kind of low-level tribal war that'd been going on there for a hundred years. Some families sided with the owners, some were union, so the violence was particularly bad. For a while there were whole hollers up there with no males over twelve in them. All the men were dead or in prison. They sent in the National Guard for a while, but it didn't stop the killing. The soldiers were afraid to go up into the hills, and there weren't any decent roads to get them up there, either. The area didn't really settle down until the war and the government made sure that the coal kept flowing and made the companies settle with the union. Then they started pit mining and the whole thing collapsed." Rose stopped and laughed nervously. "Oh, God, I'm being a bore, aren't I? You don't want to hear about the industrial history of Robbens County, West Virginia."
Marlene laughed, too. "Since you asked...but I take it there was an attraction. I mean that night."
"Oh, God, yes. I wanted to throw my body into the cause."
"So to speak."
Rose chuckled. "Right, that, too. It's such a cliché, I know -- well-brought-up girl from Long Island meets working stiff. But the work -- he made it seem real, not just theory but real, about really helping suffering people find their dignity. Anyway, that's the story. After my VISTA hitch was over I moved into his place. A trailer. My parents went nuts, of course, but they had to stand for it, given the times, and the fact that in three months I was pregnant with Emmett. At least he's white, as my father charmingly said, more than once." Rose fell silent and looked out past the kids, to the Sound.
"So, is it almost heaven?" Marlene asked lightly.
"West Virginia? Formerly. The parts that aren't scarred, they're really lovely -- blue hills rising out of the mist, the woods full of flowers in the spring. But the damage is awful -- whole mountains reduced to slag. Majestic is less than responsible in reclamation, and they have, let's say, a good deal of influence with the legislature." In response to Marlene's inquiring look Rose added, "Majestic Coal Company. They're practically the only employer, so as you can imagine, there's not much environmental consciousness, except for the Robbens Environmental Coalition. Which is me, and a bunch of high school students and the Presbyterian minister. And" -- here Rose waved her hands and rolled her eyes -- "and, McCullensburg is a little sparse culturally. On the other hand, there's not much money. Union officials are not the best paid, if they're honest, and Red's as honest as they come. I got a little inheritance when I turned thirty, and we bought a crumbling farmhouse and fixed it up. Talk about stories...if you ever want to be truly bored, I'll tell you about the bats, and the hornets in the well house."
"It sounds like a good, if unexpected, life."
"Oh, sure, it was...is, I mean."
She's going to tell me now, Marlene thought, with a certain sinking of the heart. The guy's having an affair, the oldest boy's on drugs, something. Marlene's husband said that Marlene could take a stroll down Grand Street and before she'd gone two blocks, forty-three women in trouble would have leaped from doors and windows into her path. She knew the signs, anyway, a pinched look, the eyes drifting, the speech a little too positive. This one was on a tight rein, kept it in mostly, would probably come to regret this impromptu, overly casual intimacy with a stranger.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Tanenbaum.
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