A Big Empty

Rhonda Browning White

We hadn’t talked since we left our West Virginia homeplace over two hours ago, both of us teary-eyed, too afraid to put words into  the space already overfull of emotion. Every now and then, I’d  hear Romie sniffle in the seat beside me, and she’d squeeze my  knee, or I’d squeeze hers. It was the only way to say what we felt.  It surprises me then that she speaks when we’re partway through  East River Mountain Tunnel.  

“Look at them cracks,” she says. “You think it’s even safe to  drive through here?”  

I register her words and peer out the Jeep window at the long,  zigzagged cracks between the bricks that hold the land away from  us. “I feel safe,” I say. And I almost do. Five years of underground  mining taught me to seek a measure of calm in the disquiet of  trespassing the belly of the earth. There’s always danger, sure— men get crushed in roof-falls, die in fires and explosions, breathe  silica and coal dust that seizes up their lungs—but surely everybody  knows tearing apart a mountain can kill you. Violence done to the  land can never come to a good end.  

That’s why we’re leaving.  

I reach out a hand and lay it on the soft mound of Romie’s  belly, as if I can protect this life inside of her that is part mine. She  lifts my hand, kisses my palm, and places it again over her womb as  we leave the tunnel and drive into morning brightness.  

Romie miscarried her first baby. We learned she was pregnant  with that one on the day of Daddy’s funeral, but we should have  suspected it sooner, as Romie had been sick a while. She had it  in her head that she had Crohn’s disease, like my daddy. I have to  admit, I worried about that, too, her not eating much, sick to her  stomach, losing weight—just like Daddy started out. Even when she fainted next to Daddy’s casket, I never thought baby. People  faint at funerals, don’t they? Grief, stress, exhaustion. Lord knows,  she’d worn herself down those last days Daddy was alive, cleaning  him, changing him, feeding him ice chips or broth with a teaspoon.  She hardly slept.  

It was Momma’s oldest friend, Bessie Harmon, who held  Romie’s head in her lap right there on the floor of the funeral  home, looked up at me with a smile and said, “You don’t know, do  you? She’s with child.” Bessie was known all over Stump Branch  to be some kind of seer, but if she knew then that Romie’s baby  wouldn’t live but another four months, she didn’t let on. 

The doctor said there was no explanation they could find for  the late miscarriage, but Romie blamed it on the land. Said the  land was poison, poisoned by mountaintop removal mining and  the mine owners. Said if we keep on killing the land, the land has  no choice but to kill us right back.  

Daddy felt that way about the land, too. Months after the  funeral when Romie told me about him wanting to blow up the  mine where I worked, it shocked me. Made me stop and think.  My daddy loved mining. Or used to, before they started lopping  off the mountains. Fifty years he worked underground. Went from  shoveling coal into a rail-cart to watching it gouged out with a  continuous miner and dumped onto conveyor belts. I seen his face  the first time he saw the dragline megaexcavator shearing off the  head of Kayford Mountain. Looked like he’d get sick. 

Made me feel sickly, too, watching the monster that stands taller  than Lady Liberty eat two-hundred-forty ton of mountain in every  bite, two bites a minute. Progress, they call it. Progress that puts  thousands of underground miners like me out of work. Progress  that changes the land forever. Progress that pumps sickness into  the water supply, kills fish and deer and daddies and babies.  

It was Daddy’s plan for me and Romie to pack up and head to  North Carolina, get out of the West Virginia mountains before the  coal companies flatten them all, before the mountains bury us in  return. It felt like a message from beyond, then, when we learned  on the first anniversary of Daddy’s death that Romie was pregnant  again. I knew right then we had to leave. 

By the time we drive through Mount Airy, we’re breathing  easier, talking easier. We plan how to decorate the nursery, and I  tell Romie I want to do it in Flintstones. Put a big old Pebbles and  a Bam-Bam holding a club on the wall over the crib. Romie looks  horrified, and I goose her kneecap, feel a thrill in my chest when  she giggles. I’m excited at the chance for a fresh start, but I still  feel the cord of the mountains pulling at me every time I look in  the rearview mirror. I stare ahead and make myself look towards  what will be. 

Three weeks into my new job, I still ain’t used to working in the  Greensboro heat. I take off my hardhat, wipe the sweat and yellow  dirt from my forehead and look towards the treeline, thirsty for  shade. My first gig with the crew at Billings Construction is to build  a home improvement warehouse, one of them big-box stores that  eats up acres of land. Two of the men I work with are from West  Virginia, and the owner Mack Billings used to spend summers with  his grandparents up in Fairmont. He took a liking to me right away,  said he’d hire more West Virginia boys if they’d come down here.  Said we’re the best workers he’s got, ’cause we know labor, and we  know hard times, and we ain’t afraid to earn our pay.  

I’m earning it, all right. I’m on my second T-shirt today—first  one was dripping wet by ten-thirty—and it’s not even lunchtime.  Leveling footers for concrete under the Carolina sun makes  underground mining in the cool darkness seem like a pleasant  memory, so I know the heat must be affecting my mind. 

Mack landed a contract to build two of the big stores, one each  on opposite sides of Greensboro, and he said that’ll keep us tied  up for nearly a year, though there’s a short break in between he’ll  try to fill. That’s security like I never had. We’ve got good insurance  that even covers our families, so we don’t have to worry about  paying the hospital when Romie has the baby. 

There’s other good benefits, too. Mack graduated Chapel Hill,  and he’s all about his men getting an education. He told all of us  that if we get our EMT license, he’ll pay for the classes, plus he’ll  up our pay seventy-five cents on the hour. Only three months to  graduate, so that’s a deal I’m taking. Mack said it makes us safer  workers, and it lowers company insurance, too.  

Romie loves the idea. “I’ll study your books alongside you,  Jasper,” she says, tossing aside another empty cardboard box. She’s  done most of the unpacking herself while I work, which is just as  well, since she’s particular about where everything goes. Nesting,  Mack called it. “If we study together,” Romie says, “when the  baby’s born and I go to nursing school, I’ll have a jumpstart on the  other students.”  

I think it’s a fine plan, and before long, we’re discussing aortas  and hemophiliacs at the dinner table.  

The whole thing seems funny to me, and I tell Bucky and Mack  about it over lunch. Mack looks at me with that squint he gets  when he ain’t sure about something, and he tells me to be careful  about letting Romie get smarter than me. I ask him what he means.  

“You can’t let your woman pass you by, Jasper. Got to stay  one step ahead of her. Be smarter, be stronger, keep her under  control.”  

I have to laugh. He don’t know Romie like I know Romie.  There ain’t no keeping that woman under control.  Mack watches me a full minute, then he puts a hand on my  shoulder. “Tell you what,” he says, “why don’t we go to B.G.  McGee’s on Saturday, grab a burger and a beer, and watch the  Tarheels beat the Mountaineers.” 

“I’ll be there,” I say. “And we’ll drink a cold one and watch the  Mountaineers whup the Tarheels.”  

Saturday rolls around, and I’m surprised at the way Mack’s  tongue loosens after he downs a few. He starts talking about  women, admits he’s fresh out of his second marriage by only a few  months.  

“Married Satan’s spawn the first time.” Mack smirks. “The  other one wasn’t bad, at first, but then she got above me.” He lifts  an eyebrow, a warning. 

“How do you mean?” 

“It’s what I was talking about on the site the other day.” He  draws the last from his bottle of beer, throws up a meaty hand for  the bartender to bring him another. “She was—is—an attorney.”  I let out a whistle. “That had to hurt.” I chuckle.  

Mack laughs, too. “It could have. She was fair, though. I put  her through law school. You know that mirrored-glass building on  Eugene Street? That’s her law firm. I built it for her. She took that,  I kept the house.” He swabs at a puddle of ketchup with a french  fry, downs it, then looks at me straight-faced. “Be careful is all I’m  saying.”  

“I’m not sure I understand.”  

“Romie wants to go to nursing school. You work construction.”  He lifts his beer, as if in a toast. “Reputable business, no doubt.  It’s done me well.” He pulls a swig from his beer. “I got a degree in  engineering, studied a little business along the way, decided I’d start  my own company. Had my degree before she had hers. But while  I was working, starting my business, building us a house, throwing  up stores and condos and law firms, she was getting smarter. Too  good for me. Next thing I know, she’s marrying a judge. Someone  who understands her, she said, who can relate to her.” His voice  goes up an octave at this last, and I press my lips together to keep  from grinning. 

I take a drink and think about Mack’s words, then I square my  shoulders. Mack don’t know us. He don’t know what Romie’s done  for me, for Daddy. He don’t know she’s the one who took Daddy’s  OxyContin to Jimbo’s house that night and made the trade for  the stack of cash that brought us here. She wouldn’t let me risk  losing my job, said if she got caught, they wouldn’t be as hard on  a pregnant woman.  

Mack’s eyebrows raise, and I realize I’m looking at him harder  than I mean to. “That won’t happen to us,” I say. “We’ve been  through a lot together. We’re having a baby.” 

He lifts his beer again, this time towards me, and our bottles  ring together. “Congratulations, man. I wish you all the best in the  world.”  

Romie and I decide we’ll call our baby girl Jessica Marie when she’s  born, name her after our deceased mothers. I pray each night she’ll  be born healthy, with my blue eyes and Romie’s pout of a mouth.  We’ve been here three months, and Romie spends her days now  shopping for miniature dresses, applying to nursing programs and  reading used textbooks so she can get ahead before school starts  in the fall. “The baby’s going to eat up a lot of my time, Jasper,”  she says, “so I want to learn all I can while I have some peace and  quiet.”  

I ain’t forgot what Mack said, and he’d remind me of it, if I  did. I pay attention to what Romie reads and what she says, and I  keep some of the books she’s read in my truck nowadays, so I can  read history and Hemingway during lunch break, work on my own  education, so we can stay on level ground.  

It takes no time to finish the home improvement store, and  Mack gets us a contract on a new spread of condominiums on  the far end of Wendover. Our second day on the new site, Bucky  calls in sick, and Mack points me toward his new Cat 568 Forest  Machine. “Looks like you’re clearing today.”  

My jaw drops. I’ve driven dozers before, but not a forest  machine, and I’ve never cleared land. Mack had let me play on it  one day shortly after he bought it, raising and lowering the boom,  opening and closing the grapple claw with a joystick that moved as  easily as the hand-me-down Atari I’d played with growing up.  

Now he spreads the blueprints across the picnic table in front  of the small trailer that serves as our portable office, and he jabs a  thick finger at the overlapping circles that indicate trees. “All these  trees have to go,” he says. He shields his eyes from the morning  sun and points far left of the trailer, where packed yellow dirt gives  way to scrub brush and several acres of loblolly pine. “Start at the  far end there. Get as much as you can cleared by lunch, moving  back this way.”  

I smile when I fire up the 568. “Killdozer,” Bucky calls it, after  some old movie he’d seen where machinery goes wild and kills  people. Killdozer rumbles beneath me, and as I shift the gears, raise  the boom and swing, my grin grows broader. I throw a thumbs-up  Mack’s way, and I see him laugh, but can’t hear him. With an easy  flick of my wrist, Killdozer moves forward, not in a lurch like the  D9T dozer I sometimes drive, but smooth, like we’re rolling on  glass, not rocky dirt. “This here’s power!” I yell.  

In under a minute, I’ve crossed the expanse of yellow, reached  the treeline, and there I bring Killdozer to a rest. I look back over  my shoulder, but Mack’s moved on to other things, pointing and  ordering the crew around the site. I take a deep breath, raise the  boom and open the grapple. I’ve seen this done before, know how  to fell a tree with a boom, start halfway up to keep from getting  your head conked, but now it’s here in front of me, acres of sweet smelling timber. It’s my hand on the joystick. It’s my job.  I think of Daddy and swallow against the knot that comes in  my throat. He’d like this piece of equipment, like to crawl up in  here with me, see how easily Killdozer maneuvers. I manage the  controls, simple to do, open the grapple, and the metal claw grabs  the first pine midway up the trunk. I startle at how easily the tree  shatters, quicker and smoother than snapping my fingers. It’s about  a seventy-footer, and just like that, it’s split in half.  My heart beats faster than I’ve known it to for a while, and I  pick up the top of the tree, swing the boom to the side and start  my stack. Back to what’s left of the tree, I maneuver the grapple  to the base of the pine, snap it off like I’d break a toothpick, one  quick and easy motion, lift it to lie alongside the treetop. I glance at  my watch. Less than a minute.  

I figure sixty trees an hour, give or take. Four hours later, I’ve  cleared a few acres. When I climb down off Killdozer, my hands  tingle from the vibration of the joysticks. I don’t want to look  behind me, at where I’ve been, what I’ve done, but I know I have  to count the stacks, survey the damage. 

Standing beside the 568, I feel small, but I shrink to puny when  I walk to the last stack of trees I made, see the oaks and maples and  pines smashed into splintered haystacks twenty or so feet in the  air. I turn away, and my eyes find the bare ground where I’ve been.  Crater-size holes pockmark the dirt where root-bases once sunk  deep, and scrub brush lies bent and flattened where Killdozer— and I—left tracks.  

I think of the waste back home that once was Kayford  Mountain, and my stomach knots up. I close my eyes, try to imagine  the condominiums from the drawing on the wall in Mack’s office  trailer, the playground area with the wooden jungle gym where kids  will laugh someday soon. This here’s nothing like what’s been done  to Kayford and hundreds of other mountains where I’m from.  This is hardly any harm at all.  

A week passes, and on Wednesday night Mack calls me at home  to tell me Bucky has lost his job and gone to jail. Busted selling a  bale of weed—I didn’t even know marijuana came in bales—so  he’s making me full-time operator of Killdozer. I’ll get Bucky’s  company truck, too. 

Hours after I should be sleeping, I lay awake and think of  Bucky’s arrest and how, without the grace of God, Romie could be  in jail, too, serving a term a whole lot longer than Bucky will get.  Felony offense, selling even a couple of Oxy capsules. Romie sold  nearly six hundred.  

“You worrying about your friend from work?” says Romie,  turning to me beneath the covers. 


She somehow reads my mind and lets out a breath of air that  tickles my ear.  

“What’s done is done, Jasper. Ain’t no danger in it, now.  Nobody’s coming for us. We’re hundreds of miles and four or five  months past that kind of trouble. I know that don’t make it right,  but it’s nothing to worry over now.” 

“I wasn’t worrying about that,” I say. “I was thinking about  who’s gonna do my job, if I’m doing Bucky’s.” 

She knows I’m lying, and her lips find mine before I can tell  another untruth.  

I hear the screech of the lunch whistle over Killdozer’s groan, and  I drop the tree I’ve cleared and shut off the engine right where the  forest machine sits. I step down off the dozer and pull on a clean  T-shirt, and that’s when I hear it—a howling mewl unlike anything  I’ve ever heard. It sends a chill skittering across the back of my  neck. I shake off the shudder and stand still, trying to situate the  source. It comes again, more of a squeal this time, from the tall  stack of broken trees to my right.  

My work boots are quiet as I step across the soft ground,  lunge over Killdozer’s ruts in the rain-damp soil, maneuver around  broken knee-high stumps I’ve yet to tear out. The sweet, pungent  scent of fresh pine rosin and maple sap fills the air, and on the  breeze I catch the bitter whang of diesel fuel.  

The animalistic whimpering grows louder, but when a fallen  branch snaps beneath my footfall, it silences. I wonder if I’ve  trapped a cat in the pile of broken trees, except the sound doesn’t  quite sound like a cat…or a squirrel, or a bird, or any small animal  I’ve heard before. Two yards ahead of me, a low blur of movement  in a pine bough catches my eye, and I hold my breath as I step  alongside the shattered crown of a loblolly pine to find the source.  

The scrambling movement grows more frantic as I draw  near, and again the pained howl erupts, tensing me all over. Small  branches crack beneath my boots, and the long fringe of pine  needles on the ground in front of me stop moving. I cautiously  push them aside, startled to see a smoke-colored rabbit nearly the  size of a housecat. The panicked rabbit sees or senses me, lets  out a pitiful squeal and furiously digs at the ground in an effort to  escape. One of the heavy pine limbs has fallen across the rabbit’s  hind-parts, pinning it to the ground.  

“Shhhh,” I whisper. “Be still. I’m here to help you.” I squat  near the rabbit, reach carefully around its head and grasp the scruff, holding it with one hand while I lift the limb with the other,  push it to the side. 

The rabbit squeals again, a terrified sound that sends a shiver  across my scalp. I hold the creature aloft, and he’s badly mangled. He  twists in an effort to escape, and his hind legs dangle uselessly, his  innards begin to slip loose. I look away, bury my face in my shoulder.  I know what I have to do.  

I slide my hands together around the rabbit’s warm neck, close  my eyes and give a quick twist, hear the soft crunch I feel between  my fingers and thumbs. Daddy would call this a mountain-mercy  killing. The breeze turns cold. It will soon rain.  

I hammer the ground with heel of my boot, carve out a trough  where I can bury the rabbit, and that’s when I see them. Seven  kits. Only two have their eyes open. The limp rabbit I hold was a  momma.  

I lay her in the trough, and resentment tightens my jaw. I  stand, stomp the ground like a temperamental child. Why me? I  look at the kits again, each no bigger than my palm. I can’t bear  wringing their little necks—they’re so tiny I’d have to do it with my  fingertips. I stare at the momma in the furrow. It would be a slow,  cruel death to bury the babies alive with their momma. They have  to be killed, first.  

As I kneel and scoop loose soil over the momma rabbit, I push  away the memory of the fistful of dirt I crumbled over Daddy’s  casket. Fury I can’t account for surges through me, and I stand and  smack dirt from my hands, look again at the seven kits. Romie’s  voice speaks in my head—if we keep on killing the land, the land will  have no choice but to kill us right back.  

That works both ways, don’t it? Daddy died of Crohn’s and  cancer caused by the poisoned land. If the land kills us… I let out a low scream as I stomp my boot-heel into the nest of  kits, quickly snuffing their little lives. “You killed my daddy, and you  killed Romie’s baby!” I curse the land, tromp at the earth, kick dirt  over the rusty, fur-smeared ground, then drag the pine bough to  cover my sin. I turn my face to the overcast sky and growl through  my teeth like a madman.  

I unpocket the key to Killdozer, skip lunch with the guys in the  office trailer, stride instead directly back to the machine. No sane  man could have an appetite after what I’d done.  

I brutally attack the trees with Killdozer, grunting and shouting  each time I snap one in half. The branches of a tall elm become  arms reaching for the sky, and I grasp it in the middle with the  grapple, right where I think its heart should be, and I split it in half.  It feels good, like the land deserves what I’m doing to it, but then  my rage burns off, and I start to feel sick again. I look behind me at  the long row of tree-stacks waiting to be fed to the chipper—more  trees than I’ve ever cleared in an hour—each stack standing higher  than Killdozer and me. Tracks and ruts and splintered stumps  mark where I’ve been, and I pause and look around at the woods  I’ve destroyed. Soon, this will all be asphalt. 

I drive the dozer between two of the tall stacks, out of sight  of the office trailer and the half-dozen men roving the ground in  the distance. I climb down and sit on the ground behind the leafy  crown of a fallen maple. I hide my face in my knees and cry.  

A big empty part of me aches to talk to Daddy one more time,  to ask him if what I’m doing is right or wrong. After a few minutes,  I climb back onto Killdozer, take a swig of water and spit it onto  the ground. I’m proud of the paycheck I’m earning, of how well I  take care of my family, but when I look around me, I’m ashamed.  I can’t do this much longer.  

As I work the last three hours of my shift, my head churns with  memories and stories and new ideas, and when I head back to the  office trailer to punch out, I’ve decided it’s the last day I’ll drive  Killdozer. Mack ain’t around for me to tell him, so I head home,  grateful for the start of rain, for the heavy traffic that allows me  more time to think.  

I’ll talk to Mack in the morning and tell him I’ll take the pay cut that comes with the step-down. I’ll go back to where I started,  digging footers again, laying block, building something, instead of  tearing things apart. I can’t wait to tell Romie.

At the first red traffic light, I remember to turn on my cell  phone, in case Romie’s called for me to pick up milk or bread or cat  food on the way home. Before the traffic even starts moving again,  the phone chimes again and again and again with messages, and I  know something’s wrong. I pull into the first parking lot I come to,  hit the speaker button on my cell.  

“Jasper, call me as soon as you can.” It’s Romie.  

The next message is also from her. “Something’s wrong, Jasper.  If I don’t hear back from you in ten minutes, I’m going ahead to  the hospital.” 

I let the phone fall into the seat beside me as the third message  starts to play, and I punch the gas, cutting into traffic, ignoring the  blaring horn from the car I’ve nearly sideswiped.  

“Jasper, I’m in the E.R. at Women’s Hospital. It’s the baby.”  There’s a sob in her throat, and I match it with one of my own.  “Get here as soon as you can.”  

I drive too fast, too dangerous, Romie’s words sounding again  in my head. If we keep on killing the land, the land will have no choice but to  kill us right back. I have done this to her, I think. Part of me knows I  haven’t caused anything to happen to her or the baby, but the other  part of me thinks that maybe I have. 

There’s an empty parking spot in front of the emergency  room entrance, and I jump out of the truck and sprint through the  hospital’s automatic doors. The nurse acts as if she’s been expecting  me, as if she knows who I am, who I’m here to see. I’m surprised  when she leads me past the rooms made of green curtains and  down a hallway, where she stops beside a private hospital room,  holds open the door. She places her hand on my shoulder and  looks at me, her eyes sorrowful, and my mouth goes dry.  

Inside the dimly lit room, Romie looks small in the hospital  bed, and when she looks up at me, her eyes are wet. She holds out  a hand, and I take it, sit on the bed beside her, and hold her in my  arms while we weep.  

The next morning, I help Romie pull on her blouse, wishing I’d  thought to go home while she slept to get her a fresh one. The  maternity top now hangs in soft folds across her middle. We sit  side-by-side on the hospital bed, while we wait for the nurse to  complete paperwork and come for us. I stroke Romie’s hand.  “I want to go home, Jasper,” she says.  

“I know, baby. Not long now.”  

She grips my hand, stops its movement. “Home. Back home. I  want to go back to West Virginia.”  

Back home. Her words strike a familiar ache in me, a throb, like  a toothache I’ve probed with my tongue. 

There is no home to return to, no empty house where we began  married life together, no homeplace where I was raised. We sold  them to people more rooted than us when we left Stump Branch.  

Again, it is as if she pulls thoughts from my head. “I don’t  want to go back to Stump Branch.”  

I wonder if this is her way of running, of leaving behind all the  bad that has happened. “Where would we go?”  

“Morgantown. Maybe Huntington.” Her shoulder lifts and  drops. “A place where there’s a good nursing school.”  I stare at our hands nestled together, hers smaller than mine,  softer, yet somehow much stronger.  

Her voice drops to a whisper. “I don’t want to do this again,  Jasper. No more trying for babies.” 

She is fraught, upset, grieving. It will pass.  

“We don’t have to think about that right now. The doctor said  to wait six months, get your strength back.” 

Romie shakes her head, and hair falls over one red-rimmed eye.  “No more.” Her voice comes stronger, louder. “No more.”  I suck in the sadness, the hopelessness in her voice, swallow  it down where it tightens like a fist, hard and cold in my stomach.  “Okay. No more.”  

Daddy once told me the greatest joy of a man’s life was a walk  through the woods with his son. There will be no son for me. No  woods, either. No coal mining. No slaying trees. No babies. No more.  My scalp prickles. 

I try to imagine what the future holds, where Romie and I will  live—just the two of us, no child to bring us joy in old age. Where  will I work, what will I do with the rest of my days? I close my  eyes, but I can’t picture anything at all, can’t see what lies ahead,  only blackness like I found in the belly of the earth. There’s a void  there, a nothingness, a big empty so powerful I still taste its icy  bitterness in my mouth.