Union Dues

by John Sayles

Union Dues

Paperback, 385 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price: $15.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

Scrounging for day-labor jobs in order to support himself, West Virginia man Hunter McNutt encounters a multitude of diverse characters in his efforts to locate his seventeen-year-old runaway son Hobie, who has drifted into a Boston commune of young revolutionaries. Reprint.

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Excerpt: Union Dues

Union Dues

Union Dues


Avalon Publishing Group Inc.

Copyright © 1977 John Sayles
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-56025-730-X

Chapter One

The boy leaned out from his porch to look down the long row of wooden-box houses. Nothing much stirring. He hopped onto the street lugging an overstuffed laundry sack and tried to look like everything was normal. A few women stared from their porch rockers as he passed, surprised to see him during practice hours.

The boy wore white and black three-striped running shoes, he walked quickly and hunched to balance the sack comfortably on his shoulder. One five-block row of identical frame houses faced another at the base of the hollow, the road then twisted up and around the butt of a ridge. Sloping above the first bend was a small cemetery. The boy paused and waved to an old man dragging a rake in between the headstones. The old man was trying to rake back the crumbling red dog that had spilled down onto the mown grass, spilled down past trunks of autumn trees, through yellows, reds and browns, past solid green stands of pine, spilled from the base of the spoil bank higher up where they'd begun to strip the ridge. The trees were all gray up by the dozer-scraped highwall, tilted at crazy angles with their roots poking into space. The boy stood where his mother was. Molly Buntin McNatt, devoted wife and mother, the dates. The red dog hadn't reached her yet.

Directly around the bend, on the downhill side of the road, was the Holiness Church of God. The boy could hear them singing before the whitewashed cross flashed into his view, could pick out Delia's strong, righteous soprano and picture the bright-eyed look she got when she was filled with the power.

Won't you join up with the faithful,

they sang,

Let your spirit be restored? And surrender worldly striving To become our Maker's ward?

He could hear her daddy's bass and see the way he thumped time on the pulpit. He could feel the Preacher's strength in that bass, feel the crushing handshake he got whenever Delia had him for dinner.

Won't you walk the holy country where Christ's blood and tears bare poured? Won't you offer up your life to the Lord?

The boy half-trotted past the church.

The road flattened for a bit and a side lane, paved with red dog, forked off behind tall white oak to the high school. The boy slowed a little to listen. Terry Blankenship was barking signals, running the two-minute drill most likely from the rhythm of the breakhuddle clap and shout. A whistle blew, the team let out a wavering, on-the-sprint roar-then silence. That would be Coach, tough and sincere with his day-before inspiration. Election Day classic, he would say, quoting the papers. Last and most important of the season, '69 should be our year. Beckley kids tough but human. Pants on one leg at a time. Proud to be Pioneers. He always said that, Coach, the day before the big one against Beckley, always finished by saying they should be proud to be Pioneers. The boy hiked on out of the whistle's range.

The wind picked up as he climbed higher. His brother's fatigue jacket flapped loosely around him. It was light cloth, summer issue with a big red 1 on the shoulder. The boy stopped to take a leak in the shelter of the little board-and-batten house the Appalachian Volunteer people had stayed in before they were run off. Thumbtacks dotted the front door where Preacher Cutlip had torn their literature down. The boy kicked at charred two-by-fours, broken glass. He had helped them put up their outhouse.

The road split again where the ridge fed into the side of a small mountain. A potholed, sparsely graveled path cut straight up toward the driftmouth of Number 7, up where his father would be working, where his uncle Lou and his cousins and Curt Lockly who'd started at his position for the varsity last year would be working, would be digging underground. The boy looked to the top of the mountain, following the scattered glint of railroad tracks to where he knew the tipple stood, but the dust was too thick to see through. It hung gray and still, tinged dull red where the setting sun tried to break through. Night came early on this side of the mountain. The boy took a few steps up the mine road, as if testing how steep a climb it would be, then hurried back down. He stayed with the blacktop, dipping over into the next hollow.

The West Virginia Turnpike cut through the bottomland. The boy stood on an overpass and faced north. The way they'd driven on Dar's eighteenth birthday, taking him to the recruiting center in Charleston. Three of them, father and sons, hardly speaking the whole ride.

The boy left the Turnpike behind, shivering inside the fatigue jacket and punching his clothes deeper into the laundry sack. He saw the Blue Star bar and packette up ahead, where the eastbound Trailways would stop. Beyond that he didn't know the road, he'd never been.

Chapter Two

When Hunter McNatt called at the front door, his arms full of groceries from the 7-11 store, there was no answer. He had to put the bags down and open up himself. Hobie was out. That was strange, it was dark already and Hobie knew he should be in early on the night before the Beckley game. Coach would have shitfits if he called and Hobie wasn't in.

Hunter piled the bags on the kitchen table. His right arm, the bent-up one, was all tingly the way it always got when he had to carry something heavy for any length of time. No, Hobie wasn't anywhere in the little house, not shut in the bathroom or asleep on his bed.

The note was in the refrigerator, wedged under the flip-top ring of the beer Hunter put aside every day to drink before bed. It helped him to sleep when he was sore, helped to bring the coal-gas bubbles up. He read the note first by the light of the open refrigerator door, then went to sit on Hobie's neatly made, empty bed and read it again.

He put the beer aside and made coffee. He read the note again. He untaped Darwin's last card from the refrigerator door and looked it over. A steaming bowl of baked beans in front of a city skyline. Postmark and return address, Boston. Just staying with friends, it said, till something comes along. Maybe Hobie was out to see Dar. The postcard was three months old.

Hunter looked through Hobie's closet and drawers to see what was gone, but realized he couldn't remember much of what his son had worn. The fatigue jacket was missing though, Darwin's jacket from Vietnam, he knew that much. First Dar and now Hobie.

Why would Hobie want to go? Now, of all times?

It hadn't been bad between them. Just a little-a little awkward. The two of them alone in the house. Not as easy as it had been before Dar went for the Army. Hey fellas, he'd say, why don't we-and Dar was always ready to play along, which meant Hobie would want in on it too. A lot easier when he could think of them as the boys, as hey fellas, and not as separate people.

With Dar overseas, the letters home always brought him together with Hobie. Like they were together when Molly was going out. They'd sit at the kitchen table and Hobie would read Dar's letter out loud and then they'd talk over what they thought it was like there, what they thought Darwin meant by some of the things he said. I done some things here, he wrote, that I can't explain in a letter. Have to tell you when I get back. Hope you'll understand. It was the only times he and Hobie really talked about anything more than his school or his sports.

Then with the trouble, with Dar come home and gone so quick, it got worse. They didn't talk much at all. Hobie had always kept his own counsel, he took after Molly that way, but with Dar at home there was at least a connection between them. With Dar sent away it was the two of them left alone in the house, making their own dinners and eating separate, thinking up things to say when they bumped into each other's space. But they got along. They did.

Why would Hobie want to go? The Beckley game was tomorrow, he'd been playing real well, coming into his own. Out of his brother's shadow. He had that Delia Cutlip who seemed to be just crazy about him. He had his last year of school to finish. Where had he gone? Why?

Curt Lockly had said just the other day up at the mine how Hobie was a real popular fella in his own quiet way. How he was the kind you couldn't close into one category or another, and how the other kids respected him for that. Why would he run off from his friends?

Hunter stood in the kitchen and began to put the groceries away. There were all the things he got special for Hobie, the RC Cola, the Fig Newtons, the crunchy peanut butter. It was one way they talked, thinking what each other liked when it was their turn to shop. They never made a list or spoke about it. Hunter's can of beer had gone warm on the table, Hobie's coffee ice cream was half melted.

He would call the Blue Star to see if Hobie had taken a bus out. No. Dolly Greaves was on tonight, let a word slip to her and everybody in the hollow would know it within minutes. He'd wait till tomorrow, Emma would be working the tickets. What would he tell people? Should he call the Sheriff's Office, have them watch the roads? Maybe. And call the Army recruiter in Charleston, make sure Hobie wasn't out to make right on what his brother done. You could lie about your age to get in, Hunter had done it himself way back when. The boy was seventeen years old. Not so young, really. Hunter had been to Anzio beach, he was seventeen. Lot of the fellas he worked with were already down in the holes by that age. But still-

He'd have to tell the school. He'd want to tell Ray and Lucille. Hobie was gone, he didn't know where. He'd go to work like nothing was wrong, go on about his business, and maybe Hobie'd think better of it and turn back. But if he didn't there'd be decisions to make.

Hunter finished putting the groceries away. He put the beer back in the refrigerator. He took Hobie's note and went to sit on his bed, the bed he'd built for himself when Molly went bad, with the sheet of plywood underneath for his back. It was too quiet, he turned his radio on. He set it between stations so there'd be noise but no words to distract his thinking. Distant noise. He was worried about his hearing lately. Even with the earplugs on, a full day at the face on the continuous miner took its toll. Everything sounded distant to him for hours after work, Hobie would speak and it was like he was a half mile away. He couldn't stand it, hearing that distance all the time.

He read the note. Hobie had run off.

Why?

Chapter Three

Hobie hadn't realized the ride would be so long. Here it was deep into the night and they weren't even to Wilkes-Barre yet. He'd only brought the last of the Fig Newtons and two sandwiches and he'd eaten the ham one in four bites when they crossed the Shenandoah. Being nervous and jiggling over the highway had really brought up his appetite.

It was all black people on the bus now but for him and the driver. Nobody had their reading light on anymore but you could see them when someone used the little bathroom in the rear and the light came out from the door being opened. Hobie had gone in there back in Virginia and right in the middle if it, cramped and itchy in the little box, the bus had stopped. The engine shut off and the light went out. He was closed in there in the dark in the middle of his business and couldn't leave. He broke out in a sweat. He hated it, it was like the time after they beat Slab Fork last year when Verl Biggins stuffed him in the locker and wouldn't let him out till he was screaming and pounding and everyone was laughing at him. The closeness, the smell. Like his mother's room the last time she was sick. He hated it. The bus started up again and the light came on and he got out, but he decided he'd hold anything else until they got to a station.

He wasn't so nervous now. It was dark in the bus and only a few headlights passed outside. He was by the window with his stuff in the laundry bag on the seat next to him. Some of the black people around him were talking softly. Up ahead and across the aisle a little girl would start to whine to her mother every few minutes.

"Mama, I'm hungry."

"Shhhhh. We'll eat when we get there."

"But I'm hungry now."

"You be quiet."

The little girl would get bored and walk down the aisle to the rear and then back up to her mother. She always peeked around the seat at Hobie when she passed. She was cute, big eyes and a little bump of a nose. She seemed a little scared of him.

Hobie wondered what Dar thought now when he saw little kids like her. What he thought about them, after that thing that happened in the Army. He wondered if Dar saw things all different now, like how he himself had suddenly begun to notice the nipples on girls and women, through no matter how many layers of cloth, after Delia let him see and touch hers that one time. When before he had been blind to the existence of nipples. He wondered how it made Dar see things, what he done.

He was awful hungry. The Fig Newtons were gone. He pulled out the peanut butter sandwich and unwrapped it as quietly as he could manage. There hadn't been much of anything to bring from home. It was the end of the week and it was his father's turn for the groceries. It would have looked too funny if he had offered to shop a day earlier. His father would be up from Number 7 now, would be home to see the note. Better not to think about that.

The little girl was staring at his sandwich. She had halted her trip down the aisle to stare at it.

"You want some?" Hobie tore it in half as best he could, a little jam plopping on the wax paper. The girl glanced up at his face and then shied away. He laid one half of the sandwich on the outer armrest and gulped the other down.

He looked out the window but mostly got a dim reflection of himself. It would have been nice to have made the trip in the daytime, to see all this new country, but this was the only way he could get a head start on them all. It had been hard enough just keeping his nerve up. But now he was out. He was on his way.

The sandwich half was gone from the armrest. She was a quick one. He could have used it himself, he was still pretty hungry, but that was okay. Dar would have something around, in Boston. Dar was always a big eater. If he could find Dar right off it would be fine.

Delia would miss him tomorrow, she'd have to find someone else to sit by at lunch. Coach would break his chalk and go into a tirade against the youth of today. Mr. Hinkle would be concerned about him, about his grades. He was the type. His father -

Hobie leaned his seat back and rested his eyes until he sensed somebody by him. The little girl was standing in the aisle, staring at him. She gave a shy, flirting smile, then opened her mouth to show a hunk of sandwich on the back of her tongue, then was gone up to her mother. Hobie laughed to himself. Chew and show. Like he used to do at lunch period, in the second grade, when he was a boy, back home.

Chapter Four

Blackness and high whining, metal shrieks, dust-choked light shafts tunneling blackness, glistening through a billion years of dark, the continuous miner squats to rip at the screaming face of coal. Top jaw discs tearing ahead into the seam, bottom jaw scooping glossy black, in through the gorge, through the flat body then shat black into the long-box shuttle cars. Blackness drilled by light, high whining constant at the coal face, the shuttle peels away immediately replaced by its twin, peels away from the flank of the continuous miner, hauling five tons of black, trailing wrist-thick power cable and fanning the walls of the vein in its speed to spill out onto the humming belt. Blackness blasted with light, tailpiece man caught leaping away in the shuttle's headlamp, flash of black glossy skin, man leaping back when the shuttle has dumped, back into whine and hum and roiling cloud of coal dust to shovel frantically at the spilloff around the belt before the next shuttle-beam blasts him aside. Whining, shrieking, humming and the power-grind of the roof-bolter steel-pinning the slate ceiling in the continuous miner's wake. Blackness, just blackness and machine noise as jagged lumps ride out through the section shaft, ride the humming belt away from face-whine and shuttle-lurch, ride inches from the seam top out into light again, rattling into the low coal cars that the boom boy switches forward as they fill.

(Continues...)




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