In the hills of north central West Virginia, there lives a cast of characters who face all manner of problems. From the people who are incarcerated in West Virginia’s prisons, to a woman who is learning how to lose her sight with grace, to another who sorely regrets selling her land to a fracking company, Jaws of Life portrays the diverse concerns the people of this region face every day—poverty, mental illness, drug abuse, the loss of coal mines, and the rise of new extractive industries that exert their own toll.
While these larger concerns exist on the edges of their realities, these characters must still deal with quotidian difficulties: how to coexist with ex-spouses, how to care for sick family members, and how to live with friends who always seem to have more.
|Publisher:||West Virginia University Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Laura Leigh Morris is an assistant professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where she teaches creative writing and literature at Furman University. Before that, she spent three years as the National Endowment for the Arts/Bureau of Prisons Artist-in-Residence at Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas. She’s previously published short fiction in Appalachian Heritage, the Louisville Review, the Notre Dame Review, and other journals. She is originally from north central West Virginia. This is her first book. Learn more at lauraleighmorris.com.
Read an Excerpt
Picture it: four industrial bulbs, 1,000+ watts each, trained on the house all night. And it doesn't matter if I use blackout curtains or move to another room — there's no way to ignore the production happening just a quarter mile from my bedroom window. I can hear the workers yelling, the whine of machinery, the wrecks that sometimes happen because drivers are confused by the brightness. I can see the lights through closed eyelids.
When you're looking at a check full of zeroes for just a few acres of land, you think about a new roof, replacing the furnace that hasn't kept the house properly warm in at least ten years. You think about how you won't have to pinch pennies until the beginning of the next month. You don't think about the fact that fracking is a twenty-four-hour business. Or that they'll point their lights straight at your bedroom window, then claim it's the only angle that works.
For six months, I called Jameson Wells, the county, the state, anyone I could get on the phone. Everywhere I turned, I received the same stony silence. So I got out of bed one night at midnight and slid off my nightgown, replacing it with black pants and shirt, black shoes, my white hair tied up under a black hat. They wouldn't see me coming. I crouched behind trees and crawled across the field on my elbows, a serious undertaking for a woman my age. About fifty yards off, I lay on the ground and caught my breath. Then, I pulled the BB gun off my back and aimed for center mass. There was a small ping and then a tinkle of broken glass as the first bulb burst. The men hadn't figured out what was going on before I'd shattered two more. I never got a chance with the final bulb. They'd realized what was happening and turned the light from my line of sight. As their voices filled the night air, I crawled back to my house and slid into my bed without anyone realizing I'd been gone. It was the soundest I'd slept in months.
* * *
"Did you see anything?" everyone wanted to know at the Pantry Store the next morning. Word had traveled fast. I'd barely poured my coffee when the old-timers crowded around me. For at least twenty years, we'd all woken before the sun and made our way to the convenience store in the middle of town to sip coffee and trade stories before anyone else even thought about starting their day. Miller James, the night guy, always had a fresh pot of coffee brewing by 5 a.m., and I usually poured the first cup. Today, I was twenty minutes late, and the others had already drunk a full pot and taken most of the chairs.
"See any what?" I asked.
"The lights, Mabel," Dewey said. His grin stretched across his face, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He looked like someone had announced an extra month of buck season. "Someone shot the lights out."
"Really?" I asked. "That must be why I overslept."
They all laughed. I'd been complaining about the lights since the drilling began, showing up at the Pantry Store sometimes as early as 3 a.m., bags under my eyes, drinking cup after cup of coffee to stay alert.
As soon as everyone was quiet, Dewey leaned forward, his elbows on the table. "You know what this means?" he asked. Everyone turned to him. "Someone's finally standing up for us."
They all started talking at once. A few hit the table with their fists for emphasis.
Dewey always said Jameson Wells didn't care about Brickton, just about its profits. In fact, when I sold that land to them, he didn't speak to me for two weeks. Kept referring to me as "that traitor" whenever he could. When he got over that, we settled on not talking about Jameson or my land. When I said something about the lights, he said I may as well move closer to town, buy myself a condo. Then, I didn't speak to him for a week. My grandparents had built my house, and my family had owned that land as far back as I could figure. I might have given up some of it, but I'd be damned if I was going to move into a cardboard condo.
I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms over my chest, and watched them yell at each other. I couldn't hear a word, but Dewey waved his finger in Dan Morgan's face. Harold Travers half stood from his chair and stared down Sutter Smith, who looked like he might throw a left hook at any second.
"Hey," Miller yelled from behind the counter. No one paid him any mind. He made his way over to our table, put two fingers in his mouth, and let out a piercing whistle. Everyone stopped. "Y'all take it outside if you want to fight," he said. "This is a business."
I sipped my coffee. Dewey dropped his finger, Harold sat down, and the high color drained from Sutter's face. Miller huffed loudly and went back behind the counter. Usually, we were a quiet crowd, retired people looking to shoot the shit and drink some coffee. Unless the coal mines or fracking came up. Then, well — then we got told where to go.
"They're saying they were ambushed," Dewey added. Quietly now.
Everyone nodded. No one spoke for a minute. When we'd first heard that Jameson Wells was coming to Brickton, we thought everyone would have a job and we'd all be rich. Turns out, those of us who owned land with gas deposits under it did get a nice lump of cash, but there weren't many jobs for people in town. Instead, the company imported workers from Texas and Oklahoma, people who'd spent their whole lives drilling for oil and gas. The only people who made any money were those who had an extra room to rent, and they could and did charge anything they wanted for a place to sleep. Everyone else in town was still waiting for the coal mines to call back workers from the most recent round of layoffs. Or for Jameson to hire on locals at the wells. We'd all heard the gas deposit was bigger and deeper than anyone had thought. That soon enough, there'd be jobs for anyone who wanted. We were still waiting on that. We also heard that soon enough those of us who had houses over the deposits would be forced out completely, but I wasn't going anywhere.
"Well, whoever did it is my hero," I said. I wrapped my hands around my mug of coffee to keep the chill off. Wearing work boots and a quilted flannel over my sweater, I still couldn't get warm. Summer had slipped away, and I wasn't used to the cold morning air. "I don't give a damn about the politics, but I haven't slept like that in who knows how long."
"You should care about the politics," Dewey said. He was quieter this time, gentler when he talked to me. He'd had a thing for me ever since my husband, Irwin, died ten years earlier. Sometimes, I cooked a rhubarb pie and brought it by his house. We ate it with cups of milk before moving to the back porch to smoke cigars and sip a nice scotch, but it didn't go any further than that. After so much time alone, I think we were both too nervous. Or too damn tired. Maybe that was as far as we'd ever go.
We weren't much interested in more. What we wanted was to sit down next to someone who had air rushing in and out of their lungs, blood pumping through their veins. In my whole life, I'd never been on my own — I'd moved from my parents' house to Irwin's. And when he'd died, a few years after Dewey's wife died, we two old-timers were on our own. And so far, at least, we were doing the best we could to keep each other company.
"The cops'll figure it out," I said, and everyone laughed. Our police were mostly kids not far out of high school who would give you a ticket for going twenty-eight in a twenty-five but didn't know a damn thing about detective work.
"I'll stop by this evening," Dewey said. "We can sit on your porch and enjoy the night air."
"That'd be good," I said. "Real good." It had been a long time since I'd enjoyed an evening at home — too much light. But without the Jameson people, the sunset on the hills behind my house was the prettiest you'd find in all of Marion County.
Conversations split off, each person offering a theory on who'd shot out the lights. Never once did my name come up. After all, I was sixty-eight years old, and I was the one who'd sold the land to that damn company to begin with. Dewey put his hand over mine, and we listened to the yarns spin around us.
* * *
"Don't bother coming out," I said to Dewey over the phone that evening.
Just as the shadows had started to creep into crevices between the hills, a van had pulled up with five new lights. Even though it wasn't anywhere near dark, the workers pointed them in my direction and turned them on.
I sat on my porch all evening facing them. When I shaded my eyes, I could see they had more men on site than usual, and a lot of them were milling around, keeping an eye on the hills surrounding them, looking for saboteurs, no doubt. I watched them swivel from side to side, an eye on everything, and I sipped at two fingers of scotch. Eventually, I got hungry and walked inside, where the air was warm and light filtered through everything. I had blackout curtains up everywhere, but beams of light still shot through around the edges. Even if the curtains worked better, it wouldn't matter. Light shone through the gaps in the door and window frames.
The darkness was too good to last, and I knew it. Besides, they may as well have been pumping cold, hard cash out of the ground over there. No way they were going to let the well stay idle for a minute longer than they had to.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash, and the lights dimmed. People were yelling. I opened my door, stepped back on the porch, and saw headlights pointed at an odd angle, up toward the trees. They came from a truck sitting in the middle of the site, having run through a fence, across half the work area, and over some equipment, stopping only feet from the main well. It looked like it was hung up on a whole pile of things it had run through, tilted a bit to the side. Someone had already pointed the industrial lights at the wreck, so I had a good view of men standing around the truck, some scratching their heads, others yelling at the driver. I squinted but couldn't see him well. I recognized the truck though, a dull yellow Ford F-250 that belonged to Harold Travers.
I sat on the porch swing, all my breath gone. The whole thing looked like the type of accident I'd been warning people about for months — someone not familiar with the road gets blinded by the lights, confused by the odd bends in the road, and runs right over the hill and into the site. I was surprised it hadn't happened before now.
Except Harold wasn't some newcomer to these roads. He lived two miles farther out and drove past the site daily, had lived in the same place his whole life and could drive these roads with his eyes closed. Hell, his truck probably knew where it was going without Harold pointing it in the right direction.
I sat on that swing for hours, ignoring the hunger in my gut and the four times my phone rang. The police showed up, then paramedics who shone lights in Harold's eyes. Eventually, a tow truck arrived and pulled his truck off the heap of debris. Official vehicles arrived. More people looked at the damage. More people yelled.
Still, the sounds of the site were muted, work put on hold while they took care of the accident. The lights weren't even pointed at my house. It was dark enough that if I just went inside, I could sleep like a baby. But I didn't. I sat on my porch swing, my hands limp in my lap, and watched everything.
* * *
"We old guys get confused sometimes," Harold said. He tried to keep the grin off his face but failed. "Those lights, man, they blinded me. Just like Mabel said." He winked at me. "It was just a matter of time before someone got confused and ran straight through that fence."
I ignored him and moved to the stand of coffee pots. I grabbed one to refill my cup but realized it was still full. The guys at the table guffawed at Harold. I stared at my coffee, unable to return to them. On my way into town this morning, I'd noticed more than just his wreck. The official sign to the site was now covered in graffiti. Handmade signs stood on either side of the road denouncing Jameson Wells. There were at least a hundred of them, from the site itself all the way into town. The brick exterior of the Pantry Store was spray-painted with an X over the word fracking. Jameson trucks sporting slashed tires sat in a lot across the street.
Had I caused this? I hadn't meant to. I'd just wanted a little peace and quiet. A full night's sleep. Harold continued to regale them with the details of his crash, shaking his head over the damage he'd done. "It's a shame," he said. "No clue how long that well will be down."
"At least you'll be able to sleep," Dewey whispered in my ear, and I jumped, dropping my mug on the counter. It didn't shatter, but a deep crack formed up the side, and coffee began to seep across the formica.
"Shit," I said and grabbed a handful of paper towels. My cheeks burned as I blotted the mess.
Dewey put his hands over mine, stopping them. "Mabel?" he said.
I shook my head, pulled my hands from his, and dropped the broken mug in the trash. I wiped up the rest of the spilled coffee. Dewey didn't move, didn't speak either.
Finally, I said, "I shot out the light bulbs." Whispered it really.
I said it again, louder, and met his eye. He looked away, then back at me, mouth half open. Then, he began to laugh, one of those laughs that erupts straight from your belly and rocks your whole frame.
Harold fell quiet, and the guys looked over at us. What a sight we were too, me standing there meek and red-faced, Dewey towering over me, laughing so hard tears ran down his cheeks.
"Never mind," I said. I threw the rest of the paper towels in the trash and walked toward the exit.
"Mabel," Dewey called after me, but I kept going.
* * *
The Jameson Wells people were impressive, really. I sat on my porch all day and into the evening. As the sun started to set, they put up even more lights. Some shone toward my house, others toward the woods that surrounded them, even more toward the damage they were repairing at record speed.
"You started something," Dewey said, and I jumped.
The noise from the well was too loud to hear him come up the driveway, and I was too taken by the work to notice him walk around my house. He stood at the foot of my stairs, one boot propped on the bottom step.
"Don't you dare come up here," I said. He was breaking a rule. Whenever we fought over Jameson, we each took to our own spaces, cooling off before we tried to talk. The phone had been ringing all day, and since he was the only one who ever called, I hadn't answered. I sipped from a glass of scotch and watched the frackers at work.
"You started something," Dewey said again, but he removed his foot from my step and put his hands in his pockets. "Whether you meant to or not."
"Of course I didn't," I said. I didn't look at him.
"You can't stop it," he said.
"I don't see why you give a shit," I said. Dewey was seventy-three, long retired from the coal mines, with a nice pension and Social Security. If fracking really was as bad as they said, Dewey would be long dead by the time anything happened. I opened my mouth to say so but then closed it. We'd had this conversation before. More than once. That's why we didn't talk when we were mad. He was too damn stubborn to listen. So was I. We worked better if we shut up about some things.
Dewey turned his back to me and watched the Jameson people clean up the site. We sat like that until the sun was clear over the hills, only the spotlights illuminating the night. I went inside, added another couple fingers of scotch to my glass. I thought about getting one for Dewey, decided not to, then relented. It was cold out, and a stiff drink would keep the shivers at bay. I pushed the screen door open with my back and came onto the porch. The door slapped against the metal frame. I opened my mouth to invite Dewey up for one drink, but he was gone. I thought about sitting out there and drinking them both, but it was cold, and the lights hurt my eyes. I went back inside.
* * *
It had been six nights since Harold drove through the fence, five since Dewey and I had spoken, and the lights were brighter than ever. They'd fixed the site, and the well was working at full force again, but they'd kept all the extra lights. Beams shot across my bedroom. The whine of machinery filled my head. I stared up at the ceiling and watched the shapes change as the lights moved. When I did drift off for a few minutes, fracking filled my dreams. Sleeping, waking, I couldn't tell the difference.
I'd been going to the Pantry Store, sitting in my usual chair beside him, but on the fifth day, when Dewey said, "You can't keep going on like this," I held my hand up.
"Not yet," I said. "I'm not ready."
"You're the one who sold the land," he said.
I looked at him for the first time in days. "I can't," I said. "Really, I can't do this." I was desperate. I would scream if he said one more word. I was sleeping less than ever, drinking more and more coffee every morning, but my thoughts were getting fuzzier. I couldn't make sense of him or anything else. I wasn't ever fully asleep or awake. Those damn lights filled my mind until they were all I could think about.
He looked at me for a minute, must have seen something, because he nodded. He reached out, grabbed my fingers. I let him.
Excerpted from "Jaws of Life"
Copyright © 2018 Laura Leigh Morris.
Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Room with a Door,
House of Tires,
Fat Bottomed Girls,
The Dollar General,
Jaws of Life,
May Ours Be as Happy as Yours,
Photographing the Dead,