Following is an excerpt from Robert Gipe’s forthcoming Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel, which was released March 15 from Ohio University Press. From the publisher: “Dawn Jewell is fifteen. She is restless, curious, and wry. She listens to Black Flag, speaks her mind, and joins her grandmother’s fight against mountaintop removal mining almost in spite of herself. “I write by ear,” says Robert Gipe, and Dawn’s voice is the essence of his debut novel, Trampoline. She lives in eastern Kentucky with her addict mother and her Mamaw, whose stance against the coal companies has earned her the community’s ire. Jagged and honest, Trampoline is a powerful portrait of a place struggling with the economic and social forces that threaten and define it. Inspired by oral tradition and punctuated by Gipe’s raw and whimsical drawings, it is above all about its heroine, Dawn, as she decides whether to save a mountain or save herself; be ruled by love or ruled by anger; remain in the land of her birth or run for her life.”
I lay at the bottom of the hole until the stars came out. Orion the hunter shot straight up into the moon. My dad first showed me Orion’s belt. He showed me how once you saw the belt, the rest of him fell into place. He told me he liked the way it looked like the hunter was running and shooting. Like Rambo or something. I got lightheaded and I saw Daddy in a tree stand above me, bow season. Daddy lifted out of the tree stand and began to run across the sky. I hollered but he couldn’t hear me.
The owl settled in a tree above me. I spit out little pieces of leaf.
My father built his own truck, put it together from the parts of other trucks—eight Ford Rangers lined up facing the road—eight Ford Rangers it took for him to get one to ride back and forth to work. Hubert gave people credit if they’d bring him a Ford Ranger, but they had to park them lined up straight the way Daddy liked them or it was no deal.
The owl hooted.
I would go out and sit in one of the Rangers the winter after Daddy died and Momma started grieving out of a Heaven Hill bottle. I thought about them trucks, and the night got colder and my leg hurt worse. I had to keep my wits about me. Of course you know I survive because I’m telling you the story right now. But you don’t know I don’t lose a finger, do you? Maybe I lose my foot. Maybe I lose my foot and grieve over it and become a drunk and then a drug addict like Momma. No. I wouldn’t be like her. Not the same mistake. A different mistake. I lose my foot and get depressed about it and eat and eat and get so enormous, like six hundred pounds, I can’t get out of bed, look like I melted into the sheets. See me, unwrapping a whole box of Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies, all twelve pies, so I can cram them in my mouth all at once to suffocate myself?
Momma stood before me, silver like the dull side of aluminum foil. Momma looked young and clean, her face smoothed out by the hunter’s moon. She crouched at the lip of the hole. She wobbled and then steadied herself. She lay her hand on my cheek. Her fingers against my face didn’t feel right.
A flashlight beam lit her from behind.
“Hubert,” Momma said over her shoulder.
Hubert put the light in my face, his voice deep behind the shine. “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
Safer by myself than with you, I’d of like to said, but I didn’t say anything.
“Put your hands up,” Hubert said.
Hubert lifted me out of the hole and carried me up the hill. His hair was long and greasy. Stubble filled his cheeks outside his moustache and goatee. His miner’s jacket opened on a wifebeater and smelled of burning plastic and the salve he put on his arthritis. He carried me to the mine road, to a coffee-colored Delta 88 he left in the yard with the keys in it in case somebody needed to move it. Hubert lay me in the backseat. Hubert and Momma got in the front.
“Where’s Mamaw?” I said.
“She went the other way,” Momma said. “Hunting for you.”
Hubert and Momma headed up Blue Fork towards Virginia. They said they were taking me to the hospital there. Then they fell to talking about a man who pawned seven weedeaters for a friend. The weedeaters turned out to be stolen, and now the man who pawned them was facing a charge. They stopped at the man’s house and he came out, three hundred pounds easy, cheeks and forehead full of acne, all red-rimmed craters and white-topped peaks. Wet strings of black hair cut across his face like the lines on a globe. He came to Momma’s window.
“In the back, Cinderella,” she said.
Cinderella got in beside me. He rubbed his raisin eyes with the heels of his hands and breathed like he was snoring even though he was awake. He cried over a lost girl.
“I don’t care,” I said.
“She was everthing to me,” he went on. He began to moan, like you’d hope your mother would at your funeral.
“I don’t see why,” Momma said to Cinderella. “She told everybody you stole that church van. She parked it at your mother’s house.”
“I know,” Cinderella said.
“She still gonna be your ‘everthang,’” Momma mocked Cinderella, “when you go to jail over them weedeaters?”
Cinderella put his face in his hands and sobbed.
“Yes,” he said.
Momma said, “I should have drowned you when I had the chance.”
“When was that?” Hubert said.
God kept Momma from telling that story. Thank you God. Momma opened a beer and handed it to Cinderella. “Here.”
Cinderella nearly dropped the beer taking it from Momma when Hubert went too sharp through a curve.
“Goddam, Hubert,” Cinderella said. Then he turned to me. “What’s wrong with your leg?”
I didn’t say anything.
“This girl is in shock,” Cinderella said.
“She aint in shock,” Momma said, “She’s my daughter, dumbass.”
“I’m in shock at how retarded you are,” I said.
“Hey,” Cinderella said, “You aint got no call to talk to me like that.”
I said, “Momma, I’ll give you a hundred dollars to put the radio on something good and turn it up loud as it will go.”
“Loud don’t make it good,” Hubert said. “Good you don’t have to turn up loud.”
Hubert had been drinking too much. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have said that. He would have sat there still as a stone and not said anything, all John Wayne about it.
“Give me one of them beers,” I said.
“I aint,” Momma said.
“Give her one,” Hubert said, “might make her nicer.”
“Go to hell, Hubert,” I said.
I hadn’t been around Momma and Hubert for weeks. It made me sick how easy I fell into their way of talking. Momma handed me a beer. I drank half of it in one pull.
“Daggone, Hubert,” Cinderella said, “who is this girl?”
Cinderella looked at me. His mouth smelled like he’d thrown up a bale of hay.
Hubert laughed through his nose at that, and I wanted to break it for him, take that nose and twist it to where the falling rain would drown him.
“Dawn, you need to settle down,” Momma said. “Drink your beer. Take it easy. It’s a holiday.” Momma started to sing. “O come all ye faithful.” There were new gaps between her teeth.
“That’s a Christmas song,” Hubert said.
“No it aint,” Momma said. “It’s a Thanksgiving song.”
“No it aint,” Hubert said.
“I think she’s right, Hubert,” Cinderella said. “I think she is.” Cinderella nodded at me.
“Hey, Cinderella,” I said. He looked at me out his raisin eyes. I said, “Give me your knife.”
“I aint got a knife,” he said. “What you want a knife for?”
“Cut my throat you’re so retarded.”
“Dawn,” Momma said.
“Then what’s the next line?” Hubert said.
“I don’t know,” Momma said. “Yall got me flustered.”
“Oh come ye, oh come ye,” I sang, and Hubert joined in on “to Bethlehem.”
“See,” Hubert said.
Momma shook her head.
The road wound past brokedown coal camp houses pressed against the blacktop, past the pipes and belts and rows of lights of the processing plant, past wide spots puddled in gray water, places that weren’t anything anymore, weren’t nature, weren’t human, just places left behind. We started up the mountain. A curve snuck up on Hubert while him and Momma were singing some country song, and I got thrown up against Cinderella. The pain in my leg jumped up in my waist, and I hollered out right as I landed against him. He put his arms around me. I put the heel of my hand in his greasy face and shoved.
“Get your hands off me,” I said.
He put his hands up in the air and I went back to my side of the car. Nobody said much the rest of the way to the dinky one-hall hospital across the Virginia line. When we got there, the doctor looked at me standing in the hall and said there wasn’t nothing broke and that I could go on. Momma said she was worried about how I was hurting, and couldn’t he give us something. The doctor sized Momma up and sent us on home.
Hubert was taking Cinderella wherever it was they were taking him and so Momma and I sat in the hospital front room waiting for Hubert. She looked all through her coat pockets for cigarettes, for her keys, for change for a pop, for her lighter, anything to keep from having to look at me. She found the lighter and rolled it over and over in her hands.
She said, “This is where they brought your daddy.”
“Do what?” I said.
“After the accident. This is where he died.”
There was a spot of color on my mother’s cheek, just a spot of the way she was before Daddy died, seeping through like blood seeping through a rag. I wanted to wring my real mother out from the rag her body had become. I wanted to wring that rag out over a bucket, pour what I wrung out into some kind of mold, like a jello mold of my old momma, my good momma, and make her back into what she was.
Hubert came through the automatic doors, coughing and sniffing. Momma said to me, “Did your mamaw give you any money?” When the automatic hospital doors fell closed, it was like I woke up, never knowing I’d been asleep. The spot of color was gone from Momma’s cheek. She looked like candle wax. I went out to the car. Cinderella was sitting in the front seat.
“What are they doing in there?” Cinderella said.
I got in the backseat, reached across the front, and changed the radio to the Bilsons’ station. My own voice came out the speakers.
“I love this place,” I was saying, “I don’t want to see it tore all to pieces.”
Robert Gipe lives in Harlan, Kentucky, and grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. His fiction has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Still, Motif, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel.
All illustrations ©Robert Gipe.