John Ryan wasn't a religious man. That's not to say he didn't believe; he just hadn't had any favors in that area that would make him be an active practitioner.
No, he believed in God; his dear momma had been faithful to the Lord, going to church every day that service was held, and she instilled that belief in his soul. He knew the Lord was there.
He just didn't acknowledge it.
When he was a small boy, he went with his mother to that church, dressed in his Sunday best and excited to lean about the man his momma loved so much. He spent the Sunday school lesson, not with the other children, but with the grown-ups, because that's where his momma was. He wanted to learn exactly what she did about the Lord.
He listened as Preacher Thomas told about how Jesus healed the sick and made the blind man see again. How he helped the crippled walk again and how he died for all of our sins against his father. Well, to him there couldn't have been a finer man, doing all that for everyone, even when they turned their backs on him. He agreed with his momma that there was no better man to love and pray to, even if he didn't understand that part at the time.
It wasn't until about a year later that his faith left him. You see, his daddy was a good man, but he had a mean streak in him, especially when he would stay out late at night and drink with the other miners after work. He would come home, hollering for Momma to get up and make him some dinner, even if it was well past midnight. And as John lay in his bed that night, he thought about all the people that Jesus had helped, how he said he loved every single person in this world, and John didn't understand how he could let this happen to his momma. She loved Jesus something fierce and prayed to him every day, and it just seemed kind of mean that he wouldn't help her in times like this.
He listened as his daddy's yells got louder and louder, until there was a loud thump and a yell from his momma.
The next morning as he got up and went to breakfast, his momma had a bruise on her face. She was really quiet the whole time she moved around the tiny kitchen, never saying a word to him.
He knew his daddy had done it, but he didn't understand how Jesus had let it happen. He was supposed to protect and help people he loved and that loved him, and his momma had to be one of the ones that did.
Why couldn't he help her when she needed him the most?
It continued on like this and his faith began to falter even more as he heard his daddy hurt his momma every night. He still went to church every Sunday, still prayed with his momma every day, but it just didn't seem as special as it once did. Now it just felt like he was talking to the sky, that no one was even listening to him.
Then, when he was six, he came home from school one day and saw everyone gathered around his house; all the nice old ladies that went to church with his momma, a whole group of miners that worked with his daddy and a few others too. They were all standing on his porch and around their tiny yard and then he saw the sheriff come out of his house, shaking his head as he talked to Mr. Bennett, his daddy's boss. He walked past all the grownups and none of them seemed to notice him, until Mrs. Goldsberry looked his way and called his name.
"Johnny! Come to me, child! You don't need to go in that house just yet!" she called across their cramped yard. He felt his stomach tighten with panic at her words, thinking back to the time little Mary Brewer's daddy had hung himself in the kitchen after they laid him off.
His momma had called those same words out to her as she came home from school that day.
He side-stepped the women at the door and ran inside, calling for his momma, only to find two men in white coveralls, covering both his parents up with sheets.
Everything seemed to go into slow motion after that. Mrs. Goldsberry grabbed him from behind and picked him up, hugging him to her chest tightly as she and the other church ladies took him back out onto the porch. She sat down on his momma's swing, holding him in her lap as he began to cry.
"Shush now, Johnny. It'll be all right... Your momma's done went on to a better place, is all. She's not in pain anymore, Johnny." the old woman whispered to him, making him cry even harder.
"She with God now, son."
He cast two blurry eyes up to see Preacher Thomas standing above him, a kind, sad smile on his face. He looked up at the man, sniffling a little as he worked out the words he wanted to say.
"If God had loved her like you say, then she would be here with me and Daddy wouldn't have been mean to her! He hated her, and he hates me! He let her be hurt and then he took her away!!" he sobbed the last part, his little body shaking with more sadness and grief then a child his age ever should.
Mrs. Goldsberry bristled, shaking him slightly. "Hush that talk right now young man, before I bend you over my knee!" she scolded, hugging him tightly again. He gave another broken sob and pushed away from her, trying with all his might to get away and out of her grasp. She held on until he got mad enough to bite her arm, letting him fall to the porch floor with a screech, and yelling for one of the men to grab him before he ran off.
He almost made it off the porch before Sheriff Hensley grabbed him round the waist and hauled him up and sat him on his hip. He struggled, but the sheriff held on, telling the women to leave him be, that he would try and talk to him.
He walked him out to his car, setting him on the hood. He looked down at him, a slight smile on his face.
"Don't think I've ever heard Maddie Goldsberry make a sound like that in all the years I've known her." he chuckled, earning a tiny, watery smile from the boy in front of him.
"I know your upset, Johnny. Upset isn't even the right word for it. But you gotta understand that all these folks want to do is comfort you right now." he spoke low, his voice gravely. "They only want to make you feel better is all. Now I know you might be a little mad at the Lord right now; you feel like he took everything away from you and left you with nothing. But soon son, you'll understand. I'm not saying anytime soon," he said, holding his hands up in defense when John had glared at him, "I wouldn't expect it to be that soon. But someday you will."
But that day never came for John. He was sent to the county orphanage, where he spent the rest of his childhood. Even with all their coddling and promises of being there, all those nice church people had left him to be raised by the state. It hadn't been a bad place, but as anyone knows, a child will flourish better with a family. He worked the entire time he was at the orphanage, at first just to get out for a few hours, but after a while he began to enjoy it. He was a hard worker and it paid off in the end, guaranteeing him a job when he turned eighteen and the state released him from their care.
He had worked the past fifteen years, hauling supplies from one county to the next for one of the largest mines of the state. It was a good job and he was thankful for it, but still couldn't find it in himself to acknowledge that the Lord brought it to him. He alone had made his way in life, working hard, and staying in line. There was no one to thank but himself.
But one day as he traveled in Kentucky, between Bell and Harlan County with a truck load of supplies, he stopped at a lonely, little gas station on one of the back roads he was taking. As he pulled his pickup in next to the pump, he began to wonder if the place was even open; most of the windows were covered in graffiti and a few were even broken, giving one a glimpse of the run-down store inside. But just as he considered pulling out, a little old man shuffled out the door, his weathered face breaking into a large grin when he saw he had a new customer.
He seemed older than time itself; hair as white as snow that seemed to float in the afternoon breeze, eyes that appeared to hold more knowledge and wisdom then one would think possible, and dark, wrinkled skin covering his jovial face.
"Sorry it took me a moment son, these old bones don't move quite as fast as they used to,” he wheezed out in a chuckle, shuffling over to the pump.
"That's all right, ain’t in no hurry anyways," John said, “I get paid by the hour so no complaining from me,” he joked.
The old man pulled the nozzle free, flipping the switch as John told him to fill it up.
"Don't see many new trucks like this'n 'round here. Most poor folks lucky to have one at all. Still, God has his ways,” he said, happily admiring the vehicle.
"Reckon he might, but this here truck came from a lotta hard work, Mister,” John said softly, his eyes rolling to the heavens as he wondered if the talk was going to turn to God.
The old man just nodded as the dial on the pump moved slowly, "Oh I'd say so, no doubtin’ that. But you know, hard work takes a lotta stuff you don't think about to happen. First ya gotta have a strong body for it, then you gotta have a job that needs doing. Ain't so many that fortunate these days, ya know."
"Might not be, but I prefer to think I've made my own way of it,” John said gruffly, crossing his arms, and leaning against the bed of the truck.
The old Man chuckled, "I thought so once myself, ya know. Course that was before the war. Ain't nothing fortunate about that. But let me ask you something son, if'n ya don't mind. You see that house on the hill over yonder?" he asked, pointing a gnarled finger towards an old farmhouse sitting atop a hillside, it’s white paint chipping, but still beautiful in its age.
"My Daddy built that house back in 1892. He'd just moved this way from the Carolinas ya see, aiming to find work in the mines. Things wasn't so nice back in those days; the mine owners weren't the most giving of folk. My Daddy though, he never complained. He'd get down on his knees each night and thank the Lord for the job he had, and for the family and such.”
"Now I say that to make a point ya see. Daddy never once asked for more'n he had. He would wake up every day, work his body to the dust, and he never once asked for better. He was always just thankful for what he had, and it was enough for him. The good Lord saw to that.”
John scoffed softly, not wanting to be disrespectful, but also not buying into what the old timer was selling.
“Well, I see it as this; No one helped me get to where I am in my life. The good Lord decided to break my life up early on, and I had to make my own way or give up. I worked hard and built up my life from the bottom. He didn’t seem to mind making it as hard as he could, either.” He gruffed, ager and hurt making their way into his voice as he spoke.
The old man smiled slightly, showing him a toothless grin.
“Son, some things in this life happen for whatever reason the good Lord wants them to happen. If life was easy, we couldn’t really call our accomplishments our own, now could we?” He reasoned softly making John look up at him curiously.
“It’s our pain that makes us who we are, because in the end, the path God chooses for us is so that he can show us how to appreciate what we have, and what we've worked for, while we have it.”
He wanted to argue back, but the old man’s words rang in his mind, making his words falter.
The pump dinged, letting them know the tank was full, and John reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet to pay. The old man took his time pulling the nozzle out, putting it back into the pump as John held the bills out to him.
He shook his head, making his white hair fluff slightly in the breeze.
“Consider this one paid for, son. Your company and talking was enough to pay for it,” he said, pushing the money back.
“I can’t not pay you, Mister; I’d feel dishonest for driving off with a tank full of gas like that,” John told him, but he was rebuffed again.
"Just consider my words… think about all the things you’ve been blessed with, even if it started out from pain,” the old man told him, taking an old rag from his pocket and wiping his hands on it.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to be able to change the other’s mind, John moved over to the driver door, his hand grasping the handle and pulling it open.
“Your momma is proud of you, Johnny. Never doubt that,” the old man said before he got in, a lilt of happiness to his voice that made the hairs on John’s arms stand up.
He looked back t the old man, his eyes widening as he saw no one there.
Moving back around his truck, he looked on in shock at the old gas station, it’s foundation the only thing that met his sight. Fear crept up his spine as he looked up on the hill the old man had pointed out, seeing a rock foundation where the old house had stood, making him grip the bed of his truck until his knuckles turned white.
He made his feet move, walking slowly back to still ajar driver side door, getting in, and sitting there a moment, trying to understand what had just happened to him.
He looked out the grimy windshield, his eyes going to the sky above him, and for the first time in twenty-eight years, he prayed.