“Eyes the Color of Sludge” by Emma Magruder


Appalachia is characterized by a lot of cultural markers from religion, generational trauma and our deep history with extractive industries. This story looks into all of these through the lens of a first-generation college graduate turned lawyer who represented destructive industries and companies. He comes from a deeply Catholic family where he was raised in the shadows of steel mills and factories along the Ohio River. With a quick brain and the family’s need for some extra money, he goes to work at a young age as a fill-in bookkeeper in the mills. Eventually, the company pays for him to go to college so that he can come back and continue to work for them.

            His father grew up in coal country before moving north, but extractive industries take a toll on one’s body regardless. Generational trauma in this story is characterized by the repeated mistakes and poor health across generations despite witnessing the demise of one’s parents. It’s a story that is all too familiar to Appalachians.

            In writing this piece, I remembered my grandma’s approach to oral storytelling–another unique marker of Appalachia. It isn’t perfect, and maybe it isn’t how they teach you to write in school, but it moves people who listen. My grandmother tells stories that aren’t full of dialogue or rhetorical techniques, but they are ones that really share a point of view. They leave an impression on the listener.

This piece is heavily inspired by Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold and my own experiences with fracking and the oil and gas industry in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. P.E. Malcolm or Granddaddy in this story is inspired by a relative of a relative who had oil and gas facilities on his property. Since writing this story, the inspiration for my main character has passed away. It’s not hard not to wonder how his time around well pads and fracking ponds affected him. 

Eyes the Color of Sludge”

P.E. Malcolm grew up in the shadow of steel mills along the river just like his daddy, Charles S. Malcolm, grew up in the rising soot and dust from coal mines. P.E.’s family moved a few years before he was born to the booming valley on the Ohio River where the Wheeling Steel company owned everything. Hard labor was Charles’ answer to everything—his wife’s was prayer. Elspeth Drummond went to church while her husband went to the mills, and she prayed each day for his return. Even after seven children and multiple congregations, she made it to church every morning before returning to take care of the little home she so loved, even when it was shaken by blasts and covered in ash and soot from the mines and mills.

P.E. Malcolm, Granddaddy as I would come to know him, and his siblings wiped dust off the windowsills of their townhome in East Wheeling and made crosses on their foreheads like they were the priest. His mother called them blasphemous if she caught them, but when her mind wandered back to the rosary clutched between her fingers, the children would return to imagining themselves as anything but their reality. Granddaddy used to tell me if he dreamed hard enough, he imagined himself in those big universities the mill supervisors went to. He would return to reality when his daddy came home. The reality where dust and smoke encompassed everything and those fancy schools where the supervisors went were a mirage.

Granddaddy got out of the poorest parts of town and made those fancy schools an actuality. His father’s supervisor needed a new bookkeeper, so he offered his son at 14 years old to learn the trade. After proving himself repeatedly, the supervisor trusted him with more responsibilities. While Charles Malcolm remained a laborer around the toxic coke ovens, his son P.E. inched toward the position of supervisor. Eventually, the steel mill offered P.E. a bonus so he could attend college and return to work for the company. While P.E. Malcolm attended college, sponsored by the steel industry, Charles Malcolm grew sick from his time around the coke ovens.

With clueless doctors and Elspeth’s unanswered prayers for a miracle, Charles had no choice but to ignore his health issues. P.E. Malcolm returned from school a lawyer, carrying a briefcase a professor gifted him and donning freshly-shined shoes, scuffed already from the busted cobblestone and sooty walkways of his hometown. He went to work for the mill as a corporate lawyer.

Doctors gave the old Malcolms news that Charles had lung cancer. Charles Malcolm, with his seven children having their own families and lives, left the mills to take care of his health. Between sputtering at night and choking on humid days, Charles lived the rest of his days in the rundown townhome in East Wheeling. Granddaddy found time to see his parents between office visits at the very mill that gave his father a death sentence.

Charles Malcolm died a slow death. His every breath was cursed from years of facing coal dust and later toxins from the blast furnace at the mill. His days were spent in an armchair in the living room, watching his grandchildren run and play but being unable to join them. Once he had passed, his wife Elspeth went not long after.

P.E. found success in his time as a lawyer. He was well-trusted and respected by the local steel industry, but luck changed in the 1980s when the boom ended. Bust was something the town and state knew all too well. It happened with nearly everything that ever brought money to the hands of Appalachians like the Malcolms. Prosperity was gone, but it left behind the carcasses of concrete buildings and furnaces. Busted roads would never be repaired, and the river ran so acidic that fish died and algae bloomed across the surface of the water. P.E. continued his legal career by defending hospitals and doctors in medical malpractice suits. He retired to a house he and his wife Sharon bought as a second property to get away from the city. Acres surrounded the little house with rolling hills and dense woods. The area was an escape from the polluted one P.E. was so used to. His mother would have called this place Eden. He smiled at the thought of that, forgetting that the Devil himself made a visit to the sacred garden.

P.E. Malcolm made a deal with the Devil, and he thought he’d won. Granddaddy heard stories of people meeting Him at the crossroads at night, when souls weren’t supposed to be out, but he met the heathen on a balmy spring morning on his own front porch. In a crisp white shirt and clipboard in hand, Granddaddy tried to shoo Him away, calling Him one of those missionaries that don’t belong in these parts. The Devil explained why He was there, and Granddaddy felt compelled to listen. He was the furthest thing from a missionary.

Granddaddy heard of people in town with land who signed away their rights to these companies for promises of riches. Fracking held great promise for the economically depressed region of Appalachia, and the people felt special for being chosen for this new industry. Like the Hebrews led to the promised land, oil and gas contracts rained down on citizens like manna. When Granddaddy received his contract from Range Resources, he read the fine print as he would any legal document, and after discussing it with Sharon, the two unknowingly sold their souls to the Devil.

The construction was noisy, but the company kept it limited to daylight hours. The couple watched as the hill across their front porch was leveled at the top, and a concrete well pad was erected where a grove of crab apple trees once stood. The large trucks passing by were even louder than the construction, and they traveled at all hours of the day. Sharon had to buy blackout curtains after the passing lights of trucks started to wake her up when they poured through the bedroom window. P.E. had to buy new parts for the tractor when a truck ran him off the road causing him to bust an axle. The stench was the worst part. When the following summer appeared, humid and sweltering, the wastewater pond Granddaddy had let them build stunk to high heavens. It burned their nostrils and throats, but with the money they were receiving, Granddaddy and Sharon could put up with the stink. They started making plans to retire to North Carolina. P.E. could still be close to the mountains he so loved and Sharon only an hour drive to the beach.

Retirement plans came to a stuttering halt when Sharon became sick—stage IV breast cancer that had spread to her bones. Doctors said she did not have much time, and Granddaddy watched her waste away just like his father Charles. She passed quickly, and in her final days, she reminisced on the formerly pristine land. No drilling, no gas, no trucks, no noise and no light besides that of the stars. P.E. was left alone in the home surrounded by commotion. He caught wind of a neighbor down the ridge who had also just been diagnosed with cancer. He had thought to himself that the Devil was making Himself known.

The leak had only been revealed to Granddaddy after mounting pressure on the company from the community. Granddaddy hadn’t had any issues with his water, but people down the ridge had found sludge in their wells. For eight months, toxic chemicals were leaking into the hillside of P.E.’s land. Later, after he started having breathing problems, his doctor discussed the possibility of toxins in the air from the site not even 2,000 feet from his porch. Granddaddy’s heart broke. Not for his late wife or his own failing health, but for the Edenic land that had saved him from the industrial pollution. He had allowed this to happen.

Grandaddy’s health continued to decline as lawsuits began to pile up against the company operating across his front yard. Public outcry began, and soon neighbors were fighting with neighbors over what the best decision was. Nearly everyone boiled it down to politics. What hurt Granddaddy most was the unbreakable cycle. He had grown up in the shadow of steel mills, and his grandchildren would grow up in the shadows of rigs and passing trucks. They would play in toxic creeks and streams. Some of them would be diagnosed with asthma from the pollution by their tenth birthdays. This land was cursed, and it extended to everyone who inhabited it. They offered their wellbeing in exchange for work. Everyone in Appalachia had made a deal with the Devil.

Even in death, he knew, he couldn’t escape the chemicals. Maybe he would escape the tainted air as he’d be six feet under, but he’d never flee the toxins continuing to taint the hillsides. He would leave this earth because of fracking only to be claimed by it once again. His mother used to tell him a line from Genesis, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” He laughs when he thinks about it now. His deep bellied laugh turns into a choking cough and he flounders in the ratty recliner. From dust he came, yes, but to toxic groundwater he would return. The Devil would win, just as He always did. His eyes no longer glowed as fiery embers in the night as his daddy used to tell him, but rather as brown sludge like the pond on top Granddaddy’s hill which he saw with his own two eyes. Sometimes, the Devil was disguised with green in His hand and a white oxford shirt–brand new pickup trucks and a signing bonus. There was a curse upon Granddaddy’s every breath—he knew he was on borrowed time. He spread that curse and sin across the hills through groundwater, turning the people’s holy water to that of the damned.

Emma Magruder recently graduated from West Virginia University.