Coal starts at the bottom—in the basement of an old Seattle house—where Ken, a 42-year-old bachelor, stumbles across a box of letters that his sister Cole had kept over the years. The discovery immediately brings Ken back to the day Cole died eight years ago, in that same home, at about the same age that Ken is now. His relationship with her was always close, and his admiration for her limitless:
My sister, Carole Priscilla (yes, she hated it) Sharpe. Born Aug. 1, 1952. First of three, each two years apart, and me the youngest. Carole was “Cole” from the time my brother Jeff was two and tried to say her name. Last name always Sharpe, even during her brief marriage at age 19 to the-drag-race-guy-nobody-remembers. But I’ll get to him later . . . maybe. I want to talk about Cole. Everyone always does.
She was born in a good mood, and this affliction haunted Cole until an even worse one, cancer, took her life at age 43. Even when she was sick, she was always smiling. I remember sitting in quiet tears and watching her as she slept her final days and nights in the bed she had slept in for much of her life. Down to a fraction of her proper weight so that her cheeks looked as if she were sucking them in to imitate a fish. Breathing with much, much effort. And still, even in that puckered, pitiful state, the corners of her mouth veered upward just enough so that I was sure she was enjoying herself.
Emotions and memories come like a flood, and suddenly Ken—having moved back to the empty family home after years of bouncing through relationships and goals and life in general—has a plan. He wants to fix up the house, and dig up all his family’s old letters, and get his act together, and . . . well, you know how plans usually go. They’re like sand castles built at low tide. As the tide comes in, you have to move up the beach where the sand is inevitably a little softer, a little looser.
But for a guy who has pretty much skateboarded his way through life, Ken, as it turns out, isn’t quite as free and easy as he thought. At least, not when he comes up against Carol, the seemingly upright nurse who turns out to be a little more on the wild side than even Ken can handle. And as he learns more about Carol, and himself, and his sister’s past, he pokes determinedly at the burning embers of life, the smoldering coal of spirit that pushes us to hope and live and to make hurtful mistakes.
It is here, in the lessons learned from the aging of wood and wine and the fragile unpredictability of life that Ken realizes where real beauty resides. And so, despite having spent years stumbling through the many love relationships that his brother referred to as Ken’s “Hall of Flames,” he pursues real love and a peaceful life. Well, as long as it doesn’t mean he has to give up skateboarding or anything.