When I was old enough to go into the mines, I took my father’s place with my pickaxe and the rusted spade he gave me. I didn’t think I was ready, but that’s how it worked. You aged in, your pa aged out. My father worked his way up to become the foreman, and he knew the job, the crew, and the way the mountain lurched like it had lungs. He said there wouldn’t be any problems if I did what I was told. Mine the coal. Do it slow, and figure out the rest without asking too many questions. And, whatever you do, don’t piss off Archie.
But digging holes to dynamite was a tough job. Dangerous as hell, dirty, and as hard as the coal we lifted out of there. Archie strutted around giving orders and acting like the foreman once my father left, but Nolan was in charge of finding a replacement, and he liked Archie as much as a mongoose likes a snake.
The day Nolan broke the news, we met outside of the lift early, before we locked ourselves in and sank down beneath the dirt. The Faremont twins, who weren’t used to the dark morning before the sun had risen, rubbed their eyes and stared at Nolan while he pulled a cigarette out from his denim jacket and packed it down onto his palm. He lit it, and, in between gray puffs, he said: Dusty got it.
Silence. The twins found something interesting to stare at on their shoes. Dusty’s eyes went big and then settled. I was waiting for Archie’s face to stop turning redder and redder, but it didn’t. On the rare occasion Nolan smiled, you remembered why the women liked him. It didn’t seem to charm Archie in the same way, though.
We all patted Dusty on the back, shook his hand, said congratulations because he deserved it. Everyone except Archie. He ignored Dusty and went down into the mine before the morning sun had risen, before the rest of us would go down the chute with him.
The next day, we lined up outside the lift while the sun was upping, toting our metal lunch boxes and yesterday’s grime. It was the time of year when the mines were dripping thawed earth, when we set up supports and chipped on stone softer than before so it wouldn’t all come crashing down.
Dusty said to wait for Archie because he hadn’t seen him yet, but Nolan pointed to where Archie’s gray truck sat behind the trailer.
It was there before we got here, he said.
One of the twins said: He’s not in the latrine, neither.
Dusty nodded and then we climbed onto the metal cage to take us into the dark while we prayed to the sun as it shrank into a pinpoint and disappeared. Half a year had gone by since I’d started mining, and I still hadn’t gotten used to the way the sun dissolved when we went down the lift.
We snaked down the tunnels, our gear clinking and boots shuffling, hearing the distant clicking of Archie’s metal on stone. We crept toward him like children sneaking through the house after curfew, all tip-toed and tight-lipped, afraid of setting Archie off like a stick of dynamite.
And then we found him set up with a lantern, in a frenzy, taking on the entire mountain by himself. Dusty told Archie it wasn’t safe to be alone in the mines, but he said a collapse didn’t scare him — he’d dig his way out if he needed.
We adjusted to Dusty like orphans adopted by a parent whose laugh they hadn’t gotten used to, but we were warming up to him. He liked us to talk while we worked so he knew we were all still breathing. Some days we talked about the job; how the earth didn’t seem to want to give in to us. Other days we worked to the echoes and clinking of our tools against the mine.
And then there were the days when Dusty told us not to dig deeper. Said it wasn’t time to push in yet, there was still more coal left in the tunnel. But Archie disagreed. He wanted to blast open a new vein of the mountain every day until he found the heart of it, so he could rip it out.
Dusty let the Faremont twins work together because they were better side-by-side despite occasional bickering. He asked me how my father was getting along and when my mother would send me to work with one of her pies. Nolan remained himself, short-tempered and quick-tongued, unchanged by Dusty’s promotion. Working for Dusty didn’t make the job easier, but it stopped you from thinking about being underground.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised Dusty got promoted. Archie grumbled and swore and curmudgeoned his way through every day. But Dusty had been a good worker for the five years he’d been shoveling coal. Always kept his mouth shut and head down, got out of the way when the dynamite sizzled down to a loud bang. He measured every swing and knock and footfall in the mines, and the quiet way he carried himself meant confidence. Maybe that’s what Nolan had seen in him.
It reminded me of when I was little and my father told me that after a while of working in the mine, you never really leave it. Black dust settles into your lungs, it stays with you and some people turn to stone from the inside out. He could see it happening to Archie. After that, when he came home late, I would ask my mother if he had become a part of the mine. She would shake her head and tell me not to ask questions like that.
Dusty was like my father in that way. I believed he carried a part of the mine in him. You could tell by the way he knew where to strike, and with just enough force to make the rock break loose. He touched the walls before bringing his pick down. To me, it seemed like he was asking for permission. His attention to the small shifts in the dirt and the way his soft boyish hands pulsed with the vibration of the mine warranted trust. We gave it to him slowly, bit by bit. But Archie complained that Dusty was too green to be telling everyone what to do. Five years and some heavy lifting wasn’t enough to do the job, he said.
One day, I was chipping away rock, Nolan to my right grunting deep with each swing, Dusty to my left whistling ‘Dixie’ like an Alabama songbird, the Faremont twins bickering further down the tunnel, and Archie behind me. While the rest of us miners dug and scraped and pulled away earth to send to the surface, Archie burrowed holes like he needed to get to the other side of the world and couldn’t do it fast enough. He hit so hard against the stone with his pickaxe it sent out sparks, and I jumped back, knowing any kind of spark in a mine was bad news.
When Dusty asked Archie to move further toward the mouth of the mine, Archie laughed so hard we thought he’d bring the mountain down on us.
If we hammer away too long where we are, Dusty said, then we might stress the beams.
He said it wasn’t safe for Archie to keep on banging away like he had been. Dirt filtered through the cracks every time the twins swung an axe, but Archie didn’t care.
What kind of foreman makes requests? Archie asked. His face was covered in dust, his eyes like two mean, black pearls shining from the lantern light.
Me, Dusty said.
Archie ignored him and chipped away at the same spot. I couldn’t tell if it was out of fear or respect that the twins, deeper down in the tunnel, came closer to where Dusty said was safest.
Once they relocated, the twins swung once and as they arched back to strike again the mountain quit. It rumbled and screamed and small pebbles fell like hard snow. Then boulders crashed down where the twins had been standing. I dropped my axe and ran toward the exit, thinking about how the sun looked before the lift screeched its way into the dark.
The mine plugged itself up at the far end, the end that only led deeper into the mine. A month of work gone in a minute. No one spoke for a while after the dirt settled. Archie wiped sweat from his forehead, the twins leaned on their axes staring at where the rocks had fallen, and I watched Nolan and Dusty munch their ham sandwiches, as calm as the lantern light flickering behind them.
At the end of the day, Dusty made sure we all went up the lift together. He was the last one on the machine, and he pulled the iron latch down behind him.
From now on, he said, no one goes down into that mine alone.
That went right up Archie’s ass. He spewed insults like a water from a geyser and finished by saying Dusty wouldn’t have known to run like hell if the canary on the wire stopped singing and dropped dead.
We don’t use canaries anymore, Nolan said.
It’s not the point, Archie said. Just because he gets lucky doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing.
Nolan smudged coal over his nose and said, Yeah, well then prove it, Archie.
When we made it to the surface, Archie left while we hosed down with the spigot next to the outhouse and then dried out in the sun like lizards on rocks. Dusty brought out a bottle of cheap scotch from the trailer, and we passed it around talking, taking deep swigs from it until the twins were red-faced and doe-eyed.
It had been fifteen years since the last time we mined any extra coal, but in early June, our cargo was due for the Alabama Coal Company, and we had more than we needed. We sold it and our wallets fattened from the bonus. Dusty told us to take a day off, but we didn’t know what to do with ourselves if we weren’t working.
Nolan brought a bottle of Conecuh Ridge Whiskey from the corn fields fifty miles west of here, and we drank it slow in the trailer office with Dusty. The whiskey turned Nolan’s face red and slowed down his quick tongue; it weighed down my eyes. I leaned back on the metal chair in front of Nolan and listened while they compared their wives and house and lives.
The low-pitched droning of their voices put me half-asleep. But then the earth jumped and the trailer shook like it had sprouted legs and begun to walk. The metal chair fell back, and I rolled onto the floor. Dusty and Nolan sprang up and were shouting, pointing, scrambling towards the door. The half-empty bottle of whiskey rattled on the desk and ripples stole across the amber liquid, glinting in the hazy light.
Nolan was the first to the door, and he tore it back with such force I was sure it’d fly from the hinges. He ran across the yard toward the mine. Black smoke billowed in a small cloud from the lift like the exhaust from Archie’s truck, and then it thickened, growing dark like smog from a house fire. Dusty loped after him, his long ropey arms pumping to move faster. I pushed myself up from the carpet, watching through the doorway as they shrank and the cloud of smoke grew.
No one was supposed to be working in the mine that day.
I caught up with them in time to see the lift’s metal cranks pulling the platform up, Archie on his hands and knees covered in soot, blacker than ink. He wheezed and coughed and tried to stand, but only pushed himself up onto one knee before falling beard-first onto the metal again. Nolan yanked him from the lift, dragged him through the dirt, and leaned him up against the outhouse wall. He turned, grabbed the hose of the water spigot, and turned it on full blast.
He aimed the hose at Archie, who still couldn’t catch his breath.
You stupid, no good, piece of shit, Nolan hollered, Look at what you did!
The water made black muck run from his face down his shoulders, trickling like a river toward the lift. He tried to block the water from his face, huffing and wheezing. Nolan was trying to drown him.
You know what your problem is, Nolan continued, You don’t do what you’re told.
He walked closer to Archie and placed his finger over the hose’s mouth to focus the stream. He aimed it at Archie’s face and kept blasting. Archie tipped over and tried to crawl away through the black mud, but he couldn’t go fast enough.
Dusty stood next to me watching the whole thing, just as shocked as I was. Afraid of Nolan.
Then he stepped forward and went to the spigot. He turned the wheel a few times. The stream became a dribble and then finally stopped. Nolan threw the hose down on the ground and kicked it before he turned to Dusty and said:
It’d’ve been just fine if the mine had taken him.
Then he jammed his hands into the pockets of his denim coat and walked to the trailer.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a man on the lift sob after coming into the sunlight, convinced he was never going to see it again. But it was the first time I’d seen Archie cry. You couldn’t see the tears on his face because it was already wet from getting sprayed down, but he heaved and blubbered like a child. His hands opened and closed, taking in fistfuls of dirt as if it would do something to help him. I couldn’t tell if he was watching the clouds or the mine’s smoke, continuing up and out into the sky, but either way, he laid on his back and stared at something for a long, long time.
Samuel Simas is pursuing graduate degrees in English Literature and Library & Information studies at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as an intern for GrubStreet, Barrow Street, and a reader for The Ocean State Review. His fiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, The Corner Club Press, Steam Ticket, and others.