Wild and Wonderful, fiction by Tom Bennitt

You need good hands to run a machine like the con­tin­u­ous min­er. You got to know when to hold back and when to go deep. It’s the best-pay­ing job in the mine but also the hard­est, and I’m out of prac­tice. I haven’t worked under­ground in five years and for­got how hard it is just to walk down here. The tun­nel is less than five feet high, so I need to crouch. At least I’m not work­ing in those dog­holes where you crawl around like rats, and it’s bet­ter than strip min­ing work. That’s not even min­ing, just blow­ing up hill­sides and moun­tain­tops with dyna­mite: destroy­ing the land, flood­ing creeks and hol­lows. Down here I feel like a real min­er. Okay, that’s bull­shit. With two divorces and a bal­loon­ing mort­gage on a house nobody will buy, I’m here for the mon­ey. If that make me a greedy old red­neck, fine.

The con­tin­u­ous min­er is a scor­pi­on-on-wheels: long, low to the ground, and dan­ger­ous. It cuts the same amount of coal that ten or twen­ty men would cut with their pick axes and shov­els back in the old days, only faster. The rip­per head – a rotat­ing cylin­der on the front cov­ered with sharp steel tips, like fangs – spins around and gouges coal from the wall. But it’s tough sled­ding tonight. My hands feel stiff and heavy, and I’m push­ing the con­trols too hard. This seam is nar­row, so I’m cut­ting through a lot of rock and shale. The rip­per head is loud and throws up sparks when you cut through rock and gets qui­et when you’re deep in the coal. Tonight it’s loud as a chain­saw, until the machine dies and every­thing goes dark.

Hold up!” Wild Man yells. He’s one of the roof bolters on our crew, which suits him because he’s got some loose bolts in his own roof. A large black man, his real name is Calvin but every­one calls him Wild Man.

What hap­pened?”

Tripped the gen­er­a­tor.”  Wild Man’s face is caked with soot. His new teeth glow like a string of pearls.

Didn’t break the cable, did I?”

It ain’t that bad, dog.”

I’d pushed the min­er too hard through the rock. It over­heat­ed and tripped the out­side gen­er­a­tor. Hap­pens all the time in small mines with old gen­er­a­tors. Jer­ry the elec­tri­cian should have us back on line in twen­ty min­utes. It wasn’t a major fuck­up, not like bust­ing the machine’s pow­er cable. If the cable gets caught between the rip­per head and the wall, it could shred. The cable alone costs about ten grand and I’ve seen guys get fired for shred­ding it.

Luke, anoth­er roof bolter, walks over. I tell him it was my fault.

I could use a break any­how,” Luke says. He opens his tin of Copen­hagen, takes a fat pinch, and works it under his lip. “Man, I haven’t worked with you in years,” he says. “Thought you was retired.”

Luke reminds me of my old­est son. They both respect­ed their elders. Josh did things the right way and didn’t take short­cuts. He died in the mines three years ago. Methane gas explo­sion. Twen­ty-four years old. Can the world get any cru­el­er than that?

My oth­er son, Derek, is a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. He is cur­rent­ly doing five years in Moundsville, the state pen­i­ten­tiary, for cook­ing and sell­ing meth.

I missed y’uns too much,” I say.

How you doing, you know, health wise?”

My doc­tor don’t want me work­ing down here, after the heart attack and all, but I passed the phys­i­cal. So here I am. And I can still run coal bet­ter than you turds.”

You always did have the touch.”

How’s Denise?” I ask.

She’s been liv­ing in Pitts­burgh the last cou­ple months,” Luke says. “One of those tem­po­rary nurse jobs. Good mon­ey. She wants me to move up there.”

You don’t want to be work­ing down here at my age. I’ve seen all the ups and downs. Right now coal’s in high demand and we’re all mak­ing mon­ey, but it won’t last.”
“Noth­ing else to do around here,” Wild Man says.

Our shift ends at mid­night. I made five cuts. Our tar­get is sev­en per shift, but five is enough to keep them off my ass, at least it used to be. I dri­ve home through the cen­ter of town. Dead qui­et. Only the whine of two crotch rock­ets burn­ing up Main Street. My truck slow­ly worms up White’s Hol­low Road.

My bull­dog Lucky greets me at the door. Tina is asleep on the couch, wear­ing only a Bön Jovi t-shirt and box­ers. A piz­za box, can of Iron City, and bot­tle of Vicadin are on the cof­fee table. The tele­vi­sion is on – that same George Clooney movie she’d seen a hun­dred times.

As I watch her sleep, a strange thought hits me. As a life­long hunter – deer and wild turkey, most­ly – I always believed that men were born to hunt, that the male species was hard­wired to hunt, kill, and pro­vide. But the more I think about it, the more I real­ize it’s a crock of shit. All the women in my life were great hunters. They hunt­ed men, using all their skills and weapons  to snare them. And I got caught every time, like the dumb­est deer in the woods on open­ing day of buck sea­son.

With Tina, things start­ed out hot, like they always do. She’d wear the tight­est jeans or skirt that would make her ass shake like a water bal­loon. But after she moved in, she just let her­self go. Now she sits on the couch all day, drinks beer and smokes weed and watch­es her soaps. Her clos­et is full of clothes she can no longer fit into. Of course, I’m not exact­ly the pic­ture of good health, either, not since the heart surgery that left a zip­per scar from my throat to the top of my stom­ach. We hard­ly fuck any­more, and I refuse to take any peck­er pills. Still, I’m too tired to be alone, too old to be trolling the bars.

Tina stirs awake as I sit down. “How was work?” she asks.

Same shit, new day,” I say. “Can you turn that down?” In the movie, Clooney is seduc­ing some hot Ital­ian woman. “How many times you gonna watch that?”

It don’t con­cern you.”

If you like him so much, why don’t you go to Hol­ly­wood and fuck him?”
“Maybe I will. I’d rock his world.”

He wouldn’t even let you suck him off.”

I duck to miss the beer can she throws at me.

White trash moth­er­fuck­er,” she says. “You got a bro­ken dick and no more gov­ern­ment checks com­ing in. That’s a low bat­ting aver­age. You’re lucky I’m still here, and not out fuck­ing one of your min­er bud­dies. If you don’t watch your mouth, you’ll have to find some­one else to change your dia­pers.”

I feel a stir in my groin. That’s the most pas­sion­ate thing she has said to me in a long time.


On the way to work, I notice a new bill­board from the state board of tourism: pic­tures of peo­ple hik­ing and white­wa­ter raft­ing, then a panoram­ic shot of a moun­tain ridge at sun­set. Across the top, in big white let­ters, it reads “WEST VIRGINIA, WILD & WONDERFUL!” Well, at least it’s half true.

Cross­ing the Monon­ga­hela Riv­er Bridge, I glance down at the riv­er and think about my dad. When I was a kid we used to fish the Mon all the time, up at Brady’s Bend. Once, he grabbed me by the ankle and sub­merged me in the riv­er. “Now you’ll be invin­ci­ble,” he said. For a long time I believed him.

I pass the old hous­es crammed togeth­er on the bluff: bro­ken win­dows, bust­ed porch steps, rust­ed cars with no tires in the yard. The low bank of heavy clouds con­ceals the ridge tops. Patch­es of snow cov­er the hill­sides. The trees are skin­ny and crooked, like naked old men.

Back in the sev­en­ties, VISTA work­ers came here. Clean cut, bright-eyed young men in khakis and col­lar shirts who’d just grad­u­at­ed from Ivy League schools. They tried to sign peo­ple up for lit­er­a­cy and job-train­ing pro­grams and what­not, but after a few years they gave up and went home. Most every­one has giv­en up on this place, even those who stuck around.

As I pull into the mine entrance, things feel dif­fer­ent. Out of place. Sam the man­ag­er wad­dles out of the office trail­er and yells for me to come inside. Sam is a per­fect ass­hole. Since he made the switch from min­ing to man­age­ment, his loy­al­ty to the min­ers has dis­ap­peared. Now his head is so far up the mine owner’s ass, he needs a flash­light. There’s a younger guy in the office that I don’t rec­og­nize.

Lar­ry, sit down,” Sam says. “You’re not doing a bad job, but we need six or sev­en cuts of coal per shift. That’s the quo­ta. That comes straight from the top, Mr. Lam­bert. He’s the one who writes our checks. You’re just not pulling your weight right now. This is Jamie, we brought him in to–“

To take my job,” I say.

That’s not true. Y’uns are going to split time oper­at­ing the min­er. You make one cut, then he makes the next. When you’re not run­ning the min­er, you’ll do some­thing else, like help bolt the roof or load the coal on the con­vey­er. We need an extra guy on the crew, and he’s got some expe­ri­ence. It’s just a lit­tle healthy com­pe­ti­tion.”

Suit your­self. That’s why they pay you the big bucks, right Sam?”

Just do your job and you’ll be fine.”

I scan this new kid from head to toe. He’s got spiky hair, acne-cov­ered cheeks, and two ear­rings in his right ear. “What’s your last name?” I ask.


I went to high school with his old man. He was a dick­head, too. “You get a note from your moth­er to be here?” I say.

Don’t get too excit­ed and piss your pants, old timer.”

Once I leave the office, the fin­gers of my left hand start twitch­ing like they’re bat­tery-pow­ered. I think stress trig­gers it. Either way, it’s been hap­pen­ing more often late­ly. I ball my hand into a fist and slam it against my truck door to make it go away.

Take it easy, dog,” Wild Man says, “We ain’t even start­ed workin’ yet.”

They brought in a ringer to take my job.” I point out the new guy leav­ing the office trail­er.

Who, that kid?” he says. “He looks like he can’t even find a G-spot.”

This whole shit show reminds me of those scabs who broke our pick­et lines in the eight­ies and took our jobs for three months while we went on strike. But that was back when the mines were union­ized. Now hard­ly any of them are. Lam­bert Coal sure as hell keeps the unions out. They have the worst safe­ty record in the state, and they aren’t too picky about who they hire – guys with no expe­ri­ence, drug addicts.

We jump on the elec­tric shut­tle cart that takes us a mile deep into the dusty, dark mine. When the shut­tle stops, the fore­man tells me I’m first on the min­er. I get sit­u­at­ed and start cut­ting the coal. The tremors in my left hand have stopped. I’m feel­ing good. The min­er is deep into the seam and run­ning smooth, but I’m care­ful not to go too fast. With­out too much rock or shale to bust through, I fin­ish the first cut in forty-five min­utes. Sol­id time. Then it’s the new kid’s turn. He starts right up, and he’s cut­ting faster than me. I can tell he has done this before.

Watch and learn, old man!” he yells. I can bare­ly stand to watch him, the cocky lit­tle prick.

I have this recur­ring dream: I’m deep inside a coal mine when a methane gas explo­sion hits. The dream ends the same way every time, with me on fire and run­ning through a tun­nel.

I’ve heard a few sto­ries of old-timers who com­mit­ted sui­cide – or tried to – under­ground. There was one guy who caused the roof to col­lapse on him. He did it by tak­ing out some bolts and lodg­ing a stick of dyna­mite into one of the holes, but he killed three oth­er min­ers in the process.

Still, as I watch the kid oper­ate the con­tin­u­ous min­er, part of me thinks I could pull it off with­out putting any­one else in dan­ger. That machine is so big and wide, the oper­a­tor can’t see noth­ing but what’s in front of him. When he backs it up, he’d run right over me. I’m a small guy. A two-ton machine run­ning over my weak chest would sure­ly kill me. Even bet­ter, peo­ple would call it an acci­dent. They’d say I tripped and fell and couldn’t get up in time. Nobody would ques­tion my man­hood or label me a cow­ard after I was dead. I’ve been slow­ly dying for years now. Why not fin­ish the job?

It wasn’t always like this. I remem­ber the good moments, like when me and Kel­ly went to Myr­tle Beach and rent­ed a house on stilts. It was a cold Octo­ber week­end and the beach was emp­ty. We sat on the porch, a blan­ket draped over us, lis­ten­ing to the waves break. Nine months lat­er, Josh was born. I remem­ber Christ­mas morn­ings when the boys were young, the way their faces would light up when they opened presents. The first time I took Josh hunt­ing up in the moun­tains – he was thir­teen – he killed a buck on the sec­ond day. The local paper pub­lished a pho­to of him with the deer on the back page of the sports sec­tion.

That was before Kel­ly left. I guess she got tired of being a moth­er and a wife. One day, she just up and quit. Left the divorce papers on the table, didn’t even fight for cus­tody. She fol­lowed a younger guy to Flori­da.

But those are just fad­ing mem­o­ries. Derek and I nev­er speak any­more. As for Tina, she’s a wild ani­mal: I would nev­er tame her. Some peo­ple nev­er learn from their own mis­takes. Like me. There’s noth­ing left for me here, and I’m fine with it.

I make sure the new kid doesn’t see me as I walk behind the machine. I study how far up and back it goes. I think about where to lie down. But I can’t go through with it. What if I some­how fuck it up and just injure myself real bad?

When I walk back around to check his progress, I notice that the pow­er cable is jammed between the rip­per head and the coal face. The cable is start­ing to tear. The new kid hasn’t seen it yet. I think about say­ing some­thing, but it’s not my prob­lem. Instead, I walk down to Sec­tion Two and check on Wild Man and the oth­er roof bolters. Wild Man is try­ing to drill a two-foot steel rod into the hole he’d made. The rod is cov­ered with hot glue and is sup­posed to bind onto the shale above the roof and sta­bi­lize it, but he can’t line it up right and the rod keeps get­ting stuck.

Sud­den­ly, things get qui­et. I look behind me. The con­tin­u­ous min­er has stopped run­ning. I walk back over and check it out.

What hap­pened?” I ask the new kid try­ing to play dumb.

No clue,” he says.

I exam­ine the cable. “Looks like the cable shred­ded.”


If I had to guess, it got stuck between the machine and the wall, and the rip­per head just ate right through it.”

The fore­man comes over from Sec­tion Three. “Damn son, that’s an expen­sive piece of equip­ment,” he says. “How’d this hap­pen?”

I didn’t see it,” the new kid says.

How could you not see that? I think you need go back out­side and talk to the boss man. Lar­ry, you go ahead fin­ish up.”

It takes the elec­tri­cian half an hour to patch up the cable. Once I start run­ning the machine again, I don’t know what comes over me but I’m work­ing faster than ever. I make sev­en more cuts in five hours. Must be the adren­a­line.

When the shift ends, I walk up to the office. I’m ready to tear Sam a new ass­hole, but he starts talk­ing first. “Lar­ry, I heard what you did for us tonight. I’m sor­ry I ever doubt­ed you.”

You’re god­damn right.”

I promise you that kid’s nev­er com­ing back. You’re the man from now on. In fact, I’ll give you a ten-per­cent raise.”

I rub my goa­tee. “I could prob­a­bly  stick around for that.”

Luke is wait­ing in the park­ing lot. “You saved us tonight. Hey, we’re head­ed to Sully’s Tav­ern. You up for a drink? First round’s on me.”

I’m all jacked up. Part of me wants to go down to the bar with the guys, but I’m also dog tired. “Maybe. I got to run home first.”

When I get home, my first clue is that Tina’s car is gone. Then I open the front door: the place is half-emp­ty. She moved out while I was at work. Her note on the kitchen table says “I’m leav­ing. Don’t know how long, I just need time to fig­ure some things out.” I look around the liv­ing room. She took all the fur­ni­ture.

I can’t stay here tonight, so I jump in my truck and dri­ve down to Sully’s, won­der­ing if my lucky streak will con­tin­ue.

bennittBorn and raised in west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, I recent­ly com­plet­ed my MFA in Fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi, where I held a Grisham Fel­low­ship and was Co-Edi­tor of The Yalobusha Review. My cre­ative work has appeared in Bin­na­cle, Burnt Bridge, Twist­ed Tongue, Monon­ga­hela Review, Riv­er Walk Jour­nal, Fic­tion Writ­ers Review, and FACETS. My hon­ors and awards include a Push­cart Prize nom­i­na­tion, Final­ist for Glim­mer Train’s Very Short Fic­tion Con­test, Win­ner of the Cul­ver Short Fic­tion Prize, Run­ner-Up in the Mem­phis Mag­a­zineFic­tion Con­test, and a res­i­den­cy fel­low­ship at the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts. Cur­rent­ly, I live in Oxford with my wife and my dog and teach Writ­ing at Olé Miss. Next fall I will be start­ing a PhD in Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka.

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