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.
“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.
Born 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.