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.

Bosco.”

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.”

How?”

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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