I wake up and find myself lying on my stiff, coal-stained mattress. The rooster hasn’t even crowed yet, but still I find myself awake, though not really alert in any meaningful sense of the word. My hands are still blackened, and the scent of coal coming from the mine is almost tangible; the smell has permeated the entire town, there is no nook or cranny left I can go to escape from the crushing sensory dullness of it. It’s in my lungs, abrasively coating my alveolus. The dust will kill me, and at sixteen, I’m waiting for that day. The mine is the town; the vein beneath is the vein through which this town’s life-blood flows, once it dries up, none of us know what will happen—we don’t like to think about it.
I sit up from my bed and stumble, disoriented, to the bathroom; I can see the light on in the dining room as I pass by; my dad is awake and ready to go. The bathroom is bland, excessively so; anything extraneous to the survival of present day man (i.e. anything unneeded in the hunter/gatherer existence of our forbearers) has never seen our bathroom. There is a toilet, a sink, a shower stall, soap, an overhead light, four walls, a door, a ceiling, and toilet paper. The yellow wall-paper is peeling off, helped along by gravity. I don’t bother turning on the light, it’s not that dark, and besides, after the hours of darkness in the mine I doubt my pupils would enlarge if I stared into the sun. Maybe I’ll try that today just to break the monotony. When I leave the bathroom, a thin sheet of black coal dust, slowly circling down into the drain, laminates the shower stall’s floor.
As I enter the dining room, my dad glances up from whatever it is he’s staring at (nobody in this town has the energy to waste actually reading anything, so all the fathers can be seen every morning, just staring at some randomly selected page of the paper), there is a slight hint of recognition, a subtle nod of his head, then he’s back to staring. This town killed my mom two years ago, it killed my dad along with her; don’t let his movements fool you, he’s dead—he just hasn’t stopped breathing yet. I get myself a piece of bread and put some butter on it, I pour myself a glass of milk then sit down with my breakfast. I just sit there and eat; there is no point in attempting to strike up a conversation with Dad, it wouldn’t work. I don’t feel like trying anyway. If you sit and think about it long enough, you can find a rationalization for not doing anything; this town, for me anyway, is utterly devoid of a single motivating factor save that stiff, coal-stained mattress. I go to the mine thinking about that bed, drive the pick-axe into the coal with that thought, and I will come home tonight and feel a little bit let down by the fact that it is the same just as stiff, and just as coal-stained as it was when I left the house in the morning.
I hear the horn blow in the distance—shift change. My dad hears it too, and seems to snap out of one stupor, and into a wholly different one; it’s like he’s shifting gears—from first, being staring mode, to second, being mining mode. He will continue to go up a gear until the day is half over, at that point he will begin to downshift, getting ready to lay down in his superior mattress (if only in that it is slightly less stiff, and a tad bit less coal-stained). I, on the other hand, am brutally aware of every second of my day; give me a few more years and I’ll be just like my dad. We both grab our coats and our helmets, and walk out the door. The mine is less than a mile away so we walk; there’s no point in taking the car, plus, it’s so old I occasionally wonder if you can still buy gas for it. We make our way silently to the mine, others, who work the same shift, can be seen walking out of their houses and making their slow way along the same sidewalk. Looking at some of these people, and the haggard faces they belong to, it is a test of will power to imagine a smile on them.
We get to the mine, and exchange lifeless, unpleasant pleasantries with the group crowded around the elevator shaft. Bob’s wife is pregnant—hooray. Jim’s son is going to start next week—yippy. Dwaine’s daughter took her first steps—mighty fine. Not even the people telling others these things seem particularly happy to be relating them. I can easily imagine my dad sixteen years ago telling about how I came out just perfect; maybe he had more life back then, maybe not. The empty elevator cart floats back up and the doors swing open, beckoning us to join it in the perilous depths below. The rank-and-file rank and file into the vacant cage and it begins its descent; each man in the cart is praying for one of two things, to make it out of here alive, or for a collapsing tunnel to kill him and not leave him a cripple. Which one you pray for depends on the day.
There is a sudden illumination as a group of about fifteen people click on, in unison, the lights attached to their helmets. They don’t work too well, but it’s regulation. As the elevator cart hits bottom, the gate starts to open sardonically, as if to say “make yourself at home”. How it is that I can perceive a collapsing elevator door as being of sardonic temperament is beyond me, I just do. We all shuffle out and begin to scatter, going to the spots where the previous shift laid down their shovels or picks and snatch them up. The constant torso-twisting motion that is required for efficient shoveling and picking induces something akin to carpel tunnel syndrome, only in the back and about twenty times worse; most miners learn to ignore it, it breaks the rest. I refuse to get used to it; my stiff, coal-stained mattress is saturated with the tears from when the pain makes me cry myself to sleep.
I bend down and close my hands around the haft of the shovel; as I do so I wonder how many scoops it will take before I want to scream out at the pain. Yesterday it took five, not too bad; today I get to six. At lunch I sit on a log and see how long I can stare at the sun; you can’t work in the mine if you’re blind. Most people, people who don’t understand mine-life would say “go to sleep during lunch, get some rest.” They would just be teasing themselves—I’m not a masochist. I wait until night to sleep, midday sleep breeds disorientation and tiredness soon after. Now the horn blows, and once again we crowd into the elevator, which then slowly makes its way down the shaft. My dad is standing directly to my right but doesn’t say anything to me; one of the first things he made very clear to me was that from 5:00a.m. To 7:30p.m. We are coworkers, not family. It’s not dislike or anything like that; I think it just makes it easier for him this way, he doesn’t like to think of his son working down there. But I do, and we put food on the table.
As 7:30 rolls around, the horn lets out its shrill wail again; everybody deep in the mine scurries up so as not to be locked down there. I am in a side-shaft right off of the main near the elevator, so I am one of the first ones there; my dad arrives after about thirty seconds with two other men. We four, plus eleven more compress into the cube and are lifted above. It'd be nice to be greeted by the sun when coming out of the shaft but it is not to be; around here the sun seems to be down no matter what time we get off. So dad and I walk home in the heat-lamp glow of the streetlights, in silence. As we enter the house, we both say two words, “good night”, and then we shamble off to our respective rooms; we’re both too tired to maintain a dignified gait, and so we employ a sort of sluggish, low-impact shuffle to get to our rooms. I collapse on my stiff, coal-stained mattress, and I sob out, “why?”