Wednesday, July 12, 2006
The Free Spirit
He came into my life when my sister, much to the dislike of my family, married him.
"Don't marry him, " she was told time and time again. "He's not the marrying kind and you'll be sorry."
But she was young, just graduating from high school, and the words were ignored. He often arrived for a date on his motorcycle dressed in a leather jacket and he drove up to the front porch revving the engine and making what must have been great exciting sounds for a young girl.
Butchie was known in all the bars around town and well liked for his music, his devil-may-care attitude and beer drinking and she must have enjoyed the excitement. And so they were married and children followed. I joined the Air Force and after spending two years in the Philippine Islands where I discovered what a college education can do. Most of the officers were college graduates. So I decided to set aside money each month to pay for college. And dutifully, each pay, I sent a portion of it to my sister for her to deposit in the bank for me.
When my overseas tour of duty ended, I eagerly awaited getting home to see, among other things, my growing bank account. I visited my sister soon after arriving home. They were renting a small house and at that time had two children. We talked for a time and I caught up with the local gossip and then I asked for the bank book.
"I saved all of it, " she said, avoiding my eyes, and handing me the book, adding softly "except for the several hundred we needed when Butchie wasn't working."
She saw my immediate anger and quickly added, "But I'll pay you back, I promise."
She apologized for not telling me, but said she had hoped to pay it back before I returned. And promised again and again repayment before I would need it for college which was still a year away.
Well, she was my sister and I believed her.
I stayed at their house for the afternoon and when Butchie came home from work she asked me to stay for dinner. He did not say anything about the loan. Perhaps he was leaving it up to my sister to handle the problem.
It was Saturday and after dinner Butchie suggested he and I go out for a beer. He named most of the bars in town and we settled for the 'Brass Rail'. The place was alive with music and crowded. The dance floor was full and the pleasant rhythm of the polka and the dancers feet reverberated in the bar.
We were lucky and found two empty seats at the bar and settled in. He put some money on the bar and we ordered draft beers. He was now working for another brother-in-law of mine at mining coal and driving one of the company trucks for a living. We talked about nothing in particular, and the bartender filled our glasses as they emptied. The music was pleasant and I was enjoying myself. At some point, he asked if my sister had mentioned the loan and he also promised to repay it. We drifted into silence and I watched the dancers that crowded the floor through the smoke filled air so that I did not pay attention to what he was doing.
Suddenly, and for no reason that I knew, he was arguing with the heavy set woman sitting on the stool next to him. I did not know what the disagreement was about except it had something to do with her smoking and they were getting louder. They were calling each other names and I did hear him refer to her as fat.
"My husband is here. Wait till I get him, he'll show you. You can't say that to me."
She waved to someone across the dance floor and motioned them to come and they waved back.
"Maybe we should just go, " I suggested.
But it was too late. He was coming toward her and us. He seemed to be at least six foot six and weigh three hundred pounds. He was probably one of the miners who could shovel a hundred tons of coal each week. He lumbered toward us. He looked angry that he has been disturbed from whatever he was doing. I noticed that the table he had been standing near was occupied by several other equally large people. "Let's go," I said again, while thinking to myself here we go.
She was still mad and waving her large arms at him. I was seeing it all in slow motion, my mind was racing forward.
"What the hell do you want?" he asked her in a loud booming voice. He was standing next to her, just behind Butchie.
"This guy called me names and told me to go to hell." She ran off a litany of things he had said to her all the while pointing at Butchie with a cigarette filled hand.
This huge giant turned toward us and was about to say something, his hands raised up and ready.
Then he began laughing and slapped Butchie on the back.
"Well I'll be go to hell," he boomed, "Butchie, you old son-of-a-bitch. What the hell's going on here?"
The tension was gone. They were old friends. They had worked somewhere together and had drunk endless beers together.
"Just a friendly argument, " Butchie said in a casual way, "Nothing serious."
"But he said all those things to me," she continued, the cigarette pointed at us.
"Butchie's okay Honey, I worked with him. He was just kidding."
He talked to her for a moment, his arms around her shoulder calming her. Then turning toward us and in a low voice he said: "don't worry."
Butchie and his old friend joked and laughed and then he went back to his friends. And we had another beer and left.
My sister eventually repaid the loan long after divorcing Butchie and long after I had graduated college.
I always asked about him at the annual family picnic.
"He's still around, " my sister would say with a smile, and roll her eyes and shrug her shoulders.
And several years later at the family picnic, to everyone's surprise, he showed up to see his children, two grown daughters. He still looked the same and drank as much as before and laughed and told old jokes.
"Is he ever serious about anything? " I ask my brother-in-law whom he woked for as Butchie leaves in an old run-down car.
"Only when he's asking for money, " he says and we all join him in a laugh.
They came in quietly, in single file, sitting down and letting their bodies fall heavy on the long benches that lined the wall of the dressing room. They let their helmets fall, the noise loud in the small room.
He was one of them, yet conspicuous, for he was clean. His uniform not mud and grass stained like the others. A towel shoved under his arms that he had taken from the clothes hanger where his street clothes were draped and a forced look of sadness on his face.
He also slumped down on the bench and joined the others when they dropped their helmets, though he had waited until others dropped theirs first. He moved the towel and draped it over his shoulders. He had gotten the towel and his clothes from his locker as they returned from the playing field, when the last beats of the drums died out and the noise of the crowd was beginning to disappear. He had stopped at the locker and smiled, thinking of the naiveté of the rest of them who were sad. He could not feel the sense of sadness they were feeling over the loss of the game. They had been beaten, yet he could not feel sad. And now slumped on the bench, he tried to appear sad, bending his head and remaining silent like the others.
The silence seemed loud to him, his eyes screwed up to watch the others. Waiting for a signal to begin taking a shower and to dress to go home.
"We could have won," the player next to him said.
"Yeah," he answered. " We could have."
"We would have only for that last pass."
Someone got up and began pulling their jersey off. It was a signal. The room burst into activity. All the players began undressing. He joined them , standing up and helping the player next to him with his jersey. The player helped him and he dropped the jersey on the floor. He remembered all the effort that had gone into getting dressed and now he was undressing and he regretted joining the team. Still he had tried and this was the last game. The last time he would ever wear the jersey that now lay in a heap on the floor next to his legs. And somehow he was glad that it was over.
"Never should have lost," the player next to him repeated, throwing his jersey angrily on the floor. It's mud and grass stains blurring the number.
He had no answer, though he wished he could think of something to say.
He untied the strings that held the shoulder pads and removed them, placing the pads inside the jersey.
The manager came in the locker room. He was young and carried a wooden box partially filled with tape and sterile gauze.
"That was a tough loss," the manager said.
"Yes," he answered.
"I thought we won, but that last touchdown did it."
"I should have had that ball," the player next to him said.
"It wasn't your fault," the manager said.
"How is the coach taking it?" someone asked.
"Bad. He'll be in soon," the manager said.
The tape was still on his wrist. It had been put on before he dressed and it was still there and clean, except for a dullness because he had rubbed it with his hands. He began unwinding it. Pulling it off in quick jerks, except for the gauze underneath which he also took off and after rolling them into wads, he threw them into the trash container across the room. He flexed his hands and rubbed the wrists, enjoying the freedom from the binding tape.
The activity in the shower room had increased. Now most of the players were partly undressed. Some were getting out of their pads and others taking shoes off while others were already stripped and heading for the shower. The room was quiet, except for some occasional bits of words and the noise of spikes scraping on the cement floor and pads dropping.
The manager had gone to all the players and asked if anyone was hurt and checking for bruises. "How about you, Joe," he asked him. "You okay?"
"Yes," he answered.
"You didn't get in did you?"
"No," he said.
He took off his T-shirt and hung it on the peg under his towel. It was still clean and dry. He would wear it home. He bent down and untied the shoe laces and pulled the shoes off. Then the socks and under the socks, the tape around his ankle. He pulled the tape off along with the gauze underneath. He was now nude, except for the pants.
Mostly he had been watching the other players. They seemed sad and were quiet. Across the locker room a big heavy tackle was crying. This had been his last game, he was a senior now. The tears were hardly noticeable except for the slight wetness on his cheek that made funny little lines in the dirty face.
The silence was still there. Some players were beginning to talk about the game, but only to their neighbors and only in quiet tones. No one had completely undressed and no one had showered yet.
He pulled his trousers off and stuffed his pads and uniform inside the legs. He hung them on the peg. He was now nude except for the athletic supporter. His street clothes were hanging on another peg above him and his shoes were under the bench. He hoped someone would start showering. He was waiting for the signal. Taking his cues from the other players, all except the one for sadness. He could not feel sad, it was only a game, he thought, they would all live. Tomorrow it would be forgotten. Forgotten as old rain.
It felt good being rid of the last piece of his uniform. His body was clean and white. Not dirty from sweat, or red from scrapes and bruises like the other players. The manager was busy cleaning and bandaging a cut on the big tackles arm. He almost wished he had a cut, perhaps then he cold feel sad.
Tomorrow, he knew, the game would be replayed by the next-day quarterbacks. They would, in their arguments, discuss not how the game was played, but where the mistakes were made and what could have been done.
Suddenly, the door opened. Everyone turned. The coach was standing in the open doorway. He said nothing, slamming the door angrily and entering the room. The players turned away and bent their heads, not looking at him. The bits of whispering stopped. The room was quiet.
The coach hesitated for a moment a few feet from the door and waited. Joe kept his eyes screwed up, so he could see the coach who had an angry look on his face. The coach kicked at a helmet, sending it the length of the room and banging against the far wall in a rush of noise before it stopped and bobbled back and forth. All the players jerked their heads. The coach waited for the helmet to stop rocking and then began slowly walking the length of the room, glaring at each player as he went. At the end of the room, he turned and walked back to the center. He stopped and glared at each player slowly turning as his eyes moved around the room.
"What happened?" he asked leaning over and facing the quarterback.
"I don't know," the quarterback said in a low voice, not looking up.
"You're supposed to know, damnit. That's why I put you there."
He turned and faced the big tackle. "What happened?"
"I don't know."
"Nobody knows. I know. We lost. You know why, because you didn't play well. You didn't play like I told you to play. No passes at that stage in the game."
Then the coaches eyes were on him. The coach stopped talking and shook his head.
"No passes," he repeated.
"I told you," he glared at the tackle who did not look up. "That was your last game. Win it. But you lost. You all lost. I had faith in you guys, but you lost."
He turned and walked to the door and stopped. He did not turn, but with his back to the team, he said slowly, "thanks fellas." And he was gone.
No one spoke. No one moved. They had their heads bent in silence. Then the big tackle began crying, aloud but not loud, except for the first gasp that broken the silence.
He watched a player walk to the showers and heard the water run. He got up and slipped off the supporter and went to the shower. He smiled as he entered the shower stall and turned on a shower. He washed slowly, not really needing to wash, he was still clean, except for the lingering smell of the uniform and pads that he wanted to be rid of.
Another player came in and began showering. There were tears in his red and inflamed eyes. His back was turned to Joe.
"The coach was really mad," Joe said.
"Yes," the first player said.
"I wonder if he'll come back?"
"I don't know."
"We lost," Joe said. "Why does he get so mad at us?"
"We shouldn't have lost," the player with the red eyes said.
Soon all the showers were being used. He could feel the intimacy of it. The warm water and the smell of soap.
"The last pass," someone said. "That did it."
"I knew we should have run the ball."
"The coach was sure mad."
"Bet he'll get drunk tonight at Rizzo's bar and redo the game."
That was it, Joe thought, he'll go to the bar tonight and relive the game. Old alumni will be there who will egg him on to replay the game highlights. There will be a football for him, kept behind the bar. He will dramatize the game with action and drink his beer, while the alumni laugh and drink along with him.
The player next to him on the bench had not showered yet. He was just sitting there, his pants and socks on and holding his head in his hands.
"The water's warm," Joe said.
"Feels good to be clean."
The player got up and undressed and then sat down again. The big tackle was still crying and still completely dressed. The player next to him stirred again. "I sure lost the game, didn't I?" It was more a question than a statement.
"No, Jim. We all lost the game."
"But I should have gotten the ball."
"So you missed. That's all. You missed."
"I can't understand how you can take it so easy. It hurts me to lose that way."
"I do care," he tried to be sincere. "But it's over now."
"Fred is taking it hard," Joe pointed to the big tackle.
The big tackle had not moved yet, still dressed in the wet dirty uniform, his helmet hanging from his fingers. He had only spoken to the coach and then, only in a low voice. Another player had tried to talk to him, but he had not answered.
I wish I was like him, Joe thought, I wish I were cut and bruised and dirty from the playing field. I want to play and feel the roughness of the game and feel the strength surge through me. I want to be in the game.
Joe shook his head and finished drying. Some players were beginning to leave. The manager had finished dressing all the cuts and bruises and stopped by him.
"Sure is tough to lose the last game like that," he said.
"I wish we'd have won, don't you?"
"We'll win it tomorrow," he said with a smile.
The manager laughed. He had not been in the game either. He had only tended to the players.
Joe finished dressing. The room was damp from all the showers. Beads of moisture showed on the walls and ceiling. The old cement walls and ceiling were warm and damp and he avoided contact with it. He finished dressing and rolled his socks and support in the wet towel and walked to the door. He stepped out into the hall. The cool air was refreshing. He hesitated for a moment, then turned and looked at the nearly empty shower room. I wish I could cry he thought. He walked away and started down the long hallway wondering over and over what the rest of his life would be like.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
There is no way I'll go back there if I have another day like today. I'll just quit. It was the worst day of my life. And I'll quit. I'll pack it in. Like they say: "It's time to pack it in." I never know what the hell that means, but I think it means quitting. But what the packing was all about I'll never know. But I'll definitely pack it in.
It didn't even start out good. Let me tell you it didn't start out good. As soon as I got there all the regulars were there. Why the hell they get up so early to come over here just to sign up for a lousy tee time, I'll never know. Don't they have a life. Don't they have something else to do? It's like I always say to Mary: "they don't have a life."
Now I get here early because I have to work. Well, I really don't have to work, but you know what I mean, I'm working and I have to work. I have a reason to be here early. If I didn't have to work, I sure as hell wouldn't be here at five in the morning just to get a lousy tee time. I'd have something else to do. I sure as hell would. I'd find something else to do. I wouldn't just hang around waiting for the damn pro shop to open so I could get a tee time.
Pete has the place ready to go before I get here. He gets here really early and sets the carts up for the day. I always see him when I get out of my car and head for the staging area.
Dumb asses I always think. Getting here so early. Don't they have anything else to do?
Just golf, that's all they want to do, just golf. I told Mary if it was me, "I'd get a hobby."
And she says maybe that is their hobby.
Don't you just hate people who have no where else to go but to the damn golf course. And sometimes I even hate the crew that works here. I think they're just a bunch of dumb yo-yos, too. And sometimes I tell them so. I tell them that we are all dumb asses to be working here. Why don't we just quit. Well I could quit, even though she says I need to get out of the house. But the other guys. Sometimes I think they're, well, you know. I don't really like most of them. Oh, a few of the guys are okay, but the rest. You can have them. You know it always seems to me that wherever I go, I run into a lot of AH's. And this place has its share. And they never fire anybody. You know, the damn government crap.
Its like I keep telling you about where I live. All the neighbors are a bunch of AH's. Just like here, the guys are just the same. And here they sometimes pull tricks on me.
Like they did at all the other places. They try to make me mad or something. Like the time they put a raw egg on the cart seat when they knew I would be moving it and I would sit on it and get my pants all messed up. You know, laying an egg. But I was lucky. I saw before I sat down. That's only one of the things they've tried.
But that was the best till today. There were other days almost as bad. But today took the cake. Today the tee sheet was full and there seemed to be more mistakes than usual and I had to keep moving bags around. And the other workers were on me about that. Sometimes I think Mary's right, I should just get a hobby.
But today it was just bad and the golfers were really bad and I had to tell some of them to go fly a kite. And so many of them are foreigners and you know what that means. They can't speak English and you have to try to get them to understand. I talk as slow as I can and wave my hands around and mostly they get the idea, but today there were just some who didn't catch on and I said to one of them to go to hell under my breath, but I think they understood. They went into the pro shop and said something. The pro came out and told me to try to be a little nicer to the customers.
But you know, you have to do what you have to do. And some days are just bad. Even Pete says that some days are just bad and especially now in the season.
But that's the job and you know you have to accept the crap you get. I just work for the fringe benefits, because the pay is lousy and it's only the benefits that are worth it. I always ask the other guys who work why do you work here. Why do you come here and work? There's no point to it if you don't take advantage of the benefits, I always say. But they don't seem to understand. Sometimes I think they're just like the golfers. They don't have a life either. The just come here because they're bored or something.
And they never fire anybody. If I was in charge, I'd fire most of the guys. I've even said that to some of them. I'd fire the whole damn bunch if I was in charge. They don't seen to know what to do about the workers who are just plain bad or lousy. I'd know what to do: I'd fire them.
But enough about me. I work because the benefits are good and I like the free golf. I've tried lots of other jobs, and I've quit a lot of other jobs, and for the same kind of crap, but this job seems the best for me.
I've quit other places because it was always so dumb. And the management was so dumb but mostly the other workers were, to tell the truth, not too bright.
I don't have to work. I could just sit around if I wanted to and do nothing. Even if she says that I should work because I'd just sit around and get fat anyway.
And like I said, today was the worst day ever. And I don't know how it happened. But I was using the wrong tee sheet. It was for last week, but it said Wednesday and hell I thought it was today's. Nobody knew how it happened, but it was very, let me tell you, it was very embarrassing. And the golfers thought I was crazy calling them by other names and I even argued with some of them about the tee time. And once I even got mad as hell and the pro and Pete had to come and help get it straightened out. But either the pro or Pete noticed the wrong date on the sheet and that explained it. It was sure a bad day for me before we found the problem. I almost quit right then and there. I told the pro I was about to quit. He must have agreed I was right because he didn't try to talk me out of it. I still can't figure that one out: how the wrong tee sheet got there, where I always pick it up. Sometimes I think I just have bad luck. I have a lot of days where things go wrong, like that. But there you have it. My day at the course. It was not a good day, but I'm glad you asked. Maybe I'll just get another hobby.
But if I have another day like today I'll definitely quit. I went in the office before I went home and told them that and they said they wouldn't blame me if I did. No questions asked I told them, I'll just quit. And like Mary says I'll find something else to do. I don't need to work.
He had made notes about the farm and how to build a base for the farm. Timmy, his grandson was going to help him make the base. They had spent several evenings designing the base and several evenings building it in the garage. There was scant room for all his old shop tools. Most had been sold to friends and neighbors. He had been stubborn about some of the tools and now he was glad he had. Otherwise, how could he and Timmy build the ant farm base.
"Well Timmy, I'm glad I saved these tools," he said to Timmy as they both worked in the garage. Though to himself, he often cursed about the missing tools and how easy it would have been to make the base. They were his pride and his comfort. His escape from the daily cares, a way to be alone and think.
He often told Timmy about the large shop he had had once, the benches, tables saws and jointers.
"If I had my old shop, this would be much easier," he said to Timmy.
"What happened to your old shop? " Timmy asked.
And he explained about the selling of the house and that there was no room for the shop in his daughter's house. And it all had to be sold. Timmy listened carefully.
He still had some pieces of wood that he kept, stacked in the corner and out of the way, and the router and the bits to make the nice curved edges. The old machines were sold. He carefully priced each one and the day of the sale he stayed in his room, the TV on to drown the noise.
The base was just the perfect size for the ant farm. He still prided himself on his artistic sense. Timmy like it too and he held his hands cupped over his ears as the router whined and screamed.
And so it was built in the corner of the garage and Timmy helped stain it and apply varnish and lightly sanded it to give it a finished look.
"Gran, " as Timmy called him, " Gran it sure looks nice. Now all we need is the ants."
"They'll be here, you'll see," he reassured Timmy.
He lived with them now. They had added a room for him at the rear of the house and he and Timmy shared a bathroom. The room was enough, he always reminded himself. It was enough to hold him and all his personal things. Old pictures, old books that he still read. The picture of him and Sarah, bright faced at the wedding, looked down on him from an old dresser that was part of their bedroom set from when they married. And on the small desk a log book for the current year and the closet full of old log books from other years, dusty and full of notes and list of things to do. He sometimes took one of them down and paged through it. The pages were full of schedules and notes and dimensions of sides and shelves. But the current one was not as full as the previous ones. And in fact there was not much entered in the pages for coming days.
Timmy often joined him in his room in the evening and they shared quiet moments watching the small television he had. Sometimes he read to Timmy. Old books that he kept from the time when he was a young father.
The room was quite crowded, but big enough for his old rocking chair and another chair that Timmy always sat on.
Often Timmy just came into the room when the door was slightly ajar or even when it was just shut, but not locked.
"What are all those bottles Gran ?" he asked once.
The dresser drawer was open and Timmy could see the collection of bottles of medicine that lay there.
"Oh, just pills, Timmy. When you get to my age, you always need pills," he laughed about how old people need their medicines.
"Is that like the beer you always have, Gran?"
He merely raised his eyebrows and smiled a yes.
"Even that full bottle there?" Timmy asked pointing to a large bottle full of pills.
"Those are for pain," he said and pushed the drawer closed.
Often he brought down the 'picture book' as Timmy called it. The old albums. And they would spend a rainy afternoon looking at the old pictures. He would reminisce about the people in the pictures and Timmy would ask who they were and where they were now.
Mostly they were gone. And the log books, he often brought them down and paged through them. Jammed packed books. The writing small and sometimes not clear. But he could still understand them. Plans for pieces of furniture, schedules of when the material would arrive, finished plans, what kind of finish, varnish, shellac, oil or wax. He had tried them all. The time spent on each project neatly tabulated. He was definitely neat and tidy.
The ants did not arrive on time. The log book entry said they should have arrived the day before. He wondered if he had he forgotten a post office holiday. He looked at the calendar again. No, the ants were definitely late.
He and Timmy looked at the calendar pad that he kept on the drawer top, which served as a desk for him. They counted the days from when the farm arrived until when the ants were to have arrived. They were definitely late.
But there they were. In a small plastic tube with an instruction note wrapped around it. He carefully unrolled the paper and read the instructions out loud for Timmy to hear. The way to release them into the farm, the feeding and watering schedules. He made a weekly feeding schedule, neatly drawn lines parallel and equally spaced for each day and set it next to the farm and showed Timmy how to mark the days when they fed the ants.
The ants did not do anything for a day or so and Timmy was alarmed. But there in the instructions was the note about the ants and the fact that they would be lethargic for a day or so. They counted the ants. Time and time again they counted the ants. Never did they get the same number. They were so small and bunched in a small pile. And when they did finally begin to move about they were still so small that it was difficult to count them.
He was spending more and more time in his room alone. There was not enough space in the garage when both cars were parked. So he did not do any work in the evening.
He wrote in his log book that the ants had arrived and checked off the to-do list. The log was still empty. There were some notes that only he would understand about his will and burial. He did not like to dwell on those events. But the log book was clean.
He and Timmy watched the ants each day.
Each morning, Timmy checked on the ants. He always tapped on the glass and watched the ants scurrying about. Each day new tunnels appeared, or the old tunnels were longer. Sometimes he used a pen to mark where the tunnels were so he could see their progress. And Gran was always there also.
"See how busy they are," he would always remind Timmy as they watched the progress.
"They are hard workers. Ants always work," He reminded Timmy.
Feeding the ants was Timmy's job. And he enjoyed it.
There was a recipe for the food. So much sugar and water mixed and then fed to the ants. A few drops according to the schedule. He was surprised it took so little to feed them. No grain or meat, just the sugar water.
They were easy to keep, he thought. Even less trouble then he was.
The mixture of honey or sugar and water trickled slowly into the ant farm. The ants seemed to ignored the mixture. They never saw them eat the food, but it did disappear. The tunnels deepened. The ants were always busy. Like his old log books, they always seemed to have something to do.
But his current log book had nothing in it.
The ants had tunneled down to the base of the farm.
"Gran, why is it called an ant farm?" Timmy asked one day as they watched the ants scurrying around. It was a good question. The farm was just a thin collection of sandy soil sandwiched between two sheets of glass and a lid so that the ants could not escape.
They each carried a piece of dirt up to the top of the tunnel and placed it jut so and then back to the tunnel they went for more. Some ants took the same route each time and other ants used different tunnels. It was hypnotizing. He and Timmy sat and watched for hours.
"I think it's because the ants try to make a farm out of bacteria that grow in the soil. " He thought he remembered that from somewhere in his readings.
The tunnels were getting longer and deeper into the base of the farm.
And then one day the ants were not moving. Timmy was concerned.
He did not understand. There was no action in the farm. He tapped the glass to see if the ants would move, but there was no movement. They were dead. Scattered about the tunnels they lay, not moving. He was sure he had fed them. In fact, he could still see some of the sugar water along the side of the glass. But they were dead.
He must go tell Gran. He was excited and sad as he ran to Gran's room. The door was shut and he could not open it. It was strange to find the door shut and as he tried the handle he found the door was locked. It was never locked before. He called his name and then pounded on the door. There was no response.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
It was a hot night and he was sweating. They were all sweating. Outside, the mosquitoes were thick. The screen door was rusty in spots and he could see the bugs on the outside trying to get in, banging against the screen. The night was one of dreaminess and he felt its quietness.
They were members of the community club, of which the room was a small part. He didn't feel like playing pool or dancing, the heat was stifling.
Suddenly the music stopped and in an excited voice an announcer interrupted the music. They all stopped what they were doing and listened. The war was over. It was V-J day.
There was a moment of silence. He would be coming home, he said to himself, meaning his brother. And he would bring the Japanese sword home for him.
They all burst into shouts and cheers. Most everyone danced around, shouting and singing and cheering. He, however, continued sitting in the chair. Someone came over to him and shook his hand.
"My brother Joe is in the Navy, " he said.
"The war's over," the other boy said.
He got up and joined the rest of the crowd in dancing and cheering.
"We beat the yellow Japs," they all shouted. "We beat the slant eyes."
The building almost shook from the force of their dancing feet. They turned the radio louder.
"We beat the Japs, " he said, feeling part of the wining team for his brother was in the Navy.
"They eat dogs," someone said.
"And they beat women and children."
"What can we do to celebrate?"
"We're too young to buy beer."
"Let's smoke cigars. Everybody smokes cigars to celebrate."
They all rushed to the small candy counter and demanded cigars. The old man who tended the counter smiled at them, tears in the corner of his eyes and sold them nickel cigars. Some bought one and others bought more, he just bought two. He lit one and put the other one away in his shirt pocket. They all puffed and the warm air became thick with smoke and the old man chased them outside.
They pushed through the door, shouting and singing. The night was dark and the one bare light bulb over the door was surround by bugs. They spread out along the side of the building and puffed the cigars, sending up a smoke screen that none of the bugs dared penetrate.
"My brother will be home soon," someone said.
"They'll all be home soon."
"Except the ones that were killed, like Tony Pastuck. "
"My brother is on a carrier. The biggest one we have," he said proudly.
"They eat dogs," the boy next to him said.
"No they don't."
"Hell they don't. I read about. They sure as hell eat dogs."
"My brother never told me. He writes me about everything," he said.
"Well, maybe he forgot. But they sure as shit do."
"They kill women and children," another said.
"And hooray, we won. We beat them, " they all shouted.
The cigar smoke thickened. They could hardly be seen, except as shapes in the thick smoke. He finished one cigar, his head was beginning to whirl. But he lit the other one and puffed. Some of the others had finished smoking. Some were staggering about, the effect of the nicotine having dulled their senses. It was hot and he moved about, but there were no breezes. He went back inside and leaned against the counter. The old man smiled at him.
"You're really celebrating, " the old man said. "You'll be sick."
"Isn't it good the war is over?"
"My son will soon be home. It is good the war is over. There will be no more senseless killings."
"Do they really eat dogs?" he asked.
"Who?" the old man wanted to know.
"They sure as hell do eat dogs."
He went outside. The mosquitoes still thick around the light. Most of the others were leaving. The celebration was coming to and end. He had finished half of the second cigar, and was beginning to feel sick. Others were also sick and were going home. They had been celebrating for two hours, shouting and smoking under the mosquito harassed light. The old man was locking up. He lingered for a time with some of the late celebrators and when the old man turned off the light, he said goodnight and started walking home. The half finished cigar he threw away. His stomach felt strange and his head was spinning. He sat for a time and waited for the spinning in his head to slow down.
At home he sat on the porch steps in the warm night air and the cat moved against him, its swollen stomach brushing against his arm. He rubbed the cat's back and she licked his hand. He sat for a long time in the warm night.
The cat rubbed against his legs as he walked into the kitchen. The kitchen was dark, but he did not turn the light on.
He lay awake dreaming of distant seas. Dreaming of his brother who was celebrating in the dream and a huge Japanese sword.
He slept late. The stale taste of cigar smoke in his dry mouth and a slight headache.
His mother was at the kitchen table when he came down.
"Oh, I so happy. Now Joey come home," she said.
"Yes, " he said.
"They must be bad people. I wish always for the war to finish and Joey come home."
"Did anybody get the mail?" he asked.
"No. I no think so."
He wished there would be a package for him, or a letter. He always waited for the letters, they made him happy. He could see himself on the giant carrier, shooting the enemy planes, thick as mosquitoes, and he would down them all.
There was no package, but there was a letter. He read it on the way home, thrilling to the words written on the paper so thin he could see through. He completed the letter before he got home.
His mother was still at the kitchen table when he entered.
"What was in the mail?" she asked.
"A letter from Joey?"
"What does he say?"
"Read me the letter."
He read the letter to her. She picked it up from the table.
She had tears in her eyes. " He be home soon."
There was nothing in the letter about the sword.
"I have a job for you today, " she said.
"Drown the cats," she said.
"What cats?" he asked
"She have six kitties last night. Drown them all."
"Let them live," he said. "They don't hurt anything."
"No, I no want all them cats here. Drown them."
"Well, where are they?" he finally asked.
"In the cellar."
He continued sitting at the kitchen table thinking about the big guns of a carrier and the letter and the sword. Then he went to the cellar. The cat was, laying on its side, while the six kittens crawled over her.
He got an old potato bag from a corner and emptied it. He picked up the kittens, one by one and placed them in the bag. The old cat watched him. He slung the bag over his shoulders and climbed the stairs.
The cat followed him but he shut the door before she could get out.
It was warm outside. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders. The weight was small and he only needed one hand to hold it and the other he shoved into his pocket.
There was a certain dislike in having to drown the cats, but he tried not to think about it. He knew if he didn't do it, his mother would ask the neighbor to do it and he couldn't let that happen. He crossed the railroad tracks and headed for the old abandoned strip-mining holes that had filled with water. Yellow sulfurous water.
The old cat was on the porch when he got home. She looked at him and he turned his head. He did not touch her, but when he sat down the cat came to him and rubbed her back along his side. Then she sat down and began licking her swollen breasts. He got up and went into the kitchen. His mother had gone next door and the room was empty. He sat down behind the stove and put his head in his hands and watched a silken spider web on the corner of the leg of the stove. The picture of the cat licking its breasts and the small air bubbles that rose from where he had tossed the burlap bag filled with the kittens and the large stone came to him and he felt ill. He dreamed of his brother shooting a Jap who was eating the leg of a dog. Then his brother took the sword from the soldier and kept it. He awoke when his mother opened the screen door and came in.
She was still holding the letter and did not notice him at first.
"What's the matter?" she asked when she saw him.
"Nothing," he replied.
"I take the letter to Mrs. O'Brien to show her and for her to read again. Her son will come home, too."
"You sick?" she asked again when he did not say anything.
"No," he answered again.
"You drown the cats?"
"Mrs. O 'Brien say she would be like one. You drown them all?"
"Yes, all of them."
"I think we should have saved one. "
She picked up the letter and held it gently in her hands.
"Them Jap people must be bad people," she said softly. It sounded like a question.
And he would never answer that question.
She did not answer, merely nodding her head.
“This looks like an all day rain. Let’s not take a cab. We’ll get wet waiting for one,” he said. “Let’s take the subway.”
She agreed, nodding her head.
“Race you to the station,” he said and they both started running toward the station in the light rain. He stayed behind almost as if he were protecting her. At the station, they walked slowly down the wet steps.
He bought the tickets while she waited for him. The subway was dark and not very crowded and chilly from the rain. He put his arms around her as they walked along the tunnel. She seemed cold and did not look at him. At the steps that led to the station, she moved in front of him and he followed, walking as he always did, close to the side and keeping his hands on the iron railing.
It was sudden, or it seemed sudden to him. He was lost in thought about her and how she was coping, when someone brushed by him and shouted something. He was not so much startled as he was brought back from him reveries. The person that had brushed by him had pushed him slightly against the wall and was now running down the steps just ahead of him shouting. He thought it rude of them not to stop and offer an apology. He did not notice anyone around. Except for them, the tunnel seemed empty.
Out of habit, he slapped his front pocket where he always kept his wallet. He could feel the other hand there. A hand trying to force its way into his pocket. He grabbed the hand and pushed it away. He could not see the person who had brushed by him. They were already gone around the turn in the tunnel.
He turned quickly. A youngish looking boy, eleven or twelve, was standing on the step above him, a map in his hand. They both eyed each other. Time seemed to be in slow motion. The boys’ left hand reaching for the other side of the subway map, which he held in his right hand. Then quickly, in a soft warm voice he asked: “Is this the way to the main street stop?”
He never got to answer. The young boy was gone, disappearing like his companion, around a bend in the tunnel.
He was stopped on the steps. She was still walking ahead of him, and now was several steps in front.
He removed his wallet quickly and determined that there was nothing missing. His hand felt strange. He did not like the idea that he had held someone else’s hand, a stranger, and he brushed the palm of his hand against his trousers.
“Did you see that?” he almost shouted at her.
“That son-of-a-bitch tried to pick my pocket. That son-of-a-bitch.”
She looked at him quizzically. In an anxious voice, he told her what had happened.
“I just saw the one kid, “she said. “I didn’t know there was another one.”
“He tried to pick my pocket,” he said again loudly. “That little son-of-a-bitch.”
“It happened so quickly. I didn’t know,” she said.
They stopped at the bottom of the stairs and he looked through his wallet again and patted all his other pockets to assure himself that nothing else was taken.
“I wonder what I did to encourage him?” he asked.
He was young and strong. Not like some of the people he had read about, elderly women or sometimes men. Purse snatching was not uncommon. But what had he done?
“Nothing, “she said. “I don’t think you did anything.”
“That little son-of-a-bitch.” It was all he could say.
They rode home quietly. They did not talk about the trip to the police station. He would wait for her to bring it up. The trains were not crowded. He kept his hand near his front pocket during the ride and the short walk to their apartment. The rain had eased and they were only slightly wet when they arrived home.
She was quiet while he cooked dinner and they ate in the kitchen with the television on some news channel. Only once did he bring up the police station.
“Was that the one?” he asked.
“Yes, “she said. “I’ll never forget him.”
“But there is more to be done, the trial and all.”
“In six months the lawyer said.”
He went to bed early and lay there in the darkness. The day had been eventful and he hoped it would bring closure for her. The police were nice. They were patient and had even assigned a female detective to be with her.
Was it so long ago, he wondered, lying there in the dark room, with the rain dripping on the window? They had only been married for less than a year, both still working, but in different places in the city.
They usually both arrived home at about the same time. He took the subway and she took a bus, walking the several blocks from the bus stop. He often offered to meet her at the stop, especially if she had to work late. But she always laughed and said she was a big girl now. And she was a strong girl. A runner and biker and kept herself in shape. And then one night she arrived home hysterical. A man had followed her from the bus stop and forced her into an alley.
He took her the police station and she explained it all to them. He did not allow her to wash or change clothes. He hurried her to the station in a cab, all the while she cried and clung to him in the back seat. He was a stranger, she told them, the man that followed her and forced her into the alley. The seemingly endless night at the hospital and doctors and explaining over and over what had happened. The books of known offenders with their pictures that she looked through, finally pointing to someone.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s him.”
He tried to help, but all he could do was comport her and get coffee for her in the long night. She was able to pick out the stranger. How long ago was it? Two months, more, maybe nine weeks. She changed almost over night. He slept next to her in the big bed they picked when they were still planning the wedding. A queen size, they laughed. But now it was not the same. Now he went to bed first and then she followed, often when he had fallen asleep. Not like before, when they both lay there, in the big bed, in the dark and she snuggled up to him, like the newlyweds they were.
But now she was cold and distant. He had been patient with her, but he had tried often and she always said not now, not yet. She was distant in other ways. No long talks at dinner, or laughs. She was not interested in movies or dinner out, or parties with friends. She did not talk to him about the attack. He apologized again and again for not meeting her at the stop. He understood.
“It was not your fault,” she would say. “It was not your fault.”
And then tonight. The trip to the police station. The lineup. The detective allowed him to be with her as she tried to pick out the assailant.
“Number 4,” she said.
“Are you sure?” the detective asked.
“Number 4,” she replied matter-of-factly. She was sure. Even the public defender shrugged his shoulders.
He was brought back from his reverie when she came to bed.
And now she lay there in the darkness next to him. He could hear her soft breath in the still night. It seemed quieter tonight than other nights. Maybe it was the rain, he thought. He reached out to touch her, placing his hand on her breast. She moved away from him, his hand falling on the warm bed. She did not say anything for a while, and then softly she said: “not yet.”
He was disappointed, even a little angry. Wasn’t it over? He had been patient. The police had the man; she had pointed him out. There should be closure now, he thought. Of course there was still the trial, but that was a long way off. His hand still lay on the bed, where it had fallen when she moved away.
Lying there in the dark, the rain slowly dripping on the widow ledge, he thought he could still feel the young boy’s warm hand touching his leg and his pushing the hand away and he rubbed it roughly against the sheet. He could wait longer.
Saturday, July 01, 2006
"They're going to hire a lot of drivers," Skinny tells me. "So we should try to get the jobs."
"Do you think they’ll hire us?" I asked.
"Sure, why not."
"I don’t even have a drivers license for a car," I said.
"You don’t need a license for driving off the roads."
"Shit you don’t."
So one day we went to where the trucks were parked, near the lower level of the first section of the colliery, where the slate side-dumpers were loaded and where the showers were and the lamp shanty. We were going to try to see how they felt by sitting in them and see if the gear shift and the steering wheel were right. They were huge trucks, Euclids, but the cabs were locked and so all we could do was to climb up on them and look inside. I was amazed to see that the tires were as tall as me and I was scared that we would get the job and I would not be able to handle the truck and do the double clutching needed for shifting, especially when going up a hill and having to down shift. In the winter when the trucks came by the road in front of our house, the engines roared as they crept up the hill. We laughed whenever a driver had to shift and he did it too slow and the gears ground and made a loud noise.
"Grind me a pound," we would all shout at the driver as he sometimes had to stop the truck to get it into first gear and sometimes he had to back down the hill and start over.
But Skinny was not worried.
"They’re automatic," Skinny assured me. But I was still relieved when we did not get the jobs. They were not automatic.
Skinny felt bad about not getting me a job driving one of the trucks. He had been so sure that we would get the jobs.
"I’ll get you a job," he said to me assuredly.
"Don’t worry," I told him. "It doesn’t matter that much."
"No, I’ll get you a job."
So Skinny found out from Perniski son-in-law that he was going to start the coal hole again and needed two workers. He was old and retired and lived with his daughter. She was married to a trucker who owned several trucks that carried coal from the coal holes to the colliery. The coal hole we worked in had been opened by Perniski years before and was worked out, so that you could not make a living mining what coal remained. But there was still enough left for a small operation. It was just Perniski and me as inside men and Skinny the hoist man for a time and then Skinny left.
Skinny had worked for Perniski's son-in-law driving one of the trucks for a short time. Skinny and I went to see him at his home one evening and he told us to come to the coal hole the next day.
"We're all set now, " Skinny said. "You can be the hoist man and I’ll work inside." Skinny began teaching me how to run the hoist and how to know when the buggy was off the track and when the buggy was all the way up and when it was all the way down and all the codes for the bell and when to oil and grease the cable and the winch. He had run a hoisting machine for another coal hole one summer.
After only a few days, I was not happy with the job. It required long hours of just sitting, waiting for the buggy to be filled and decided that he should be the hoist man and I would be the inside man. Perniski didn't care. And then, Skinny got a job driving a truck for someone else and he left us.
"I'll get a replacement," he promised.
He showed up for work the next day. He was an older guy and had been a hoist man somewhere else.
"I don’t like him," Perniski said, but he hired him anyway.
"Why?" I asked
"I just don’t like him."
The hoisting was done using a car, jacked up off the ground with the rear axles welded together so that the wheels did not just spin as if it was on an icy roadway. Just one wheel was used for the hoisting. One of the back wheels was joined to a heavy winch and provided the energy needed to hoist the coal car up the steep slope and to also send men and timber into the mine. A bell system was used to signal the type of operation needed. One continuous ring, as an emergency signal to stop the buggy, seven for men coming up, two for a full buggy, three for timber, and so on. The bell was powered by the car battery and activated by touching bare wires together at the bottom of the mine for the appropriate number of rings, or at the slant chute or anywhere along the slope. The wires ran the length of the slope and were nailed or wrapped around the timbers. Often times the wires would be corroded from the sulfurous water and new pieces had to be spliced in.
Mr. Perniski was very careful about safety while I was in the mine, just as he probably was for Skinny. I helped drill the holes for the blasting while he prepared the blasting caps and the dynamite. Five holes were usually drilled in the face of the coal seam, two on top, two on the bottom and one in the center. The sequence for blasting was always the same. First the center hole, then the bottom holes and then the top two. The holes were drilled by hand with a brace and bit that consisted of a threaded holder that was attached to a long steel bar driven into the vein of coal and the drill bit shank was threaded and the threaded end clamped into the holder and the brace assembly turned and the bit cut the hole and as the hole got deeper, pieces were added to the assembly. The effort was not too difficult, but it took a long time.
I was never allowed to handle the dynamite or the blasting caps. I always left the face of the gangway while he set the fuses. He cut the length of the fuse wire to make the sequence and lighted the fuses in the correct order. I helped make the dirt bags that were packed into the hole after the dynamite was in, and then I went up to one of the slant chutes that were used during the ‘robbing out ‘ phase and waited there in the dark, quiet chute surrounded by creaking timbers. And after a while, I could hear Perniski coming up the slope, his heavy breathing breaking the silence, as he crawled up quickly and joined me in the old slant chute. I remember thinking he moved fast for an old man. We waited there quietly and listened, counting the number of blasts to make sure they all fired. The blasts were not loud, but they shook the ground. We knew the number of shots and were careful about counting them as they went off, sometimes close together.
"There," he would say, "that was the last one." He seemed relieved that they had all fired. You could smell the smoke and the sharp sulfur odor as the smoke drifted up the slope.
He returned first to the gangway face after the blasting and checked to see if everything was okay. Then he'd go up into the old breast works and check to see if the coal vein and the roof were still solid after the blast. And sometimes he broke some of the loose coal away and it came crashing down the breast works and into the boards that were part of the old chute system. I could just see a small ray of light and hear him breathe as he poked the coal vein to break away any loose pieces. That was considered good coal, since we did not have to blast to get it and often it was closer to the slope and I did not have to wheel it as far.
"Okay," he would say climbing down, clutching the old timbers for support., "It’s all okay."
I loaded the wheelbarrow and pushed the coal out to the slope over the roadbed made from old two-by-ten oak planks, then dumped it into the car, or ‘buggy’ as we called it, and when it was full, I signaled the hoistman to take the buggy up.
We counted the number of buggies, as the day went by, to see how many truck loads of coal we had dug. If we needed just one or two more to make a full truck load, we would continue, since the truckers came sometimes after we had gone home and filled their truck for the next morning’s work.
The gangway or tunnel was long and dark, lit only by the small light from the carbide lamp mounted on the hard hats that we wore. An extra lamp was used at the gangway face to provide more light and was hooked to one of the timbers. The carbide had to be replenished frequently. The bottom part which held the carbide screwed off, and the old carbide was dumped out and fresh carbide put in and water added to the upper compartment. Then the lamp was screwed back together and the water valve adjusted so it just dripped a little into the carbide to make the light just bright enough. And other water, from the roof, dripped slowly, drop by drop and the air was humid and cool and not dusty, since the water made it damp. We brought our own water for drinking, glass jugs mostly that were kept near the face, but back far enough to be out of danger of getting broken. The water we drank always had a strong taste, or maybe it was the smell of the sulfur in the air from the dynamite blasts, or the carbide smell, but it tasted strange as you drank it. It was always cool since the mine was always cool.
I was in complete darkness except for the light given off by my carbide lamp as I pushed the wheelbarrow along the plank road. And then slowly, the light from either his lamp or the extra lamp would show dull yellow and flit back and forth as he worked in the distance and get brighter as I got near the face of the gangway. And there was not much talking in the crowded gangway face, just the heavy breathing of heavy work. It was cool in the coal hole, and even in summer, you needed a shirt and jacket.
Perniski used a large metal bar and a pick to break the coal from the face of the vein, and I shoveled it into the wheelbarrow. He timbered the gangway as we advanced, while I filled and pushed the wheelbarrow along the darkened tunnel. And as we moved into the vein of coal, we placed large sheets of iron on the floor of the gangway to help in shoveling the coal. And sometimes he would just be sitting when I got back from a trip to the buggy, and he would say: "Time for a break."
And I was glad he said that and sat down and drank some water, or just rested until he was ready to start again.
"Mom okay?" he occasionally asked as we sat and rested.
"And pop working?"
That was all he usually asked. It seemed enough for him, the world was good if mom was okay and pop was working.
And the timbers in the tunnel creaked as I went by with the wheelbarrow for the long distance to the face of the mine. An occasional drop of water hitting my hard hat or dropping on my shoulder or back, the cold water pinching. And Perniski would say that it is a good sign if the timbers are creaking.
"It is good when they creak," he would say. "You worry when there is no sound."
Some of the timbers were new and fresh, that we had cut that summer in the woods near the coal hole, and some of the timbers were old and dark and wet from the drops of water, since they had been in the mine since it was started years earlier.
At the top of the coal hole a large holding chute was made from timbers cut in the nearby woods and slabs, which were the first cuts from the logs with the bark still on them, which came from the small saw mills that the farmers had for clearing timber from their lands. These were used as sheeting boards to form the chute and the bottom I was lined with large steel plates. The buggy was built to automatically open when it came to the top, and the coal would pour out and into the chute and the hoist man would then check to see if it was all okay after it emptied, and then he'd close the back and send it back down. But often the buggy would jump the tracks if it was sent down too fast, or pulled up too fast or too erratically.
In the morning, both Perniski and I rode the buggy down into the coal hole and back out in the late afternoon. Sometimes I rode the bridle, but most often I was told to go in the buggy, while he rode the bridle. The bridle was the steel cable that was wound around the buggy to provide support and to make a place to connect the cable that pulled it out of the mine. The buggy was large enough for two people. It was two or three feet high and three feet wide and six feet long and was built from heavy oak boards held together with heavy steel bands. The back two thirds had a top and the front was open, where the coal was dumped in, and the back was hinged, and it would flap open when it reached the top of the holding chute.
You lay in the buggy with your feet and legs stretched out and your upper body at the back, where the bridle was. There was room to lay on your side if you needed space and sometimes we did when we took small logs or boards or wedges or dynamite with us on the morning trip if Perniski needed them for timbering or patch work that needed repair in the roof of the gangway. The hoist man made sure the buggy went down slowly and evenly, without a jerk, and if you looked back you could see the light fade as the buggy descended and the opening get smaller.
We had everything we needed with us, our water and lunch, though sometimes lunch would come later. His wife would send his lunch to the coal hole and the hoist man would send it down. He'd use a signal to let us know that something was in the buggy for us. Sometimes we did not light our lamps until we were inside, and the darkness ahead was finally matched by the darkness behind us as the buggy descended into the coal hole.
We'd signal when we'd need the timbers for timbering, and the hoist man would put them into the buggy and send them down. Perniski laid out the timbers in the morning, before we went into the mine, and told the hoist man which ones were to be sent and in what order.
But sometimes I would have to go to the surface to bring timbers down, special timbers that Perniski needed, putting them in the buggy and riding the bridle as the buggy went back into the mine and holding onto the timbers as the buggy went down and the hoist man let the buggy go faster than it should, just to scare me. And once, when I tried to ring seven times to signal that there was a man on the buggy, so the hoist man would stop the buggy sooner and be careful in bringing it up, the signal didn't work. And I got out of the buggy and signaled again and still it didn’t work and so I tried getting out of the buggy again and it started up and I was caught there on the tracks with the buggy climbing and the rope, the steel cable, between my legs and the frayed ends of the cable tearing my overalls and I tried to move way, and then fell, luckily into the buggy and was safe but scared and trembling and relieved that I was safe and had no cuts or bruises except for some scratch marks on my legs and inner thighs where the cable hit my skin. But there was no bleeding just bruises. And at the top I asked the hoistman what went wrong and he told me that he had fallen asleep and did not hear the bell.
My overalls were ruined but I found another pair in the hoist shanty and used that pair and threw the other one away.
"I’ll buy you a new pair," the hoist man said. "Just as soon as we get paid."
"It’s okay," I said, glad that I did not get hurt.
"No, no, I’ll buy you a new pair," he went on.
Perniski was angry when he found out about it. "Goddamn, fell asleep. I don't like him. Goddamn fell asleep."
We called it a day. And that evening or the next day, my father heard about the accident from Perniski and then it was over, like a small storm that comes and goes. I continued working, apologies came for days from the hoist man and from Perniski and the hoist man promised never to do that again and promised a new pair of overalls that never came.
"You okay?" my father asked.
"Perniski told me about it."
"You okay?" he repeated
"You must be careful with the buggy when he is hoisting," he said, meaning the hoist man.
We wore carbide lamps for light, and hard hats for safety when we were in the mine. When we blasted, we ate our lunches up in the slant chute, Perniski with his one or two remaining teeth, chewing the hard bread and bologna and drinking his still warm coffee, all neatly packed in a black metal lunch bucket with the thermos jug full of coffee, full of cream and sugar, and offering me some. And my lunch packed in a brown paper bag. We always tried to blast late in the day so the smoke and dust would settle and clear out by morning. But sometimes we blasted in the late morning and after we ate our lunch, the smoke would clear enough for us to continue working.
The roof constantly dripped water, small amounts that did not bother us, but it collected in the bottom of the slope and sometimes the buggy got wet from being in the sump. The slope went deeper, but was filled with water. Perniski said that there was another gangway deeper than the one we were working, one that he had worked in long ago. The buggy sort of floated as it settled into the water, and the hoist man knew from the amount of cable that was out that the buggy was at the bottom. Some timbers had been laid across the track to stop the buggy, but the water had filled up so that they could not be seen, and the water helped stop the buggy.
During the summer, we would often spend a day in the nearby woods cutting timber. Perniski marked the trees he thought best for timbering and small enough for us to handle. We cut the trees with a large crosscut saw, he on one end and me on the other, and I trimmed the tree to length with an ax, where he had marked it. And we both carried them out to the side of the woods, along a dirt road and waited for the trucker to come and take them to the coal hole. And the trucker always came, since he was Perniski's son-in-law. He came late in the day when he had finished all his trips to town. Perniski and I loaded the timbers into the truck and rode back to the coal hole.
Perniski did the timbering. I helped hold the timbers while he adjusted them and measured them, and then he chopped the timbers flat for the post and bar method he used. And I'd dig the holes to set them in, in the floor of the gangway. He finished the final work with small logs or boards or wedges, hammering them into place so that the timbers would not come loose. I could sometimes hear him hammering in the gangway as I pushed the wheelbarrow along the plank road. The road with a small ditch on one side for the water drippings to run off.
The truckers came and took the coal to the small collieries and each time, they gave a chit or slip to the hoist man. And late each Friday afternoon, after the last load was taken, the trucker returned with the week’s money in a small envelope. We waited patiently for him to return as we sat near the holding chute. Perniski would throw stones in a small puddle of water that collected from either the rain or the drippings from the wet coal as the buggy settled in the wet sump at the bottom of the slope.
"You see, that is just like a woman. You cannot tell if anybody was there before you," he said when the ripples had died down.
"Is that what you found out, Perniski?" the hoist man kids him.
"Yes, you will see, I am right."
"You can never tell. Like the water."
And sometimes the hoist man told him things that were wrong with the tracks or the chute or the shanty, and Perniski would fix whatever was wrong after we left for the day or sometimes on the weekends. He had made the buggy and laid the tracks and started the coal hole.
He was also working on a buggy for someone else. He worked on it in his backyard under the oak trees. He was always there in the early evenings, working on the buggy.
I walked to work, to the coal hole, and went by his house early in the morning, but he was never there, he was always at work. The hoist man and I, were not so punctual, especially the hoist man, who was never on time.
Perniski never talked about mining or his family or the old country. He was quiet, sometimes still drinking the last bit of coffee from the thermos jug in the late afternoon.
The three of us sat there, on the ground, in the warm summer air, waiting for the trucker to come. Perniski sometimes throwing stones in the small puddles, and the hoistman and me just sitting there, tired and dirty and the warm sun good. And then the trucker came and gave us the small envelope, and Perniski divided the money. He counted it all out giving each of us our share, and keeping some extra for the expense money for the dynamite and caps and fuses and gas and grease and oil for the hoist and slabs for the holding chute.
Why he worked, I never did know. Perhaps it was for fun. He lived with his daughter and probably did not need the money, except for a bit of independence.
I left the coal hole in late August to start football practice and then school, and Perniski was disappointed. He wanted to continue the work. He talked to my father about it.
"Old man Perniski was here today," my father said one day when I came home from football practice.
"What did he want?" I ask.
"He wants to know why you are quitting."
"To go back to school," I interrupt.
"I told him that, but he doesn’t understand why you can’t work till school starts."
"Did you tell him about my going out for football?"
"He doesn’t understand football. He just shook his head."
"He can find someone else."
"He said you were a good worker."
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