Sunday, June 25, 2006

 

The X-Ray Machine

The coal processing plant discarded its refuse in an abandoned strip mine a short distance from the colliery. It was a deep open-pit mine, dug by the huge power shovels that were beginning to dot the area. At night their bright lights flashed across the sky, like search beacons at an airport, digging away the overburden for the next days work. And during the day, there was the endless roar of the trucks used to haul the refuse

The refuse was the rocks and the slate that were separated from the coal by workers in the colliery who stood on each side of the large moving belts that carried the washed coal to where it was processed. They pushed and pulled the rocks and slate off the belt into chutes that led to a holding bin. The trucks often skidded dangerously on the slippery ground, wet and muddy from the water that dripped from the refuse.

Townspeople came to gather the pieces of coal that were accidentally pushed off the belts and mixed with the rocks and slate. They would follow the trucks to the edge of the stripping and wait until they dumped the refuse and then crawl down the steep banks to search for the pieces of coal. Some came with buckets, others with wheelbarrows. They pushed each other out of the way and fought for the few lumps of coal. There were old women in the group, red handkerchiefs tied around their heads, torn gloves on their hands and even some wearing men's work shoes.

Nick Brenski was among them this morning, his wheelbarrow parked off to one side. He was, like the rest, old, older than his years. He walked with a slight droop of his shoulders from having spent his life working in the deep mines. Yet he was proud that he always got his supply of winter coal by himself, never having to spend money to buy it. He had not worked for some time. The deep mines were now shut, strip mining was more profitable, and the small pension check not near enough to buy coal.

He was slow in picking the coal and never ran as the others did. He was patient. He would wait for the truck to leave before he would crawl down the stripping. His wheelbarrow was almost full when one of the trucks dumped its load of slate and rocks.

After the truck had gone, he noticed a large piece of coal that no one had picked. He crawled down, careful not to slip on the wet slate and rocks. He picked up the piece in his bare hands and rested it on his knee and began to climb up. Somewhere in the climb, it happened so quick he was not sure when, his foot slipped and the full weight of the coal was thrown on his arm and stomach muscles. He felt a tearing sensation in his abdomen, but he continued on after he regained his balance until he was at the wheelbarrow. A slight dull pain persisted. He felt his abdomen, gently pressing it, but he could feel no bulges.

It hurt a little to push the loaded wheelbarrow home. He rested often and when he was at home, he piled the coal in the backyard where later he would break it into smaller pieces to be used in the coal-burning kitchen stove and the furnace during the cold winter. The kitchen was neat and tidy. He kept it that way, now that only he and his son Stiney lived there. He poured a cup of coffee from the pot that he always kept at the back of the stove to stay warm. The stove always burning, even in the summer, to provide hot water and for cooking.

Taking the warm cup of coffee with him, he went into the parlor and sat down. Stiney was dozing in one of the chairs and he awoke.

"No more coal? " he asked in a puzzled voice.

"Yeah, lots," Nick answered.

"Oh."

"But son-of-a-gun, I think I hurt myself, " he said in a calm voice. "I slipped."

"Where? " Stiney asked, leaning forward in the chair. "Where did you hurt yourself?"

"Here. " He pointed to his abdomen.

"Maybe you got ruptured?"

"I hope not. I take it easy for a few days and see."

"Does it hurt bad?" Stiney asked.

"No, just a little," he said quickly. Then seeing Stiney's questioning look, added: "Well, maybe."

"You don't have to pick coal. I make enough driving bulldozer. We can buy the coal."

"I always pick winter coal. Every year I pick enough for winter. And chop enough wood too. I always pick enough. Nine or ten tons."

"But we can buy it. I can get Tony to deliver it from the breaker. He has a pickup truck."

"I don't buy coal. There's coal all around. I pick my own. I always picked my own."

"Well, " Stiney said, "Maybe you better go see a doctor anyway."

"Oh, I no think so."

"I'm telling you. It might be a rupture. Maybe you'll have to go to the hospital."

Nick was silent for a moment. "I see in a couple of days. Maybe just a little sore, " he said. "I no pick coal for a while, I just rest. I'll just crack coal for a few days."

"Well, it's up to you. But I think you should go." Stiney stood up as if to go.

Nick held the warm cup of coffee in his hands. "Where's the money coming from? " he said almost angrily. "I be wish I be still working."

"I have some, " Stiney said.

"I be wish I still be working, " Nick repeated softly.

"Do you want to go? I have enough money."

"If you can spare it."

"Come on, " Stiney said. "Here's some money."

"I hope everything be okay," he said putting the money in his pocket.

Stiney was in the car and ready to go when Nick came out. He had washed his hands and face and changed his shirt. When he was seated in the car, he pressed his abdomen and sighed: "doesn't hurt much now."

"You want to go to see O'Brien?"

"Yes, O'Brien. I always go to O'Brien."

Nick had been a patient of O'Brien's for many years when the cuts and bruises from the work in the mines needed attention and as the family doctor he had delivered the other children who were now married and living in far-off places where work was plentiful.

"I hope be okay," Nick said again when they were on the road.

"We'll know soon," Stiney said.

The afternoon sun was warm and the day was pleasant. Nick pointed to some old buildings as they drove. They were weather beaten and covered with dust. "Looks like they're gonna dig up number two mine."

"Yeh, that's what I hear. There's not gonna be anymore mines. "

"The big shovels ruined it."

"It pays the company."

"Yeh. Pays the company. I work in the mines for forty years and now..., " his voice trailed off and he shrugged his shoulders.

"They make more money with machinery and power shovels. I can do more with my bulldozer than ten men and It's cheaper than men and mules."

"Yeh, men and mules," Nick repeated.

When they arrived at the doctor's office the waiting room was empty and they sat in the comfortable leather chairs. Across the room the TV set was playing a western movie. Stiney selected a magazine and began reading. Nick picked up a magazine. He could not read, but he liked looking at the pictures.

Presently a nurse entered. "Next, " she pointed to Nick.

Stiney was still engrossed in the magazine when Nick and the doctor came out.

"Don't forget what I told you," the doctor said patting Nick on the shoulders.

"Okay. Thank you doctor."

"That's all right. Just take care of yourself. Remember, Nick, we're not young men anymore. Leave the hard work to the young guys," the doctor winked at Stiney.

"Did he say anything was wrong?" Stiney asked as they walked to the car

"Nothing wrong."

"Then you're okay?"

"Yeh. That's what he said. But if a bumble comes up, I supposed to come back."

"But it's okay now?"

"That's what he said."

"Here, " Nick said, giving the money back to Stiney.

"What's this? "Didn't you pay him?".

"He didn't want any money."

"Oh."

"He said to forgetten about it."

Stiney smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"He's the best doctor," Nick said. "I always say that. He always treats you right."

"Take me to Jim O'Leary, " Nick said when they were in the car.

"Why O'Leary's?"

Nick showed him the envelope tucked in his shirt pocket.

"What's that?"

"Something about an x-ray. This envelope, I supposed to give to Jimmy. To let me get a free one at the state hospital."

"Is there something wrong with your chest? " Stiney asked anxiously.

"No. I don't know. But if there is, I can get maybe five or ten thousand dollars from the state. If I have black lung."

"Oh, I didn't know anything about that."

"I didn't either. He's a good doctor."

"Well, let's go, " Stiney was anxious.

Jim O'Leary was the county political leader and could do favors for the idle coal miners who then gladly gave him their votes. Nick only knew O'Leary as one knows the town mayor, but with the doctor's request it was easy to get free medical attention at the state hospital.

At O'Leary's, a large house with a neatly cut lawn, Stiney waited in the car. Nick returned shortly, a smile on his face and a new white envelope in his hands.

"Did you get it?" Stiney asked.

"Yeh."

"We might as well go now."

"You have the time, now?" It sounded like a plea.

"Yes, I have time, " Stiney answered.

The road, wound around sharp turns, strip mines on each side of the road, pale yellow with black caps from the outer part of the coal veins, standing stark in the bright sun. Some of the spillbanks were fresh with giant power shovels pouring new dirt on them, while others, older and not in use, silent and dotted with birch and scrub pines. The only trees that could grow in the bitter soil. But Nick and Stiney did not even notice them anymore, they were so much a part of the landscape.

They went slowly, Nick eyeing every inch of the road and telling Stiney to be careful. He said: "I wish I be have money, " quietly, sitting upright in the seat, the white envelope held firmly on his lap.

The State hospital was a large sprawling complex. Paths connecting the buildings were brick paved and tree lined. The lawns, deep green were freshly cut, were scattered with occasional trees and shrubbery.

They parked near the main building.

"Nice place, " Nick said as he gazed around the grounds. "Are you sure this is the right place? I've never been here before."

"I guess," Stiney shrugged, " we'll soon find out."

At the admissions desk the nurse told them to take a seat and wait until they were called. The room was dotted with chairs and the floor covered with linoleum. They sat down on two of the wooden chairs. The room was crowded. No one paid any attention to them. Some tables were scattered about, old magazines laying on them. An elevator occupied the center of the room which was badly in need of paint and cigarette smoke hung in the air.

Presently, a nurse appeared from a door across the room and called Nick's name.

He and Stiney stood up.

"Are you with him?" she asked without really looking at them.

"Yes, " Stiney said.

"Come in here, " she said in a monotone voice.

When she was finally seated at the solitary desk in the room and Nick and Stiney in the two chairs that faced her, she began filling out a form. Stiney answered her questions. When she finished she pushed the form toward Nick.

"Sign here."

"I no can write. My son write for me, " Nick said pushing the form to Stiney.

"Okay. Someone will call you," the nurse said in a bored voice.

Nick lit a cigarette when they returned to their seats and puffed it rapidly, the end glowing hot and the ash large. His stomach was churning and made noises in the quiet room. He took a drink of water at the fountain, then sat down again, moving constantly in his chair.

Finally someone called his name.

Nick followed him and they both disappeared into a room at the end of the hall. Stiney turned, his eyes on the people using the elevator.

Suddenly, he noticed someone he knew. "Joe, Joe," he waved as he walked to the elevator.

"What are you doing here?" Stiney shook his hand.

"Hey, Stash, long time no see."

"What are you doing here?" Stiney asked again.

"Mary had the baby yesterday. So I'm here to see them."

"Well congratulations." Stiney patted him on the shoulder. "What was it?"

"A boy, " he smiled. "A big boy. What are you doing here?"

"I brought my father in for a chest x-ray."

"About the black lung deal the state has?"

"Yes, we just found out about it. From O'Brien."

"He helped me to get Mary here. O'Brien did."

The elevator arrived and some people got out. "Well, I have to go now, she'll be waiting," Joe said.

"Say hello to Mary," Stiney gave a wave as the door shut.

He fumbled through his pockets for a cigarette and lit it inhaling deeply as he walked around the room, the waiting having made him a little impatient.

Meanwhile, Nick was standing in front of a large machine, his shirt off, while the operator made adjustments. He was nervous and uncomfortable and even the assurances from the operator that it would not hurt did not help. His stomach churned.

"Okay breathe deeply," the operator said, from somewhere behind a wall.

Nick pushed his bare chest against the cold machine and held still. There were strange noises and then silence.

Stiney was still reading the posters that hung on the wall when Nick returned.

"Now I must take these to the finance office," Nick said holding the envelope and the form the operator had given him.

The clerk did not look up as they entered. She took the forms Nick handed her and carefully put them together and stapled them, the stapler making a loud hollow sound. "Your name Nick?"

"Yes," he replied.

"And you're getting free treatment. Is that correct?"

"Yes, " Nick said. There was a strained look on his face.

"Sign here. " She pushed the open folder toward Nick. "Where I have it checked."

"My son gonna sign for me."

"You'll have to put your X on it."

Stiney signed the form and Nick carefully put his X on it.

"Your doctor will let you know if anything is wrong. " The clerk closed the folder.

Nick took great care to shut the door slowly and quietly. The sun was still bright, though there had been a brief shower. Stiney guided the car out of the parking lot and onto the main road. It was dotted with puddles and the car skidded a little as he rounded a corner.

"I wish they be find something wrong with me, " Nick said softly to no one.

Copyright 2006 by John Fedako

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