08/12/2013 07:51 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Mine Rescue


A coal mine is a singularly ugly place, she thought, especially in winter.

There was hardly any snow left on the ground, just a few piles here and there, frozen solid, ice cubes of coal dust and mud and hydraulic fluid. Pieces of machines lay everywhere, some with giant teeth to literally chew the coal out of the rock. It wasn't quite cold enough for the mud to freeze solid though, and it covered the truck tires and everyone's shoes, the blacktop of the road was slick with black icy mush that was half coal dirt. The wind whipped a few flakes of snow around, took the smoke from their lips as soon as they blew it out.

"How long's it been now?" her mother asked, again. She asked at least once every ten minutes.

"Six hours, forty minutes, give or take," she answered, looking around to see if she was right. It seemed time would hurry up, an hour before she knew it, and then ten minutes would seem an eternity.

"Seems like the Twilight Zone, hard to tell, idn't?"

The men just looked at her, the women nodded their heads.

"Ya'll want to walk back in the office? Get some coffee, a sandwich?" the superintendent offered.

"Yeah, I'm just gonna smoke one more cigarette," one of the women, a wife, said. "I'll be back inside in a minute."

She couldn't stand to go back in the small trailer that served as the office at the mouth of the mine. It smelled of kerosene and sweat and burned coffee. There weren't enough folding chairs, so the women sat while the men stood, everyone listened to the CB radio.

"I'm gonna go warm up in my car," she said. "Just sit for a couple minutes."

She got in the car and started, pointing the heat straight at her feet and face. The radio was on, she switched it off and listened to the fan blowing hot air around the interior.

She tried to decide what she should think about. When he left this morning, it was just the same. No eerie feelings, no foreboding, no dramatic argument.

"Love you."

"Love you too, be careful."

No point thinking about that. Think about their wedding? Nothing remarkable. The day they went skinny dipping and decided to get married? She had fingered that memory enough for a lifetime, those thoughts seemed almost boring.

Her mind kept going back to the night he told her he had pawned her grandmother's rings.

"You don't want them to repossess my truck, do you?" he asks, his face red, his chest heaving.

"Cause that's what's gonna happen tomorrow, if we don't make that payment."

"We? What happened to you? You are the one that got paid two days ago, where's the money?"

"I told you I didn't work any that week," he says, angry.

"Then where the hell did you go everyday?"

"Don't matter now, does it? Don't matter a damn."

She put her hands in front of the vents so her fingers would thaw. She had left her gloves in the trailer and her hands felt like they been cold for days. She watched her hand reach over, apparently of its own volition, and open the glove compartment. The fingers dug underneath the insurance papers and the owner's manual to the stereo, packets of ketchup fell in the floorboard of the car. When they found the manila envelope, with Meekum Coal printed on the corner, the thumb gripped it, and pulled it out, turned it over, laid it in her lap.

She pulled out the health insurance papers, safety training booklets, a carbon copy of his W4s. On the bottom was the life insurance policy, she scanned over it, came to a list on the back. If her husband died of cancer, she followed the dotted line, she and her children would receive $35,000. If he died in an accident, $50,000, if that accident was on the way home from work, and determined to not be her husband's fault, the policy paid $65,000. Skip to the bottom, if he died at work, inside the mine, through no fault of his own... $500,000.

She squeezed her eyes shut and shoved the papers back in the glove compartment, slamming it closed.

"Hey baby, oh I've missed you," her husband, then her boyfriend, rolls over, his eyes barely open. The bed is next to a window. Outside it is morning, snowing, and the light is diffused by the white sheets and blankets, he seems to glow. He pulls her to him, wraps arms and legs around her, smiling.

"You can't miss me, I've been here with you all night," she laughs, presses her ear to his chest, listens. He is so warm, as if his body is radiating heat. He speaks very softly, almost a whisper.
"But I was asleep, I missed it, I missed being with you."

She pulls her head away, looks into his face. He is completely sincere, she doesn't know how she knows this. She laughs as she rolls onto her back, pulling him on top of her.

Her hands were finally warm, she could almost fall asleep in the car, just for a minute, she was suddenly so sleepy. She leaned her head against the window, closed her eyes. TAPTAPTAP. It was the mine superintendent, motioning her to come on, hurry. She started to simply close her eyes, lay the seat back and go to sleep, but no, he was running into the trailer. She turned the car off and followed him.

There were several men in the trailer, members of the mine rescue team, covered in oily dirt, their eyes rimmed with black, like a punk rocker or a Pharaoh. They waited until everyone was in the trailer.

"We got down like to Three Section, some of the self rescuers were gone, but we didn't see anyone, didn't hear anything," one of the team explained. "Our monitors went off, but it wasn't real real bad, no fires, but the water's raisin' pretty fast."

She waits for a summary. They will tell her where her husband is, detail the plan to bring him out, and then execute that plan. Like some TV movie, this is where the music swells and a montage begins, preparations, equipment, they go into the mouth of the mine, come out with her husband, dirty and grateful.

But they just stood there, looking at their boots.

They called it a raft, but it really was just a bunch of logs lashed together with yellow nylon rope stolen from the mine. The river is barely moving, it is so hot and humid, their skin is sticky as soon as they get out of the pick-up. They put all their gear, which consists of a cooler of beer and wine, a tackle box, two fishing rods and a couple of plastic zipper bags with cigarettes, lighters and some bandaids and moist towelettes, on the raft and push off from the river's edge. They float, not bothering to fish too much, mainly drinking and talking, laying back and turning red.

She went home to check on her children. One was asleep in her bed, his fat little behind up in the air, his face smashed against the mattress. Her three year old was watching Sesame Street and eating cereal. Her sister looked at her when she came out of the bedroom, searching for a clue as to what to do or say. Of course, there wasn't anything, so she simply hugged her with one arm.

"It's been a long time," she said..

"Remember those miners in Pennsylvania? They were underground for days, Jennine," her sister told her.

"Yeah, you're right, I'm just tired and scared, I suppose. I swear, that man has been hard on me, ya know it? On top of all the other stuff, now he goes and does this."

"Hey, you were the one hellbent on having kids, not me," he tells her. "Ain't my responsibility. You want to go to work? I'll stay home and take care of 'em, you go crawl between two rocks and bust your ass."

He sits down and stares at her, daring her to challenge him. She does not, they are, in fact her children, and she will be damned if she is act as if they are a burden.

"Well, I'm going to get the baby down for a nap and take a shower, if you could listen for him to wake up."

She stands in the shower, exhausted, her muscles relaxing under the hot water. She hears the baby over the noise of the spray.

"Janine!" her husband shouts. "He's up!"

She walks into the living room where her husband sits, covered in coal dirt, with her clean pink baby on his lap. She picks up her son and goes into the bedroom. She refuses to let her husband see her cry.

When she got back to the mine, no one was in the parking lot smoking. She went directly into the trailer, where everyone turned to look at her when she opened the door.

"We didn't want to drill down along side the shaft," a member of the rescue team was saying, "but we think it may be the best thing to do."

He drew a diagram on a dry erase board showing the angle of the shaft going down into the mine and the path the planned drill hole would take. She looked out the window just in time to see a TV satellite van pull into the lot, and a very clean, very neat women in sensible shoes and a low cut sweater get out.

"Looks like channel three's here," she said. "One of ya'll gonna have to talk to 'em." She looked at the Meekum officials, each of whom stared at one another in turn.

"Its gonna be a long ass night," the superintendent said.

"Timmy! Daddy's going to work, you want to kiss him goodbye?"

She puts a sandwich and an orange in her husband's lunch bucket, thinks again, takes the orange out to peel it. He doesn't like to touch it with dirty hands any more than he has to. She peels the fruit and puts it into a plastic bag, puts it back in his lunch.

"Bye Daddy," Timmy says, reaching his chubby arms up towards his father. He picks up the child, kisses his face, his head.

"Bye Bubby, take care of Mommy for me."

"I will Daddy."

"And your baby sister, right?"

"Yeah, I'm the daddy when you gone, right?"

"When I'm gone, you da man!"

He kisses her, he is gone.

She used some of the kids construction paper to draw a diagram illustrating the plan to drill down into the mine for her family. Her mother and mother-in-law seemed to think it made sense, it was a sound plan. Her father seemed dubious, but didn't say anything, to express doubt would be to say he didn't think her husband would survive, and that, of course was unthinkable.

Her parents were at the mine, her mother-in-law in bed with Deidre, her baby. The other children slept together in the king-sized bed in her bedroom. Since the children were born, they had, more or less, slept with them, and so they kept buying bigger and bigger beds. Now four family members could sleep reasonably comfortably. If the third child climbed in, she just slept on the couch.

She found herself writing a column of figures, how much was owed on the mortgage, the cars, the various other debts they had accumulated. The total was less than $500,000, but she didn't even let her figures get to that point, she took the crayon and made concentric circles over top of the numbers and let herself, finally, cry.

His father lies dying, and although he has been seriously ill less than a week, he has been drifting in and out of consciousness for three days. He doesn't know what to say to him when he wakes up, simply stands there telling his father, "I'm here daddy."

His sister, when his father wakes, gets a cool cloth and wipes his face, talking to him about baseball, it is October, World Series time, and his beloved Reds were playing. She tells him the scores and who has batted and who is on deck. It calms his father while her husband just stands there, mystified. She follows him out of the room, he sits down in the waiting room and cries. He isn't crying because his father is dying, he is crying because he doesn't even know what to say to him, when it is so obvious.

'How selfish,' she thinks, 'he's dying, and you're feeling sorry for yourself, and you don't even know it, that's how deep it runs.' She sits down and puts her arms around him, pitying him.

The news stations had been eclipsed by the networks, all set up in Waynesboro, with its one hotel, with nothing but fast food places and a WalMart. There were strange faces all over, which added to the general unease. These people would be gone tomorrow, everyone who lived here knew, but what happened here would remain to ingrain itself into them. As Jenine pumped gas at the station near her house, a reporter came up to talk to her, a woman who looked vaguely familiar.

"Excuse me, aren't you Mrs. Murphy?" the reporter lady asked, whipping out a long narrow notebook held together with a metal spiral at the top.

"Yeah, I suppose you want to know what it feels like to have a husband stuck 1,000 feet underground, no air and water rising, right? You want to know if this is the fear we live with every day, how the stress affects blue collar people. Show your readers that there by the grace of God, right?"

"Actually, I was just wondering if you had a digital picture you could send us to run with the stills we got at the mine today," the news lady said. She tore off a sheet of paper. "This is my email, and my producers, in case you find one, we'd appreciate it."
She got back into her rental car and drove away.

They have just bought their house, it is empty save for some home canned peaches left in the kitchen and boxes of old tablecloths and curtains in the closet. They walk through the rooms, planning where they will put the couch, where will the Christmas tree stand. They want to make love in the house, but it seems so contrived, they decide to wait for the bed. Instead, they lay on the carpet and plan their lives.

"And when we're old," her husband says, "we'll have the grandkids over for ice cream in the summer, out back. But not all the time, we will want to be alone a lot."

"What if we don't make it?" she asks, in a I-kidding-but-not-really kind of way.

"Oh, we will get old, and you will take care of me," he says. "and I will take care of you."

"No, I mean what if we aren't together when we're old, what if we break up?"

"Why would you ask that?" He doesn't say it accusingly, he is genuinely curious, as if she had suggested they would live on the moon.

"No reason," is her answer.

They are standing at the mouth, the press has been pushed back but their lights still shine on the mine. The sound of the mantrips gets louder, closer to the surface. They know some miners have survived, some have not. Nine men were behind the fall, four have died. She is in the back of the group of wives, she isn't really feeling anything at all. She is cold, she wants to get warm, that is her only conscious thought.

The mantrip comes out, several men get out, the whites of their eyes is the only part of their faces she can make out. She walks toward the men, looking for her husband.

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