Honorable Mention, FICTION PRIZE
By C.D. NOONAN
She stood at the sink wearing her apron, the white one with the blue flowers that had been her mother’s and her grandmother’s, so that the white had been sullied into cream. The tips of her hipbones rested against the stainless steel rim of the sink. She had turned the water on and it was running still, a soft stream wishing from the faucet, circling in the mouth of the drain and gurgling down the throat of the pipe.
She could hear all this as though it were a river pouring down into a waterfall just outside her ear. The sound roared and yet was crisp, detailed, like the preview at the movie theater that advertised digital sound. The birds, too, the ones making a nest in the maple tree out front, were as clear and as resounding as a choir of bells. They made a call like the tinkling of a chandelier, a sound refracted in so many different directions it made her head swirl and fold in on itself. She put her hand on her forehead, squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her fingers into her skin. She tried to focus, hoping it would make the nausea go away.
It was then that she heard him—or rather tuned in to him. Was he even making a sound, she wondered? She listened intently for the sound of his breathing, but it wasn’t there. He was not coughing or sniffling or lumbering around the kitchen in his heavy work boots. He was just standing there, waiting, as though unsure of what to say or what to do with himself. His hesitancy was like the hum of an electric wire. She reached out and turned the water up.
“Karen,” he said, half a question in his tone.
She opened her eyes and stared out the window vacantly. She did not notice the red mailbox, or the leaves tossed by the wind, or the child riding by on her bicycle. A car passed by slowly and its passengers turned to stare at the house. She did not notice the driver pointing to her there in the window, all the passengers turning to look. She gazed beyond it all.
When she finally spoke, she spoke softly, not bothering to exceed the noise of the rushing water. The timbre of her voice, its monotone, bounced around the metal bowl of the sink, ricocheted off the window and was swallowed whole by the thirsty plumbing.
She said, “You know I can’t hear you when the water’s running.”
It was a line she’d heard in a TV movie, but it worked.
In the yard, in the new grass he had planted in spring, there were still tracks where the grass had been torn up from the tires of the TV vans. He could see the mud underneath, still marked by the braided tread of rubber. It was dark and fertile there but the grass had not come back. It was just as well, he thought. They would probably sell the house soon, maybe move to a different town altogether.
“Don’t matter anyway,” he whispered to himself, the only person he had left to talk to.
There had been an explosion the week before in West Virginia. Five miners had been trapped behind a wall of rock for 10 hours before they were finally rescued. One man had died, the oldest of the crew, a man whose years of experience had accumulated as a black dust in the spongy lobes of his lungs.
The rest of them, the ones who had lived, were in sorry shape too. It didn’t say that, of course, on the news. There was nothing glamorous about the husband who could no longer balance the checkbook, or figure out how to start the car, or remember where it was okay to masturbate and where it wasn’t. That wasn’t good television.
Good television was black-faced miners, exhausted and rugged, hugging their crying wives in the spotlight of the hot-white clamp lights. Good television was the salt-of-the-earth Joe in a flannel shirt telling newscasters in dark suits and hair-sprayed coifs that he was going back to the mine just as soon as he felt well again. Mining was what he did; it was all he knew.
No one at CBS or NBC or ABC wanted to know that he was going back, not because he was brave, or because there was some honor in what he was doing, but because it was the only work to be had besides part-time at Walmart or a restaurant, and those jobs belonged to the women. No one in Los Angeles or New York City cared that “feeling well” was a relative thing, one that had more to do with how many months the house payment was overdue than it ever did with a man’s body or soul.
At first, of course, the accident was a good thing for the men. The women always held them a little tighter when these sorts of things happened, always let them dance a little closer. The younger boys would learn, almost accidentally, the power the tragedy wielded for them when, floundering with some girl much too pretty for them, they would unknowingly tumble onto the subject of the disaster. In all sincerity they would relay their most basic revelation, that one day it could happen to them.
Suddenly, the girl’s face would moon over, and even the least perceptive of them would realize their fortunes had changed. They would learn the undeniable allure of sperm with an expiration date and, shocked that they had never seen the awesome simplicity before, these men would use it, with varying degrees of success, until that date came looking for them.
For the older ones it worked the same, though over time it had to be employed with greater subtlety. The women eventually grew wise to their weak spots. The men learned they had to be careful they weren’t dealing with a woman who had already lost someone in the mines. If you fell into that pit, you had a bad night ahead of you, and you were out in the cold with that woman for as long as you both should live.
Instead, you waited for the inevitable moment when some gal who’d had a bit too much to drink stumbled up on the little stage and flipped on the karaoke machine to belt out her best version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” This was when husbands would circle their arms around their wives’ waists and, standing behind them, pull them close and tight. One hand would slide down to cup a butt cheek or slip, light as a feather, under a skirt, and a whisper would pass from his lips to her ear, asking couldn’t he get a little something extra tonight.
The union men, they loved a good disaster, too. They sat around a table getting drunker and drunker, talking bigger and bigger.
“Let the company try to sell that ‘Safety First’ bullshit now,” one would shout.
Another, shaking his head, would say, “That mine hadn’t been maintained for years.”
“May the fine government of the United States of America sue the shit right out of their assholes.”
“Cheers to that.”
“What are we toasting?” someone would shout.
“We’re toasting American Mining,” a union man would say above the din, and a chorus of groans and boos would follow the heels of his words.
He would hush them, standing up, gesturing with his hands for them to quiet down and be reasonable.
“To American Mining,” he would bait, his beer in one hand and the other across his heart. “May the bastards all strangle themselves squeezing one off.”
The whole bar broke into hysterics then, shouting and laughing and throwing things, like something out of a movie. It was, Carver thought, wheeling the garbage cans down to the curb, as though they had picked up the roles the newscasters had left for them, picked them up like an old jacket left in the lost-and-found and worn it anyway, working hard to ignore the fact that it didn’t quite fit.
When they sat, trapped in the mine, huddled together in the plastic enclosure erected to keep out the lethal gas, when they jostled one another and spoke about nothing at all just to keep speaking, each of them thought of this night and of the false promise it had held. Some of them wondered whether things would have turned out differently. If they hadn’t behaved so flippantly, some of them wondered, would they be here now? They had been loving their wives and girlfriends and girls they barely knew while another woman wept and tried not to weep in front of the children and tried not to think about, but did think about, how she would pay the bills, some of which were already late, and in the distant future, beyond her grief, whether she would ever be with a man again. Had they missed the opportunity to heed a warning? Should they have quit their jobs that day while they still had the chance? Was this darkness around them merely the sum of a lifetime of unfortunate experiences and bad decisions? Or was it, as Carver suspected, simply the inevitable conclusion for people like him, the coal miners’ Calvinism.
When the man, who had come in from Tennessee, arrived in the town, he knew that he had been there before—if not this town exactly, then one so much like it he could not tell the difference. One with the same multicolored triangular flags giggling in the breeze around a dingy parking lot of beaten-up clunkers; the same dilapidated health department with the same exhausted clientele waiting for vaccinations and abortions; the same drugstore with its same collection of cheap gifts and basic necessities wrapped in a film of dust.
As with every other version he had seen, the streets of this town were desolate, and the buildings, empty of their people, could be seen to breathe, like a panting animal lying in wait. This town was waiting, all of it. Some people were at home, before their TV sets, locked in the visual grip of unceasing news broadcasts, waiting. Some of them, the wives mostly, or the men in bars—the men for whom this had become an occupation—they were going about their business, but mindlessly, because all of them were waiting, too. In a church, in a southern corner of the town, the pews were filled with the waiting, on their lips words whispered that rose like heat, only to be corralled by the high pine beams of the ceiling.
He imagined he saw their prayers swirling about them like a storm as he pulled away the last bit of rock and saw the 12 men huddled together. The church was white, and a light flooded in the windows and poured down on all the people. Here, there was a darkness pierced only by the narrow beam of his headlamp. It illuminated the plastic sheeting, reflecting the light dimly, and after he pulled the plastic aside it showed the vague dark shapes of the men, their faces staring, their eyes wide and white.
He stood there for a moment, waiting now himself. He had been called to the town for this purpose only, but now that he had found the men, he paused. He thought of the multitude in the church, their expectant breath and their whispered words. He imagined this storm swirling around the nave of the church and then blowing away, leaving only silence. It was the silence he enjoyed, that he craved, silence like the silence down here.
In the church, the man from the mining company cleared his throat. He stood before the congregation and grasped the microphone in his hand.
“We’ve received communication,” he began. “That all 12 men have been found.”
In the church, they were shouting with joy, crying tears of exhaustion and relief; in the boardroom they were mopping their brows and patting each other on the back, discussing the bullet dodged; and under it all, deep in the darkness of the mine, waited another world, with its own set of truths that pushed, expectantly, toward the light.
They had huddled together, as they were supposed to do. They had surrounded themselves with the thick plastic sheeting, but they had not covered themselves well enough to do anything but contain their own stench. There wasn’t enough plastic to surround them, and what they did have was old, yellowed and dotted with microscopic tears. The mine had a maintenance schedule. The plastic sheet should have been checked and replaced a year ago, he guessed, but no one had bothered to do so.
Disasters happened all the time. There was security in this. There were no longer strikes or layoffs, for him. There was no wage negotiation. He was paid well, without argument, to do what no one else wanted to do. There was no danger that the mine would close and he would be out of work and his family would struggle to feed themselves. He had no family anyway. It had all been taken.
The man from Tennessee was from mining people, too. It was only a small twist of fate—a promotion, a layoff, a shift in the sand—that had put him on the other side this time, a miner of something darker than coal.
He walked through them quietly, casting the light over each of the faces, looking each one in the eyes. They stared back at him, frozen in the expression of surprise at watching their last breath depart. Their faces were dirty and dark, many of them gaping at the mouths, and the whites of their eyes stood sharp in contrast to the darkness around them.
His own family had been buried in the mines in one way or another—his father, black lung, one brother lost in an explosion, another gone to drink and drugs after losing his hand. He alone had survived, but only by embracing this offering of the underworld.
He had lost a wife and many friends for this view, a slow isolation that had happened one acquaintance at a time. No one ever said it was because of his job, but it didn’t take a genius to add things up. They saw him driving his new black car, walking up the sidewalk, and they knew it was him who brought the bad news. In their own unspoken code, they sensed something unclean about him and, one by one, they let him go. He did not kill the men. They died in the mines. But whenever they died, he was there. The two things were inseparable.
He looked at their hands, 12 pairs of them, all rough and dirty and venous, the hands of working men. The hands, he thought, told him the most. Some were folded calmly over their bellies, as though accepting their coming deaths and waiting patiently for this release. Some still gripped tools, looking, even at their last breath, for a way to fight. Some gripped unseen mementos tightly in their fists, photographs or good luck charms, not yet ready to release their tenuous hold on life.
The last of them, the farthest in the enclosure, held something white and square. At first, he’d perceived it as a small trowel or perhaps the glint of an axe, but as the man from Tennessee came closer, he realized it was only a piece of paper. He stood before the man, trying to get a closer look. A foot from him, on the ground, was a pen, the metal parts of which glinted in the lamp light. He brought his face closer, trying to see the nature of the paper’s contents. He read the salutation of a dead man’s letter.
They did this sometimes. It did not happen often, but every once in a while, a man had the presence of mind, or the prescience of death, to bring a paper and a pen down with him. One man, his wife had later told him, had the letter written beforehand—a kind of will of sorts—and carried it with him every day he worked, in the event something untoward happened, which, one day, it did.
He reached for the piece of paper, pulling it from the miner’s stiff fingers as though pulling thread through a needle, and the left hand, caked with dirt, twitched. His eyes shot to the man’s face, where the whites of his eyes disappeared for a moment and then reappeared. A blink.
Immediately, he reached for the radio clipped to his belt.
“I’ve got a live one,” he shouted.
There was a long pause, as he waited for a response from above ground.
“I’ve got one alive,” he repeated. “Do you copy?”
It took 15 minutes, him shouting through the mouthpiece of a walkie-talkie someone had abandoned on a boardroom table. The voice that finally came across was not the one he expected. It was one of the suits, though he couldn’t remember its name.
“We’re here,” the voice said.
“I’ve got a live one.”
“What do you mean, a live one?” it said.
“One of them is still alive.”
“One of them?”
“Roger. One alive.”
There was another long pause, so long that the man from Tennessee began to wonder if they had simply decided to leave them both down in the mine.
Then, finally, it came across.
“Do you confirm 12 dead and one alive?”
“Twelve dead. One alive. But not for long if we keep chatting.”
The man from Tennessee watched the rest of it on the television in his hotel room. After he had showered and had a smoke, he sat in his towel on the edge of the bed watching the news. They had come in from all over the country, reporters hoping for big breaks if the story went national, which it did. For a few hours, half a day or so, the whole nation, it seemed, had been waiting.
All the shots were there. The middle-aged woman, her dye job in need of a touch-up, sobbing, snot and all, in the arms of a friend. The men in suits waving off the cameras, trying to walk quickly past uncomfortable questions. The miners in other towns, consulted about how they might feel in this situation, not saying what they really felt, that they were glad it wasn’t them. The hospital officials making measured and largely unrevealing statements about the condition of the survivor. The young wife declining an interview, waiting at the side of the bed. The environmentalists. The union organizers.
It was amazing and wonderful television.
When they come to the door, he is still in his towel.
“Wouldn’t you like to put something on?” she asks, but he declines. “Shoulders up,” she calls back to her cameraman, who nods.
“How is it,” she begins, “that spokespeople at American Mining originally informed the families of these 12 miners that their loved ones were still alive?”
He gives her the facts, as he remembers them, but despite the blame in her voice he does little to clear his name, knowing that he will be gone soon, and that he will never return to this town. In the interviews later, people in the town will say that they found him cold, that he was unfeeling in the face of their great tragedy. But he will not be there to hear any of that.
Before she goes, her blonde hair barely lifted by the breeze and her heels clicking on the concrete sidewalk, he remembers.
“I have something for you,” he says.
He holds his towel around his waist with one hand and walks back to the sink counter where he has left his suitcase. He unzips a pocket and pulls something out, walks back to her. Across the threshold of the doorway, he hands her a folded piece of paper.
“It’s his,” he says, and she takes it, quickly, from his hands.
Later, when he is dressing, he watches her read the letter to the viewing audience from what appears to be the parking lot of his motel, her hot pink suit contrasting nicely against the white stucco of the building. When she is finished, she stares into the camera, wordless in the wake of her ambition, until the broadcaster at the desk recovers for her.
“Well, Linda, dark words today from the single survivor of this week’s mining disaster,” he says.
Her image flits away, as the broadcast turns, momentarily, to the weather.
In his room, the man from Tennessee flips off the television. He stands in his underwear at the ironing board, smoothing the wrinkles out of his best white shirt, and then puts it on. His suit is brown. It is the suit he wore to his father’s funeral, and his brother’s, and the one he will likely wear to his own. He pulls it off the hanger, where it has been since he arrived. He steps into the pants and slides the jacket across his broad shoulders. In the mirror, he adjusts an amber-colored tie. He smooths his hair with a little bit of spit on his fingers, and when they knock this time, he is ready.
He opens the door and stares deep into the cavern of a shotgun barrel. Neither of them speaks, and he is calm, playing over in his mind the words he has now memorized.
In the end they will say that we are heroes, but we are not. We are fools. I have worked every day of my life, to end it pissing myself in a dark cave. I have spent my life with a woman I do not know and do not love. There is no God. There is no reason. None of this has meant a thing.
“Turn down the water, Karen” Carver says, standing in the kitchen in his heavy boots. But the woman in the apron lets the water run, staring out the window and looking beyond it to the rest of the days ahead of her. They seem, as they unfold down the road and past the neighbor’s houses, to be far too numerous and, in sum, too heavy to be carried.
C.D. Noonan lives and writes in North Carolina. Her story, “Mine,” was inspired by the 2006 Sago Mine disaster.