The old man and the mine

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Frank’s joints creaked as he swung his ninety-one year old legs over the edge of the bed.  His slippers, that were older then the young couple across the street, still felt like home.  The walk to the kitchen from the bedroom had turned into a shuffle he called the arthritic symphony.  Each step for the first hour of the day felt like it could be the last, which at his age was a definite possibility.  Frank wasn’t sure what he liked more in the morning, the smell of the coffee brewing or the tingle he felt when the first dip was placed firmly under his lower lip.  The smell of the arthritis rub and the warmth from it came in a close third.  He felt a slight ruffle on his leg, stooping down he petted his old poodle Buttons.  “Well old girl, one thing I can count on is if my sight goes I’ll still be able to smell you.”  Taking his hand away Frank realized it was only the old shag footstool he had made out of discarded carpet he was petting, Buttons long gone, still smelled though.  He opened the plastic crinkling box of day old donuts and grabbed the last one, depositing the container in the trash. “Martha would have a fit if she saw how I was eating”, Frank mumbled, “or maybe you do see me eh?”  With two bites and a smile the donut was gone.  All in all this morning was going good for Frank.  Pipe in hand he strolled to the window to see that it was a clear cold day for early February.  With one final smoke ring Frank took his pipe and tapped out its contents in the misshapen ashtray made by one of his many grandchildren or maybe a great-grandchild?  Plopping down in his favorite recliner he reached for the lever, pulled it, and relaxed into his sunrise nap.

Immediately a dream came to him that he’s fallen into before.  Frank dreams of his time down in the mine where the only thing you were certain of was that the temperature would always be 45 degrees.  Frank was luckier then most because his mind was sharper than his back was strong.  Because of this his days of being a laborer were short and he rose quickly into supervision.  This also helped him snag the cushy job as mine inspector, a position he held until retirement.  In this dream the death of a young Finn comes back to him.  Charley was his name, a tall man of six foot two with a chiseled face, dark blue eyes and a full head of blonde hair.   Charley would say “Francis”, as only Charley would call him, “Francis, it must be nice to be you.  Six foot, give or take and inch, flat footed and lean as the day is long and not an ounce of real work in ya.”  Charley would smile each time he said it.  After any blast it was Charlie’s job to knock the rocks loose that didn’t fall from the blast.  On this one occasion as Frank stood by commenting on Charlie’s lack of sweat for such a “hard working Finn”, Charley found a dead spot in the rock.  One tap and a ton of copper imbedded rock came crashing down on him. Frank started to dig and shout at the same time.  When they dug him out they were amazed that he didn’t have one scratch on his face, but his hands were another story.  In his attempt to save himself Charley had placed his hands over his face where they took the weight and crushing of the rock, stripping them down to hamburger. What killed him was the impacted rock simply squeezing the life force out of him. The open casket amazed everyone who heard the story but not one person would lift the shroud placed to hide his hands.   With a twitch of his leg Frank was awake, rubbing his hands together wishing he could forget this and many other dreams that plagued him daily.

The clock read 8:35am, which meant it was time for a morning nip.  With one clean sweep of his lip the now tasteless snuff was out. “Martha you’d never give me kisses unless the lip was clean, well pucker up,” Frank jutted his dry cracked lips out into a pucker kissing only the dry air. The bottle of Hartley’s was almost gone, so Frank made a little larger then normal drink, (which he would do even if the bottle was full), tossing aside the juice glass with the pink and white flowers on it he had picked, grabbing a larger cut glass tumbler.  Frank smiled as he sipped his brandy, thinking again of his dear departed wife Martha.  At the end of her fight the cancer liberated her as it grew in her brain.  The once quiet housewife had become an impolite foul-mouthed person who shared her opinion on everything and everyone. “You sure have gotten fat” or “Why the hell you visiting me now, wait for the Goddamn funeral!” Tears came to his eyes as he recalled her warm smile and those bitter comments that came out of her mouth those last few weeks.  Tears turned into a chuckle as he remembered the looks on the faces of family, jaw dropping mutterings of “mother how could you”.  Frank’s smile faded as he finished his drink, sadly the liquor was the only warmth he would feel today.

It was now eleven and the Price is Right glowed on the RCA floor model TV.  Somewhere between “come on down” and the spin of the big wheel the larger brandy closed his eyelids once again.

This time he dreamed of his middle son’s funeral.  At forty years old his heart pumped its last beat and ceased to function.  Frank felt as if he were watching the events of the funeral from above the room.  Martha wept inconsolably, screaming, “My baby, my baby”, while Frank worked the room, chatting emotionlessly with friends and family.  “Doesn’t he look nice?”  “It was such a shock”.  These phrases were thrown around and from his new viewpoint all Frank could think was no, he doesn’t look nice, he’s dead. “Forty and dead is not a good combination,” Frank told one stunned mourner.  In a swirl of lights the room changed color; Frank was brought down from his viewpoint of above the room to in front of the casket, alone in an empty room.  Looking into the casket Frank could only think of one thing to say, “My baby, my precious baby.”

Help control the pet population, have your pets spayed or neutered”, Bob Barker’s sign off broke into the dream.  Frank awoke to find his face moist with the dream still fresh in his mind.  Resetting his recliner Frank rose up on his ninety-one year old legs.  It had been fifteen years since his wife’s passing and nearly thirty since his son’s, both still fresh as if they had happened yesterday.  Frank’s blue faded mine inspector jacket with his name missing the “k” reading “Fran” still hung in the closet where it had hung for the past twenty-six years.  The old miners’ helmet sat on the shelf above the jacket, dusty, with the long burnt out light still clipped on top.  The jacket still fit due to his body shrinking with time with the sleeves longer then he remembered.  As he slid the helmet on he felt the bump on his head caused by not wearing the helmet years ago and not ducking when he should have.  “You know Francis, someone as tall and dumb as you should duck,” Frank smiled as the voice rang in his head. The bump a permanent reminder of the dangerous job he, Charley and so many others had faced in their lives and a reminder of all the lives lost for a pale metal worthy of only a penny.

Frank opened the door and for a moment stood on the porch of the home he had shared with Martha for over fifty years. With the fresh air in his face the scent of lilac and old poodle faded from his mind. The wind had died down but the cold February air chilled him in the thin and loosely fitting jacket.  Each breath Frank took billowed out like smoke in the frigid air.  The snow under a winter sun glistened illuminating the countryside.  The tear that had started to fall down his cheek was now frozen as if time stood still. In the distance he could see the two trees that marked the opening of Shaft Number 5, Charlie’s shaft and the mounds of spent rock that rose behind it.  Reaching up Frank flipped the switch on the dead light and in a whisper Frank spoke for the very last time, “Charley, Francis is coming home.”


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