A week ago, we had a proper British meal of bangers and mash (sausages & potatoes) along with Heinz Beans to celebrate our son Graham’s thirty-first birthday, his favorite meal. Annette went to a local English specialty store to get the beans and brought home a copy of the Union Jack newspaper. On the cover was the following headline: Four Killed In Welsh Mine Accident.
Welsh coal mining is similar to gold mining in that both follow a narrow vein deep into the ground where the danger increases the deeper you go. I could easily picture the last minutes of those four Welsh miners in the dark, injured and struggling for breath as the world caved in on them. Their struggle to survive, the courage of the rescue workers who desperately tried to reach them, and the desperate hopes of their families, all are central tenets at the heart of the journey that Sandy, Jake, and Mary will soon embark on.
Sitting in my truck in front of Carr’s Pizza on Friday night made me feel like a high school kid again. Our whole crowd used to go there after football games, drinking cokes for hours and while we ate pizza by the piece. We used to have mushroom stacking contests that my buddy Tom usually won by cheating and leaving the cheese from his pizza on the mushrooms. They would stick together better that way. If I remember right, the record was thirty-eight mushrooms leaning like a tower of Pisa. We’d guzzle down cokes in under five seconds, and we’d end up by spitting and coughing the bubbles all over the tables and each other’s face. We were the typical high school goofs with nowhere else to go.
From the cab of my truck waiting for Mary, I could see that nothing much had changed. A bunch of kids were laughing and jostling each other at one of the tables, and I could hear the jukebox blaring out the latest song. Mr. Carr was standing behind the counter like always, and his wife was clearing off one of the front tables. She looked up and caught me watching her. I waved and she waved back with a big smile on her face. I turned away when I heard a knock on the passenger window. It was Mary. I opened the door and she got in.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” she said.
“Didn’t see you walk up. You came from behind. You must live off of Alert Street?”
“Well, not really,” she said, embarrassed.
“Not really?” I laughed.
“I live on McQuillan. I told my dad I was going over to Sally’s, a friend of mine. She lives on Highland near Alert, so I walked that way.”
“You thought he’d follow you? Is he really that bad?”
“No. No,” she said, trying to laugh the whole thing off.
I let it slide, started the truck, made a U-turn and headed out on Main for Rapid City.
It’s about an hour’s drive from Lead. We left at 5:30; and I made reservations at the Black Hills Room for 7:00, so I figured on a smooth easy drive there. And it was. I wanted her to talk about herself and how she lived with her dad all alone. It was still hard to believe that Sandy was her dad. I wondered what he told her about Red Kentner dying just the other day. The whole town had been talking all week. Services were held on Thursday and the school band played. Maybe I wasn’t asking the right way, but Mary didn’t say much of anything when I asked how her dad was feeling. She said he was fine, same as always, then changed the subject. I let that go, too. I guess I wanted her to like me.
She sure was pretty and grown up again seen all by herself. Her black hair was curled up a little bit and she was wearing a light blue dress and perfume and a dark blue scarf around her neck. I wondered what Sandy thought she was doing over at Sally’s dressed like that. She turned the questions on me. Where did I live? On High Street. Alone? Yes. How long? About two years. Did I go to college? For a little while. Where did my folks live? Over on Grand Avenue. All that kind of stuff. We were talking real easy. Then she asked me what I planned on doing the rest of my life.
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
“No. Really. I’m serious. You don’t have to answer or even tell the truth.” That made me laugh.
“Well, shit. I don’t know. Mining. I guess. Well, not mining exactly, not just what I’m doing now. But probably mining somehow.”
“Mining at the Homestake?” she said, like it was hard to believe.
“Why not? It’s good pay. I know I could transfer to Uranium in Arizona and make much more, but I just don’t trust it.”
“What do you mean?”
“That nuclear stuff and radiation gives me the creeps.”
“You know when you ask me what I’ll be doing the rest of my life, hell, I don’t know. Who does? Now that I think of it, I don’t see myself mining forever. My dad is, though. But not digging mining. I mean he’s an official at the Homestake, out of the pit and behind a desk.”
“Would you want to do that?”
“Become a stiff-shirt with a belly? Not me. I’m not putting my dad down. He seems to like it.”
I let that rest a moment, then turned to her.
“What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
She didn’t answer right at first. She took the question very serious. Finally, she looked over at me and said, “I guess I should get out of Lead and find out.” She waited a minute and then said, “That’s what my dad says anyway.”
“You mean go to college out of state or something?”
“No. Not exactly. Or maybe that. But anyway not while my dad’s alive. I wouldn’t leave him.”
Before I could ask her anything else, we crossed into Rapid City and she got off the subject by oohing and ahhing about the place. I knew she hadn’t been here before, even though she told me she had. I was glad. I wanted to impress her, and she seemed impressed all right.
Most people out of state have heard of Rapid City only if they traveled to see Mt. Rushmore. They call the city the “Gateway to the Black Hills.” To everyone in Lead, though, it’s the Big City. It’s also the home of the Mining College. If you want to move up at the Homestake or get a job topside, you go to school there and learn mineralogy or surveying or something like that. It’s supposed to be a good school, best there is, but I wouldn’t know first hand.
The Black Hills Room is a nice place, maybe the nicest place in Rapid City. It’s coat and tie and they park your car for you. They have the place lit up with colored lights hidden in the bushes surrounding a fountain that’s in the shape of the Black Hills themselves. The fountain comes out of the center of the tallest peak and runs down the sides like a river. At the bottom is a pool, and people make their wishes and toss in a penny. I guess some people need more than one wish and toss in a nickel or a dime, and there’s even a quarter or two from the really desperate.
We drove up and got out of the truck and headed for the front door. I could see Mary was taking it all in and she took hold of my arm as we walked in the door. We found out our reservations weren’t ready yet, naturally, so we took a seat at the bar and I ordered a beer and a coke for Mary. I’m sure she could have passed for twenty-one, but she asked for a coke when the bartender came over to us. I lit up a smoke and found out she didn’t smoke either, but didn’t mind if I did. I guess not, considering Sandy puffed on one every minute of the day.
The place was crowded, it being Friday, and we waited a good twenty minutes. Mary didn’t mind in the least. She liked watching people and then making up some story about them. It wasn’t a nasty comment or a put down or anything like that. She just liked making up a life for them.
A couple of women were sitting behind us at a table a foot or two from the bar. One of them had on a pearl necklace and earrings to match. She was fat as could be with a bright pink face. She talked real low, and then would put her head back and laugh loud as hell. She must have been laughing at her own jokes since her partner, who had red hair and lots of diamonds, didn’t seem to be saying a word. Mary thought they were tourists and that their husbands were off playing cards somewhere and that the ladies decided to go out by themselves. But that turned out not the be so when their men walked in completely sloshed and joined them at the table. A funny thing happened then. The fat one stopped talking and laughing, and the redhead began making all sorts of conversation. The two guys laughed at everything she said and damn near fell off their chairs. It started to get a little loud. Finally, the maître d’ came over and either showed them to their tables, or threw them out. We didn’t hear or see them again.
I was on my second beer and Mary was still sipping her coke. I was glancing around the room, looking into the dining section when I saw my dad, sitting with Sylvia McFelan. I knew it was him right away, but I looked past him, like I was pretending to myself that I’d made a mistake. I looked around the room a little more and came back to the table where he was, and now he was holding her hand and just backing away from a kiss. McFelan’s wife. Jesus! I couldn’t believe it. It’s crazy that I thought of her first. How could a superintendent’s wife be doing this? I suppose you might think that I thought it was okay for a man and not a woman. But that’s not it at all. It’s just that I didn’t think of him right then. I didn’t want to.
It’s an old story, I know; but when you see your own “pop” out there with someone else’s wife, it feels like no one has ever done it before. That rotten bastard, I thought. I looked away real quick then. I didn’t want him to see me.
“Who were you staring at?” Mary asked.
“No one. I just wish they’d seat us already. I’m starved.”
“I’m getting a little hungry myself.”
I didn’t want to get seated. I even thought about making up some excuse to get out of there. Seeing him was bad enough. But if he saw me, I didn’t know what I’d do. I couldn’t ignore him if he looked my way. What would I do? I began to panic a little. Then I thought about my mother. What would she do when she found out. Would she scream at him, throw things? Nah, probably. She wasn’t the type. She always stayed cool no matter what was happening.
I’ll never forget when I broke my ankle during a Friday night football game and they carried me off on a stretcher. Nobody in the stands knew what happened to me, including my mother and father who were at every game. I could have broken my neck. When they got me to the locker room, my mom and dad were standing there. My dad’s hand was shaking when he touched my shoulder. My mom came up cool as could be and kissed me and told me everything was going to be fine. And then everything was fine. I knew I didn’t have to worry about her or make excuses for myself or the game I wanted to keep playing.
She probably wouldn’t cry either. But she would hurt something awful. I knew she loved him, really loved him. And she was proud as hell of what he’d become. When I started at the mine on my very first day, she told me that before long I would be moving out of the pit and on up to the top. “Look at your dad,” she said, “never even finished high school and now look at him.”
Thinking of that, I looked over at him again, but he wasn’t at the table. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing up. I looked around fast hoping I wouldn’t see him. But there he was, walking to the cash register. Sylvia was standing next to him. Both of them were turned away from me, and just then they called out our reservations. “Jake Garnes. Party of two. Garnes, party of two.”
I froze in my seat.
‘That’s us, Jake.”
‘Yeah, sure.” I turned back to the bar. “Just let me finish this off.”
I gulped down my beer, got off the stool, and glanced his way. He was gone. If you’re wondering if he saw me or not, or if he was even paying attention when they called out my name, I was wondering the same thing. Mary and me walked over to the maître d’, and he took us to our table.
When we sat down I ordered a stiff drink and decided not to think any more about it. I realized I hadn’t said much to Mary for quite a while. She probably thought I was a jerk, so I started talking.
“Order anything you like. Anything that looks good to you, order it.”
“Everything looks good to me. You’ve been here before. Give me some help.”
“Well, you like fish? Or do you want to eat steak?
“Oh, that’s no help. I like them both.”
“Take your time. I’ll order an appetizer and we won’t worry about dinner just yet.”
She finally decided on the stuffed trout, which is caught fresh daily just outside of the city limits. I had a good old New York steak with a baked potato. The appetizer came, and the waiter divided the shrimp cocktail between us.
“Would you like another drink?” he asked.
I said no and Mary shook her head and her lefts us alone. We were sitting near the corner of the room at a pretty good table. I mean, they weren’t walking past us to go to the bathroom or kitchen or anything. I was starting to feel I could still have a pretty good time even with what happened. There was soft music in the place and Mary was pretty and happy and things looked like they might be all right.
“Boy, if my dad could see me now. I don’t know what he’d do,” she said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Being here, that’s all. Eating shrimp cocktail in Rapid City with a man. He would never guess I’d be doing this.”
“What’s wrong with it? You’re eighteen. You’re allowed.”
“I know that,” she kind of snapped at me.
“Hard to say.”
“The miner business?”
“I could tell you were upset when I said he didn’t like miners.”
“Wouldn’t you be? I mean, hell, he lives next to the second largest gold mine in the world? Probably gonna be miners around.”
She made a sound in her throat, like she was sorry we got on the subject.
“I don’t know,” she started, then stopped again. “He’s just afraid of losing me I guess.”
“I can understand that. He’s not the friendliest person I’ve met. No offense or anything. You’re probably all he’s got.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s partly that, but something else, too.”
Then she stopped and looked away, like she just told me a secret she promised never to tell.
We didn’t say much through dinner, a word or two about the food. When the waiter came and cleared off the table, we both were too full for dessert, but I ordered coffee. As I reached for the cream, I bumped over the salt shaker..
“That’s bad luck,” she said quickly. “You’ve got to throw it over your shoulder,” now trying to laugh.
“I’ve heard that before.” But I wasn’t about to do that right then and there. I stood the shaker back up.
“Really. It’s bad luck,” she said again, insistent like.
Then without saying another word, she shook some salt into the palm of her hand and threw it over her shoulder. She did it nicely, and I don’t think anyone saw her doing it. She put the shaker back down and smiled.
“You have to take every chance to be lucky. There’s enough bad luck around not to miss any chance you get.”
“Your dad’s philosophy again? I asked.
“Yes, but I believe it. I’m not saying I believe in the superstition part. But just doing it shows you’re willing to take a chance.”
“Wait a minute. You lost me there. Take a chance on what?”
“Anything. Take a chance on anything. On life, I guess.”
“Throwing salt over your shoulder says you’re willing to take a chance on life?”
“Sure. It shows you believe there’s a good side to every bad thing that might happen.”
“Now that I believe in. But that can’t be Sandy talking.”
“Why not?” she said, like she was challenging me.
“Well he doesn’t act like there’s a good side to anything. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile.”
She looked down, and I felt like a heel. He might be a pain in the ass to me, but he was her dad after all. She knew I was right, though. She looked up slowly and nearly whispered, “He used to. When I was little. Before he got hurt.”
“You mean sick? When you stayed out of school?”
“He wasn’t sick. He was in an accident at the mine. He was nearly killed. It was a long time ago.”
“So that’s what happened to him,” I said nearly under my breath.
“I sat up with him for days. He was unconscious for more than a week and there was nobody else. His best friend was killed in the same accident, and the family moved away after that.”
“How old were you?”
“I had just turned seven the Friday before. The accident happened on the following Monday.”
“Jesus. There wasn’t anyone to help you?”
“The Homestake sent a nurse over when my dad first got home from the hospital. That was about two and half months later. I lived with the Reverend Bucher’s family while he was in the hospital. But the nurse was only there during the day, and my dad wouldn’t even talk to her. Before long she just stopped coming at all. He only wanted me around, so I ended up staying home most of the time. That’s why I was dropped back a grade at school.”
I pictured her as a little kid taking care of Sandy by herself, and figured it was why she seemed grown up for her age. When she started talking again, she sounded more like Sandy’s wife than his daughter.
“It was nearly a year before he could walk again. And when he started, he limped so badly that he couldn’t keep his balance. I used to help him get up from his bed. We started by walking to the living room, and he would just drop onto the couch from exhaustion when we got there. He was sweating and trembling from the strain of getting that far. He didn’t take it very well, being an invalid made him pretty nasty sometimes.
“When he could hobble around by himself, I started back at school. When I’d get home he’d be in the kitchen, leaning on the stove or against the sink to help support himself while he made dinner for the two of us. I didn’t say anything to him, but sometimes, I would cry at night thinking about how much pain he was going through, and how he would never be the same.”
“It must have been rough,” I said, but part of me wasn’t listening.
It’s not that I wasn’t interested. I was. It’s just that my own father kept coming into my mind. I felt lost in the sight of it, not angry anymore. I was sad. That’s about all there was to it. I missed him already, you could say. I missed thinking of him the way I thought he was. I made myself come back to her conversation.
“How long was it before he could go back to work?”
“About two years. He never went back to drifting. He could never do that again with his injuries. Well, you know how he is, his right hand and limp and all that. He started back where he is today, the bit room.”
“So he was drifting when he got hurt?”
“Yeah. I guess so. It was in a cave-in while he was working up a new production area. The 3800′. He and four others were in the accident. Only he came out alive.”
“You know, I hear of lots of accidents. Just look at what happened to Red Kentner last week. But you never think it’ll ever happen to you. Oh, you know all the time that it could happen. You don’t believe it, though. And if you come to believe, won’t be long before you have to quit the mine. I’m surprised Sandy can work there at all.”
“At first, all I wanted was to move away from here, to pretend nothing had happened. But where could we go? And what would my dad do for a job, especially how he is? I know he wants me to get out of Lead. He makes that very clear. But not while he’s alive, not that I would ever leave him.”
I thought there was more to it than she was saying, or maybe more that she knew about. But I kept it to myself. It was damn clear to me that Sandy didn’t like what he was doing. I don’t think I would be hanging around Lead if I was him. It’s not like he had any friends or relatives. No, there was something else that made him stay, I thought. But I wasn’t about to start guessing what it was.
The waiter came with the check. I guess they needed the table or something. We got up and started over to the cashier.
While I paid, Mary went to the bathroom, and without her for a moment I thought about both of our dads. I couldn’t make sense out of either of them. They were both different than they seemed. I saw what my dad was hiding, and I wondered what secret Sandy had stored away. Why the hell did he stay in Lead when you could tell he hated everything about mining and miners? I couldn’t figure him out.
Mary came back, and we walked out the door to the parking lot. I searched for my parking stub but couldn’t find it and ended up describing the Bronco to the guy. He ran off to get it.
“Let’s make a wish,” Mary said and turned around to the fountain. The pool at the bottom of the mountain was pink with the colored lights. The river that flowed into it was blue.
I reached into my pocket and gave her a penny and took one out for myself. She closed her eyes and tossed it in real quick, but I couldn’t think of anything to wish for.
“Come on,” she said. “Make a wish.”
I tossed my penny into the pool without really having a wish in mind. It’s funny now, all this time later, to look back on the wish I finally came up with, which was that everything would turn out okay. I guess I meant with my dad and my mom, but I might as well have been wishing for me and Mary, and especially for Sandy and the dreams he had on his mind.
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