Today I’m posting Chapter 16 of High Pocket. In this chapter, Jake confronts his father for information about the 3800 Level; but instead of learning more about the level, Jake is stunned to hear the details of his father’s role in the cave-in that occurred there.
My dad had his office in Building #2 where most of the managers and supervisors were. I told him I needed to talk and he said lunch was best. I’d been there a hundred times and never felt comfortable in the place. There’s a skinny receptionist with a beehive hairdo bigger than a keg of Bud who I swear checks your feet whenever you come in like they’re probably covered in mud; and sure enough, when I opened the door, she looked right down at my boots. I wanted to kick her desk and topple the keg.
But it wasn’t really her who bothered me the most. It was the big belly guys sitting in the cubicles moving papers from one side of the desk to the other. I know this isn’t fair to say, probably, but you just can’t help but believe their work is easy compared to breaking your back underground. I guess it made me feel like a kid, too, sitting in the lobby waiting for my dad to come out and get me.
“Hi, Jake,” he said slapping me on the back, “ready as you are.”
“I was thinking the Drill and Steel,” I said.
“Sure enough. Haven’t been there for ages.”
I knew he hadn’t. It was a place for miners, not mangers, and I felt better with miners all around me to talk to him. We walked out and decided to take two cars since my shift was off and I didn’t want to have to drive back to the Homestake later.
I got there first and took a table and ordered two beers. The place was packed with miners two deep at the bar with the shift change just gone off. I knew some of them and the rest I knew well enough to nod at. The place has plate-glass windows looking out on Main. There’s wood chairs and tables and even sawdust on the floor. It’s a lot like you might picture an Old West saloon to be.
I’d just finished pouring my beer when my dad walked in. He stopped inside the door and looked around for me. I swear the place went dead silent. It was like he was a Russian spy or something. He looked back at them all, I got to give him that, nodding to a few he recognized, and they half-nodded his way. He caught sight of me, and ordered two more beers from the bartender on his way over to the table. It took a minute or two for the talking to get going in the place and the laughing to start up back to normal.
“You drink here, usually” he asked.
“Here or the Silver Star.”
We stopped short for a minute, knowing we weren’t here for small talk. I didn’t know how to start right in. I hoped he’d ask me what was on my mind. And sure enough he did. Right then the other two beers came and we got a menu, but I didn’t let the chance pass.
“It’s about the mine,” I said, “there’s some stuff I want to know about it.”
“The mine, huh?” he looked confused or just plain surprised.
I think it was the last thing he expected me to say, which made me wonder for a minute what he thought I was going to ask him about. Was it Sylvia? Or maybe he thought I was fixing to discuss Mary with him, man-to-man.
“You probably know more about mining than I do,” he said trying to laugh it off, “I’ve been topside for too long.”
“I mean information about a certain part of the mine, a level.”
“You want to get the special?” he asked, “roast beef and sweet potatoes?”
He called the waitress over, still ignoring my question, and we placed our order. When she walked away, he took a deep pull on the beer and then leaned in.
“What’s on your mind, Jake? Quit the bullshit, just get at it.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’m talking about the 3800′, the shaft that’s closed down.”
“Christ Almighty,” he said disgusted. “This is Sandy, isn’t it?”
“I want to find out some things about it.”
“You do? Or he does?”
“Jake, look, I don’t know what the hell he’s got planned, sorry, what you’ve got planned, and I don’t expect you’re going to tell me, but you’ve got no business down there. Period.”
“Who’s saying I’m going anywhere?”
“No? You writing a history book on mining, that it? Let’s not lie to each other any longer.”
I thought that was a little strong saying I was lying, but I kept quiet, and found out the lie he was talking about was his own.
“Here’s a little history for you…a tidbit about the past,” his voice was bitter and cold coming at me.
He took another long drink. Then took his time lighting a cigarette. Finally, he let go with it.
“I was the foreman on the 3800’. Bet he didn’t tell you that. Probably saving the big surprise for later.”
“He told me,” I said flatly, looking straight at him.
“Course he did,” he said just a flatly back to me. “Course he did. Yeah, me, I was responsible for the safety of my men. That’s what Foremen do. I did a great job, don’t you think?”
The bitterness was for him, not for me.
“What the fuck, dad…I don’t know what to say to that.”
“You don’t have to say anything. Sandy’s saying it for you. Revenge, I guess that’s his game? I got access to Company records. He wants me to steal them. And he’s got you here asking for it. Pretty slick, isn’t it?”
“It ain’t that way.”
“Oh no, what way is it?”
I couldn’t answer it to be honest. I wasn’t sure all of a sudden.
“Look, Jake, I’m not perfect. God knows that and so do plenty of others. But I won’t do it. It’d be stealing plain and simple and I’m not a thief.”
“Is that what you’re calling me?”
“I’m not calling you anything.
Our food came right then, and we sat there eating quiet for awhile. My head was chattering like mad. Maybe he was right about the revenge stuff. There’s no doubt about how Sandy looked on the Homestake and my dad, for that matter. But it’s the last part of what he said that stuck in my craw. The bit about stealing. Again I thought about what we were planning to do.
“The place is a death trap,” he said, making it clear what he’d been thinking about. “That’s the best information I can give you about the place. Nobody in their right mind–and maybe that leaves Sandy out—but nobody else would go down there. Certainly not you.”
“I know what I’m doing. I can take care of myself.”
He was kept eating and didn’t look up at first.
“I’m not trying to tell you what to do, son. I’m trying to warn you. Sandy’s gone off half-cocked about something…what, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? There ain’t no pot of gold, and you know that. Maybe that girl of his, Mary, has got you blind to…”
“Don’t bring her into this,” I said hard.
He nodded, shrugged and started, slower.
“I’m just telling you the truth of the matter…”
“The truth? Well let me ask you something, dad, truthfully…”
He look up from his roast beef, worried, and again I wondered if he expected me to ask about Sylvia McFelan.
“Did you want to leave or stay?”
He didn’t answer.
“You would have stayed and gone in again after the miners left behind.”
“I’d have been wrong,” he said flat.
“But you would have stayed. You would have tried to get them out.”
“It wasn’t up to me.”
“But if it had been,” I said, asking, I guess, for my dad to tell me he was still the hero I remembered from childhood.
He looked down first, then away, and then into my eyes. “Yeah,” he said, short and nearly so low I couldn’t hear it.
I felt bad right away when I heard him say it. There was pain in his voice. I don’t know how many times in the last twelve years he must’ve gone over this ground. It couldn’t have felt good.
“Yeah, I would have stayed…but that doesn’t make me right and the Homestake wrong. They had to make the decision, Jake, not me. Thank God. And they thought it was the only way to go.”
“For who?” I asked and this time it didn’t come out nasty.
“For everybody. I’m not denying they had their own reasons. Shit, Jake, look at it. They got a whole goddamn town looking at what they do, and taking them to account for it. How could they chance getting more men killed? They couldn’t. I don’t know what you think. I know what Sandy thinks. But they’re people, Jake. Just like you and me. They put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. They make good decisions and bad ones. And I still ain’t saying that they did the wrong thing by calling off the rescue. Nobody can say that for sure. If you want to go and judge them. Go ahead. But I don’t and I didn’t.”
He stopped there, took a drink and then went right on again. He didn’t even look up to see if I was looking at him. He knew I was listening.
“And I know something else you might have heard from Sandy. I know the talk that went on after I went upstairs. I heard it about my promotion. All of it. And I’m telling you right now, straight to you,” and now he looked up from the table, “it ain’t nothing but a crock of shit.”
The way he said it, or maybe the way he looked at me when he said it, I believed him and told him so.
“I’m not asking you to believe it, Jake. I’m just telling you how it is.”
Maybe he didn’t need my believing him, but something felt settled now that the truth was out in the open. The waitress cleared the table and we lit up a smoke and ordered a couple shots of JD with a beer back.
We clinked our glasses and fired them back. He grabbed my arm when I set the shooter down.
“And damn it all,” he said, “I don’t know what the hell you have planned and I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me, but Jake, I do hope you truly know what the hell you’re doing. That level is trickier than a slicked hog. They didn’t close it down the day we dragged Sandy out of there and board it up all of these years for no reason. It was too dangerous even to salvage the equipment. That place can’t be worked safely by anybody.”
“I will, pop,” I said thinking that maybe I should tell him about the contract Ben had signed onto with Olner, but it didn’t seem like if was for me to get into that.
We said our good-byes outside and shook hands good and long and then got in our cars. On the way home, I went over what he’d said, and it was a lot to think about. Some of it was already changing my mind about the way I’d looked at the mine and at Sandy. But as I drove on, the idea of the gold kept drifting back to the surface of my thoughts. The gold, goddamn it, the gold! They boarded up the place, he said, the day they dragged Sandy out. Not even equipment salvaged. And it had been closed ever since.
Yeah, my dad had told me plenty, whether he meant to or not. The cage had to be there, probably just out of my lamp beam when I’d looked down. It had to be there. And if Sandy wasn’t a crazy man, and if the gold was ever there, it was still there, too. Sitting down there in the dark, one big nugget gleaming at the heart of the Homestake Mine.
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