a short story by Jerry Zinn
The whistle sounded at noon on the dot to signal lunch, two miles below the surface in the Binghamton Mine. The continuous coal machine screeched to a halt as the operator powered it down. The handful of workers in the far section of the mine set down their tools and walked to the end of the line where the train waited for them. As they walked the only source of light in the dark abyss came from their headlamps, their beams bouncing off the reflective tape on their suits. They hunched over to keep from hitting their heads on the low ceiling.
No one spoke as they piled in the roofless train, the only sounds were of the coal in the walls popping and cracking under the immense pressure of the ground weighing down upon it. The train operator turned on the engine and it began the fifteen-minute haul back up to the lift. Its engine churned and the wheels clapped against the rail as it wound its way through the vast network of caves and tunnels. Coal dust filled the air in a fine haze like the black mist of forest fires. The miners joined in a cacophony of coughs and wheezes, the thick mucus of their throats adding a guttural weight that spoke to years of inhalation of coarse particulate matter.
The train slowed to a jerking stop at the origin of the tracks just a few feet from the lift, lit brightly by industrial lights on stands. One of the senior workmen pulled open the heavy metal door, and his coworkers piled in, packed like sardines in a matchbox.
“Lamps off,” he said, a dim sadness coloring his words as the room went pitch black with the clicks. With a jolt the elevator started its trip up through the millenniums of rocks and minerals. Each man stood quietly, some with eyes closed, others simply in a malaise. Only seconds after a vague light entered from the shaft above, the lift crashed to a stop and the doors slid open. The brightness of the gloomy day assaulted their eyes. The older workers squinted and managed the transition with experience, but the younger men covered their black smeared faces with their hands.
It was Ben’s first day working in the Binghamton Mine, and only his second full day in Binghamton. Somehow he felt even more alone back on the surface than he did tucked away deep in the manmade cave. From his designated locker he pulled out his lunch pail and his thermos and set them down on the only remaining empty table. He found the sink and stopped over to wash his hands and face, which proved to merely be a waste of water. When Ben returned he found the table full around his lunch.
“Have a seat kid,” one of the men said. “Break may be an hour but you only get twenty minutes to eat. That hour is on the clock once the whistle blows.” Ben sat down and mouthed hello to the group as he unhinged the lock and pulled out his tinfoil wrapped peanut butter and jelly.
“You must be one of the new kids? My name’s Charlie, and these here are Alan and Mr. Dodge,” the man continued. Ben just nodded in recognition so Charlie added, “You have a name?”
“Ben,” he answered.
“You talk too much, Ben,” Mr. Dodge said as he took a bite from his sandwich. There was a brief pause, and Ben wasn’t sure how to react. The three men broke out in laughter sprinkled with horse coughs. Ben smiled as Mr. Dodge patted him heartily on the back. “Lighten up Ben, it’s too dark around here.”
“Yes sir,” Ben answered with a smile.
“What brings you to O Little Town of Binghamton?” Charlie asked sarcastically.
“I got in a bit of trouble back home and my parents sent me out here to ‘reform’ me,” Ben said employing air quotes.
“So whereabouts were you thrown from?” Charlie asked.
“Jesus. That’s not much better than here,” Mr. Dodge said seriously.
“I wanted to get out of there, and I figured out the most exciting way to get that to happen was to make some trouble. Besides I wanted to know what it was like here. I heard stories,” Ben added.
“Did you do any mining back there? I noticed you didn’t hardly need any instruction this morning,” Alan asked before taking a sip of Diet Coke.
“Yeah, after I finished high school I started in a mine, worked a little less than a year before I was shipped here. I just got in two days ago.”
“What do you think so far?” Charlie asked.
“It’s… different here. I guess it’s a little early to say much more than that,” Ben said.
The men nodded in agreement as they continued to pick away at their lunches and enjoy their time above ground. A curt toot from the whistle indicated the men would need to return to the lift in five minutes to start the trip back to the Binghamton underworld. The sound was met with sighs of discontent.
Ben wondered if Charlie, Alan, or Mr. Dodge remembered what they looked like beneath the layers of grime painted heavily on their faces. He wondered if they even bothered to clean themselves anymore. Mining might be the kind of work that puts hair on a man’s chest, Ben thought, but it also makes him feel as though it was growing in his lungs. Even at nineteen, the work was taxing on Ben, and he knew as time went by it would become impossible to differentiate night from day, his dreams filling with what awaited him in the waking hours.
“Hey Charlie,” Alan said getting his attention, “how bout one of your jokes before we head down?”
“I’ve got one. A man who was recently divorced meets his friend at the bar for a beer, and his friend asks him, ‘What’s the difference between being married and being divorced?’” Charlie paused as the men looked to him anxiously. “And his friend answers, ‘I wanted to get married, I needed to get divorced!’”
When Charlie reached the punch line he broke out into laughter and Alan and Mr. Dodge followed suit. Ben snickered at the joke but recognized he was too young to fully appreciate its message. But seeing the men chuckling together, who were to that point more somber than he, lightened Ben’s spirit. Ben understood the good a joke could do for guys stuck in a place like Binghamton, and he was glad for the reprieve.
Then the whistle gave two blows. The train was ready to descend. Ben and his tablemates closed up their lunch pales, tightened their thermoses, and rose to return their belongings to their lockers.
“You know, Ben, it can get awful lonely out here. Why don’t you join my wife Betty and I for dinner tonight?” Charlie asked.
“Thanks, Charlie. I’d really enjoy that.”
“Betty’s a great cook. In fact, if I’m being truthful, she’s the best damn cook on the whole planet, and good food is near impossible to find around here.”
“I look forward to it,” Ben answered as they climbed into the elevator once more.
The doors shut and a man called out, “Lamps on.” The men obliged. Through the slits in the door, Ben saw a storm brewing far off in the muggy, clay-colored sky. As the elevator descended, a strong gust blew by and kicked up a cloud of red dust, covering the billboard for the Martian Mining Corporation before everything around him went dark.