The fluorescent lights gleamed their unyielding light as baskets full of foul smelling clothes, boots, hard hats and various tools hung over my head like something out of a prison movie. The showers are empty at this time of the morning, between shifts. The firebosses haven’t yet surfaced from their nightly checks and the boss men have yet to relinquish their paperwork, worried about an impending visit from the suits. They could arrive at any moment, resplendent in their suits, unloading from their helicopter with all the self-importance of swaggering drug lords. For better or for worse, these modern gangsters held sway over thousands of lives, not only those of the men that they employ in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but their families, by fallout the communities themselves as everything exists to support the coal mines that still operate in the Appalachian Mountains.
Not for the first time, I notice that my boots are worn nearly completely out. Matterhorn boots with Kevlar insoles and triple layered toes with thininsulate liners and Gore Tex with leather outside, they are without a doubt the toughest boot on the market. Vaguely intimidating, they look like something a Special Forces soldier tossed aside in Iraq.
My life is hitting a crossroads once again. I am fully aware of the decision that I’m getting ready to make, I’ve contemplated it for months, it seems. My untimely departure from Reno, NV back to the coal fields was not turning out to be a great choice of options, but hindsight is what it is. I realize that my head is nearly on my knees. I’m completely exhausted. The months of travel, stress, work and study have left me nearly drained. Moving is always harder than you think it will be, especially after you develop some baggage, figuratively and literally, that you have to drag around with you.
I contemplate briefly once again continuing to work at the local restaurant I’ve been helping out with. They still desperately need a cook, but have little to no money to pay anyone. I’ve never been anxious to work for free, and I know for a fact the restaurant is on the ropes. The only customers for the past few weeks, that I can at least verify on my two days off, seven days on work schedule are the occasional lawyers that wander in to gawk at my girlfriend, order coffee and make a big deal out of a one dollar tip.
Then there was a rehearsal dinner for a group of locals. The bride and groom weren’t brother and sister, but they were in senior year of high school, sheltered to no end and certain that they were the center of the universe. I guess that day they were. They ordered shrimp cocktail by the bucket, nearly fifty pounds of ribeye steak along with asparagus, mushroom lasagna and several other entrees that were most definitely NOT part of our normal menu.
I had been up for nearly two days, working double shifts for another foreman whose wife had just delivered a little one and I was too tired really to remember much of that night. We had ordered everything that they asked for, using up all our credit in the process and to the best of my recollection, nearly everything was well cooked. The steaks were all medium to medium well, the shrimp overcooked, the lasagna soupy with processed cheese and the sweet tea was, well, sweet. I’m southern and I get sweet tea. My Mom’s tea is perfectly sweetened, with the sugar or molasses added while the tea is still boiling, so that it develops that nice frothy sweetness on top after it’s poured. I’m not sure to this day what this shit was. Instant tea with some sort of artificial sweetener, it would have made a goat sick.
The end of that night for me was punctuated by the horrified gasp of a bottle-blonde teen who had just insisted that we “say grace for what God has put before us.” She picked up one of the shrimp out of her faux crystal glass, which had been rather artfully, if I do say so, placed around the appropriate cocktail sauce garnished with fresh mint. She regarded her catch with scorn and said, “I wanted my shrimps COOKED.”
Nobody paid for that meal, as I recall. I heard that the restaurant closed just after I left and the location is still vacant to this day. So much for the owners’ hopes and dreams, which ultimately swung on one seventeen year old blonde girl with a guitar and Jesus obsession. So much for so-called self-professed Christians.
More than a decade later, I sit on my back porch reading over paperwork: Bills, charts, money owed, costs of living, daily news and other daily chores. It stormed last night and the remnants are clearly visible. Mist obscures the mountains from view and the air smells clean – washed. The stars are still visible, even this late in the morning, with the sun sending out a few tentative rays over the mountains to my left. I can hear running water and a Scarlet Tanager pecks merrily at the green blackberries. It’s time for another change. I’m learning that this gets harder with time, with roots, with security. Where I once wore my strength and seeming invincibility as my armor against the emotions that ripping ties apart inevitably bring, now I am open and visible in spite of the security blanket of my comfort zone wrapped tightly around me. The decision must still be made.
So many years before, I had shrugged, glanced around the still empty bathhouse and headed for the door. I almost left my mining hat, belt, safety gear and dog tags. The boots I had tossed in the trash. On second thought, I crammed these memories into the old green backpack that had been my constant companion since high school. On the way out the door I snatched my boots out of the trash. I left the familiar and the security of what I knew once more, shrugging it off like an old skin.
Today, this is harder to do. I think of the kitchen that I had to leave behind and remind myself that I was not a failure there, nor anywhere else, despite what others may think. Life is a series of events and decisions, actions and reactions. We have to live with our decisions cheerfully and not dwell on the mistakes of the past.
I make my way down the steps to the pantry and make sure my rock hammer, mining hat and belt with the dog tags attached are still there. I check the blade on my chef’s knife, which is now nearly as worn as the rock hammer, but not quite.
I’d better not lose track of these things. They may be irreplaceable.