Coal Dust

by Deborah S. Prespare

Cool summer air, pine-scented and clean, wafted through the open window, carrying on its drifts the soothing purr of crickets and cicadas. The light from an occasional passing car veined the room’s darkness. On the surface, this was a night like any other, but there was change afoot. He sensed it. His headache had subsided today, and with it, so had the fog.

Seatbelts. They were right about them. The crack when his head hit the windshield last week. The ringing in his ears. The overweight, teeth-missing woman shrieking that he was going to pay. He’d never forget those sounds.

“Look what you did to my truck, asshole. So what if you’re bleeding?” she’d shouted. “You’re alive.”

Up until tonight, he wasn’t so sure that he was.

He rolled onto his back. The insurance company was considering the claim, debating whether to cover damages, whether to recommend that his license be taken away. His 1963 Dodge Dart, an airbag-less car, was an unsafe relic, they argued (even though they’d been happy to take his payments for the car’s coverage up until now). And more importantly, they said, the state should have done more to ensure his roadworthiness. He was too old. His judgment was impaired, they said. But when the headache began to lift today, he felt clearer of mind, able to think straighter than he had in years. Lights from another car fanned across the popcorn ceiling, revealing peaks and craters, an alien landscape.

An alien in an alien place. That was what he was. When she’d kicked him out before Christmas, the furnished bedroom over the Silers’ garage was the only space for rent in their small town. The Silers took his monthly checks and spied on him for fuel to spark gossip.

She was having an affair. That was what everyone had been saying. He caught parts of whispered conversations here and there through the years—at the grocery store, in the diner, when he was filling his car—when he had one that ran, that is—at the station. If she were, he hoped she’d found some happiness. She certainly deserved it, he thought, staring at the popcorn ceiling, the otherworldly landscape. With the distance that had spread between him and her over the years, he might as well have been living on another planet, on the farthest one, on Pluto.

Is Pluto a planet? Hadn’t his grandson told him it wasn’t one anymore?

Rules, lessons, facts—all relayed as if they were built on absolutes, but nothing was dependable beyond the moment of the telling. He knew this firsthand. “It’s a fact,” his father had said, who then, having had more beer than he should have, declared that he had the best wife and family a man could hope for, and that he loved each one of them more than a man should. He remembered that night. In that moment, his father’s words were true.

He and his own wife, Molly, had said they loved each other too, repeatedly in fact, and again, in those moments, their shared feeling was the truth. And here they were, he and Molly, the same people in the same town with their shared history, but now what they were to each other was redefined. Like Pluto.

He pushed his head into his pillow. He could hear people outside. From the shrieks and obscenities, he could picture the roaming pack of teenagers making their way down the street. He listened to the guys trying to outdo each other with the foulness of their words. He cringed at the girls squealing, trying to win the boys’ attention. He could remember being that age. He couldn’t remember sounding so foolish, though.

The coal dust. That was what he could remember the clearest—how it got into everything—his hair, his ears, his nose, every wrinkle in his clothes, his skin. He remembered the dust and the silence. Even with the five of them crowding the rented one-bedroom cabin, the all-consuming exhaustion of trying to make rent and stretching their few dollars for food sucked the sounds of youth right out of them, their mother, not much more than a child herself, included. She took on more shifts at the shirt factory to drop money in the tin that had replaced the one their father had taken with him when he’d left. Their sister, Matilda, kept house the best she could. Charles, the oldest and only twelve at the time, had to leave for the mine. Soon after, he joined his big brother in the airless, dark tunnels. Then their younger brother, Pete, had to take up a pickaxe too. Together, they hacked away at the earth. With each swing of their picks, he knew that they might be digging their own graves.

So many days he’d wanted to run away, but he couldn’t be like his father. He couldn’t disappear when life got hard, when people depended on him. When the United States Army called, an exit was forced upon him. He fought his way through Europe until the Army no longer had a need for him. Back at home, he and his siblings tended to their ailing mother, and when she passed, the siblings scattered. He’d lost touch with them over the years. Are they even still around? He never really thought about them until now. He couldn’t remember when he’d last seen them. Was it at the wedding?

He and Molly first met at a county square dance. Molly had laughed when he told her, his voice competing with the fiddles and banjos, that he missed the Army meals (having regular meals was what he meant). She promised him a proper dinner, and that same determination he had not to abandon his duties kept him by Molly’s side from that dinner on, even when the cracks in their relationship turned into the chasm that separated them now. He would never be the first to leave. She finally understood that.

He looked at his rifle leaning against the wall, the rifle that he used to hunt deer with when his knees didn’t bother him. That rifle, a grocery bag stuffed with clothes, and his shaving kit were the only things he brought with him. All he had to show for his life could fill a single dresser drawer. Plus that gun.

A glass bottle shattered outside. Laughter and curses.

Damn kids. They wouldn’t last an hour in a mine. He and Charles and Pete, Matilda too, the kids of his generation, they were made of different stuff. Another round of shrieks from the pack of kids outside, then their racket faded, and soon he couldn’t hear them at all.

His joints cracking, he got out of bed and looked out the window. The street was empty. The same familiar houses, with the occasional trailer sandwiched between them, stood as they had for years. The light of a TV flickered in the dark living room of Tony Chester’s place. Tony, a widower, was known to sleep on the couch in front of the TV because he couldn’t stomach sleeping alone in the bed after his Hildy had passed. The neighbors to the left of Tony’s, the Stowes, could trace their family back to the town’s founders, wealthy merchants who established a prosperous trading post at the foot of the Poconos in 1789. With the trash car parts scattered across the lawn and the house’s flaking paint and slumped roof, a person would never have guessed that the family of eight that stuffed that small house now was part of this town’s noble ancestry. The couple who lived to the right of Tony, the Johnsons, were known for their obsessive three-mile speed walks each day. Rain, sleet, nor snow deterred them. Next to the Johnsons were the Blevins, who made their own beer and were gracious enough to share their brews with select neighbors (even he’d been given a growler or two now and then), then next to the Johnsons were the Connors, who’d moved from New York City over a decade ago but could talk about nothing else—New York this and New York that.

He knew all the people who inhabited this street and the next and the next. He knew them like they knew him—caricatures embellished but more often reduced through regurgitated, whispered sound bites.

He couldn’t see his own house; it was two streets away, but he could envision it. When someone drove by his house and took stock of it, he knew how they would categorize his home: broken. The cheery yellow paint, manicured lawn, and ceaseless seasonal displays—goblins and cobwebs spun up before the heat of summer broke, the plastic turkeys, the wreaths and twinkling lights, Valentine’s Day hearts in the windows, giant-sized Easter eggs on the lawn, and now, at this time of year, there would be Stars and Stripes flowing from the porch railings—all the gaudy decorations that he had quietly helped her assemble and take down year after year (did Jim do this job now?), that Molly religiously cycled through with overt cheer, all of these were inadequate masks. Their home had been broken for years. The town knew it, and he should have.

Gripping the windowsill, he looked at his neighbors’ homes, where the people who whispered all day slept soundly at night. He was sure the rumors were true, that Molly had developed an affection some years ago for Jim, the man at the center of the gossip, the electrician who had gone to high school with Molly, who had installed a ceiling fan and then took it upon himself, for only a tenth of his normal rate, to rewire the whole house to bring it up to code (for safety reasons—old houses tended to burn down, he said). Maybe, as time went on, as Jim became a mainstay, his and Molly’s former home would lose its fractured reputation and be whole again. He hoped this for her. He hoped happiness for her.

Had she ever been happy? He stretched his memories back. The day they got married was a good memory. She seemed happy then. It was a quiet affair at the town’s Episcopal Church. Her veil had gotten stuck on the button of his suit jacket sleeve. The priest had to help untangle them. Everyone, the audience, the priest, and her included, had a good laugh at that. The day they bought the house, and the weeks they spent painting and fixing up its leaky faucets, drains that wouldn’t drain, doors that wouldn’t close—those were good days too, as were the days that the boys had arrived, those purple-faced, screaming creatures that clung to him their first few years then ran from him as fast as they could thereafter. She smiled and laughed so much in those early years.

He reflected on the time since. He gripped the windowsill tighter when he realized that the count of recollections he had of her didn’t correlate to the amount of time spent in her orbit. Those early years contained the clearest memories of his time with her. What he remembered the most was the work. First there was the mine, then the Army, then through the rest of the years, while his wife’s fondness for the electrician was likely taking root, he had signed up for every job he could find—paid or volunteer—laying pavement in the summer, keeping roads clear in the winter, shoveling sidewalks, cleaning gutters, repairing roofs, painting houses, running errands for the homebound—grocery pickups and post office drop-offs. He worked, taking any job that made him feel useful, spending more hours outside of the house than in, as his two sons, named for his brothers—Charles and Pete—grew up. Everyone in town knew the boys couldn’t wait to leave. Charles and Pete put themselves through college, moved as far from town as they could—one landed in California, the other in Colorado. He’d only seen one of his grandsons once, when the kid was six or so.

What’s his name? I should know.

The kid liked planets. He remembered that at least. When he told the kid that Pluto was his favorite, the kid had laughed and set him straight. That was it, the sum of their exchange—a fact proven to be non-fact.

No facts. No truths.

Sweat beaded on his forehead, making his stitches itch. He couldn’t scratch, per the doctor’s orders, so he squeezed the windowsill even tighter, like how he used to squeeze the handle of the pickaxe when it struck rock, the cartilage of his knuckles nearly bursting through his skin, the vibrations from the blow running up his arms, through his chest, down to his feet in his flimsy boots, all the while making his teeth hum with ache.

That ache. He remembered it clearly. He remembered his time with Molly too, but there was a softness to the edges of those memories, even to the memory of the day she kicked him out. That morning there was no fight. There were no raised voices, just a quiet request that he leave and let her live the little bit of life she had left. He’d thought to feel anger or hurt, but he didn’t. He’d thought to feel sorry, but he didn’t feel that either. Now, with the headache from the accident gone, he understood he should have felt something. The memory of the ache in his teeth when working the axe was more real, was more a fact than anything he could recall with Molly.

He let the windowsill go. A car passed by, casting light across the foreign room, highlighting for him again that everything he had to show for his life fit in a single dresser drawer. Plus his gun.

The breeze died. The crickets and cicadas stopped their humming. In the silence, with a clear head, he understood: He was already gone.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing