Momma threw the first handful on the coffin, and then we all done the same. Black dirt. Just like the coal. There we were, throwin’ dirt in our Sunday best, just come from church. After that, the boys from down the hill started in with the shovels, and by God, Pop was all covered up in no more than fifteen minutes. Smellin’ that dirt set me coughin’ and hackin’. Up come some slime and I spit it out, black too, drippin’ and slimin’ down the grass blades, all thick and slow.
I remember the day I come home and told Pop school wasn’t for me. Too much readin’ and writin’, too much talkin’ and thinkin’. I wasn’t fifteen, but I’d had enough of it to know. What I wanted, I told him, was to work in the mine, to pull out the coal, to do a man’s job. Sittin’ in a chair all day, staring at some woman scribblin’ on a chalkboard, everyone talk, talk, talkin’. No sir, wasn’t for me. I got the fever for that coal, I says to him, standin’ over him, tall and proud, him sittin’ there on the porch, in his rockin’ chair, black dust from the day still in the cracks of his face, under his eyes, between his mouth and his cheeks. Wanna be like my Pop, I told him.
Well, he set there on the porch, not lookin’ at me, breathin’ like he did, real shallow and loud, like a wind blowin’ through the trees. After thinkin’ a while, and me just standin’ there dumb, said he was honored his son want to be like him, but ain’t no son of his gonna work in that mine. Ain’t no way to earn a livin’, he says. Owners don’t care about nothin’ but coal. Not miners. Not rules. Not nothin’. Just coal. They won’t take care of you, boy, he says. Not your family, neither. You’re the one that takes care of them owners. They end up rich, and you just end up breathin’ like me, and pretty soon you end up in the ground.
I didn’t listen to him, no sir. Next day, I walked right alongside him, right down that mine, gettin’ the black dust all in my face, all in my lungs. Ain’t much a man can do, when he gets that fever. It gets in him. Coal gets in him. He got to go. Of course, my Pop was right. Spent his life pullin’ coal out the earth, and now that coal pulled him right back in. And I’m breathin’ just like him, all shallow and raspy. Expect it won’t be long before I join him.