MY FATHER was a coal man, and his before him. Wasn’t much other work you could do in those days. Not where I grew up anyhow. Ever since I was a tyke I remember him leaving off for work every morning, clean as a whistle, kissing ma on the cheek. She wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole when he got home at the end of a day. Not until he washed at least. I remember her laying down newspaper from the front door to the bathroom so he wouldn’t track so much soot all over her damn floors.
Hard as he worked he still had time for all of us. Whenever there was a work stoppage, or some union problems at the mine, he never spent it sinking beers at the bar like the others. He’d play ball with us, or have a make believe tea party with my sisters. I guess we were lucky he never took out his problems on us. I guess that’s why I looked up to him as much as I did.
Eventually I started doing some, I guess you could say, peculiar things. I’d go out in the yard and find the biggest, nastiest puddle of muck I could and cover myself head to toe in it. Ma had a king size fit every time I did it. After a while she quit being mad about it. Having four other kids to keep track of, she decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. My old man just laughed and laughed. One day he gave me an old cracked helmet he’d found at work. All I wanted in life was to be like him.
Things don’t always work out that way though. I went off to the city when I grew up, chasing the horizon like every other kid in history. I’d see the family at Christmas, call on birthdays, the usual. All the while he kept going back to those mines, day in day out. One day the phone call was different. It’s his lungs, ma said through tears. He’s coughing blood. The dust and the dirt’s killing him.
It didn’t take long. He’d held off going to the doctor as long as he could, so they found it late. Last time I saw him alive he was as clean as a whistle again, lying in a hospital bed. I could tell he hated it, but he smiled at as all just the same. On the day of the funeral I stood at the edge of his grave and crumbled a clump of soil onto his coffin. It was the least I could do for the old man. Ashes to ashes, said the priest, dust to dust.
Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was DIRT.
Want to read regular updates? Subscribe via RSS!