The old coal miner dug into the hard rock and soot with his pickax. The black clay seeped deep into his pores. He brandished a filthy handkerchief and removed his perspiration. A glint of light bounced off a large piece of coal. Startled, he whipped around with his ax raised.
“Who is it?”
The blue light from his Davy lamp only illuminated a couple feet. His eyes darted around the many dark, branching tunnels. Another flick of light bounced off some ore to his right. He removed his lamp from the ceiling hook and slowly followed that tunnel.
His old lungs brought in more darkness from the mine. He stopped and coughed loudly. A gentle glow emanated from a tunnel ahead and he peaked inside.
It was a dead end. A chubby young man stood on a box. A rope was cinched tight around his neck. One of the old man’s ceiling hooks supported the rope. The old man set down his pickax and said, “Name’s Jacob.”
He set his lamp in the corner next to the young man’s lantern.
“My name is Tommy. Please don’t stop me.”
The blue light swirled in Tommy’s watery eyes. Jacob rested his back against the wall and said, “I have no such intention, Tommy.”
“Must you watch?”
Jacob did not respond. He shut his eyes and hummed. Tommy’s lips quivered, and he pushed the box away. The rope extended and gripped his neck. The hook snapped from the ceiling and he fell. A cloud of dust and rock fragments burst across the tiny tunnel.
“No way that tiny hook was gonna support your fat ass.”
Tommy’s fingers pried at the rope around his neck. A large chunk of loose rock shifted in the ceiling. Jacob dashed to Tommy’s side and pulled him away. The rock splintered the base of the tunnel.
Jacob sat on the ground next to him and struggled to slow his breath.
“Why didn’t you let it crush me? You let me hang myself!”
Jacob coughed up black soot into his sleeve. “Not sure if I knew it wouldn’t kill you, or if I didn’t pay no mind regardless.”
He also lay flat on the ground and stared at the new indent in the ceiling. His belly grumbled. He stood up and pulled Tommy to his feet.
“Dying on an empty stomach is indecent.”
The old cabin sat not twenty feet from the mine entrance. It was cozy but somehow empty. Soulless gazes were shared across Jacob’s oak dinner table.
“How old are you boy? And from where do you hail?”
Tommy swished his spoon around in the murky bowl of potato and beef soup. The smell was bland and unsatisfying.
“Just turned twenty-five. Louisville raised, now in Lexington.”
“Big city boy couldn’t take the pressure, huh?”
Tommy’s eyes shifted to the floor, and his hands shook. The spoon fell and splashed the bland soup across the table.
“Everything isn’t so tidy and simple as you put it to be,” Tommy said. He left the table and looked out the window.
“How did you know to go looking in my mine?”
Tommy leaned on the windowsill, and the ancient lumber groaned.
“Summer vacation when I was a teen, some friends and I wandered into your mine,” he said. “I always remembered the weird hooks in the ceiling.”
Jacob sipped the last bit of his soup. He tilted the bowl and spun it on its edge.
“And you decided it was a nice place to hang yourself.”
The sun sank. Long shadows cast shadows on Jacob’s deep-set eyes. They sat around the fireplace and sipped stale apple cider until it was long past cold. Jacob rocked in his chair while Tommy nervously rubbed his hands.
“Your kin will be after ya soon,” Jacob said.
A cot was set out for Tommy. Jacob stayed in his chair and kept watch all night.
One more shovel full of coal and the stove would be piping hot. The water for the coffee boiled and hissed. Tommy rolled around on the cot and nearly fell off. Jacob steadied the bed so Tommy could get out.
“Your family surely feeds you well.”
The table was set with breakfast. Tommy devoured the eggs and bread. The open windows set flies upon the kitchen. They buzzed around Jacob as he picked at his breakfast.
“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” Tommy quoted.
“You suicidal and a Bible thumper?”
Tommy shook his head.
“Never been religious. Always been thinking about those promises,” Tommy said. “You taken with any religion?”
Jacob looked out into the yard and avoided Tommy’s eyes. He tapped his knife several times on his glass plate. “That your automobile out there?”
“Yes it is, sir.”
“Best that you move it unless you wanna get caught up to.”
Jacob bit off a chunk of bread and stepped into the kitchen. “Best I get started on some yard work. Welcome to join if you like.”
The car sat where it was.
The back pasture was overgrown with a mess of thorny bushes. They each slipped on thick leather gloves. Tommy watched Jacob hack the plants with large sheers. He followed.
“The reason I brought up that scripture earlier. I think. Well,” he said. He paused and set the sheers down. “Death would be a heaven to me.”
Jacob stopped and leaned against his left leg. “How could you come to that?”
“If I’m dead, I can’t feel any of those things.”
He cried and covered his face.
“Never saw any point in crying. Doesn’t change a thing.”
Tommy threw his gloves across the field. “I’ve never met a man so dead inside,” Tommy said. He stormed off toward his car.
Jacob’s creaky old legs ran after him. He panted and strained to keep up. “Wait. Don’t leave.” He stopped and held a hand against his chest. “Death may seem like heaven to you.”
Tommy stopped just short of unlocking his car. He turned and faced Jacob.
“I don’t want you dead.”
Dinner was quiet. The occasional clanking of silverware split the silence. Tommy glanced at a few photographs he had on the nearby desk. There was a young Jacob with friends. He had his arm around a young lady.
“Been married before?”
Jacob stopped mid-bite and put his fork down.
“Who was that girl?” he said. He pointed at the photograph.
“She was. She was special.”
Tommy looked down and focused on his food. Words were not shared for a time.
The cot was prepared again, and Tommy sat in it. Jacob sat in the rocking chair.
“They’ll likely be here tomorrow.”
Tommy rubbed his forehead and breathed in deeply. “Why didn’t you marry that girl?” he said. The words came out faster after each word.
Sirens woke them. A police officer was knocking at the door.
Tommy’s family came and picked him up. The officer interviewed Jacob for a while, and he told him everything. Well, almost everything.
Jacob went into town the Sunday after. He always read the Sunday paper outside the convenience store. His tired eyes read words without recollection. He came to the obituaries and stopped on Tommy’s name. He was found hanging from a fire escape in some back alley. He pulled the newspaper over his eyes. “Must’ve found a stronger hook this time,” he said. His lip bled as his teeth dug in. After he pulled the paper down, his eyes caught the town cemetery.
The tombstones were plain and bare. He stood in front of her. The woman from the photograph had been in the earth for many years.
“After all these years…” he trailed off.
The sun crawled down beyond the horizon. His fists clinched tightly and he gritted his teeth.
“I think I can forgive you.”