The Old Man stood clutching the coin. His eyes darted from the empty doorways up the dark alleys, searching for some hidden enemy that might pounce on him and takeaway his treasure. With his back to the streetlight, he listened to the night. The Old Man looked tattered and frayed around the edges, like an old shoe that had been tossed out and left in the rain and found by a stray dog-the teeth marks still showed. The coat that he wore did little to keep out the cold, winter wind. The blue scarf that partially covered his face was as old as the eyes that looked out from behind it. A jagged scar ran like railroad tracks down the Old Man’s cheek, down his neck and disappeared into the frayed collar of his shirt, It stood out from the cold like a chalk mark on his blackboard face, giving it a sinister and grotesque appearance. The wind whipped his long, silver-gray hair in his face, stinging his cheeks, making his eyes water.
“Ah . . . pompous fools!” he spat up at the dark windows. Squeezing the coin, he felt the coldness of the metal burn in the palm of his hand. Sure that any dangers were only imaginary as dreams of dragons and castles, the Old Man tucked his chin in his ragged scarf, dropped his head and scuffled down the street. He never lifted up his eyes. He followed the map of cracks in the sidewalk and gutters, the same familiar pattern those eyes had followed for so many years weaving in and out of alleys, never looking up, but always knowing his whereabouts from signs in the streets; ticket stubs from the Justice movie House, the trash from Mr. Richs’ Nickels and Dime Quality Store where sometimes he’d find matches or pennies that would get swept out because of youthful inattention to the present and contemplation of the future. Tonight, just like so many other nights, the past reached into this place called self and forced open cellar doors with memory bars. The Old Man stopped and lifted his head. His eyes searched the familiar darkness across the street and wandered to the upper floors of the old brown stone house. His face seemed to lose its hardness for a minute, becoming just another caricature etched out in suffering. Sometimes it doesn’t take very long to suffer and in the space of a few moments the Old Man felt his body being hurled through the air and crashed to the ground. He heard the echoes of excided screams and yells and felt the icy fingers of fear that gripped him two years ago.
He was returning from his weekly trip, searching for dropped chunks of coal or anything else he could find to keep him warm . . . when it happened. The child had just come out of the Corner Drug Store, excited and happy over some little thing, unaware of Death slipping up behind her. He was walking in the gutter as usual, when he saw her suddenly lose her balance and start to fall into the street. He saw the light change and somehow he pushed the child out of the way of the moving car and escaped almost uninjured, except for a little blood that dripped from a cut on his face and neck. He wasn’t quite sure exactly what had happened after that. He was taken to the Charity Hospital and his face and neck were sewn up. Then he was taken to the police station and sat on a bench for two hours, dreaming about dark dungeons and rescuing young ladies in distress. A bully Policeman, looking like the Black knight who challenged Sir Lancelot, rumpled and bored with a coalminer’s look in his eye, came over and asked him ten different times, “Why did Ya’ push that little girl?” He told him what had happened. He told them again and again…but they said that he should be locked up somewhere and the keys thrown away. He spent six days in jail. When he was taken to court and told the judge again, ‘that he hadn’t done anything!’ The judge said, “If you ever appear before me again, I’ll lock you up for good.” That was two Years ago.
He found out all that he could about the young girl by standing in shadows like a thief and listened to the townspeople tell about the dreadful thing that had happened to Jeannie, Mike Wheeler’s little girl.
“. . . should’a locked the old coot up,” said a red headed, block-faced man. Returning to reality, The Old Man shrank back into his rags and continued on his way through the cold night. As he turned into the alley, three cats began to fight, snarling and clawing at one another over possession of a rusting, stuffed garbage can. He went down the stairs and through a scarred door, turned on the light and went directly to a corner, reached down behind something and brought back to the table in the middle of the room, a small wooden box. Working quickly he dropped the coin into the box, closed the lid and put the box back into the shadows.
The place the Old Man called home was a cellar with old brick walls and crumbling cement, a small opened wind and a web of spiders. A small pot-bellied stove sat in a corner, the-pipe running out through a hole punched in the wall. The air smelled of damp newspapers and coal dust. A single light bulb hung down in the middle of the room like a gallows rope, casting shadows on the wall that danced a song of poverty from the winds that came in through the opened window. A small bed covered with old Army blankets and rags sat against the far wall. The Old Man frisked the cellar. . . No, she had not come today.
He felt her absence.
For the last seven months, she had come by when he wasn’t home and left a flower—mostly something picked from a neighbor’s yard, a daisy, maybe a marigold…sometimes even a rose . . .every day, except today. They never spoke, met or even recognized each other’s existence. She gave. He accepted.
There was no call for more. He often wondered at this young child’s generosity. She would come in the evening too and sit outside his window, listening. He always pretended she wasn’t there. She pretended he didn’t know. Why hadn’t she come by today? He walked over to the bed, reached down and with gentleness of purpose, took from beneath the bed a beautiful, black leather case. He walked over to the table and sat it down and opened it. His hand, like a wave washing a rock caressed the violin he took from the case. The instrument came from a classical time when the builder was an artist in his own right, placing it properly beneath his chin, he began to play. Immediately, they became one and the same, each becoming the instrument of the other. He played with such passion it was as though he wanted to touch the very center of himself. Hours passed. Outside, the wind searched for somewhere to hide, somewhere to escape, out of the reach of such despair.
And he cried.
And, somewhere during the night men died
And children came into the world.
As night gave up her grip the Old Man packed away the violin and fell exhausted into bed.
The bells of the town church woke him from a restless sleep.
He lay in the cold predawn, listening to the tolling of the bells. He knew what the bells meant . . . a cave-in or an explosion at the coal mine. He had heard them many times before and recognized their voices now. He wasn’t surprised.
He got up and built a fire in the stove and ate what had been left over from the day before, all the time listening to the bells. Then he realized why they seemed to be tolling just for him. His emotions fought for control of his mind. He had to make sure. . . .He rushed from the cellar and like a thief, he hid in the doorways and shadows, listening, picking people’s conversations like their pockets . . . .
“Fifty-six men still down there . . . were eighty, but they got some out of the upper shafts. They don’t think they can reach the others, say they don’t know how to reach’em . . . no other way to get to’em . . . . They bin at it fer hours and ain’t did nothin’ but dig a little closer to hell!”
“They need a miracle…. ”
“Undertaker is more’n likely.”
“. . . said it was an act of God the way it happened… shute 207. . . . “
The Old Man’s blood turned cold. He knew now that what he had dreaded from the first sound of the bells was true; Jeannie’s father was trapped in Shute 207. AII the long, silent voices, dormant for so long, but disguised sometimes in the shrouds of his music were now like volcanoes, their strings of lava burning a path toward his brain. All the darkened rooms were thrown open and the pain and suffering lay stark and bare. “Leave me!” he screamed, it seemed as though all his senses were conspiring against him, while somewhere in the back of his consciousness he heard the tolling of the bells and smelled the perfume of marigold and roses.
He knew he didn’t have the time to argue with the mine officials, trying to convince them that he knew a way of saving the trapped men. . .they would only laugh at him. . . they were fools; no! He would do it alone. He thought of everything that he knew about the mines. He let his mind wander through the shafts and tunnels like a mole. The thought of them made his lungs ache. Outside it had begun to snow, first lightly and then blindingly. He lost his way; everything looked the same in the snow. The wind screamed and howled in his ears. He dug his hands deeper into his rags, dropped his head like an animal and burrowed his way on through the snow. The distinct odor of disaster was heavy in his nostrils. He stopped. His eyes searched the surroundings for a clue…‘you’re lost, you old fool . . . go, turn around, and go back. . . ‘But he hardened his heart and went on. He picked his way through different trails until he was looking up into the face of another time, a time when two boys played on these rocks, unmindful of all the signs of destitution and poverty, blind to the real and still fantasizing about the great American dream. They would sneak into the upper shutes on Saturday mornings and acting out their future, they would pretend to blow the guts out of the earth and then go around stuffing chunks of it into a gunny sack, all the time singing, ‘London Bridges falling down . . . falling down.’ Now, like the tolling of the bells, He heard the echo . . .”C’mon Robert. C’mon, you can go play your music later. Let’s go watch’em blow’er to bits. . . C’mon”. A lot of times he wouldn’t go because he couldn’t stand the smell, it made him sick. And the look in the miners’ eyes as they watched them, told of things his youth didn’t yet understand. These were the ghosts that came to haunt him as he struggled forward.
He finally found the crack he was looking for. ‘We never forget the cracks,” he thought, as he waited for his eyes to get accustomed to the dark. Nothing changed.
The darkness was still blinding, the silence, the rotting beams, the rusting tracks, the stink and smell of despair still made him gag and puke, emptying his stomach. He noticed the cold even more than the stink. It wore him like a glove. And all the time his continence was being battered by all the judges and juries within his wasted hollow self.
‘They’ll all be dead anyway . . . the lot of ’em. All you can do now, Old Man, is bless them!’ The laughter was so strong it rushed through his throat out of his mouth and went echoing down into the pits below. He hugged the walls and felt the cold soak into the marrow of his bones. He stopped to rest. He slumped to the ground, exhausted. The torment inside him didn’t stop. He stayed on his hands and knees and began to crawl. He could barely feel his fingers as they groped forward. He had no idea of how far he had come or how much further he had to go, he followed the rusted tracks deeper into the darkness. He lost all idea of time as he crawled along. Then he came to a wall of debris and rocks and he couldn’t go any further. He shook his head trying to clear it, ‘I know I must be close to the center chamber . . . just higher up.’ He knew if there was anyone still alive they would be almost directly behind the wall. He began pulling himself up toward the top, tearing at the wall before him, he dug and his hands bled from the abuse. His nails broke and ripped as he jerked the rocks and timbers away, pushed and dug toward the other side of the wall. Too tired to sit up he laid in the dirt resting. Even breathing was painful. He summoned all his existing strength, Ignored the pain and numbness and continued digging . . . he dug and rested, dug and rested, never listening to the voices that tried to hold him back, pounding his heart with fists like clubs. And then . . . he broke through. The stench of sweat and smell of death, “Is there
anyone alive down there?” It came out raw and angry. The Old Man kept digging and calling out . . . all he heard was his own voice, echoing around like a marble in a steel barrel. He finally dug the hole big enough to look through. He pushed his face as far as he could
through the hole and screamed out, “For damn sake, is anyone alive. . . “Nothing.
It looked like a battlefield. Some of the bodies were half buried under fallen timbers and dirt, others were crumpled sacks of straw, arms and legs twisted and grotesquely bent, like puppets with their strings cut. A few remaining headlamps, still pointing like spotlights, painted the cavern like a graveyard,
another light flickered, dimmed and went out. The Old Man dug away more of the rubble, squeezed through the hole and tumbled down the hill of dirt and rocks to the bottom, where he lay, too tired to move. At first, he thought his mind was playing tricks on him; and he was dreaming and hearing things… there! Again. . . a moan. “Where are you?” Silence. He began to go from man to man searching for a spark of life. He found a miner still alive, slumped over in a heap, blood caked his face. “Wake up . . . wake up . . . You’ve got to . . . ” The miner moaned like a fog horn. “There’s a way out . . . get up! . . . a hole in the wall . . . wake up!”
He kneeled over the man, grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to lift the dying man to a sitting position. For a brief moment the miner’s eyes fluttered open and blankly stared at the Old Man.
“We’re all going to die . . . we’re . . . .”No! Shut up! There’s a way…help . . . you must go . . . someone has to go for help.” The miner slipped back down onto the ground. There has to be others, the Old Man thought to himself and began scurrying from one clump of bodies to another… dead! This one too . . . and this one. He rummaged through the dead and dying, looking for a thread of life. He pushed the bodies away like a butcher sorting out meat, one alive and then another dead. Then he found Jeannie’s father off in the corner. He was barely alive . . . pale and cold to the touch. ‘I’ve got to get one of these men awake’ . . . he half screamed aloud. He felt his strength ebbing like an outgoing tide. With what little he had left, he reached over and grabbed a handful of a live miner’s hair, jerked the head around,
and began slapping the face back and forth, saying over and over, “Wake up . . . Get up . . . open those
damn eyes, man…”Leave me alone . . . no use . . . “
“You have to go for help. There’s a way.”
“No way out . . . we’re all trapped”. . . .
“Stay awake!” The Old Man began viciously shaking the miner, screaming in his face,
“You have to go for help!” He slapped the man again, shaking him like a rag doll. The miner tried to pull away.
“Leave me be . . . Can’t you see. . . .”
“No. There . . . up there, a way out. There is a way out. You have to get someone down here, or all of you will die. . .”
For a moment a tiny glint of hope seemed to flicker in the miner’s eyes.
“I can’t . . . can’t . . . too weak . . . . Somebody else . . . . “
“No. You. There is no one else.”
The Old Man began pushing and dragging the miner up the hill of dirt, toward the hole . . .
“You must hurry. There isn’t much time . . . ”
As the Old Man forced the miner through the hole, the last light went out. He was in total darkness, surrounded by the dead and almost dead, totally drained, totally exhausted. He passed out.
The voices of people talking woke the Old man up. He didn’t move or open his eyes, not wanting to draw attention to himself. He listened.
“It’s a miracle, that’s what it is,” said a gruff, gravelly voice. “Roddy Freed came stumbling out of the woods, crazy as a loon. He was mumbling something about a glowing face and getting slapped around by some mad man . . . we followed his tracks back to where he came out and found the old mine en-trance…It seems Roddy had dug through a two foot wall of dirt, where it had caved in along with the rest, and…”
“How many still alive?” asked someone nearby.
“Eleven. There are these six, that one over there with the scar, and Mike Wheeler and a few over there with the little girl, Wheeler’s kid, and that’s about it. Those here will go to the hospital next. Man, I wonder how it was down there.”
“How many dead?” asked the grave digger.
“Hey Mickey, I thought you said there was eleven to go… I only count ten!”
“C’mon, can’t you count? Six over here, plus the old one with the scar, over . . . . Damn! What the hell …where…?”
“I’ll be damned. He’s gone.”
“Say Charlie” . . . the man yelled over to the other group. “Hey, did you see where that old guy got off to?
“What old guy?”
“You know, the one with the scar, he was right here, and now he’s gone off without signing the release. Say, Jeannie, sweetheart, did you see an old miner that was hurt, walking around here? He’s about this big . . . and he has a scar . . . . ”
“No sir,” said Jeannie, “I haven’t seen anyone like that . . . “