On the front walkway of the Bob Burger Recreation Center, a giant inflatable turkey sways in the November wind. "The 4th Annual Cold Turkey Run," proclaims its girthing midsection, "5K fun-run for childhood vaccinations. Free clinic inside." The morning sun shines a crisp, hard light in the sky. This being November in Colorado, the sun will be generous enough to stick around for a few more hours, before plunging the world into darkness around 5 PM.
Across the parking lot, middle-schoolers on Thanksgiving Break navigate their way through the bowls and rails of the skate park. The baseball diamond lies empty. Toddlers run giddy toward piles of cottonwood leaves.
The Recreation Center sits in the heart of Lafayette, a smallish city north of the Denver metropolis, and east of the Republic of Boulder. To the middle-school skateboarders, Lafayette was a doldrum of pretty parks, farmer's markets, trailer courts, and oatmeal festivals. Nothing was open after 8 PM, and the popular pasttime was driving to the neighboring town of Louisville, to get a poster framed at Hobby Lobby. The main attraction was a massive, market-tested megachurch, based out of an old Wal-Mart, which doubled Lafayette's population every weekend.
Charles Lindbergh is a worldwide hero.
Construction has begun on Mount Rushmore.
Joseph Stalin has seized power in the Soviet Union.
In America, alcohol is illegal, but underground drinking persists
Women have had the right to vote for seven years.
The steam whistle pierces through the gray light of morning. The whistle carries over the autumn mist, over the rolling hills of the Columbine Mine, and back home to Lafayette. Little Dorothy will be headed to school now, thinks John Eastenes. His wife Bertha knows the Columbine blows its whistle ten minutes before the school bell back in Lafayette, so it helps keep Dorothy on time.
The black beams of the mine tipple rise over the work line. Most miners took it as a given it would fall over on them someday, most likely on their last day of work. Eastenes hopes not, he has other plans.
Eastenes has stood in the work line for the past three days, and not once has his number been called. Three days, with his dented lunch bucket rattling against his overalls in one hand, the old wood worn shiny from years in his iron grip. He needs this. Last night, he prayed that his number be called, with a follow-up prayer on the six-mile walk to the Columbine. What worries Eastenes, though, is that even if the Lord Above is on his side, the artithmetic isn't. Working today would put him fifty cents closer to buying that dress for his daughter, Dorothy, and the lady at Scholes Mercantile said the dress would be very much in style this Christmas. Problem was, from what the guys had told him, he'd be lucky to work another dozen times before Thanksgiving, and he'd still be short. Scholes wasn't extending any more credit to the miners, not when they're all up to their eyes in debt already…
"Number 27! Eastenes!"
The big, ginger Greek behind Eastenes gives him a nudge. Eastenes looks around.
"Last time, number 27! John Eastenes!"
Eastenes raises a hand. "Right here, foreman!"
The mine foreman sticks his thumb toward the cage, that creaking freight elevator that lowers the miners into the shaft. Eastenes straightens his hard hat and walks foreward. Who needs artithmetic, anyway?
"Thank you, sir!" he says to the foreman. "I really needed this one, I'm buying my little girl a new dress-"
"Get in the cage, will ya?" says the foreman, "and get yer hearing checked. That's the last time I call your name more than once."
The foreman drums his fingers on his clipboard. Every year, he thinks, these miner's names get stranger.
"Number 41! Rene Jacques!"
A hand raises up from the line.
Rene Jacques steps forward, swinging his breast-auger and lunch bucket. The auger's drill bit alone is almost as tall as Jacques himself, and both items still have the initials of Jacques' brother etched into them. Even the metal auger has worn smooth where Jacques has touched it. He remembers the Fire Boss in Louisville, handing the tools over the day after his brother's funeral. If he showed up for work the next day, he could have them… for half-off, of course.
The tall Greek behind Jacques watches the little Frenchman walk off, rolls his eyes, and drops his tools to the ground.
The foreman shakes his head. "I said Jacques, not Spanudakhis."
Jacques takes his spot next to Eastenes in front of the cage door. They hear the clanking and whirring of the motors, carrying the cage back to the surface. He gives Eastenes a nod, they'd shoveled coal together before. Eastenes was a family man, trustworthy.
Back in the line, Spanudakhis takes a step ahead, and the temperature of the line rises one degree. It was dangerous to hold up the process. All eyes are converging on him.
"Boss," says Spanudakhis, "the mines closed for the summer. I just spent the last of the savings. With winter coming and all, well, how do I say it? I gotta work!"
The foreman looks up from his clipboard to see the six-foot-three Greek walking toward him.
If we call your name, you'll work today", says the foreman, "and for the record, you worked last week."
"Yeah, but six credits a week just ain't cuttin' it!
There were rumors that the foreman had been an enforcer down in the Creede casinos, and could kill a man six ways at any moment. They said he sharpened the sides of his clipboard, slicing a miner's throat before he could knock the foreman over and run off with the office cash box. So when the foreman flips the clipboard over, holding it within one inch of the Greek's jugular vein, everyone holds their breath.
"You think this is some Mother Cabrini charity, Nick? If I can get you work, I'll get you work!"
The Foreman lowers his clipboard and pulls out a pen, ready to cross the name 'Spanudakhis' off the list.
"Now get back in line. Or not."
For a second, Spanudakhis thinks about leaving. The boarding house back in Lafayette is a good six miles away, but he could make it. Then he sees, in his mind's eye, a family, red-headed, like him, running to the top of a hill beyond their small village in Crete, within the Aegean Sea. They are racing to meet the mailman, his sack of letters hauled by a donkey, each letter telling tales of life in America. What would his letter say? That he had quit? Don't bother waiting for that invitation to join him in the New World?
Spanudakhis heads for the back of the line. On his way back, he feels the glare of every other miner, for wasting their time, and when he reaches the back, he sees something: a woman, standing at the front gate of the mine camp. Just my luck, thinks Spanudakhis, a woman at the mine.
The Foreman returns to his captive audience, and says, "We can use two more people today."
The crowd stands alert, wondering how desperate they'll need to be this morning.
"The coal seam on level three has been more productive than we expected. You'll be moving an extra coal cart… with the old mule."
The crowd groans, curses and minced oaths from every tongue from every corner of the earth. A young man steps forward, even amongst the slight Croats and Mexicans, he seems tiny.
"Pepe, that old mule?" says the young man. "It won't let anyone near it!"
Jacques has heard the commotion, and hollers back at the line. "Mise en garde, copain, my brother died by one of those mules. Shame on you Foreman, risking our lives with that beast!
"It's an extra half-credit per day", says the Foreman. He points his clipboard at the young man. "You're Jerry Davis, right? The rookie. You take this shift, you might not be a rookie no more."
Davis grimaces, at twenty-one, his teeth are already graying from the chewing tobacco. It's the only thing that keeps him alert through the twelve-hour shifts, and the only thing that will let him fall asleep afterwards.
"I worked a shift with Pepe last week" says Davis, "The monster can barely pull a card, it's so old." The other miners nod, and Davis adds, "Get a new mule, you cheapskates!"
"Buy a new mule?" says the Foreman. "You're crazy." The Foreman sighs. "All right. Three-quarters extra credit."
Davis hears heavy footfalls behind him, and sees Spanudakhis lumbering toward the cage, pick, shovel, and hard hat swaying with each step. He stops next to the foreman.
"When the old mule's heart gives out," Spanudakhis asks the Foreman, "and the coal cart runs over me, who will pay for my funeral?"
"Beats me," says the Foreman. "I'll read a Greek poem at your wake, at that Orthodox church you go to. How about that? The cage will be back up soon."
Spanudakhis moves on. There were thousands of Greek miners out on these plains, but no Greek Orthodox churches.
The Foreman watches the Greek head for the cage, smiles. Everyone has a price.
Davis, the rookie, calls after the Greek. "You're a bigger man than me, or maybe just dumber. I'll try the next shift, maybe the mule will have keeled over and died by then."
The Foreman heads for the office, and that was that. They'd found their work for the day. Anyone who attempted an appeal by knocking on that office door risked a swift strike to the teeth for trespassing. Employment at a mine was no guarantee of consistent work there. The remaining miners head back to their cottages inside the mine camp, or head back to the nearest town, or head on to the State Mine a mile north.
The Columbine Mine is the crown jewel of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the second-largest coal outfit in the state. Located far from other cities, the company had built its own. Within the Columbine Mine's perimeter fence was a complete city, with tenement housing, a post office, a schoolhouse, a church, a mess hall, a gambling den, and a house dedicated to the world's oldest profession. The mine even printed its own money, called scrip, which could only be spent at a store owned by the mine. Coal mines shut down during the summer months, when no-one needed to heat their homes, so a miner came back to work in the autumn with mountainous debt, pushing down like a blacksmith's anvil on his back.
The debt began the moment a miner set foot on company property. Immigrants came to America from all over the world, and they came with little money. A coal miner needs toold, which were not given but sold. Since they had no money, the price of the tools was deducted from the first paycheck. They needed a place to stay, so they usually rented a company house, of four plywood walls and a tin roof. This too was deducted from their pay, as was the food they needed to survive, and the liquor (before Prohibition, of course) that looked more and more appealing the longer they worked. If a miner ever managed to pay off these debts, he was paid in the scrip, which became worthless scraps of paper outside the Columbine's gate. It prevented a miner from ever saving up real money, in case he wanted to leave. When the miners lined up on pay day, looking out past the perimeter fence, the world beyond the Columbine felt a thousand miles more distant than the vast oceans they had crossed on their way here.
Spanudakhis joins Jacques and Eastenes at the cage door. Jacques has his hands clasped together, looking toward heaven.
"Brother, I miss you every day," says Jacques, "but I'm not quite ready to join you yet. Keep us safe today."
Spanudakis looks up, too. "Yeah, what the frog here said."
They stare ahead at the door. The shaft at the Columbine goes down hundreds of feet, and is slow to the surface, bringing up eight grown men and four tons of coal.
They Greek shrugs. "Who knows?" he says. "Maybe even old mules have their good days."
"Then there's hope for you yet" says Jacques.
They laugh, but not much.
Spanudakhis glances over his shoulder. The woman he saw earlier is still standing at the mine gate, and closer, even.
"Hey, who's the woman?" asks Spanudakhis.
© 2018 NDH Ltd.
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