Caged Johnson

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Sometimes, when the rain falls hard during a warm August night, the morning emerges clouded by scattered patches of fog. It was one of those mornings; the Orson Brothers Coal Mine appeared blurred behind thick, hazy curtains left by rain the night before. The fog loomed over the iron equipment sheds, the ore storage facilities, and the large main building that housed both the manager's office and the massive rusted elevator that carried men and boys in and out of the bowels of the earth. It was early, six 'o clock, and the dawn illuminated much of the mine yard but left portions of earth and a few small mining carts in dismal shadows.

The mine usually hummed and shook with the bustle of a workday, but for now things were silent. Sump Stevenson rested on a wooden bench in one of the equipment sheds, looking up through a small crack in the iron roof, watching the passing fog and the slow emergence of pale sunlight overhead. His hair was deep brown with touches of dull silver over each ear. It was matted and ragged, not having been washed for days. As the sun grew brighter, it slowly lit up the features of his face. It was thin and wiry with muscle. Under a layer of sandy stubble it was undeniably warm, carrying a smile that could brighten even the foggiest of mornings. Still peering through the crack, hazel eyes turned upward, Sump thought about his wife.

She was six months pregnant, and spent the days at home resting or reading. Sump suspected she was bored, since she had given up her secretarial position during the time. She loved to work; it made her feel useful, she'd say. But when you're carrying something as precious as a child, it's better to rest than be wedged in front of a typewriter. It pained Sump to be away from her during these days. She needed him with her, but money didn't permit a vacation. He figured that when the time drew nearer for her to give birth, in a month or so, he'd take time off and devote himself to her. He hated putting his job first, especially when work couldn't possibly compare to the importance of his wife. She meant the world to him, but bills poured in day after day that needed paying. In the long run, the early mornings and endless days of toiling underground would be worth it, he thought. He kept focused on a time in the future when he wouldn't have to work so hard, picturing it like a beach in the tropics; warm and inviting.

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As he sat gazing up through the hole in the roof, the far-off howl of the morning whistle penetrated the little shed, seeping in through the cracked boards and sheets of rusted iron roofing. It was six-thirty, time to get to work.

Sump pushed open the shed door and stepped out into the mine-yard. Silence soon gave way to the dull sound of miners pouring in through the front gate. They came in one by one, each carrying a thermos of coffee or lunch in a grease-stained paper bag. They were men and boys, some as young as eighteen. The boys always looked hopeful, wearing a certain look about their faces, while the older men knew better. Their faces were hard and cold, rough from too many years of mining. If you worked at the mine too long, some of the men would say, you started slowly turning to coal on the inside. It crept into you, they said, infected you. After a while your heart was as black as the ore you mined.

Sump wouldn't let himself feel that way. He stood as a pillar of hopefulness surrounded by decay and ruin; positivity was the key to staying right inside, to keep from turning to coal. Some days were harder than others, sometimes the dark recesses of the subterranean tunnels invaded the mind, oppressed it. Yet Sump kept an eye on the present, knowing full well it would one day glide into a future of security. He worked at keeping the hopeful look, the one that young boys wore. He began his walk up the gritty slope to the main building and thought of his wife and unborn baby. He had to keep hopeful, not letting the coal get into him, for their sake.

The path to the main building was nothing more than a worn tread in the earth weaving between equipment sheds and towering piles of coal. The mine yard was vast, encircled by trees, and overlooking a deep quarry that held broken machinery and a few dilapidated storage houses. There was a constant plume of thick black smoke rising from the smokestack of the main building, coal smoke. The machine that powered the elevator relied on coal for fuel, and each day a few men would be appointed to engine duty, feeding small piles of ore into a hungry furnace. Usually the boys were stuck with the job, newcomers, since all the older miners knew better. It was a terrible position that Sump remembered well. The heat of the massive furnace gobbling up coal and spewing out smoke and power was enough to make a grown man cringe. You had to be careful, especially when handling your shovel; the metal absorbed the sweltering heat like a sponge. Sump knew a man who lost the use of his right hand when another miner accidentally hit it with his spade. It burned the flesh clear off, leaving only a blistered mess and a heavy stench.

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