by J. Lee Strickland
The old man ambled along the dusty trace of an abandoned road. He was dressed in a green, short-sleeved work shirt, green work pants, and heavy leather boots, a sweat-stained baseball cap on his head. He carried a bucket. A hammer swung from his belt. Ahead of him, as far as one could see, stretched the barren landscape of the former strip mine—miles of naked hillside dotted with irregular hillocks, interspersed with tall mounds of overburden left as they’d been years ago when the huge draglines first dropped them. Sooty stands of scrubby gray birch, stunted aspens, and a few low tufts of sedge were the only vegetation.
Behind him, a half-mile to the south, the near-lifeless scar of the mine ended, and one could see the steep, green flank of Penobscot Mountain, which through an accident of geology, had escaped the fate of its neighbors.
Down on the valley floor, the tallest buildings of downtown Wilkes-Barre poked though the afternoon haze, but the old man paid them no mind. He scrutinized the ground as he walked, vigilant for the glassy blink that signaled a piece of anthracite. The larger chunks he broke with his hammer, deftly finding the fracture planes so the coal split cleanly without pulverizing.
He heard a helicopter in the distance. These days the sky was full of things flying around, the roads choked with traffic, people going every which way, doing what? Going to those big fancy stores full of plastic junk. He never went in them. He and Hanka still went to Stan’s Market every Saturday for their groceries. He went to Ed’s Hardware for tools and parts. Ed had a fancy new sign out front, but it was still Ed behind the counter.
He interrupted his reverie. The helicopter sounded much louder. He looked up. The helicopter was flying low, appeared to be coming right at him. It swung left in a smooth arc, travelled a short distance beyond him, and hung suspended in the air. Then it settled to the ground. There were two men inside. One of them stepped out.
He was dressed in a white polo shirt, tan slacks, and what appeared to be expensive Italian shoes. He walked up close to the old man. His dark hair was slicked back, and he wore aviator sunglasses that hid his eyes. Nestled in the thick, curly hair that sprouted from the unbuttoned vee of the polo shirt, the old man could see the glint of a gold crucifix.
“This is my land,” the man shouted over the sound of the idling helicopter. “You’re trespassing. You can’t pick coal here.”
The old man did not have to pick coal. He was seventy five years old. They bought their coal, six or seven tons at a time. He had worked the mines most of his life. He had worked deep underground, twelve-hour shifts in the dank, dangerous dark. He’d worked in the breakers. And when the great machines left after scouring the mountainsides, he had worked in the factories, working, always working to give life to his wife and children. But he liked the coal, the look and feel of it. He liked the silence of the deserted rubble fields. And the coal just lay on the ground. It was a shame to waste it. He said nothing. His bucket hung from one hand. The other still held his hammer.
“What’s your name?”
Peter, the old man thought. Peter Kovalenko. Still he was silent.
“You speak English?” The man raised his voice. “Capiche?”
The old man spoke English. He had not given up the singing vowels, the chunky, full consonants of his native Ukraine. Unlike his three children, he had not adopted the lazy mumble of American English, but he spoke well enough when necessary.
“Dumb fucking Pollack.” The man grabbed the bucket from his hand. The old man did not resist. The man held the bucket away from himself, as if he feared contact with the dusty coal. He emptied it on the ground.
“Now get outa here.” He advanced a step. “I can radio the cops if that’s what you want.”
The old man didn’t move. He stared at the bucket in the man’s hand. After another moment, the man handed it back.
Bucket in hand, he turned and shuffled off the way he had come, skirting the bowl of noise that surrounded the machine. The helicopter lifted off. It flew low over him. In the turbulence, his hat danced off his head, and wisps of white hair whipped his ears. Then the men and their machine were gone, thrumming into the distance, north along the great scar of the mine.
He realized he was shaking. Why? Had that youngster frightened him, Peter Kovalenko, who, in his life, had seen real horrors? He had fought in Russia at the age of fifteen, again in France, for another country, in another war… Still his hands trembled, and he thought of his wife as he trudged back to the car.
At home, Hanka was busy in the kitchen. “Your favorite meal,” she called out when he came in.
He could smell the parsley potatoes, the pechenya. “I got arrested today,” he said. “I think I got arrested.”
“By the police?” Hanka stopped her bustling.
“No. By a man in a helicopter. I was picking coal up by Ashley. There’s good coal there. They landed the helicopter right by me.”
“But they weren’t police?”
“No. The one said he owned the land. He dumped out my coal. He told me to leave.”
“Somebody owns the land.” Hanka nodded. “He probably has a big, fancy car and a boat too.” She put two plates on the table. “Go wash the coal dust off your hands so we can sit down and eat.”
Peter washed, but he wasn’t hungry. That night he struggled to sleep. He kept returning to the sound of the helicopter, the greasy sheen of the man’s hair, the opaque mystery of his sunglasses, the crucifix at his chest. His mind turned these over and over. It made a guliash of them and simmered it until dawn lightened the windows of the room.
He went to the basement and started a fire in the furnace. He did this every day, winter or summer. The furnace also heated the water for washing, laundry, dishes. Two or three shovels of coal were enough to heat the water for the day. He thought about that sometimes when he was picking coal—a single bucket of coal could heat water for three or four days.
When he reached the kitchen, he could smell pampushky baking. Some people did not like garlic for breakfast. Peter loved garlic, and Hanka made pampushky fresh every morning even though it was just two of them. She set a cup of coffee in front of him, and a mug of kvass, his first drink each morning. She set the pampushky on the table, and Peter pinched off two of the doughy rolls from the steamy mass.
“I see my criminal has his appetite back.” Hanka moved close behind him.
“I was tired last night,” he said.
“You had fights with the blankets. I hope you won.”
He grunted. “Make me some extra eggs?” He made it a question so not to sound bossy.
She laid her hands on his shoulders and massaged them. He was a powerful man still, his muscles as hard as the coal he picked each day. “And what will you do with yourself today?”
“I’ll pick some coal,” he replied.
“Not by Ashley.”
“There’s coal everywhere, Woman. I could go around the corner and pick coal in Casimir’s cellar. He’s burning oil now. He says it’s easier.” He shook his head. “Easier to go to Arabia when the best fuel is in his own back yard…”
He returned to the basement to check the fire. The coal had turned a shimmering, indistinct, molten red that eluded the eye. Above it danced a layer of ghostly blue flames. He nodded, satisfied. A perfect burn.
He drove slowly through Ashley, past the empty store fronts and the rows of neglected two-family houses—double blocks, they were called, once the homes of generations of mine workers. They crowded together with just a narrow passage between them. At either end of each house a sturdy brick chimney rose into the sky, seeming to tangle with the wispy clouds over head. Peter stopped for a moment. There was no hurry. There was never a hurry.
He parked in the same place. The sun was brilliant, the morning haze burned away. The shadows were sharp-edged, crisp. He took his bucket and hammer and trudged up the access road.
He walked more upright than he had the day before. It was an effort, but it felt good at the same time. He found the pile of coal the man had dumped from his bucket. The pieces sparkled like gems in the hard sun.
“Chorni diamanti,” he whispered. “Black diamonds.”
He lowered himself to his knees and, one by one, placed the pieces in the bucket.
Lee Strickland is a freelance writer and poet living in upstate New York. He is a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and served as a judge for the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pure Slush, Sixfold, Atticus Review, Latchkey Tales, Icarus Down Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Workers Write!, Mad Scientist Journal, Small Farm Journal, and others. He is at work on a novel drawing upon his experiences as a youth in the anthracite coal mining region of northeast Pennsylvania.