Jesus in 42
posted Jun 10, 2008
—for Leonard Cohen
Jesus Christ rides the Somerset Avenue streetcar into Windber, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the afternoon. It’s early June, but a cool front stalled off the Great Lakes drives a stiff, ceaseless breeze keeping the temperature in the low 60s. This doesn’t bother Jesus. In his grimy pit jacket, heavy denim pants and polystyrene kneepads, he is already prepared for a long night shoveling in the cold and damp underground.
What is driving the sweat on Jesus’ upper lip, moistening his palms and making his heart dance a little faster than it ought, is that he is in real danger of being late for the afternoon shift at Mine 42. His crew boss is Mean Stiney Miller and Mean Stiney has told Jesus in no uncertain terms that if he’s late again this month, it will mean a three-day suspension.
Jesus is in no position to afford three days without pay. His electric bill is overdue and both kids have “pay at time of service” doctor’s appointments later this week. His wife is complaining she hasn’t had her hair done in almost a month and it’s starting to affect her tips at the Tipple Diner.
Jesus considers an appeal to his heavenly father to speed along the streetcar, slow time or give Stiney Miller’s truck a flat tire on the winding dirt road from Elton.
Jesus is already flirting with unpopularity with the other miners on his crew. His long hair has been the subject of quite a few not entirely tasteful jokes concerning his sexuality and the soreness in his hands keeps him from being as adept with the pick as the other miners on his shift. Much to Jesus’ embarrassment, he’s been accused of “swinging the pick like a girl.” And let’s not even talk about the way the stitch in his side compromises his work with the coal shovel.
Snatching his lunch pail from the curved, plastic seat of the street car, Jesus breaks into a slow jog up the 18th Street hill, past Miner’s Memorial Hospital. He’s trying to hotfoot it past the showerhouse to his mantrip car at the mine’s driftmouth before the screech of the shift whistle.
But when Christ arrives, sweat-stained and puffing, at the mine’s entrance, the driftmouth is awash in activity. Miners are rushing toward the opening in the earth carrying coal shovels and blasting boxes. The daylight crew boss is calling for the fire boss and yelling for the tippleman to get the superintendent of the mine on the phone. Miners further back, near the fanhouse, are calling out to one another, asking what is happening. The voices of the men who have not seen the expression on the crew boss’s face are cautiously optimistic, hoping that whatever has taken place is bad enough that they will all be sent home with pay for the rest of the afternoon.
Jesus does not need to ask any of the frantic men what has occurred. He already knows that while cutting a coal pillar, Fat Tiny LaMonaca has misjudged the strength of the upper strata and has been buried in a cave-in two miles underground off the main shaft. Most of the ceiling of the giant underground room has collapsed and the way in is blocked by hundreds of tons of coal and dirty slate. Fat Tiny is just barely alive under the canopy of the coal cutting machine. His breath comes in gasps and his pulse is thready.
In minutes, the reinforced steel canopy of the coal cutter will crumble like newspaper under the weight of the seam and Fat Tiny’s bones will be shattered into dust. Short of a miracle, the fates of Fat Tiny and anyone in the chamber attempting a rescue are set in stone.
Stiney Miller bellows for his scrambling men to assemble themselves “quick as shit” on the seats of the yellow flatcar for the trip underground. Jesus stands frozen at the door of the powder shed. He does not want to take his place on the railcar. Jesus knows that depending on how fast Wally “The Wheelman” Stankevich can pilot the flatcar through the mine’s slick, twisting track to the site of the collapse, there is a real chance they will arrive at the fork Fat Tiny was working as a second, more serious phase of the cave-in occurs and the mine’s roof gives the whole way back to the main shaft.
“Hey, Christ,” Mean Stiney shouts to Jesus. “Shake a leg.”
Sorely conflicted, Jesus watches dozens of miners swarm to the growing line of mantrip cars, their rescue packs large and heavy across their backs, their expressions grim and jaws set. Jesus knows any action but rushing to his seat on the rail car, rescue pack slung over his shoulder and short shovel in hand, will mark him forever a coward and a traitor to his fellow miners. His ostracism will be instant, irremediable and complete. Even his children will have no hope of escaping social sanction from the town bordering on banishment in its severity.
One booted foot in the powder shed and the other on the cracked concrete slab leading back to the railyard, Jesus mumbles a fervent prayer into the filthy sleeve of his pit jacket.
“Please take,” he whispers, “this cup from me.”
Nervously, Jesus waits as the long, empty seconds tick by. But of course there is no answer—no one there even to answer.
With a quick step back into the powder shed, Jesus retrieves a ten weight tempered steel pry bar from behind the outbuilding’s plank door. Threading the snarl of anxious, quick-moving men, Jesus slips through the railyard and two-at-a-times the greasy, coal-slick steps to the top of the control platform for the mine’s power feeds.
Poised in front of the electric panels apportioning power to the mine’s tipple belts and flatcars, Jesus feels any possible future in the town fade slowly and vanish. Joylessly resigned to acting out his singular destiny, Jesus slams the pry bar into the cover of the distribution box controlling the power feeds for flat cars entering the mine.
By the third strike the sheet metal cover hangs limply from the box and its electronic guts are spread through the railyard like leaves after an autumn blow. Not a single soul will be flatcarring into Mine 42 now, not for hours, not until the assembly has been rebuilt by a mine electrician brought in from Wheeling.
Slackjawed, miners stare at Christ as he, prybar lowered to his side, walks slowly out from behind the bank of switch boxes and down the corrugated stairs from the operations deck.
Their throats awash in curses, the men from Jesus’s crew—men he has known his whole life—drop their rescue packs and raise their shovels. Howling, these grim-faced men rush at him from across the railyard, calling for vengeance, calling for blood.
© 2008 Damian Dressick