2014 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
Pick that built the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pick that gutted the Blue Ridge. Swung its narrow head to beat steel and earth. Shovel with orange-brown iron crust scraped mineral deposits in mechanical rhythm day by day. Slow and steady, the old tools built something more proud than this.
Father and son dug all day to bury a drainage pipe from the house’s gutters to the street. They used the old tools. The pick the great-grandfather and grandfather swung mining coal. The son broke up clods of dirt, and his father scooped them out of the ditch with the old shovel. The skinny pick blade came up and clacked down in the dirt like a piston. Afternoon sun scorched; the son sweat through his jeans; the father changed shirts three times, exposing sickly white skin and the translucent tube trailing across his belly to the insulin pump on his belt. The son’s hands blistered and tore open on the handle of the pick, worn to smooth white grain by the calloused hands of his forebears. Underneath the peeling crusts of the son’s long soft hands were other smoother redder hands tingling in the burning air.
“Slow down,” his father said. “We’ve got the same work to do no matter how fast you go. You’re just wearing yourself out.”
The son stopped digging a minute, and his father muttered about the mines, one of the stories the son had heard over and over, vicarious, because the father had never worked the mines himself. The young men would dig too fast, trying to prove their strength, and by lunch they would be exhausted. The fifty- and sixty-year-old men who had been working in those mines their whole lives would take their time, knowing no matter how much coal they loaded, they still had to clock an eight-hour shift.
Half a century of manual labor, slow and steady wins the United Mine Workers of America’s Award for Fifty Years’ Loyal Service. The father had tucked the grandfather’s button in a dusty envelope on the second floor of the house. Six months after they buried that drainpipe, he would have to go up the stairs on his ass to get to it. A year after that he would never go up there again.
When his father showed him the envelope, the son saw it as proof of the family’s immigrant obsession. Thousands of voices muttering, “I am going to prove I’m better simply by working hard.” Right next to the report card showing how smart the grandfather was and the county judge’s certification that he was an expert gunsmith. Never mind that petty pride, the man went to work in the mines like everyone else. But he forbade his son from it
so he could have this acre of grass and trees and this small dark drafty house pushed far from a street where they didn’t know their neighbors. The pride of a suburb so bland it was safe. But he and his son weren’t too proud to dig that ditch themselves. A joke when the great-grandfather had built his whole house
“in my spare time with my own two hands,” as he had dictated in his dead Italian dialect for that proud envelope. As though there were any time to spare between shifts in the mines, working in the garden, fueling the coal stove, and collapsing into sleep. The old man noted the years he had worked: farming in Calabria, building the railroad, down in the mines. Noted one single vacation and the exact date of his retirement. More hours in the dark—either underground or with eyes closed—than awake in the light. “All of the works I accomplished fifty-five years.” Day after back-breaking day to feed his family only to force them to help him build a concrete house on the weekends
so of course the father had wanted to get out of a place where there was nothing to look forward to but swinging a pick in the dark and in retirement coughing “What?” over and over to your grandchildren as you squint into the light of John Wayne on the TV. But the father fell captive like his father before him, Clint Eastwood instead of John Wayne. And like he says: “There are two kinds of people: those with loaded guns and those who dig.” Movies are about watching other people kill or build
railroad tracks through past and present time. Engines of the Standard Railroad of the World glowing alive under their Dark Green Locomotive Enamel. Nearly black steel machines chirping to station clocks ahead and behind. Vibrations through the vascular system. Long years of dark cold nights in front of the screens where declining health would condemn them to the chair easy
does it make the son angry? See the good it gets you. For a brilliant mathematician like his father to work though school after school, work through the Army, work as a teacher, and work through school again just to work as an administrator. And lie in a dead-end office programming for twenty years. Solved Herculean scheduling conflicts with magnetic tape and punch cards, dissertation ignored, computer program forgotten. So they could fire him when his health went bad. But he was mad for that office and proud enough to sue (with union lawyer) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (on account of his lack of legs in those later years).
To the son it was a sad show of loyalty to a sick system that had screwed them every generation it got. Thousands of voices muttered out of the darkness in millions of bits, cards, clocks, hands, feet, lives. Immobile in the wheelchair, the father would say his dying fingers felt like they were burning and speak of cartoon Dilaudid hallucinations on closed lid-screens.
The son was a teacher too, but in the fourth generation of AFL-CIO membership, he saw the world as an uncaring assembly line. His petty tragedies worthless, his swollen two-hundred-pound frame lighter than that yard-long pick. Hollow inside, despite how he burned. Lucky old son with nothing to do but numb himself in the same cycles that lulled the father with murmuring stories as his body fell apart. Slow and steady. Blackened bloodless limb by limb. Whittled down to withered white torso. Body burned in the flashing silver darkness.
Certainly the father’s feet must have hurt that day, but he ignored them. He was not even supposed to be working, but it had been a long time since he and his son had done anything together.
Father and son buried the drainpipe with dirt from the old wheelbarrow. They sprinkled chemical-green grass seed on top of the dirt, sprayed water, and patted it into the mud.
They went inside. The father checked his blood sugar before dinner. After they ate, they threw a baseball around for the last time. It had been years. They didn’t speak, just threw the ball back and forth until it was too dark to see.