• Survivor

    Ron Rash

    Summer 2022

    Dad told me you were a friend of his, Jay Dodson writes in his email. A friend. I suppose I had been Harlan’s friend, his only one by the time he left here thirty-two years ago. Dad never talked much about his time up there, the son notes, but feel free to publish any info attached if you wish. A few people might remember him. The email includes links to the Asheville paper’s obit and a funeral home’s website. He was a good father, Jay concludes.

    I pull up the obituary, which is brief: survived by a wife and son, two grandchildren, so Harlan’s reticence must have worn off enough for courtship. Church affiliation, liked to fish and watch NASCAR, retired carpenter. I might not have guessed carpenter, but I did know that, whatever the profession, it wouldn’t be mining. “Next time I go underground will be in a coffin,” he once told me. There’s no mention Harlan was once a coal miner, which is interesting considering, albeit briefly, he was the most famous miner in America. I Google his name, but there’s nothing that connects the Harlan Dodson who died two days ago to 1989’s Rough Creek Mine.

    An old Tom T. Hall song claims the story of your life is in your face, but the photo above the obituary doesn’t tell all of Harlan’s story. I tap the funeral home link and a “celebration of life” album comes up. One photo is taken at his son’s wedding. Harlan wears a tuxedo, though as with many blue-collar workers his body appears rigid in such clothing. Yet his smile is that of a man seeing a bright life ahead for his son, perhaps for himself as a potential grandfather.

    I’m sorry to hear about your Dad. He was a good man.

    I could write more, a lot more, but add only I knew he would be a good father. I offer my condolences and hit SEND. I don’t expect a response. As an only son, Jay is surely busy doing many things, this note one more item crossed off a very long list.

    I read the email again. Harlan’s son doesn’t request I print the obit in the Clarion. A few folks in Clay County would be interested, most with little sympathy. Nevertheless, those who’d trouble themselves enough to send a snide remark to the bereaved have died or moved away. Thirty-two years is a long time. I check over what few ads have come in for Friday’s paper, decide what should be on the front page. At five, I put on my parka and leave.

    I walk down the street to the Coal Lamp Bar, passing closed-up stores, Bledsoe Hardware, Black Bear Grill, Main Street Jewelry. On the theatre marquee, some wit has knocked off two letters so the sign spells or ale. Even the open stores I pass are grimy, defeated. These are for old people like me—the pharmacy, a medical supplier, and at the far end of the block, the inevitable last stop, Martin Funeral Home. Gray snow shoals against the curb. A woman once told me she’d never believed snow could be white until she’d left here. Maybe that will be a consolation once the mine completely shuts down. Pure white snow to cover all those men who passed their days digging coal, breathing in that darkness until their lungs were coated with it. Their graves are atop the high hill that looms over this town. Even in the day’s waning light, I can see their stones, including those of the two men who died in the cave-in Harlan survived.

    The wind is kicking up so I step a bit quicker. I enter the bar, empty except for three men playing cutthroat in the side room. Ralph Yost, who owns the bar, comes over with a foaming beer mug in his hand, a shot of Jim Beam to chase it with. Like me, he’s too old to leave town and start over. We’re both letting our businesses wind down as we near retirement. Ralph says he’ll close in another year; I figure about the same. Get out while you can, some high school kid spray-painted on the town water tower a few years ago.

    “Colder out there?” Ralph asks, and I nod.

    “Used not to bother me,” he says, “but now every time that damn door lets some in, I shiver. And my temp gauge is set on seventy-two.”

    I think about telling him that Harlan died, but I don’t know how he’d take it. Maybe only a shrug. The night Burl Jenkins punched Harlan in here, Ralph helped separate the two men. But he’d put as much blame on Harlan as Burl. More blame actually, because it was Harlan, not Burl, he’d told never to come back. I look at the wall clock. Quarter past. Carl Martin will be along soon. Lennie Stanton around six. A few others our age show up occasionally, but we are the last of the old-time regulars.

    Ron Rash's latest collection of stories is In the Valley. He teaches at Western Carolina University.

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