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Palomino Coal
About the Author: Doug Crandell is the author of the Barnes & Noble Discover pick, The Flawless Skin of Ugly People, as well as three other novels, and two memoirs. He's received awards and endowments from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Kellogg Writers Series, Jentel Foundation, and the Goldfarb Fellowship. NPR's Glynn Washington chose Doug's story for the 2018 COG Page-to-Screen Award. Another short story received the 2018 Glimmer Train Family Matters Fiction Award.

The coal mine at Snow Hill looked like a midway ride. It loomed high into the bright blue spring sky, its rusted scaffolding and clanky gears rattling the ground the little girl stood upon peering up at the teetering tower of metal. Donned in a pale-yellow dress, clutching a little white purse that held half a candy-striped mint, and two wheat pennies. Her skinny grandfather’s shift was nearly over, and she could hardly wait to see him emerge from the tin structure they called the mess hall. He was so thin that Dani could easily draw a stick figure of him.

She had seen him many times covered with coal soot, his fingernails chipped and bloodied, black grime to his elbows where a chambray shirt rolled up was so soft when it came out of the dryer that Dani snuggled it to fall asleep.

She would not hold her older cousin’s hand because Kimmy liked to tickle Dani’s palm. In this way, they stood three feet apart, appearing as if they didn’t know one another. They had been dropped off after church service by Mrs. Gudgin and her twin sister because they lived not a mile from the mine.

Kimmy checked her slim silver Timex, Dani looking up to catch a quick smile from her cousin who tapped the watch. “Just a few more minutes and he’ll be out.” Dani didn’t respond, just turned slightly toward the mine. To their left, the rickety coal shoot vibrated like a reed in the March winds, a railroad track running under its aluminum belly. Large blots of oxidation made the shoot look ancient, like the age spots on her Grandma Enid’s soft, crepey arms. Gritty gusts swirled around the compound, and while others were present, ready to greet their men on a Sunday after church, they were tucked inside battered trucks, baskets in their laps full of cold fried chicken, potato salad, and pimento on Wonder bread. Dani looked to her right where the Campbells were all in one truck, the four women, great grandmother to a girl Dani’s age, sat stone-faced and severe behind the chalky windshield.

The Snow Hill Mine was part of the Maumee Company located in Vigo County Indiana, the underground veins of coal spreading its tentacles out like some kind of leggy creature. Dani liked to stare at her grandfather’s maps on the walls of his tiny home office. He liked to tell her stories about being underground, how coal could turn into diamonds if it had enough time and pressure. But it was the story he called Palomino Coal that she liked so much, mostly because she knew it was likely made up, but also because her grandfather had horses, appaloosas and paints, a red Shetland pony, and two spotted mustangs. Dani’s favorite though was the palomino named Denny, his golden hide impossible to capture with just a 12 count of Crayola’s.

Finally, the whistle blew. Men barged out of the mess hall with pails in hand from overnight. In groups of two and three they looked like lagoon creatures pawing at the banks of the limestone pits, clambering to pull themselves out of the muck. Cousin Kimmy took a step forward, so Dani did too. The whistle blew again, as stragglers stumbled over wet pavers. Kimmy looked at her watch.

“Where is he?” said Dani, rising up as far as she could on her tiptoes. Grandma Enid had told them to stay behind the picket line, which when not in use amounted to a tangle of twine that cordoned off the mine compound from the makeshift parking lot of pulverized gravel and gave Dani’s church shoes a rime of white at the toes.

Kimmy looked around as if she might spot their grandfather in one of the vehicles. He had worked at Snow Hill Mine for nearly thirty years, and was always on time, clocking in, clocking out, fastidious in his appearance, often spending an hour in the bathroom at home, scrubbing his nails with a small steel brush, but he was never tardy. Kimmy said, “There’s Mr. Cordele. I’ll ask him.”

Dani stood in her spot, the spring temps starting to fall, as an ice storm was predicted. Kimmy spoked with her hands, as Mr. Cordele listened, tipping the left side of his head down to hear better. He looked up, and waved Dani over. She was careful not to smudge her shoes anymore. She stood next to Kimmy and peered up at the man.

“Your cousin here says your grandpa didn’t come out.” Dani nodded. “Well, let’s go see where that fine gentleman has gotten off to then.” He winked at both girls and took their hands.

This story appears in our APR 2024 Issue
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