When he is thirteen or fourteen, his father gets him a job in the mines. You can’t make much money swinging a pick axe to dig out the coal, but it’s better than what you’d get up-top. And it’s better than nothing at all.
There isn’t enough money for shoes. When it’s warm enough, Jimmy walks barefoot to school. When it isn’t, he just doesn’t go.
Since he’s bigger now, and since he doesn’t get paid for going to school anyway, his father says he has to work – and this is the only work there is. Of the six siblings, none will finish school because the choice is this – school, or food on the table and shoes on the feet.
Food wins out every time.
The tight posture he adopts allows a little more air to fall in around him as he descends into the mine for the first time. There is only so much oxygen down here, and the tight space makes him gasp for air. If he uses it all up, then what? His arms fold in on themselves, creating the illusion of space though the dampened rock on either side is close enough to touch without stretching his arms out completely. In the bowels of the earth he accustoms himself to tunnels, often smaller than the one into which he begins his daily descent from the top, where all the breathable air is. Down here what air there is, is speckled with coal dust.
Coming up at the end of each day, he carries the mine with him. His skin is black. The coal dust under his fingernails is hard to scrub off; something is always left behind, a little more at the end of every day. He coughs and sneezes with mucus full of black stuff. Black tears seep out of the corners of his eyes and the tight curves of his ears encourage the black dust to hunker down and hide there.
Miners are needed but miners have accidents. They get sick and die younger than most. They are crushed and suffocate in cave-ins, and only their families care.
Jimmy leaves the Kentucky hills and doesn’t look back, but he trades one confining job for another – in an Ohio factory. Working shifts, coming home dirty. Someone else always telling him what to do, and when.
At least the dirt here washes off more easily.