Joe, February 1987
Out in my old Dodge pickup, I sat for a while, trying to think what to do. I decided that first I would go to Hap's and get drunk. And then I would stop on the way to Swede's and buy a six-pack to share with him. He had never let me down, and I would never hold anything back from that crazy son of a bitch.
The engine turned over, not that amazing considering how carefully I took care of my baby. But still, it had sat here for a week, and the battery was not really that good. I patted the steering wheel and smiled. It really was a good old truck. Old Betsy. I looked at the hospital entrance when the doors opened, thinking I might recognize someone from the old days, but I did not. It seemed like everyone was a stranger anymore.
I pulled out of the parking lot, and let go a deep raspy cough that hurt down to my backbone. Jesus. First the wounds and getting dusted up, and now this. Radon. And to think people still flocked to breathe that stuff in. Bastards are all about half-nuts. Shit, get me to Hap's. I drove out from the Veteran's Hospital at Fort Harrison, into town, not really looking at much except the line down the road. First Hap's and then I would get Willie, my good old dog, who was staying with Swede in East Helena. I had called Swede earlier to let him know I was coming home so that Rose could cook up one of those delicious dinners of hers.
As I drove I absently brushed my fingers over the deep scar in my forehead, and I thought of the kids, and wondered what they were doing, and what they would say, and whether they would really give a shit. I did wonder how long it would take until I was back in that place, shriveled up like a frog on hot asphalt with tubes doing my breathing and my pissing for me. Well, you weren't really a miner unless you had dealt with shit like this and worse, and I had. Dealt with worse. And I felt my scar again.
So I drove to Hap's, to praise the salvation of a cold beer in the darkness of a February afternoon, by the railroad tracks, with the game on T.V. and only old unemployed layabouts like me and a couple of rogue youths dicking the dog on a dark Tuesday afternoon.
And the first beer kept its promise, as first beers always did. And three more were even better. I handle my booze well, and I had only a little trouble getting the keys from my pocket and into the truck. I knew all the backroads to East Helena, had driven them many times, in worse condition, too. And as I drove the icy roads, I was surprised to feel a tear come down my cheek, and I quickly brushed it away, and then felt the scar on my forehead again for reassurance.
I made a quick stop at the convenience store to pick up a six pack. I felt pretty good considering I had just found out I had cancer and maybe a year to live. Ah, but that's the magic of booze. My old buddy beer had seen me though lots of ugly shit.
I pulled up to Swede's house, with its crappy green asbestos shingle siding, snow patches in the weedy yard, and the chimney spewing smoke from his woodstove. An old ore car sat in the front yard, where it served as a flower planter during the summer. Home sweet home, or at least the only place that I knew of that hadn't changed for thirty years.
After six lost years on the road as a tramp miner, for the last month it had been like heaven, a place where I knew they would always put up with me, and where I could always share in the food, and where I could always have a roof over my head. Rose was a nice lady and a good cook. A little crabby, but who wouldn't be crabby if you lived with a smartass like Swede.
I sat for a minute in the truck, savoring the rest of the Coors. Ah, make it Coors, make it Coors, make it yours. I looked fondly at the rest of the six pack in the brown bag. If it was anybody else I would have left it in the truck, but whatever we had, Swede and me, we shared it. Except for Rose, though we had joked plenty about that over the years. So I grabbed the bag, drained the can and threw it in the back of the pickup and went up to the door. Once I almost slipped on the damn ice, lazy bastard Swede.
So I went up and knocked a couple of times before I opened the door. Inside it was hot, with the woodstove at full blast and Rose cooking supper. I smelled ham and scalloped potatoes, and my stomach grumbled in anticipation. One of her best dishes. It was stifling hot though. Swede was sitting on his old chair, in an unbuttoned plaid shirt, watching T.V. His hair was goofy looking as usual, with the cowlick that was always sticking up. He looked up and grinned.
"Hey Joe. Sit your ass down, supper will be done pretty soon from the smell of things..hey what do you have there?" He looked with a grin at the bag. "Is that what I think it is?"
I pulled a can out of the bag and tossed it to him. I took another one out for myself, and plopped down on the sofa. We popped our tops and looked at each other. He tipped it in my direction. "Beer. ‘Nuff said." And we took a long drink.
We sat there drinking, not saying anything, since there wasn't much to say until later, after we all ate, and we had long passed the point of small talk. It wouldn't be polite. So we just watched T.V., the Discovery Channel I think, with bighorn sheep in some beautiful place, maybe Alaska or Glacier Park. Swede avidly watched the big rams, as they arched their necks and rose on their hindlegs to collide with each other, heads down. Sure they were pretty, but Swede was a hunter, and I could tell he was mainly measuring in his mind how they would stack up in the Boone and Crockett recordbook.
"Jeez, would you look at the curl on that one!" He sipped eagerly.
I sipped again. "Where's Willie?"
"Oh hell, he's in the backyard doing his business. I'll call him in." Swede walked into the kitchen. Pretty soon I heard the tap tap of my dog's paws on the kitchen floor as he trotted through, and as he entered the living room, he paused for a minute, and then leapt into my lap, happy as a pup, licking my face and yelping his welcome, tail going ninety miles an hour. I laughed and hugged him. "Atsaboy Willie, good boy!" He placed his paws on my shoulders and gave me doggy kisses, whining and talking his doggy talk. "Okay, okay," I laughed, "Settle down, you dodo," and he finally did, nestling his big Labrador frame in my lap and looking up at me again and again to make sure I was looking back at him.
Pretty soon, the clatter of dishes in the kitchen meant that dinner was done, and Rose hollered from the kitchen, "Supper!" Both Swede and I made exaggerated sighs and grunts as we heaved ourselves up to our feet, and wandered into the kitchen, with Willie padding after. Rose looked stern as usual, but you could tell she was happy with the way the food came out. The chunks of ham in the buttery yellow scalloped potatoes, the green beans, and hot rolls smelled like Linda's, but I quickly pushed the thought from my mind, and eagerly sat down at my place. Willie politely sat under my chair, leaning against my leg, but hopefully looked up at the table.
"Ain't this better than that damn slop in the hospital?" Swede poked at me, and I agreed with my mouth full, and Rose smiled in satisfaction.
She sat down and said, "We gotta feed you up Joe, you're looking skinny these days..unlike Swede here," she said. Swede looked at her wryly and she stuck out her tongue. Soon the table was quiet, except for our chewing, scraping of forks and clank of the pan as we reached for seconds. "Really good, Rose, as always," I managed to say. I hadn't realized just how hungry I was. But then being with Rose and Swede always made me feel better. I slipped a little piece of ham off my plate to Willie, who gulped it down. Rose smiled.
After we were done eating we stood up and put our dishes on the sink. Swede put the milk and butter away before Rose shushed us out of the tiny kitchen, and we went back and plopped down again in the front room. Willie hopped in my lap. Rose stuck her head in long enough to say, "Remember we have peach cobbler later...I just put it in the oven."
Swede turned the T.V. down and shifted to face me. "So."
I popped another beer. "So."
I began. "It's bad. Cancer. All that goddamn radon in the mines. Just one of them things. I have maybe a year."
Swede sucked in air through his teeth. "A year. Shit." He knew me well enough to know I didn't want any pity so he kept it to himself.
We sat there quietly, so quiet you could hear Rose washing dishes and humming to herself.
"So now what," Swede said.
"I don't know really. I have an idea though, something I want to talk to you about."
Swede was looking away, at a hole in his sock. "Uh huh."
"I want to try the mine one last time, the Sandrew."
Swede looked at me incredulously. "Are you nuts? You have cancer. How you gonna work a mine?"
I sipped trying to control my temper. "I can do it. I want you to help me."
"But goddamnit Joe, things are good between me and Rose right now. Smooth sailing, okay? I'm doing pretty good with the janitor work at the school for now, until the summer, when Casey and I will try to get some of the pole contracts from the Forest Service."
I didn't say anything, studying the show on T.V. On the Discovery Channel it always seemed to be Shark Week, and a diver in a cage was being lowered into the ocean.
"Anyway," I continued, "I'm going to try and talk to Old Sandrew this week, and I was hoping you'd go with me." I drank again. "You know, I was hoping maybe I could get some last bit of luck, maybe something I could pass on to the grandkids... to remember me by...since they really don't know me." I took another sip.
He sat there, slump-shouldered, kind of mad at being in a spot like this. He was like my brother, and I knew he'd do it eventually, but he had to come up with some way to keep Rose from being too mad and going off on him.
"Jesus," he said. I grinned, I knew I had him, at least for now. "You really are a son of a bitch." Then he remembered I was dying after all, and said, "Sorry."
I smiled and scratched Willie behind the ears, and he lolled his tongue in appreciation. "Let me talk to Rose," I said. "Better her mad at me than you."
We watched T.V., and waited for Rose. After a bit she came into the front room, hands red from the hot water, and sat beside Swede on the arm of his chair. "What did they say Joe?"
I sat there, getting my feelings to well up some. "I looked at her sorrowfully, as I had to make this good. "They say I have a year...cancer."
She caught her breath and looked at Swede. "Oh my God. Joe. I'm so sorry."
"Yeah." I looked at the wall.
"Is there anything we can do? You know you are welcome here. We'll take care of you."
She sat there. All three of us sat there like sparrows on a telephone line waiting to fly off suddenly.
"Rose. I have a favor to ask."
"What is it, Joe?"
"You know I'm not so close to my kids."
"Yes." She looked sad at this, but she knew the story. Had been in on it from the beginning.
"Well, I've always wanted to leave them something. Them and the grandbabies. And now, I guess I don't have much chance of doing that. I guess I won't ever be able to make it all up to them."
She stared at me, remembering it all. "No," she said softly, "I guess you won't. I hoped it would all work out someday, and now it doesn't look like it will."
I smiled. "How'd you learn to read minds, Rose? The deal is this. You know my dad's cousin, Old Sandrew?"
Rose nodded. I remember you talking about him, and the..." Her eyes widened and she trailed off. "Oh no, not that mine, Joe. Not that again."
"Well," I clasped my hands and looked at my feet. "What else is there?" I rubbed my scar once, since I was feeling a little guilty even though I was dying for Chrissakes.
Then you could see Rose get mad, despite her best efforts not to. "Is this what I think it is?" She looked at Swede who looked very embarrassed. "Swede, I thought we had all this figured out. For once, the bills are getting paid, and now..."
Rose got up and walked over to me, and laid her hand on my shoulder. "Joe, you know we love you, but we almost lost the house last year, we came very close, and Swede has a good job now..."
I patted her hand. "I understand Rose. You have to take care of your own situation. You can't lose your house. I mean who wants to go live off their kids, right?" I smiled at this, since I knew saying this not only punished her, it was also like twisting a knife in my own guts.
"It's okay Rose." I got up and casually cleared my throat. I've got to run over to Gibsons to get some stuff. I'll take Willie with me." I patted my leg and he got up to join me by the door.
Rose looked stricken. "The cobbler is about ready, Joe, another five minutes or so."
"Well I'll be back soon. Just going to Gibson's and maybe drive around a little. Wrap me up a nice piece, and I'll have some when I get back. I wouldn't miss your cobbler for anything. Don't worry. I'll be okay."
And then I left, with Willie following me. I opened the door of the truck and Willie hopped in. I started up the truck and pulled out. I wasn't sure what I would buy at Gibson's, maybe some razors.