Zinc sat quietly, unobserved, in the corner of the crowded barroom on a Saturday night, pay day for the Homestake Mine, the major employer in the small company town tucked away in a steep, cragged valley in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He had always been an observer, never feeling comfortable joining in the festivities, and tonight was no different. How men behaved, especially after they’d had a few drinks, had always amazed him. While the commotion swelled around him, he felt safe and protected here in the corner. His only fear was that one of the other miners might recognize him and encourage him to join in the revelry. This fear almost drove him to leave, but his curiosity kept him planted in his chair.

Tomorrow would be a day of rest for the miners, who worked hard six days a week. Their lives were precarious, filled with unknown danger every time they went deep into the bowels of the dark, dank mine, the walls dripping with sweat. Deep underground the scent of death and decay was overpowering. The silence in the man cage that transported the miners 8000 feet underground reminded him of the silence that remains after the slamming shut of the steel door of a prison cell, or the whispered prayers in the dark recesses of an ancient church. The silence of imprisonment and death that overcame the captive men in the cage was deafening, but tonight the men were set free from the oppressive weight of the dreary darkness that crouches at every turn along the narrow corridors of the mine. Besides, tonight they drank to the short life of Billy, who had been killed just two days ago by a rock explosion in the main tunnel while he rode the man car out to catch the cage that would take him to the fresh air and freedom found aboveground. His funeral would be tomorrow, Sunday, because all funerals in the confined town were on Sundays. Underground, only two things were certain: you’d be buried on Sunday, and you never spoke of Sunday.

The miners overran the crowded barroom and spilled out into the street; after suffering such close quarters all week long in the dank mine, why the miners chose to crowd into this sweaty barroom, filled with the sour breath of harried hopelessness, puzzled Zinc. He remained, however, observing, but he’d stay only as long as he wasn’t recognized. If even one of the miners was to approach his table, he’d quickly excuse himself and leave. He would leave now if he had a clear path, but the thought of having to jostle his way through the thick crowd of hard-drinking, hard-breathing miners deterred him. It occurred to Zinc that he didn’t belong here, not in this barroom, not underground, and certainly not in this town filled with death and destruction. The mine was no place for him, but yet he stayed because he disliked the thought of leaving. Where would he go? It was a big world out there, but all he’d ever witnessed was this reticent town, and the close, oppressive walls that formed the confined chambers of the mine.

While he watched the jostling of the miners, each one of them trying to be heard above the din in the room, laughing and drinking as if there were no tomorrow, his thoughts turned to Billy. He had known Billy for over two years, ever since Billy had first come to the mine right out of high school. Even then, Zinc wondered why Billy would choose to go underground instead of going off to school, or anywhere else, as long as it was far away from the oppressive mine. He even told Billy that this was no place for him, but Billy just smiled and shook his head, replying, “Well, it seems to be good enough for you.” If only Zinc had had a response then, something that would have convinced Billy to leave. And now it was too late. This is how life unfolds, he thought, on the tips of silent tongues.

And now, even when the urge to get out overcame Zinc, even when the desire to dig deep inside of himself to find the courage to make a change, the labyrinth of the mine seemed bewildering and unfathomable, and the way out seemed lost to him. But what held him back? His own timidity, that’s all. How ironic, he thought, every day deep underground he faced death’s rank, stale breath, but the sweet, enchanting rush of fresh air brought on the wind of his wondrous dreams scared the living hell out of him. There could be no worse hell than the one he lived through everyday deep in the gloomy bowels of the mine, why would fear hold him back? His ancestors faced their fear in the wide open spaces of a world that they understood only by discovering ways in which to coexist with it, not in some manmade labyrinth that began and ended in darkness and confusion.

In this swarm of sweating, hard-breathing humanity, there wasn’t one woman present. Zinc had noticed this same anomaly the first time he went underground twenty three years ago, and he’d asked the obvious question: “Why are there no women?” His question received only dumb silence, until the men stumbled out of the cage at 8000 feet belowground, when Digger finally said: “Because they are bad luck; wherever they are, chaos is sure to follow.” Zinc had thought about this on and off for twenty three years, and he always drew the same conclusion: Wherever anyone is, man or woman, chaos is sure to follow. And twenty three years ago, when he’d said in reply to Digger, “this makes no sense,” no one said a word, not until the end of the day when the weary miners filed out of the cage aboveground, when Scotty, the oldest of the miners, turned to Zinc and said: “My friend, nothing makes sense here.”

As he sat undisturbed in the corner of the barroom surrounded by the uproar, Zinc’s mind floated back to the girl in the second grade with the cast on her arm and the snotty nose, his first love, and he wondered what had become of her. To him, she would always be the little blonde girl with the cast on her arm with the snotty nose who he’d dreamed of every night for a whole year, until the fury of summer disrupted his reminiscences. He’d felt like talking to her then, asking her what had happened to her arm, and wiping her nose with his shirt sleeve, but he never did. And now thirty three years later he still thought about her – Sheryl was her name. He still thought about Sheryl, and he wondered now if every girl since Sheryl who’d caught his attention had in some way reminded him of Sheryl. Even his high school sweetheart, he now recalled, who he’d loved deeply, whose feet had slipped out from underneath her as she climbed out of the bathtub one afternoon, hitting her head on the back of the bathtub, and having been knocked unconscious, had slid beneath the tepid bathwater and drowned, even she was a seventeen year old version of Sheryl. At her funeral, he’d realized how unimportant he was in her life, how unimportant he was in everyone’s life who was there. He’d never before felt so alone and insignificant, until thirteen years later when his wife, without warning, without even as much as a note left behind, left him. He came home from the mine and she was gone, nothing left behind but the scent of her perfume and a pair of red underwear in the dirty clothes hamper. This is what he remembered most about that day: a pair of red underwear. Had she left them behind on purpose to rub his nose in the fact that she didn’t need him, that she’d never needed him, and that she was much better off without him? He’d guessed that she was better off without him, but why had she needed to rub his nose in it? Even his wife had reminded him of Sheryl, the snotty-nosed little girl from second grade with blonde hair and a broken arm. All women were broken in one way or another, but they didn’t cause chaos, no, that wasn’t there doing at all, chaos was just chaos.

After the funeral on Sunday, instead of going over to Billy’s family’s house to express his condolences, Zinc went for a walk in the woods on the edge of town. In his forty years in this dreary town, he had had enough of funerals and the gatherings of mourners afterwards. No, he needed to let his mind wander, get far away from the dark thoughts of the mine. His life had been reduced to this one simple philosophy: If you want pleasure, then you should seek things that bring you pleasure; if it’s misery you seek, that’s easy enough to find in your job; every job squeezes the life out of you. He thought of the Homestake Mine as a giant boa constrictor squeezing the life out of all the timid mice scurrying around in the mildewed dreariness of the underground tunnels. Aboveground, where he could breathe fresh air, he didn’t think of himself as one of the mice, but he knew it was only an illusion because tomorrow he’d be scurrying once again along the dank, dreary tunnels of his life.

When he got home, Zinc looked around his spare apartment: he’d gotten rid of everything that reminded him of his wife; but getting rid of things didn’t get rid of memories. But the memories weren’t as oppressive now as they once were. No, the dark labyrinth of the mine was enough to crush his dreams. He went into the bedroom and pulled the portmanteau from the closet and laid it open on the bed and began pulling clothes from the dresser and folding them carefully into the portmanteau. He went into the bathroom, looked quickly at himself in the mirror, filled his shaving kit with his razor, soap, toothpaste, and toothbrush, and then placed it in the portmanteau. It didn’t take him long, and as he opened the front door of his apartment, lugging his portmanteau, he thought about calling his shift boss to let him know that he wouldn’t be going underground tomorrow, but it occurred to him: What would he say? He really didn’t owe anyone an explanation, not even himself, he just needed to keep going. He turned out the light and closed the door behind him and walked unhurriedly out to the street. As he loaded his portmanteau into the back of his car, he thought about Sheryl, the girl from the second grade with the tangled blonde hair, snotty nose, and cast on her arm, and he was overcome by this final thought: Soon it would be Monday morning, and the man cage would be filled with the quiet desperation of the miners going underground, but his quiet desperation wouldn’t be part of it; no, no more underground, now he needed to be part of what was going on in the rest of the world.

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