Friday, December 13, 2002

Jagged, Gritting Teeth (Part III)
During the summer of Love Canal (aka 1978), the dust cloud enveloped the man like a cracker in soup. The little bones in his ear throbbed from the percussion of the pneumatic drills, gougers, and ore crushers. Volumes of the shiny black rock were being pulverized in the cavernous chamber he stood watch in. A rich vein of the anthracite had been discovered months previous and was now being liberated for export. Tons of which would find its way into the furnaces of energy and industry and from those infernos would find atomized release up and out through soot charred smokestacks of the industrial heartland.

He inhaled deeply with an unrestrained enthusiasm. His trachioles soaked up every available molecule of Vitamin (A)nthracite and Vitamin (B)itumen that the atmosphere around him transported. With each respiration the tenseness of his body waned and the pulse quickened. The man blessed the mines for the health and succor they provided and for warding off the ever-threatening specter of asphyxiation he ultimately feared. Asphyxiation - to choke and die a horrible death. To be deprived of life giving molecules. The man knew the salvation of the mines would not be his forever. In fact, he felt his days within the damp, dark, dusty womb of the earth to be numbered. He knew it from the many behavior citations piled up in his employee record. Or by the way his foreman always watched at him suspiciously. Always seemed to be watching for that very moment when the man would unclip his respirator mask and gulp in the mine's purifying atmosphere unfiltered.

And notice indeed did the foreman, for in an instant the man was motioned to board the shaft elevator that would spirit him from his much adored subterranean lung. He knew what was to follow and in fact had prepared himself for weeks to expect it: a decibel busting harangue, one whose volume would approach that of the earth moving machines found down below the surface. Summary dismissal from service with the mining company for the many marks against him, for the many violations of protocol and regulation - all of which were in place to address worker safety. Safety! If only they knew how unsafe it was for him to not breath in what for all others was deemed unhealthy. If only they knew what the mines meant to him, what they did for him. An atmosphere he could walk around in, work in, be productive in, feel human in without for once thinking about the lingering threat of asphyxiation that he had feared since birth.

Indeed, his firing was official. An escort brought him to the company's property boundary and locked the gate behind him as he stood one step beyond its confines. The bus he customarily rode would not arrive for several hours, and each breath of pollution (or what others praised as "fresh Appalachian mountain air") constricted his lungs and his muscles, and his vascular system and his brain. Normally, the diesel fumes from his busride would be enough to get him back into town (he made sure to sit in the very back and try to inhale deeply for every last wayward tailpipe emission that crept into the cabin). But since the bus was not available he would have to resort to more desperate measures, ones he had developed out of survival and necessity over the course of his life. The man looked down and scanned the ground for discarded cigarette butts. He picked up a few here and a few there. Each butt would provide maybe one or a handful of puffs, but a handful was enough to ward off the creeping paralysis that an untreated and contaminated breath brought. Normally he would always carry cigarettes on him, to be used in emergencies and in the downtimes between moments where more desirable and life-affirming atmospheres were available to him. Funny how cigarettes to him was like an inhaler to a child stricken with asthma. Each opened up the chest and the lungs and liberated the diaphragm from its paralyzed exile. However, the man had no cigarettes on him, and the bastards who fired him must have stolen his pack before giving him back his personal effects. Too bad he couldn't march back to the employee lounge and buy a pack from the vending machine installed there. The man shook his head at the utter contradiction it was for a company to be so concerned about what went into its employees lungs down in the shaft and yet provided cigarette vending machines in the lunchroom.

But for now the crisis was averted. The man scavenged enough butts by the side of the road to get him by. He brought one up to his lips - a half smoked Winston stubbed out in haste. He inhaled long and powerfully, bringing in volumes of the necessary smoke. Exhalations were bittersweet, for he saw the smoke entrails rise above his head and despaired over the fact that they could never be reclaimed. Rivulets of smoke escaped between the gaps of his jagged, gritting teeth. The man resigned himself to the fact he would have to begin again in his life's quest for the enduring arrangement that would provide him respiratory salvation.


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