This is my first attempt to use the WordPress iPhone app to write an entry, so if there are terrible errors, I apologize. I’ll get them repaired when I get home. I am, at the moment, sitting outside of a Staples, using their free wifi, while I wait for my car to be done a the dealer (regular maintenance). I am sitting here making notes about writing thoughts I’ve had over the last few days when it occurred to me that I do that. I make notes. It’s part of how I get a handle on all the ideas which flow through my head on their way to being stories, or lost memories.
One of the best habits I ever got into was writing things down. It is, after all, the “writing” that makes us writers. I used to carry around a notebook and a pen wherever I went – the advent of technology means I carry paper less and have started to rely on my phone/laptop more, but the idea’s the same. Have a thought, write it down.
For example, yesterday I was driving in my car, listening to music. Some of my best work comes out of driving and thinking; my latest story sale was roughed out in my head on the long drive back from Readercon in September. Yesterday I was listening to Mumford & Sons sing about being on your knees and how the water’s rising and you need to hold on and it occurred to me: that’s a great moment to begin a story. But what story? Who’d be trapped somewhere with rising water, waiting to be saved? I was driving past a coal refinery and I saw a huge pile of black rock and thought, oh, a miner. Not a group of them, just one. Waiting. Holding on. Alone.
This miner would have to have a way to communicate with the outside world or we’d never know his story, so he has a two-way radio, which makes him modern. He’s scared, and shouldn’t have been there in the first place, so he must be a young guy, probably ran from another part of the mine when the walls caved in, and his older co-worker must not have made it. We’ll call him Charlie, the old guy, and the young guy is Jim. Jim got a girl pregnant just after high school, which is how he ended up taking such a dangerous job when he’s so young. 19 sounds like a good age for Jim, which means his young wife already had the baby. We’ll call the child Ruth, or Ruthie, after Jim’s wife’s grandmother. The wife needs a name too, so we’ll call her Tammy, because that sounds like the sort of name that goes with an 18-year old mother in Pennsylvania, waiting long hours in her sparsely furnished apt for her husband to come home. The kind of girl who is exhausted after a day of crying baby and no help and who won’t get any when Jim’s home because he has to drive more than hour to get to the mine, each way, and since he works a long shift on top of the commute (because they need the overtime pay), when he gets home he just wants a hot shower and his share of the hot dog casserole and to be left alone so he can sleep.
I think they fight a lot, don’t you?
So Jim’s alone in the rising water and the mine controller, the guy in the nice dry office on the other end of the radio, is telling him to hold on. Hold on, Jim, help is coming. But of course there wasn’t supposed to be any water there, and the diggers will never reach Jim in time, and he’s a young guy but he isn’t stupid so… he knows. The controller, let’s call him Rick, is college educated, wears a tie, and has never had a mine accident before. He doesn’t want the press, or the inevitable inquiry, or the insurance payout to the families of he dead. He wanted efficiency and progress and a nice bonus at Christmas. But he’s stuck in this situation now and he’s trying his best to keep Jim alive. So he’s not a bad guy. Not really.
But the water’s rising.
Tammy has been told about the accident and she’s scrambled to get their things together and get Ruthie into the car but she won’t make it in time. She knows. They all know, the ones who grow up in this part of PA. Miners die. Her daddy wasn’t a miner but her grandfather was and she heard stories when she was a kid but she never thought (was always worried) that it would happen to Jim. The baby was supposed to be her salvation, a guaranteed marriage and a man to take care of her, not so much work and now the death of her husband. She’s had to get a neighbor to drive her because she can’t drive while she’s so busy thinking about how she’s a widow at 18.
Rick’s saying all he right things and the diggers know where Jim is but the ground’s unstable and the water’s up to his neck and all Jim can think now is that he doesn’t want to die alone. Even dying with old Charlie would have been OK, he tells Rick, but Charlie’s dead, under the water. Charlie tripped and got his legs trapped under falling rock and drowned while Jim watched helplessly. Rick tells him he’s not alone, he’s never alone.
Maybe he isn’t.
We can’t let Jim die alone. He will die, we’ve seen to that, we can’t write a way out of this for him without the story getting implausible and that’s the death of stories. No way out, Jim’s a goner. But who can be with him? Who can hold his hand? I think it’s Charlie. And Henry and Billy and Robert James (the third) – all the others who died in this mine, died knowing it was coming, that this mine would open its maw for only so long and in exchange for the coal it needed sacrifices. Little morsels to gobble up. Charlie will explain this to Jim, and Henry will comfort him, and Robert will call him a “brother” and so as the water covers his mouth and his nose Jim will feel their hands on him and their arms around him and he will not die alone.
And Rick will hear it all, because someone has to.
And I know the story now too, because yesterday I heard a song, thought my thoughts, and made a note of it.