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Howie
                                                An Old Mine ©


           The rickety, rusted box cars clanged and screeched, undaunted by the steep terrain as the old engine puffed up the mountain and through the tunnel.  It was late in the summer and the colors were beginning to change.   Maple orange and crimson oak stood out, no longer hidden in the thick evergreen landscape.  Early morning sunshine filtered through the trees, adding an unreal dimension to the miles of upward winding rails. Occasionally an opening in the dense canopy revealed an empty cabin, dark and forlorn, with broken windows and tattered roof.  
           The train finally came to a stop in front of a raised platform.   Behind the platform, as if hinged together was an old weatherbeaten ticket office with two small windows in front.  Faint lettering still read, "Western Union and Telegraph."   A loud bell clanged as the door opened and a skinny bald headed man emerged.  He placed his engineer's cap on and with raised eyebrows, wondered why the train had stopped.  It seldom stop here anymore.  All the mines had been shut down except for a skeleton crew at old Rigley's.
           On the rare occasion that it did stop, it would be to deliver something, usually from Sears n Roebuck's to one of the mountain residents.  There were a handful, mostly old-timers, who stayed when the big mines shut down.
           A man in his early thirties stepped down.
           "Howdy, Can I direct you anywhere?"  The older man pushed his cap back a little and pinched his eyebrows.
           "Hello Mullins." The young man stood for a moment, looking back down the rail tracks..   He reached into his pocket, pulling out his lucky dice and a handful of change as he glanced back at Mullins, who now stood looking at the younger man in surprise.  Biting his lower lip, he replaced the contents of his pocket and shook his head slightly, then turned and started walking toward the mine.  The road became a footpath.  It crossed a small wooden bridge and continued on circling the slope of the mountain.  A little farther on,  it forked.   The left fork remained a level path, and the right one tipped upward toward the mine.  He took the left fork. 
          A fence loomed ahead and his eyes searched for the wagon wheel he and his friend Tommy nailed there during their youth.  They found the old wagon wheel behind Mr. Densmore's store in a pile of rubbish and asked if they could have it.  With a smile and a nod, permission was granted, and the boys whooped all the way home with their new treasure.  They nailed it to the fence and pretended it was the way to high seas and adventure.  With it's two spokes missing, it looked a little like a sea monster. but to them, it was the wheel of a might vessel and many a youthful decision was made here.
           Falling to his knees, he found pieces still hanging from the nails and a pile of rotten punk, remnants of a past prize.  He pulled the grass and weeds away.  The punk crumbled and the remnants were gone.
           Still on his knees, he could see the roof of the old place just above the crest of the knoll.  Smoke rose from the chimney filling him with nostalgia— something he hadn't felt for a long time..  He sat for a moment on his heels, thinking of all the times he had walked this trail, seen the roof and the smoke.  He was filled with an urge to run the rest of the way.
           At the crest, he could see his mother hanging clothes, a summer wind blowing her gray hair in her face.  He saw her stoop and reach in her basket.  As she straightened, she spotted the lone figure now walking toward her.  She stood for a moment, then dropped her laundry on the hard-baked ground and started running.
           "Howie!"
           "Hello, Mother."  The lines in her face were foreign to him, and the gray hair, too, but she still sounded the same.  Her voice was warm and filled with tears.
           "Just ‘hello, mother?'"  She nearly attacked him with out swung arms and hung tight, refusing to turn loose.  "After the accident, you just disappeared.  Do you have any idea how long I looked for you?  Come in the house.  You must be thirsty.  I have some sun tea."  She stopped to collect herself but still had him by the arm, leading him into the kitchen.
           Inside, he surveyed the room.  It still looked the same.  He took a deep breath and could smell  the essence of orange his mother put in her candle wax.  The candles flickered in the draft.  That was the same too— air coming in around the window in the breakfast nook.  Howard studied the pictures on the buffet, still in the same spot after fifteen years.  Some of him and his brother, some of his mother in her Sandra Dee hairdo and starched crinolines.  No matter where her stories started, they always ended with her purple hair ribbons and starched crinolines. 
           He accepted the glass of cold tea as his mother sat across from him.  
           "That one was taken the night of the cakewalk," she said.   "I guess you wouldn't remember though."
           "I remember— I mean, I remember you telling about it."
           "Mary Beth just had another baby.  That makes five— and Joe Stephens still works at the mine.  He's living with a woman he met in the valley.  They're not married."  She frowned, increasing the line between her eyebrows.   "You didn't come back to hear all the latest gossip about everyone still on the mountain, did you?"
           Howard turned and searched his mother's questioning eyes.  "No Ma'am."  He was turning the glass of sun tea in his hands and watching the lemon and ice get tangled as the glass turned.  "The summer Dad was killed in the mine, my world changed.  I thought my life was over.  Then the next summer, Jim was killed— it should have been me.  You told me to go, but going all the way down the mountain before daylight was something I didn't want to do.  I promised him ten dollars to go for me—   "
           "That's why you left?  How could you know the bridge was going to collapse that morning?"
           Howard's eyes filled with tears.  His mother reached out and placed her hands around his, still holding the glass.  "I'm so glad you came back."  Her eyes were softened by lines of time, and there was a faint smile as if frozen in sadness.  Her shoulder length hair rolled slightly as the soft ends caught in her collar.
           Howard sat looking out the window facing east.  He remembered the African Violets— they must have always been there, unchanged, like the mountain beyond.  The draft pushed at the curtain.  He could feel the warmth of her hand, and it reminded him of the sun coming in through the window so many years before warming the whole breakfast nook.  It reminded him of her laughter and the way she stood in front of the kitchen stove when she cooked hot cakes, and he could smell the hot cakes cooking and the syrup, and he remembered Jimmy throwing a fork at him—
           "Howie?"   Her voice jarred him back to reality. 
           "Yes—"
           "I said, how long can you stay?"
           "I don't know—"
           "Well— you're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
           "I need to."   He wanted to run again.  Run away, as far as he could, but that wasn't why he came back either.  "I have a demon, just like Maxwell."  He could hear his own voice vibrating inside his head. 
           The creases deepened in the corners of her eyes.  "I remember telling you and Jimmy— about Maxwell reaching out from inside his box and  snatching goodies— You still remember that story?"
           Howard studied her face and smiled faintly before he looked away.  "Like a bedtime story, only my demon takes away everything good that happens to me."
           "What are you talking about?"
           "He lives inside of me and always wants one more drink."
                                                                                                      Sheryl Hamilton Chaney