Wrapped in the quilt from Ella's hope chest, Dick brooded in his chair. March chill crept through the thin walls, and he wished the sun would shine and warm his joints. There was about as much chance of that as there was hope in the chest.
"Ri-chard!" Ella called him that name he couldn't own. He was Dick. Dirty Dick, down in the mines. "I'm cleaning that space over the closet. Every year you say 'Let it be.' Not this year."
"Clean away, woman."
"What'll I do with the boots? And those old diggers?"
"Who'd want 'em?" Dick mumbled.
"What'd you say?" Ella's head was stuck in the hole in the ceiling. "And this old hardhat. Covered with dried muck."
As if dirt wasn't everywhere. The Palouse wind speckled the snow with drifting farmland, and the sky spigot turned everything to mud. Brown water poured off the eaves like cow piss.
In the mine, water seeped down the rock walls and sucked on the men's boots as they tramped to their stations. Good clean dirt. Dick still remembered that raw gun-metal smell, although it had been —what —five years? Long enough for people to forget how they used to call for Dirty Dick.
He'd crawl anywhere, lug his jackleg drill, hump dynamite sticks until his hands and arms were black. "Dirty Dick can handle that round," they'd say. Lay fuse where no one else would; crimp caps with his teeth. "Still got my pearlies," he'd brag.
Ella reappeared with the hardhat on her head. Bits of grime drifted to the floor. Her face was once so pretty it graced the Harvest Ball program. But all the cold, the heat, the rains, even the fall winds, had scrawled a map on it of life in a mining town. He had fared better in the unchanging temperature underground.
"I could polish up your helmet."
"Hardhat. How many times do I have to tell you? Helmets for football and war. Hardhats underground."
Ella's eyes played with him. They hadn't gathered years the way the rest of her had. "Just wanted to see if I could get a rise out of you." She leered.
Mud caked all sides but one of the hardhat. The bright white swipe looked like bone in the lamplight. Splintered bone.
"Why don't we hang it over the oil stove like a trophy? It saved your life." She tried to settle it on his head.
"Get away." He should have known when the air thickened that the earth's underpinnings had shifted. The rock burst. The slab fell. Maybe the hardhat saved his head, but not his life. Dick wheeled his chair around to watch the water sheet across the window.
Julie Weston's stories and essays have been published in Triptych (ezine), The Threepenny Review, River Styx, Saint Ann's Review, Clackmas Literary Review, Rocky Mountain Game & Fish, among other publications. She has won awards from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and Prose for Papa (Hemingway). Julie grew up in a mining town in Idaho. Now she spends part of the year in Seattle and part of the year in Idaho where she skis and flyfishes when she's not writing.