He coughs. And in the early months — or years — he tries to muffle it, tries to be polite, tries to disguise it. “It’s just a cold comin’ on,” or “My allergies are actin’ up. The ragweed, doncha know?”
And then the cough gets progressively worse, and he can no longer contain it. “Gotta catch my breath.” Catching his breath takes effort. And sometime stuff comes up, stuff that he can no longer swallow. So he has a spit paper by his bed and another by his recliner and cautions his grandchildren to not step on those papers.
When he leaves his house, he carries a big white handkerchief, bleached periodically to remove the stains. No spitting allowed on the streets of Harlan or suffer the calls of strangers, “Didn’t your mother teach you no better than to spit in public?”
And his wife says, “The livin’ room needs paintin’, but…” And he says, “That cleanser you’re usin’ in the bathroom takes my breath away. Can’t you use somethin’ else?”
You know the diagnosis: Black Lung.
Retired: Black Lung
He creeps from the gray frame house so
as to not disturb the grandchildren
with his coughing
to avoid his wife’s nagging, “Don’t
cough so hard. You’re liable
to break somethin’.”
He walks the tracks tonight…
The coal he dug left Harlan County
years ago along this same path
he walks tonight.
But he remains, the pallor
in his lean face and the
crook in his back testimony to the truth
that everything has its price.
RIP: Roy Lee Blevins (1901-1970).
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