Paul Pekin


   "Our civilization is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it." - George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

         Not long ago I saw a tiny chunk of the stuff for sale—in a souvenir shop. What would George Orwell have made of that?
         And what, I wonder, about my father who shoveled uncounted tons throughout his lifetime. A lump of coal in a souvenir shop? He might have said, "Heh heh."
         The man was a worker, no getting around it. Pushbrooms, dustpans, floor mops, buckets, wringers, sponges, squeegees, rags, brushes, those were his tools. And yes, above all, a coal shovel.
         "Dick! Dick! Bring up the heat!"
         A coal furnace is not something you turn on and leave. It wants you, it needs you, and when a coal furnace is heating a good sized building with offices and apartments and dozens of radiators eager to turn icy cold, it wants so much of you, you are going to think about hiring a man like Dick Pekin to do the job.
         If you are Dick Pekin's eight year old son, you get to watch him doing it.
         He takes you down into the basement of the building on Western and Grove. He has the keys. At one point or another, he has keys to buildings all over town, buildings where valuable things are kept, here an office, there a store, a club room, a print shop, even an evangelical church. People trust him, even those who scorn him as a misfit, and not always behind his back.
         He flips a light switch and the basement, huge and dark and not without a little menace, becomes a little less dark as your eyes adjust. You imagine it running on beneath the next block, and beyond, part of a secret underground world you will never find the courage to explore. Rats live down here, just beyond the edges of the light, shifty and bold, and sometimes you see their shadows moving along the walls. To them, you are the intruder.
         The furnace is center to all; you feel its heat, see the glow through its slotted door. It is monstrous—with pipes and vents and valves, looks dangerous, is dangerous—its boiler hissing live steam. You watch your father approach, his coat and trousers stiffened with coal dust, a pale lean man who sometimes seems less human than this inhuman thing he is about to feed. He opens the door and you see that the fire is a glowing bed of coals dusted with a layer of dark ash, almost dormant at this moment. He reaches into it with an iron poker, bent and straightened so often it has forgotten its original shape, and begins to probe, not delicately, but with all the force in his wiry frame; you have seen him do this before, and it is exciting. At once he digs up several glowing clinkers he will have to remove with iron tongs. Clinkers, he explains, are simply slag, stuff that won't burn, he means impurities, but that is not a word he uses. When the first one comes out it is as large as a cat, twisted and glowing; when it cools it will become brittle and glassy, and you who know nothing about art will admire its lawless beauty. It clinks metallically when he drops it into the pail.  It waits there, radiating heat, for another piece of slag to drop upon it. You itch to do this job yourself, it looks like fun, and that is why you are there, although you do not know it, to learn; that is your father's plan. Again and again he probes, bringing up one clinker after another. Some seem to have limbs, twisted and tortured. Some are so stubborn they must be broken up before they will pass through the furnace door. Later they will be dragged out to the alley along with the ashes, and eventually become part of the alley.
         He pokes, he probes, he pulls, he pushes, the fire roars up, so bright and hot you shield your eyes. He closes the door, adjusts the air slots, and sets out to fill the hopper, that part of the stoker that actually holds the coal. You have to stand on tiptoes to look into it, and when you do, you see the giant screw mechanism at the bottom that feeds coal into the furnace. He does not have to warn you about that screw, but he does. Men have reached down to free things from it, he says, and have had their arms ground up. You think it possible their entire bodies could be ground up and fed into the fire.
         He fills that hopper the hard way, the only way, he takes two large coal buckets into the bin, a separate room, even darker and more rat friendly than the rest of the basement, and the shoveling begins, one, two, three, four, you hear the coal rattling into those huge buckets. He emerges, a bucket in each hand, he staggers under the weight. Each bucket is lifted high and poured into the hopper. Again, again, again. It seems to take hours to finish, you wait impatiently for him to do it. Will you ever be able to do something like this? Someday you would really like to try.
         A lump of coal sold as a specimen. Once so plentiful, streets and alleys were paved with its ash.
         The year is 1937, times are hard. The apartment building on Western Avenue has no yard where children can play, or should play. Instead, there is the alley. Instead, there is an empty lot behind the building. This is yours. Old car parts, bedsprings, empty bottles, broken glass. Ashes and cinders. Chicken heads. When you live next door to a poultry house, you may be sure you will find chicken heads, and they will be yours too.
         Imagine a small store with sawdust on the wooden floors, a single counter in back, and a stack of wire cages to the side. Now the chickens—white, brown, gray, speckled—all innocently cluck away the afternoon. Where the owner gets them, you can only imagine, and you are too busy trying to guess which one is to be chosen first. The owner works behind his counter in a blood spattered apron, a newsboy's cap on his head, his white hands ungloved. He seems to tolerate children, as long as they do not get in the way. You and your sister can watch him work, all day if you like. A customer comes in. Heavy-set. She squares up before the cages and sets out to choose the best bargain. You know her kind. She hopes to pick a bird that has unlaid eggs inside of it. You have seen those unlaid eggs in their rubbery shells, and refuse to eat them. "That one!" the heavy-set woman decides, pointing out a big white bird that stands out among its speckled gray and brown companions, pecking at a handful of cracked corn. The man in the bloody apron snaps open the cage, reaches through flustering hens, and grabs the chosen one by the legs before it realizes its danger. A terrible outcry! A furious flapping of wings. But to no avail. In wide-eyed wonder you watch him hang that hen, flapping and squawking, from a hook behind his counter, and in the most casual way (perhaps mentioning the weather to the heavy-set woman, perhaps asking her how the husband and kids are doing) cut the poor thing's throat.
         It only takes a moment. The bird is still twitching when he takes it down and dips it into a vat of steaming water. Off come the feathers, no longer white and clean.  Off goes the head, tossed into the trash.  Off go the feet, chop, chop. Just like that a living creature is transformed into dinner. No, he need not draw out the innards; the heavy-set woman says she can do that herself. And get those unlaid eggs. Wrapped in white butcher paper, tied with string, paid for out of a change purse that snaps open and shut, the bird is carried away. In the cages, the other chickens continue their afternoon, exactly as if nothing at all has happened.
        You and your sister are entertained. Sometimes a bird will escape after its throat has been cut and run wildly around the store. Your mother has told you about birds on grandma's farm, birds that ran in circles with their heads cut off. "Lived for hours." Your mother is filled with stories of chickens that pecked at her when she was a child, chickens that fought back when she tried to take their eggs, of half formed chicks that would drop out when she cracked eggs into the frying pan. When she buys a chicken, she looks away while its throat is being cut, but she has little trouble reaching bare handed into its dead body and drawing out the slippery guts.
         Your mother, you children know, had a much more interesting childhood than anything you will ever experience for yourselves. She has gone out into the woods to pick berries and run into "a big black bear!" Several times. She walked to school through snowdrifts so deep she could not see over them. She has brothers who rode the cows, and a mother of her own who punished these bad brothers by whipping them with a corset. Your mother knows of an Indian woman who hung her papoose from a tree limb and had a bear come by and eat it. The best you can hope for is that someday a rat will invade the chicken store and the chicken man will take that rifle he has hanging on his wall and shoot it dead before your eyes.
         Later you will find the white chicken's head in a steaming can of offal the chicken man has dragged uncovered into the alley. "Don't touch that," your sister will warn. She views herself as second-in-command to her mother, and is very conscientious about her duties. When you were younger, you once rebelled and gave her a bloody nose in a dispute over a head of lettuce. You and your sister will be friends for all of your long lives but will never find it useful to discuss this incident.
         The building with the chicken house abuts your building, leaving an empty shaft no wider than a child's head. From the empty lot you can look through it and see Western Avenue, forty feet away. You imagine yourself sliding through, and even test the possibility by standing sideways and flattening your body.
         "Don't do that!" your sister commands. "You'll get stuck." What would it be like, you wonder, to be stuck between two brick buildings? Years and years later, a grown man, you will read in the newspaper of a boy who did just that, got stuck. Firemen with axes and crowbars had to tear a hole in the side of the building.
         The alley is yours, the empty lot is yours, the cinders, the ash, the milkweeds and the supple trees of heaven growing against the buildings. The furry orange caterpillars so abundant on the leaves are yours. You build caterpillar hotels out of boxes the tobacco wholesaler throws away and play "hotel fire" by lighting them with kitchen matches. Your sister does not approve of this game, but she does not prevent it.
         When the alley grows dull, you play on the sidewalk. You and your sister walk as far as the Grove Street Garage where friendly men allow you to look through the big double doors and see cars jacked up in the air with their undersides showing. Mostly you play near the entrance to your apartment. You are fascinated by the fire escape which does not come directly to the sidewalk, but has the last length of its wrought iron steps pulled up even with the second floor windows. In the event of a fire everyone will have to climb out the living room window, and the fire escape will swing down beneath their weight. You long to see those steps swing down, but it is strictly forbidden to go out that window and get on them. Often you consider climbing up the side of the building, using cornices and window ledges as handholds, and pulling it down.
         "Don't do that," your sister says.
         Your mother takes no sides. She forbids "tattling" and she will not allow you to speak disrespectfully of your father, a rule she does not apply to herself. You fear her tongue, but view her as the guardian of the house, protector of your rights, the nearest thing to a voice of reason in a confusing adult world. Without her, you sense, there would not be order.
         Your father and your mother are at war, over what, you hardly understand, and the supper table is their battleground. Every night you sit at it in a state of dread. At first they do not speak at all. He has only scorn for gossip and everyday small talk, will not discuss his own day, has no interest in hers. The weather must not be mentioned because, "Everybody talks about the weather and nobody does anything about it." Comments about the meal are not permitted because, "Horses eat oats every day.” He waits for your quick-tempered mother to say her first sentence, and it makes little difference what that might be. "The sun finally came out," she says at last. "Hah," he replies. "You should get a job at the astronomical institute."
         Now, there can only be fireworks.
            After supper, you and your sister must play the piano. You and your sister take lessons from an Irish lady, who must charge very very little, if anything at all. For some odd reason, your father has always dreamed that someday at least one of his children might become a prodigy, this being the great age of child prodigies like Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan, children who made their parents rich. Alas, while your sister plays extremely well, she can never play well enough to reassure him, and you, as anyone with ears can easily tell, are completely hopeless. The problem could be rectified if only you would practice. He helps out by sitting on the end of the piano bench and slapping you on the side of the head when you hit wrong notes. Many years later your sister will insist she was slapped too, and this will become one of those things siblings never agree on, but always love to discuss.
         Oddly enough, he will sometimes sit with you and play checkers (he always wins) or even tell stories. His stories are unlike your mother's. He never tells stories of true things. His stories are always made up. He will have a boy and his sister walking through a great dark forest, only to suddenly come upon a hot dog stand. "How can a hot dog stand be in a forest?" you ask. "Who is telling this story?" he replies. Alas, if only you had not asked, he might have gone on to finish the story.
         Your father rises, that tall pale man with his shock of stiff dark hair combed straight back. It is time for the furnaces. They must be stoked lest they go out overnight. The hoppers must be filled again. He puts on his heavy gray overcoat, his gray fedora hat. This time he goes alone. You will not see him again until tomorrow.
         He has gone to shovel coal.

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Paul Pekin has taught fiction writing at Columbia College, worked as a police officer, owned and operated a store, and worked as a printer in the old letterpress days. His writing has appeared in newspapers, literary magazines, and anthologies including in The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun Times, Karamu, The Macguffin, Sou'wester, The South Dakota Quarterly, and others. He makes his home in Chicago.  “Coal” is part of his forthcoming memoir.