Congratulations to Bruce Haedrich, of Venice,
who wrote this piece of flash fiction called A Cup of Coffee.
The man came into the diner at the same time every morning. He took the last seat at Jessica’s end of the counter even though he didn’t know her. He would study the paper menu placemat for a few minutes and then order a cup of coffee, black. Black suited him. His face was a road map of embedded grime and coal dust from the years he’d spent in the mines. His lungs were black as well, no doubt. When he talked, he had the familiar wheeze that could be heard on every street corner in town. The wheezing men were all old before their time.
Sometimes the man had the $1.27 for the coffee and sometimes he didn’t. Jessica never asked for his money. On the days he didn’t pay she made sure the cash register balanced using money from her meager paycheck. If her boss wasn’t looking, she’d slip him a pastry and he’d thank her with a slight nod of his head.
He was always dressed in the same shabby overalls, a faded blue shirt buttoned at the collar, a buckled Fedora hat, and a jacket that used to be tan. His once strong body was stooped enough to make him shuffle when he walked. He wasn’t dirty, he just looked that way.
His once-blue eyes were turning a misty white and they told his story best. They
were vacant, as if they’d lost their power to send messages to his brain. He stared at nothing and everything. Sometimes he even stared at Jessica but it didn’t bother her at all.
The man was one of the famed ‘21’ who’d been rescued half dead out of
Amery’s shaft No. 7. Jessica was 11 at the time and she remembered that horrible
day — she’d been in the playground when the sirens went off. The entire town ran to the gates of the Amery Coal Company for news but all they were told was that
there had been an explosion. Mothers wept, children cried, and the stoic men went about the ugly business of bringing up the bloody, bruised, and burnt miners. At the time, it was thought no one had survived. But some did – 21 of them.
There wasn’t much to look forward to in the coal towns of Eastern Pennsylvania. No one really hoped for much. But Jessica had something to look forward
to each morning – that moment when her father came in for his cup of coffee.