Black Lung

Author | Marianne Peel

They couldn’t find a handkerchief
that wasn’t stained from his years of coughing.
A blend of soot and blood hacked up over the years
from the mines he couldn’t help but breathe in
through his mouth, his nose, even his eyes.

They called it Black Lung, this coal miner’s plague.
This coughing that kept wives up through the night.
Night, when it was worse because the laying down
made the miners feel like their own throats
would betray them, suffocate them.

They called it black lung, this convulsing of the chest,
which eventually left wives alone in the bed.
A whole town of widows
who now collect black lung payments
instead of their husband’s paychecks.

They laid grandpa out on the kitchen table.
Had to put the holiday leaf back in
because he was six foot five, like my father.
Most families laid their dead on the piano
but there was little music in this house.

Even the radio was busted from the night he’d had
too much Boilo, that sticky homemade poison
in the brown bottle next to the garbage disposal.
I used to think this liquor ate your throat,
pieces at a time, as you swallowed.

But it soothed grandpa, for a time.
Made his throat numb to the spells of coughing,
to the coal dust that always gathered in his throat and on his tongue.
He always smelled like dampness, leaving trails of soot
from his boot laces on grandma’s hand-scrubbed tile floors.

Hardly anybody came to see grandpa,
all laid out in his best suit.
Neighbors feared him.
He wasn’t a quiet drunk.
Grandpa was a dangerous drunk,

taking out the liquor on my grandma most times.
Always used the back of his hand
and grandma learned to turn her head fast,
to never raise her arm to shield her face,
to move out of his path when he was full of Boilo.

He used to hurt her things when he couldn’t find her.
He’d take a whole boxfull of her housedresses
and set himself down
on the corner of Spruce and Second
and light himself a fire.

Grandma’s dresses always had little blue or pink flowers on them,
like she was springtime all year long.
I watched the fabric flowers close,
shrivel up, and die
as he set fire to her cotton garden.

One time he laughed long into the night
until the six a.m. church bells rang
and he stumbled up from his cross-legged squat
and headed down to morning Mass,
making the sign of the cross on his sooty chest. 

My grandma would scurry out
with that old metal dustpan
and scrape up the ashes.
She’d throw them into the coal bin with the other ashes
this house always burned.

Then she’d have her morning cup of coffee
knowing the factory whistle
would blow soon.
Softer than the church bells
but filled with greater demands.

Grandpa was a quiet corpse.
The mines had choked the life right out of him.
My grandma was a satisfied widow
knowing her dresses would bloom now,
unafraid of the fire that too much Boilo always ignites.

About the Author | Marianne Peel taught English at middle and high school for 32 years. She is now retired, doing Field Instructor work at Michigan State University. She recently won 1st prize for poetry in the Spring 2016 Edition of the Gadfly Literary Magazine. She also won the Pete Edmonds Poetry Prize. In addition, Marianne has been published in Muddy River Review; Silver Birch Press; Eastlit; Persephone’s Daughters; Encodings: A Feminist Literary Journal; Write to Heal; Writing for Our Lives: Our Bodies—Hurts, Hungers, Healing; Mother Voices; Metropolitan Woman Magazine; Ophelia’s Mom; Jellyfish Whispers; Remembered Arts Journal. Marianne also received Fulbright-Hays Awards to Nepal and Turkey. She is a flute playing vocalist, learning to play ukulele, who is raising four daughters. She shares her life with her partner Scott, whom she met in Istanbul while studying in Turkey. Marianne also taught teachers in Guizhou Province, China for three summers, and she also toured several provinces in China with the Valpraiso Symphony, playing both flute and piccolo, in January of 2016. Recently, Marianne was invited to participate in Marge Piercy’s Juried Intensive Poetry Workshop in June 2016. This fall, she journeyed to Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where she took part in an amazing Narrative Poetry Writing Seminar.

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