Photo by Lance Booth.

Smiley was like me in a lot of ways. He wanted to live the life of the coal miner. Big trucks, motorcycles, a nice home. He also didn’t want to shower with the other men at the mine. And, like me, he liked to get to work early.

I was leaving for work at 2:30 a.m. The bad weather had slowed travel and I needed to be the first person in the parking lot. It gave me time to drink apple cider from my thermos and eat a sausage biscuit that I had picked up at the Food and Country Market in Kimper. I enjoyed getting there early; I didn’t have to change clothes with the other men. I could get dressed, eat my breakfast, and start the bus before anyone arrived.

Smiley always showed up early as well, always a different car, a different driver, and sometimes he’d come walking up the road. I didn’t know where he came from but he made sure he was there on time every morning regardless of how he got there. We would talk about how hard the job was or our work before this job. He was nice enough and always happy. He was an awkward guy, much older than me but with the mind of a 16 year old boy, talking about some girl he saw at the dairy bar, some dirty magazine he picked up at the liquor store, always making a crude remark about his sexual fantasies and his neighbor. Smiley was in his late 30s, living in his parent’s old home place on Rockhouse. I drove past there every day to and from work. I finally made friends with Smiley, the goofy bastard, and offered him a ride home one evening after work.

“You take me to Indian Hills and I’ll buy you whatever you want,” he said.

“You tell me how to get there and I’ll take you, as long as it’s on the way.”

“Oh yeah, right downtown, can’t miss it.”

At quittin’ time it was already dark. I told Smiley, “I’ll warm up the car and pull around.” Not that it would bother to him to sit in a freezing car with me, but I promised my parents that I would call every night before leaving so they would know to expect me and how long before getting worried that I was in an accident. I was just a kid, but I didn’t want him to know that. To everyone else I was another man on the crew.

“Hey Smiley, What’s Indian Hills? I never heard of it before?”

“It’s the old liquor store just downtown, cheap as sh–. What you drink? I’ll buy.”

“I don’t drink, I’m only 18.”

“That’s good, don’t ever start. It’s why I’m in this situation. Can’t drive, ain’t got no car. I finally decided– hell, I better get a good job cause they ain’t no woman wants a man that can’t drive. I figure I’ll start shopping at Wal-Mart, not even change my clothes or wash my face. Let all the women know I got a good job and can take care of em. You got a woman?”

“I have a girlfriend, if that’s what ya mean.”

“Yeah, look at you, young stud workin’ in the mines, drivin’ this Monte Carlo, got it licked.”

I just laughed. Smiley seemed awfully impressed with my 1991 Monte Carlo. I didn’t really give a crap about it. It was 10 years old and all I could afford.

Smiley came walking out with two cases of the Milwaukee’s Best and bottle of Heaven Hill vodka.

“You must be thirsty, man.”

Smiley just chuckled, pulled out a dirty magazine, threw it up on my dash, laughed a bit more then took three big swallows from the bottle of vodka. He was much more quiet the rest of the drive. Sucking on his bottle and occasionally opening up the magazine and shaking his head.

“Hey, just pull in here at the Sunshine Dairy Bar, I’ll walk from there.”

“It’s still snowing, and cold, let me give you a ride all the way.”

“Nah, nah, I need the exercise. I’ll walk.”

From that day on I would pick Smiley up and drop him off at the Sunshine Dairy Bar. He never let me see his house. For all I know he might not have had one. He wore the same worn-out sweatpants and sweatshirt to work every day. I never saw him change clothes at work, same coveralls every day. He would just slide them over his sweats. Some mornings on the way in I would stop at Food and Country to buy us both breakfast. It was mostly to get out of the car and away from his stench. His smell was just part of his bothersome ways. It washaving to stop by the liquor store every other night. Smelling him for the ninety-minute ride to and from the Sunshine Dairy Bar was almost tolerable. The constant request for a ride to different areas is what got me. It seemed worth it at the time. I appreciated the conversation and he made me feel like I was somebody. Smiley admired the coal miners in his town. He once told me how he’d grown up with his daddy working on cars, always looking at the coal miners in their souped-up muscle cars, big four wheel drives, and riding their Harleys. He wanted to be them and he swore one day he would.

The Sunshine Dairy Bar, near Pikeville, Kentucky.
The Sunshine Dairy Bar, near Pikeville, Kentucky.

We had been riding together for a couple of weeks. One Monday morning I stopped to pick him up, but he wasn’t there. I waited ten minutes, no luck. Twenty minutes, no luck. Smiley never offered his phone number to me and I always assumed he didn’t have a phone. Thirty minutes, no Smiley. I drove on into work halfway worried about the guy. Thinking he had drunk way too much and passed out in the snow, freezing to death. The other half of me was pissed off that he wasn’t there and had interrupted my normal routine. I pulled up to the Food and Country Market. I could see this monstrosity of a pick-up truck. Multi-colored panels of bodywork, rust holes big enough to throw a cat through, and tires so large it took up two parking spots. As I pulled in a few spots over, Smiley climbed out of the cab wearing fresh uniforms with reflective stripes and his name embroidered on the left chest just above his pocket.

“Breakfast is on me this mornin’ pal!”

“Where the hell were you this morning?”

“Ahh man, I was so excited to drive in this big thing I just couldn’t wait on ya. I picked her up Saturday and then swung by Bull Creek Trading Post and got these new uniforms. Watch that beauty behind the counter when we walk in. She won’t be able to keep her eyes off me.”

Smiley was as happy as I had ever seen a man. He had bought himself one of the worst, most unroadworthy trucks imaginable, gotten himself some proper mining uniforms, and was ready to impress. I’ll also note his beauty behind the counter was about as unique has his recently purchased pickup truck. Hell, who was I to judge? Smiley was happy, proud of himself, and I was there for the same damned reason. We were both raised thinking of coal miners as heroes, saints, the men who risked their lives and broke their backs in order to create a good life for their families and communities.

Then I heard Smiley say,

“Ahhh, horsesh–! They ain’t got no bacon, egg, and cheese sammiches. Hey baby, yea, hey purdy thing back there, you mind fixing me up a bacon, egg, and cheese sammich? I’ll pay you double for lookin’ so purdy.”

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