Jay Waitkus

Official Site of the Author & Journalist

Excerpted from Shantytown by Jay Waitkus

Chapter 1

MILLER’S BLUFF was a tiny, forgettable town carved into the unforgiving hills of West Virginia. Not many people gave a second thought to it. The town bore the scars of coal mining like wrinkles on an aging, worn-out face. 

The air was constantly thick with the acrid scent of burning coal. The gray landscape blended seamlessly with the soot-covered structures that built up the town. It was in this grim setting that Danny James found himself, a 20-year-old miner with dreams too big for the rough and confining walls of his life.

As dawn broke, it cast a dim light on the rundown shanties and the towering mine structures. Danny headed into the tunnels alongside his fellow workers with no plans other than to spend the next twelve grueling hours in the depths of the mines. 

They were an exhausted bunch of men, their faces smeared with coal dust. No matter how much they scrubbed their skin clean, their shoulders bowed under the weight of their daily toil.

The sound of pickaxes echoed across the hills. Sunshine struggled to reach Miller's Bluff, blocked by the thick coal dust in the air.

Danny swung his pickaxe with practiced ease, used to the routine. He shared a glance with an older miner whose eyes showed the marks of decades spent underground.

“Morning, Danny,” the older man grunted. 

No one ever said ‘Good morning’ to each other, just a simple ‘Morning.’ Most of the miners couldn’t dream up a proper good morning if you paid them.

“Morning, Jeb,” Danny replied, his tone revealing a weariness beyond his years. “Another day in hell, eh?”

Jeb chuckled. 

“Puts food on the table. Ain’t much we can do about it.”

Danny grimaced at the notion. He thought about his father, Cody, one of the leaders of the miners’ union – a union that seemed to have no power to bring about any actual change.

Danny’s eyes scanned the oppressive walls surrounding him as the procession reached its destination. He turned back to Jeb, scoffing at his seeming contentment.

“Is that really what you believe?”

“It is what it is, kid.”

“And that’s all, huh? Working till our bones give out, then laying them to rest in these goddamn hills?”

“Life of a miner, Danny. It's hard, but it’s the only life some of us know.” 

“Well, maybe I want something else.”

“There isn’t anything else.” 

“There’s got to be, Jeb. Don’t you ever want more? You’ve been working in this mine since before I was even born. Are you really going to keep at it for the rest of your life? Is that really what you want?”

“Doesn’t matter what I want. Garvin calls the shots. It’s what he wants that counts.”

“Fucking pathetic,” Danny mumbled, but Jeb heard it, raising an eyebrow to the jab. He said nothing, turning away to get started chiseling at the walls.

“I’m sorry,” Danny whispered, but the words were lost to the loud sounds of the pickaxes.

The short conservation hung in the stale air, sinking into Danny’s thoughts. He continued to chip away at the rock and coal, but his mind wandered, exploring the boundaries of the confined life laid out before him. 

As the days wore on, his discontent simmered beneath the surface. Even still, a flicker of defiance sparked in his eyes. 

Chapter 2                      
“HEY there, stranger.” 


“Haven’t seen you all week. Where’ve you been hiding?” 

“I haven’t been hiding from you, silly. I’ve been working, is all.”

“Teaching the kiddies their ABCs?” 

“Someone’s got to do it.” 

“I wish you’d give me half the time you give to that school of yours.” 

“Is that so?”

“Sure is. I’ve had a really bad time without seeing you the last few days.” 

“I’m sure you’ve been getting along just fine.”

“Can’t say I have. My days crawl by so slow without you around.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re trying to charm me, Danny James.” 

“Trying, huh? I thought I was succeeding.” 

May Stockton’s face lit up in a bright smile. 

“Ah, there’s that look I’ve been missing.” 

“Please, don’t. I look like a mess, I’m sure.”

“You? Never.” 

“No? Do you think I look good with ink splashed on my face?” 

“Sure. It looks like that makeup all the actresses in the picture shows put on.” 

“As if I’d ever look like a picture show actress. And I doubt you’ve ever even seen a picture show. Ain’t none of that in the Bluff.” 

“Well, how’s about we run away together and go to California. They’ve got plenty of picture shows there. We’ll watch them all.” 

May didn’t say anything for a while, seemingly lost in thought. Danny couldn’t help but get a little lost, too. Places like California hardly seemed real when all he and the others in Miller’s Bluff had ever known was their tiny mining town. 

“You ought to get back to work, Danny.” 

“What’s wrong? Have I said something to upset you?” 

“No. It’s not that.”

“Tell me what’s wrong. I’ll fix it.” 

“You can’t fix it never, because there’s nothing to fix.” 

May sounded tired and irked now, with a frown marring her delicate features. 

“Hey now, don’t underestimate me.” 

“You’ve got to stop living in your head, Danny. This isn’t some fantasy land where we’ll run off to California of all places! We don’t get picture shows and makeup and other fanciful stuff. This, here, is all we get.” 

“Hey, c’mon, May. I wasn’t trying to –”

“You didn’t. It’s fine.” 

“I’m sorry, okay?”

“I don’t hate my life here as much as you do, Danny. I like the kids. I like teaching them. Why do you always look down on everyone? You’re one of us, too, you know.” 

“May, it’s not like that. I’m glad you like your job –”

“Just let it go, okay? I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” 

“Okay, I’ll let it go. But only if you give me another one of your big smiles, huh?” 

Danny waited a second, then two, then three. 

“There it is.” 

“Oh, hush, you. What a charmer!” 

“Well, if I’m such a charmer after all, why don’t you come give me a kiss, too?” 

May laughed, momentarily distracting Danny from his discontent. He forgot about his aching back and the throbbing pain in his head, a result of toiling in the dark and dingy mines all afternoon.

Chapter 6

THE Rolls Royce meandered down the dusty road and stood out like a beacon in its otherwise gray and mundane surroundings.

Joe Garvin lit a cigarette as he sat in the back seat, his chauffer driving him and his advisors down to Miller’s Bluff. Another car followed close behind, and more would show up by nightfall.

“I don’t know why I even bothered coming down here. Look at this goddamn place. It’s miserable.”

 One of the older men in the assemblage spoke up.

“The union head has been sending you letters every day for weeks now, Mr. Garvin. It’s important to deal with the issue sooner rather than later.”

Garvin laughed.

“The union head,” he sneered. “What a joke.”

“It might be advisable to accept some kind of settlement. There have been complaints about working conditions and health problems. The people here want compensation.”

“I'm not here for a settlement,” Garvin said emphatically.

“Maybe we could appease them for a while. This whole problem might disappear if you give them something.”

“And tell me, Lou: exactly what kind of message would that send to the workers in my other businesses? That it’s okay to walk all over us whenever they damn well see fit?”

Garvin looked away from the older man, turning his glance to another passenger, who looked almost too young to be there.

“You know what would actually make this whole problem disappear, Will?”

“What, sir?”

“Clearly, these rabble-rousers have delusions of grandeur. We need to disabuse them of that. Simple subtraction, right? No rabble-rousers, no problem.”

“And what if it isn’t that easy?” Lou asked.

“Then we’ll just have to go to plan B.”


Shantytown copyright © 2024 Jay Waitkus. All rights reserved. Cover image by NZ Graphics.