She’d never really meant to keep the lawsuit from Troy. Yes, she should have told him by now, but they’d given her a month, one whole month to decide whether she wanted her father’s estate represented. The case would proceed with or without her, the letter had said, but really and truly, if they stood a chance, if the families of the other men who’d also died were to stand any chance of winning, they needed her.
This wasn’t like class actions Emily had been named in before, stupid stuff that came in the mail from lawyers she’d never heard of saying they’d sued some company like American Express “on your behalf” for charging interest or doing something equally obvious. Of course credit cards charged interest, how else would they make money, but my oh me, these lawyers were here for you, stupid, delusional you who thought for-profit corporations gave cash away for free. They sued without even telling you, commercials on late night television somehow equaling consent, then after they sued, American Express settled for $9.3 million. Your share was $.15—this riveting, justly-vanquished amount now sent to you by check, the attorneys having kept their very modest third.
No, this wasn’t one of those lawsuits; this was real. Real, Erin Brockovich-sized money that Emily could win in the true fight for justice. You see, Emily’s father had died of black lung along with five other men, six total estates now qualified to join, the families of the Paradise Mine. The men all died at different times, but each and every one had gone to the company clinic and had the doctors lie, look them in the face and tell them the disease was not there, “The spots in your lungs aren’t coal dust, sir,” as if the earth they’d dug up was not now taking residence inside them. “They’re polyps,” the doctors said at first, then “bronchitis” or “pulmonary nodules,” and finally “lung cancer” because this was the 1990’s after all and in the 90’s they blamed cigarettes for everything.
Except Emily’s father had never smoked, had never taken a drag in his life. “Light a match in the mine,” he once told her, “and you die.”
The first-time attorneys tried to get her to sue, she’d been barely eighteen and they’d been of the American Express variety: in it for the money and aiming to keep the bulk. What was left of her father at this point—his spark and his spirit gone—had been below ground two days, Emily’s suitcase half-packed for college and sitting on her bed.
“The defendant won’t have anticipated your father being a non-smoker,” one of them said, “defendant being the legal term in this instance for the Paradise Mine,” as if Emily were too stupid to know the word meant the person you were suing.
I have an education, she wanted to say, and even if I didn’t, there’s this thing called tv—Judge Wapner, LA Law—but instead she kept her face straight, too numb from her father’s loss to tell anyone much of anything right now. “They’re going to claim lung cancer would have killed him even if black lung had not,” and Emily wondered how this man and his colleague had gotten in the house, knowing there was no way Mrs. Radford would have ever let them in.
Mrs. Radford had been Mr. Radford’s wife—something as clear as the word defendant or the fact that credit card companies charge interest—but more importantly, Mr. Radford had worked the mine with Emily’s father. He’d died first, never buying the polyps theory or the lung cancer song and dance. “I don’t care if I smoked,” Mr. Radford said, “I could smoke like a goshdanged chimney all day long. I’ve got black lung,” making Mrs. Radford drive him all the way to Louisville to see the pulmonology specialist at Norton.
He and Emily’s father had been good friends—very best friends, in fact—so when his coughing started, Mr. Radford got mad for them both. “Don’t you see that company quack,” he said, “Don’t you trust him,” leaning across the table for his lighter. “You go up there at Louisville, John, you find a way to pay for it hell or highwater,” raising the cigarette to his lips. “Because here’s the thing: Those company doctors tell you you’re the patient and they give you that little sheet that says ‘Patient Bill of Rights,’ but you and I both know,” setting the tobacco to flame, “paper or not, they work for the man that pays um.”
Back in Emily’s home, suitcase on the bed, “We’re sensitive to the fact that, right now, legal action may feel premature,” the attorney had said, shifting his legs uncomfortably on the couch. “It’s difficult to face such an important decision immediately after the death of your father. But to ensure the highest possible settlement, it’s essential we develop a strategy before they do.”
No, that first set of lawyers didn’t have what it takes, bad timing and ill form making it hard not just for Emily, but for all the claimants to trust them. “That your father would want to see something good for you come out of this,” their neighbor Mrs. Samson said, “a little money to see you through college,” Mr. Samson’s coughs growing louder, “why, yes child, of course. But Emily sweetheart, it’s too soon for you to be thinking about all this mess and I just don’t like the way they done you, barging in like that,” glancing at her husband in his armchair and shaking her head. “No, I don’t like the way any of them have done any of us at all.” So when the same two lawyers came to her place, asking Mr. Samson to sign their paper, she stepped on the porch and politely said, “No thank you,” while Mrs. Radford stood behind her with the gun.
All this said, Emily was no longer eighteen. She had gone to college and then “moved off,” as Mrs. Samson would have said, because that’s what young people do: “They work the mine or they work the fields or they do like that Emily Johnson and when they see their chance, they take it.” And now here she was with another—another chance to make a choice.
The difference between that lawsuit and this was that this time, the lawyers were not from the city, had not seen multi-million-dollar settlements with $.15 payouts in their eyes. No, they actually seemed to care, letter pointing out that one of the partners had grown up in Perry County and his father had passed from black lung. “The case against that particular mine settled out of court,” the sender added, and while the firm couldn’t share the amount, there was of course a non-disclosure, “This isn’t about money. This is about people and about making the mine do right by those who labored for them. We truly hope you will give us the trusted honor of choosing representation from Humphrey Shepherd PLLC.”
It was so Kentucky to be egregiously polite in what was essentially a sales pitch. But it had worked. Over the month that letter sat in her dresser drawer, Emily ran out of reasons not to do it—and there had been quite a few: Lawsuits were long and stressful. Even if these men were willing to work on contingency, things always came at a cost. The Paradise would dig into her father’s past, her past, would try to broil both their reputations for sport. Emily would have to talk about him, would have to sit in a deposition if not on the stand and say over and over that her father never smoked while the Paradise called her a liar. She’d have to look in the faces of the men who had killed him and see they were not sorry, that even now the guilt did not shine in their eyes, gazes stoic and empty as they’d been when they came to the funeral home. “Y’all got no business,” Mrs. Radford had said, “no business showin’ up here,” shoving Emily into the family room a little harder than she’d liked, telling her to hurry up and push it deep, that whatever she felt, whatever she was feeling, “you have to hide it. Now. Find that place,” Mrs. Radford said, “that place where you can put this so they never see you cry.”
But in a courtroom, there was nowhere to hide. It would feel like the mine was killing him all over again.
She didn’t know if she could do it. Emily had spoken about her father so little since then, paranoid that one single tear might fall out, that once one fell they all would keep rolling, 9.3 million or more. Why, she’d never even told Troy that much about her father—her own husband—how could she tell him about the suit? He would ask Emily questions, say “Those lawyers know more about your dad than I do,” and be right. Then the grief that pooled inside her would flood out.
It was her decision whether to participate—hers and hers alone—the lawyer who’d sued his own father’s mine calling the week after the firm mailed the letter, asking if Emily’d received it, saying, “It’s no easy thing,” holding back his own waters too: “I want you to know if you do this, it won’t make it go away.”
“When I do decide, will email do?” and he answered, “Yes ma’am, email will suit just fine.”
So she’d written one. She wrote a very short email but did not hit send and when Troy got home, almost told him. “I got the letter a month ago,” she wanted to say and “You don’t have to go through with it,” he would have replied, “I make good money.” But this wasn’t about the money—that would have made her just like them: that first set of lawyers and the Paradise execs. This was not about money, it was never about the money, and it wasn’t really about Mrs. Radford or Mrs. Samson or any of the rest of them either, rather the choice to keep on breathing.
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