This is a serialized story. It may be read independently, but reading Deep Holes A first provides context and, potentially, a more satisfying experience.
“Don’t be ascared.” The coach door is flung open by the silhouette of a man. The harsh desert sun reveals two additional silhouettes flanking the first. “We you welcome wagon,” he adds helpfully. The four passengers rise stiffly from their benches. They shade their eyes to get a better view of the three greeters as they form a file at the open door. Bob takes his accustomed position at the end of the line, a habit developed during the fourteen-day trip by ox-drawn coach across a barren alkaline basin.
The retractable stairway Lester had used to reach and unlock the massive padlock that secures the rear door is nowhere to be seen. Presumably, the steps have been stowed back to their traveling position and the arrivals are expected to jump to the ground. Bob thought this was not a good omen. He cranes his neck for a better view of the men waiting below.
“Lookit the new crickets,” leers Lester, scratching a sore festering on his jet black forearm.
“They sure all fresh’n pretty, remarks Big Johnson nodding in approval.
“I don’t know BJ, that first one’s so ugly his mama have to give him a sausage necklace so the dogs’d play with ‘im,” observes Lester.
“You cut yourself shaving, big man?” Chuck the Puck, leader of the greeting committee, addresses the first man in line to leave the coach.
Leading the new arrivals, the big bald man with a jagged facial scar takes no visible notice of the taunts. He drops three feet from the door lip, showing no expression on impact. He ambles a short distance from the greeters, stops, and faces them. He acknowledges no one, eyes focused on an imaginary object somewhere behind Chuck — and waits.
Earl and Zippy each land with a wince when travel-worn joints are jolted as feet slam the ground. Zippy limps a little as he walks to stand to the right of the big bald man. Earl stands next to Zippy. Groaning slightly, Bob lowers himself to his butt and with hands buttressed on the doorframe, slides to the ground. Even the limited impact makes him grimace.
“Oh, you have a hard ride, cricket?” Lester’s says with mock concern. “Maybe a little dip in the camp hot tub’ll make you feel better.”
The greeters break into coarse laughter. Bob looks furtively at the three Deep Hole Camp veterans. Two white men, their skin darkened to mahogany pulled tight over stringy, heavily veined muscles. Even laughing, their movements are conservative, calloused hands dangling loosely by their sides. Bob notes the left hand of the larger white man, the one he thinks is in charge, is two digits short.
The third man, the one called Lester, is the blackest homie Bob has ever seen. Bob is mixed race and was raised in a diverse neighborhood back in the world. He has never seen skin like this: Lester absorbs the desert sun like a human black hole. Bob turns his attention to his feet and the now familiar workboots. Already the recipient of the greeter’s mirth, Bob knows that staring at any of them will bring additional unwanted attention. He wants to fade away.
“Lester, Scooterbutt looks to be about your size,” says Big Johnson sizing Bob up.
Bob inwardly groans. He’s appalled at the thought of the entire camp knowing him as Scooterbutt.
“Mr. Johnson, I do believe your assay is correct.” Lester saunters thoughtfully toward Bob conspicuously checking out his boots. Bob has taken a position next to Earl and avoids looking at Lester, finding the ground much less threatening. “Scooterbutt, take off those shitkickers. You ‘n me gonna make a trade.”
“B… But they were issued to me,” stutters Bob. He looks up from the ground into Lester’s cold dead eyes, confounded with the unfamiliarity of the camp and weariness from the journey. He immediately regrets opening his mouth when Lester grins, cruelly baring two rows of small very white broken jagged teeth.
Lester darts in close, nose inches from Bob’s face. He speaks slowly and calmly, losing some of his affected dialect: “Scooterbutt, you can unlace those boots here and now, or I can remove your feet and unlace them later at my leisure.” Lester steps back so that Bob can see the length of metal with a gleaming polished edge in Lester’s relaxed grip around an improvised wooden handle.
While Bob hurriedly unties his bootlaces, Chuck the Puck addresses the newcomers. He wastes no effort to project his voice. The parched windless air readily carrying his words.
“I’m Trustee 487A3O. You all have not earned the right to call me anything but Sir,” Chuck pauses for effect giving the big bald man a hard look. The big man does not acknowledge the special attention in any way.
Bob is again standing and stares at his feet in mute horror at the condition of his new boots. The synthetic laces have been spliced so often that there is not enough cord left to lace through all the boot’s eyelets. The boots are beyond broken in, they are simply broke. Lester stands nearby having exchanged his blade for the boots which now hang by his side — his bare feet apparently not bothered by the heated broken stone surface of the road.
“Survive six years of Big Hole Camp like me, and maybe you’ll score some respect and earn a Trustee identifier. Work hard and stay out of trouble, you may acquire some sun time.”
Sun time? What does he mean by that? thinks Bob. Keeping his eyes down, Bob hears Skippy shuffling his feet. Poor Skippy, it’s got to hurt for him to keep his mouth shut for so long. During the long ride, Bob noticed that Skippy seemed to abhor silence and he filled much of the journey with a low non-stop monologue when no one else would talk to him.
A little disappointed that he could not berate or punish anyone for interrupting or talking without permission, Chuck continues. “You are crickets. Crickets live and work 24×7 in the Hole. Soak up that sun while you can boys, you won’t be seeing it again for a long, long time.
For some reason, Bob had never registered that there was a real hole associated with Big Hole Camp. The idea of an actual hole in the middle of nowhere was absurd. He raises his eyes to the towering mountain of waste rock that has begun to obscure the setting sun. That pile came out of a hole? The pile is huge. He sees men slowly climbing a twisting path, pushing and pulling carts filled with rubble. How many carts to make that mountain? How deep can the hole be? Bob is becoming anxious.
“Deep Hole Camp is run by Trustees like me,” says Chuck. “There are no securitards. Trustees are the law. Be stupid and try to run? Miss a roll call? We instant message the Boss back in the world. The Boss authorizes a hexacopter to find you and scramble your eggs. Most of the time, the copter just finds a runner expired from exposure. They’ll light him up anyway just for practice even if it wastes a little ammo and carbon.”
Chuck pauses again to let his words sink in, and then continues. “The Man only visits this happy place if he thinks something happens that’s bad enough to require his direct intervention. Believe me, his definition of bad has nothing to do with your personal misfortunes.”
“I’m sure you all have questions. But I don’t give a shit. BJ here will take you to the Hole.” Chuck turns away from the four. He and Lester walk together toward the collection of prefab structures huddled in the growing late day shadow.
Walk to the Hole
The lineup lost its coherence as the men drift along following Big Johnson’s lethargic stride. “You all be careful,” says Big Johnson with feigned concern. “Crickets get squished, they fall, and stuff gets chopped off of them. Chuck lost them two fingers when he was a cricket.”
“How long you gotta be a cricket?” blurts Zippy.
“You gonna be a cricket a long time if yer lucky,” answers Big Johnson. “Not being a cricket a long time means you’re dead.” Bob feels bile churn his gut.
“They’s all kinds of crickets in the hole. You four gonna be Face Crickets. Fourteen crickets work on the face at the very bottom. You work the face until you have an accident and die or until you get seniority and move up.”
“How do you get seniority?” inquires Zippy.
“You four get to the bottom, the four Crickets that been on the face the longest move up. But one of you get juiced by a falling boulder, the promoted Cricket with the shortest time on the face moves back down. Best life insurance you got — no one wants to go back down.”
“But sometimes senior face crickets have accidents,” Big Johnson adds thoughtfully.
“Mr. Johnson, how long did it take you to get out of the Hole?” asks Earl, speaking for the first time since leaving the coach.
Big Johnson stops and slowly turns around, the other’s pulling up short. “You don’t ask that question around here. Chuck volunteered how long it took him to make trustee, but you don’t no never ask no one no how how long they’ve been doing anything.” Big Johnson resumes his leisurely pace and the others follow, each lost in their own thoughts. “It’s just not done,” he says as if to himself. No one else speaks for the remainder of the short walk to the Hole.
Bob had not known what to expect, but there it was — the Hole. It looked to be a perfectly square five-meter wide breach in the desert floor. Six men strained to turn a windlass, winding cable onto a central capstan. The cable wove through a set of metal pulleys mounted on a wood hoist reaching over the rent in the desert floor. Bob watched as a large wooden bucket filled with broken rock heaves into view.
The Trustee supervising the winching operation throws a lever and the men operating the windlass relax as the mechanism is locked. He releases another lever and three men haul on a rope that pivots the hoist from the Hole to hover above a two-wheel chassis. The Trustee says something to the windlass team, and the team members grip the windlass handles. The locking lever is released and the team gently lowers the bucket onto the carriage, turning it into one of the carts Bob had seen men pushing up the waste heap.
The bucket is unhooked from the hoist. Three men position themselves around the cart. Two to push, one to pull, and begin the slow trip to grow the rock pile. A second cart team positions their cart under the hoist and hook up their empty bucket. On the Trustee’s command, the windlass team raises the bucket off of the chassis. The hoist is re positioned over the Hole.
“Four new Face Crickets for you Teddy,” Big Johnson says to the Trustee supervisor, pointing his eyes toward Bob and his fellows.
Prepare to Descend
A moment passes with the only sound coming from the departing cart. “What are you waiting for?” shouts the Trustee. “Get your asses in gear,” he gestures toward the dangling bucket. As usual, the big scarred man takes the lead, usually nonplussed, he approaches the hole’s edge without his usual self-confidence. The windlass and hoist crews look on with interest.
The big man sees that there is no simple way to mount the bucket. The surreal environment made the decision behind his mad leap over the void toward the bucket seem less crazy. His foot strikes the edge of the bucket. The bucket tips under his weight and panic flashes over his face as he lunges for the hoist cable with both hands. Amidst laughter from the crew, he manages to scramble into the bucket conserving nary a shred of dignity.
“You boneheads,” the Trustee admonishes the crew and then looks directly at the new guy in the bucket. “You have a death wish?”
Still laughing, the crew pivots the hoist away from the pit and it’s lowered to the ground. “Now get in the damn bucket,” shouts the Trustee at the remaining three future Face Crickets.
Bob is the last to board the bucket. He’s relieved that he did not have to make the big man’s leap. But, he has a death grip on the cable as the hoist pivots, positioning the bucket over the Hole. Daring to look down, Bob discovers the walls are faced with stone. He also notices that he can’t see very far and that the hole has the same light absorbing properties as Lester’s skin. They begin their descent with a gut-wrenching jerk, but then move slowly and smoothly downward. Above, the mouth narrows and it darkens. His eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness, Bob sees the bone dry stone facing is like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces apparently sculpted by hand to fit together.
A faint glow is visible from beneath the bucket. The light increases until a cavern is revealed, lit with sparsely distributed light emitting diodes. Bob sees another windlass crewed with six men in the cavern recess. A hoist is pivoted into space above the bucket and a length of perforated steel is manhandled into place to serve as a ramp from the cavern to the bucket. A shirtless convict featuring a crude depiction of the bearded white Jesus scurries over open space across the ramp and into the bucket. He drives his boot into Bob’s shin. “Move, give Jesus some space man!”
In a few moments, the bucket is secured to the new hoist and the old cable dangles in the shaft above them. Jesus bounds across the ramp to the cleft in the wall. The ramp is hauled back and the downward journey resumes, accompanied by a squeal from a capstan begging for grease.
This exchange is repeated four times before the bucket hits the bottom and settles next to a second bucket filled with broken rock. A few scattered LEDs relieve the gloom. Bob sees a man with gauze shrouding his face perform the now-familiar task of unhooking the cable and rehooking it to the rock-filled bucket. As he hooks the last corner of the bucket, another man joins him climbing up and sitting on the pile of rock with legs dangling. The first man is making himself a comfortable seat and calls out with a big smile, “Jonesy! Thurmond! — Going Up!”
Two additional men shuffle into the dim light. One clutches a small bundle to his chest as they find seats on the fractured rock. When all four men are seated and have a grip on the cable, the first man cups his hands into a cone and shouts upwards “Ready face!”
“Hauling!” is the faint response heard from above. The slack cable becomes taut and the bucket undulates slightly after leaving the floor and begins a measured ascent. By now, Bob and the other three newbies are standing on the floor of the pit. It is clear from the indent carved from one wall that the crew is working on a new waystation cavern. Ten sets of eyes stare out of the shadows reflecting the weak unwavering LED light. A voice says “Get over here and out the pit — now.”
“Why are you all crowded into that little cave?” asks Zippy.
“Four fools in a bucket always knock something loose, whether they want to or not,” answers the voice.
Bob starts forward just as a softball size rock rushes out of the dark, brushing his ear, careening off his shoulder, and knocking him to the ground. The big bald man and Earl grab Bob under each arm and drag/carry him to the crowd of fellow Face Crickets and out from under the bucket.
Bob was off to a rough start for his first night in the Hole.
Deep holes dug by paupers
“Boots & Laces” by Steve Byrne’s Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A hole in the ground: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Abandoned_Mine_Shaft_At_Phantom_Falls.jpg
Podruznik at English Wikipedia [Public domain]
“Cable” by s-v-b.nl is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Draper [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]