We didn’t get into the sagebrush until after we had stepped over the train tracks, snuck through some junk yards and slid down some more mine tailings. We tipped toed around a suspected lair of Black Betty, a huge rattler thicker than a fire hose, rumoured to rocket out of her underground silo to grab a passing coyote or gobble a small child.
We politely stepped around an open pit that was at one time somebody’s glory hole, long ago given up on when the whiskey ran out, now only deep enough to barely sprain an ankle in and be whistled at by an anemic scorpion.
Our destination was the Hale and Norcross Mine, the deepest hole in the world, so deep that whatever was thrown into it would not come out, battered to pieces by the sides of the shaft . . the perfect place to end a miserable story of lost love, grief and greed.
In case I hadn’t mentioned it, mine tailings are a kind of crumbly light brown clay from the center of the Earth, mixed with toxic heavy metals and gasses, flung over the shoulder with shovels by angry whiskered guys with their teeth all rotted out in the frantic quest for material gain. The Comstock, in which Virginia City presides, is carpeted with it, and not just in throw rugs, but wall to wall. All this panicky digging they say accounts for 750 miles of underground tunnels, not including the one that reaches to underneath the Speakers chair in the state Legislature in Carson City, and the one that drains Tahoe.
It was eerily quiet that day, as if someone, or something, was planning a surprise party.
I am not a man of much physical strength or endurance. So what I have to replace that with is deliberation. If I find that I’m getting tired I just slow down and put my legs on autopilot and daydream.
I was awakened from my reverie by a single bark from a coyote. I looked up at the looming header of the Combination Shaft on the hill above us. It is a large pulley wheel that at one time ran the elevator into the shaft of the deepest hole in the world.
Just one bark. A warning bark, as if to say, “get ready, they’re coming.” Could it be the coyotes were preparing for an ambush?
There is one thing that Huck is deathly afraid of, and that is coyotes. I don’t know why. Comstock coyotes are especially bold, they wander into town every now and then for a stray cat or small dog, but a larger one like Huck to them is a special challenge.
They steer clear of apex predators like humans though, even wimpy ones like me. They’re not smart enough to know which of us are pacifists. So why should a dog be worried with a bully human being along for a bodyguard?
However, if a human is away they will prey upon a large dog like Huck. The strategy of the pack is to send in a potential girl friend, called a Lolita, to lure the unwitting domesticated male dog away from the safety of the backyard, and then when clear of it, the rest of the pack will pounce on him, tear him to pieces and leave only the hair. If the domesticated dog is a female, they will send in a Romeo for the same purpose.
Huck, it seemed had some history with the coyotes, for on a cold night when the purpled black sky was spangled an infinitesimal number of lights, at the first call from his feral cousins he would sheepishly slide back to the back door and lean on it.
The single bark came from the very place we were going. I wondered if Huck had heard it.
I didn’t think so. He loved to run ahead of me, then double back, nose to the ground.
I called his name but all was silent.
“Huck?” I called.
“Huck!” I yelled.
“HUCK!” I screamed.
“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “The coyotes got him!”
I called and called. Nothing responded. I went up on a little hill to survey where we had been. I called his name. I was sick with grief. How could I tell everyone what had happened, that the coyotes had got Huck?
I slowly shuffled back to the Mackay. I crossed the railroad track, walked up the path to the gate, and turned in the yard and there he was, rolling and squirming on his hot, itchy back in the cool green grass of the lawn.
I fumed, I ranted, I raved. How could he leave me like that? Here was I, knocking myself out, agonizing over his loss, like a parent over a lost child.
“How dare you!” I cried. He slunk towards the house, donkey eared, tongue darting out in little licks, belly low to the ground.
Relief provided no temperance for my censure. I gave him a good chewing out, locked him in the house and headed back for the Combination Shaft.
I was tired but I fixed that by being mad, making a forced march to the Combination Shaft. To heck with him and his imaginary coyotes.
There is no abrupt edge to the Hole. Curiosity drives a man closer to peer into infinity. Like its cousins of astronomical dimensions, this hole is so deep it’s got its own gravity. It’s like one of those plants that suck in insects and with little spiked hairs jab them down a one way tunnel . . into a pool of acid.
What a metaphor the Shaft is for life’s journey to its end. We ignore it, some defy it openly, but once the first step is taken at birth, there is no turning back, it is inevitable, whenever it may appear, sometimes by doctor’s orders, other times unexpectedly.
You can walk right up to the pit and into it . . if you are so inclined, as there’s not much of a fence around it to keep anyone from taking the 13th step, the last step, the final step. There’s a strange gravity here that has a sound to it, a low sucking sound, a constant note, a low wind, lower than the lowest note on the widest pipe in the biggest cathedral.
In Alcoholics Anonymous the 13th Step refers to seducing a newcomer to the program, but I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just a plain old drunk. I conduct my meetings with my peers in saloons, taverns and bars, not church basements or senior service centers, and my terminology is not so regal. Where others use “and” I just put a period, so let us all be plain about this, our definitions for the 13th Step are interchangeable . . seducing women who are trying to rectify their lives from alcohol is indeed tantamount to dropping into the Combination Shaft of the Hale and Norcross, no matter how many times you‘ve done it. It’s reprehensible. I know this to be true from experience.
Above he Hole towered the Header, one of the greatest churches the world has ever seen, the Hellespont of pure wealth, misery and con. When this hole was dug into the Comstock the world literally went into a panic, for it threatened to make paupers of us all.
Now with its work done, the job complete, the monolithic Elevator still surveys its domain, to the banking houses in San Francisco to the West, across the Great Basin to the East, past the Humboldt range to the Mississippi, to the Capitol and Wall Street and the great banking houses of London and Europe beyond. The Elevator casts a long shadow. Far, far away the bankers, the brokers, the politicians, the lobbyists, like scurrying rats, suddenly frozen in the thrall of the hawk in her stoop, still fall down in the pall of the Elevator, in worship of the Shaft.
On a cliff several stories above the Shaft is a large pulley wheel on a gibbet, outstretched timbers mounted on the firm base of the Header. This was the apparatus to operate the Elevator Car. There are stories about that wicked contraption, how if a leg, arm or head was inadvertently poked beyond its curfew, it could be sheered off.
I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how that’s done.
The Car long gone, fallen into the void. The Header stands, a broken monument, an ominous cathedral, towering above the deep, black hole.
Something, somewhere, was banging against something else in the wind. A sample hit me and drove me back a step, such is the nature of Nevada winds. Nary a cloud in the sky on a cool summer afternoon, the fragrant sage tingling your nostrils just before you get sucker punched by a gust . .
The edge around the Hole over time had become a sloping, slippery slide. I looked up to the edifice high above me. Perhaps, I thought, I could get a better look into the Hole from up there. Perhaps there would be a comfortable ledge with sharp corners to look over.
Behind the thin gate is the pilot house for the Elevator Operator I slipped under the token wire, ignored the KEEP OUT sign and stepped into the control yard of the Shaft. The pilot house was open.
I stepped inside.
The house was built around the Lever. The Lever is what controlled the ups and downs of the Car. For the Operator, this was a very precise job. He couldn’t see the Car, so he had to be instructed entirely by toots and whistles from the Landing platform.
On the wall adjacent the door for all who could read was a sign that ominously proclaimed the cost of loquacity, the fine for talking to and distracting the Operator, something like a million dollars and a thousand years in jail.
I took the lever in hand and pretended for a moment to play with the Fate of Others.
Beyond me, through the window I saw the Ledge. The wind blew through the House like a sharp intake of breath.
I was drawn toward it . . A foreign voice in the back of my head said “COME ON! Take a look. COME ON!
I didn’t have the courage to look down standing up next to it so I lay myself down and belly crawled over to it. Trouble was, the concrete pad on which I lay was at more of a slant than I thought . .
I looked over the Edge. It was several stories down just to the mouth of that horrible vertical cave, the open black maw yawned at me to come closer, like a warm lover, calling for bed.
Something didn’t feel right. I seemed to be moving unintentionally in its direction, sliding, uncontrollably sliding.
It wasn’t until many years later I discovered something sickeningly disturbing about the Hole. For reason of optics, in the satellite photo, zoomed all the way in, you can see the bottom of it, and perhaps it just my overwrought imagination, but the sight of it . . among so much beauty . . it is one of the most hopeless looking places on Earth, an open grave, an angry pattern of its fallen timbers at the base, and over by the side . . something undefinable.
But on that day from that angle it was nothing but velvet black. Without troubling about the slight movement of my entire body to a point of no return, I hefted a pebble over the edge. It drifted slowly down like a feather, soft, without a sound.
The action lost my traction.
Terror swept over me as I felt myself being drawn into the Hole, I was slipping, sliding into it.
My life reeled past me, the defeats, the wins, the disappointments, the stupid mistakes, the moments of glory, the good times, being in love, the moments of ecstasy with her never before experienced, a spiritual feeling . .
The moment before I was about to follow the rock, I felt a slight tug on my right pant leg . . and then another, and then a strong pull, his rough pads scouring the concrete base. He would not let go. I spread my fingers and with Huck pulling me back I pushed away from death.
When I was back in the safety zone I stiffly swung my legs under me in to the sitting position and slowly swiveled around on my butt like a lazy susan and passed a hand over my sweating brow. Huck was trotting away when he stopped and looked over his shoulder at me as if to say, “come on, let’s go,” then noticed his tail, and spinning around he bit at it, and missed. . snap snap snap.
The Mackay’s a beautiful place this time of year. The coyotes howl at night as Huck and I peer up into the purpled black sky spangled with an infinitesimal number of lights and dream of other worlds. During the day the cherry blossoms bend down to kiss visitors to the Mackay walking on her bricked paths. Huck cools his itchy, hot back by writhing on dark green lawns, as I sit and type . . and type . . and between chapters Huck looks back at me and smiles with all his white teeth showing and . . .snap snap snap.
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