I left four men on the drilling rig with instructions to keep it moving until the dawn shift. The rest of us went down. I picked my way along the path in the half-darkness, while some of the others drove their trucks. The high beams bounced over the gray sage and grama grass and sprayed into the distance.
Ahead of me Mitch stopped and turned his back to the wind to light a cigarette. Illuminated by the match, his face broke into rough patterns of orange and shadow. He had come in three weeks before, and I liked his willingness. When the rig foreman, Olshansky, tested him with the worst jobs like cleaning casing or climbing the tower to shake something loose, Mitch didn’t argue. He did the work.
The evening light slid now along the hills to the west, and what color remained to the day dissipated into the familiar silhouettes of Cathedral Wash. Along the river the dusty cottonwoods tattered in the wind, but the trees did little to change a land that appeared as lifeless as the surface of the moon.
“So you’think we’ll hit?” Mitch asked, when I had come up to him. He raised his voice against the hammering of the rig behind us. “We’ll hit.” “I want to see it.”
“That’s a prediction, not a guarantee,” I said easily. “I just know it’s there.”
None of the men believed me. In the daytime you could stand on the rig platform and see the same stretch of sky and barren land for 40 miles in any direction, and it was easy to think there couldn’t be anything under the ground either. But the other men weren’t engineers.
Across the river a coyote barked, and the shrill call was answered by the dogs at the trailers below. The men in the trucks were just coming into view again from behind the hill, and the dust from the road swirled up around the pole lights in the yard. “You from here, Mitch?” I asked to make conversation. “Bozeman,” Mitch said. “Gallatin River.” “How’d you find us out here?” “Paper out of Billings. I’ve done rig work before.”
I waited a moment, hesitant. Behind us the drill stopped, and the night and the wind kept the silence. A man like Mitch drew me in, and in a way I envied him. He drifted from one job to another, taking his luck from newspapers. He was about my age, but his thinness and rough skin made him seem older. Thirty-five and without a future: it was a hard way to live.
I’d had college and graduate school, and now I tracked down geological history for a company that paid well. I knew how the earth had been formed, how the strata cut, the way gas was trapped beneath the crust, and how to find it. Once I had been excited about the work, and I knew that beneath that barren country was a pocket of natural gas bigger than I had dreamed. But knowing that did nothing for me. It was a stark land. Though in the beginning I had not minded the isolation, I had changed in the nine years I had been on the plains. The land had not done it. It was the wind: the wind never stopped, and in time it eroded everything. It nicked pieces of sandstone along the washes, blew away the dry land farms, and even stunted the few patches of brush that grew on the hills. As the light was squeezed from the day, the wind rose and whined under the eaves of the trailer.
“Is it good country around Bozeman?” I asked. “Cold in winter.” “It’s cold everywhere in Montana in the winter.”
I looked across to the darkening hill where the coyote called. It was farther away now, and the dogs did not bark.
“You can fish the Gallatin,” he said. “It isn’t like your river here.” He snapped his wrist as though he were flicking a line out across the stream. His cigarette sparked at the quick movement.”You throw the fly out and follow it hard and watch the wings sail the current until it runs its length. Then it cuts across, and sometimes you’ll get a rise. A cutthroat maybe. But mostly no. Nothing at all. And you get to looking so hard at the current in those soft breaks that when you finally reel and look up at the bank, the trees are blurred.” He laughed softly.
The grim outline of M itch’s face and hair were black now, though I knew the hair was red and the teeth gray and rotted. I wondered how many fights he had been in, and how he spent his hours alone, and whether loneliness could ever touch him.
He did not ask where I was from; it didn’t matter to him. He didn’t need to put Ohio on the map, or to find out that my wife, Jessica, had grown up in Louisiana. Those things meant no more to Mitch than the age of the earth or the piece of paper I had got from college.
Our silence lasted a moment too long, and I thought better of wanting to be friendly. Then the rig began hammering again, and I was conscious of the steady wind that blew across the ridge and tightened my jacket against my chest.
Mitch spun his cigarette out into the sage. “Going down?” he asked. “In a minute.”
I let Mitch go ahead. I watched his distance runner’s body bending against the slope of the hill. Beyond the arc light the trailers in neat rows gave off golden squares of window light to the darkness. Probably Mitch would be glad to settle into television and a beer. He came into the yard, his silhouette changing to red shirt and blue jeans and red hair. Thirty-five and without a future, but that was lucky. Mitch and I were different because he did not have to take anything to heart. He could get up any morning and go.
When he disappeared, I looked at my own trailer, set apart from the others, where Jessica was waiting for me. But I knew I wouldn’t go to her right away.
The moon was rising, rocked on its back, and the pale light reflected dully from the land. I started down, not toward the trailers but along a small path that led toward the river. After a hundred yards, I cut cross-country to the high bank and continued upstream toward the highway. A deep ravine broke the flow of the land, and I backtracked to get down the steep slope to the sandy bottom. The diffuse light on the sand contrasted with the jagged dark walls of the ravine, and I could see the river ahead of me, where the roil of the moving water was frozen in my line of vision with the moon.
I stopped at the edge of the river. Upstream, above a grove of cottonwoods, I could see the ghostly spider web of the highway’s silver bridge; downstream the lights of the trailers shone across the water.
No cutthroats or browns in this river, I thought. This river rose from the mountains like the Gallatin, rose glittering from glaciers and clear springs, and here, two hundred miles from its source, it was sluggish and silted and warm to the touch.
I stripped down and waded into the water. I liked the feeling of the current against my legs and the breath of the wind against my skin. Near the middle I ducked down, the warmth of the water like a bath, and for a minute or so I swam against the current in strong, steady strokes. Then I let the river carry me slowly toward the far side.
Headlights broke through the branches of the cottonwoods near the bridge, and I waited until the car’s engine and lights had died before I stood up.
Audrey got out of the car, and I moved forward, naked in the cool breeze.
“Why didn’t you walk?” she asked, putting the blanket around me. “I felt like drowning.”
She held me, ignoring words. Each time we met we seemed to speak less often. And yet I felt more comfortable with Audrey in a lie than I did with Jessica in the truth of marriage. I could kiss Audrey, whom I did not love, and put my arms around her, and lie beside her without questions or false answers.
She eased away from me and smiled, taking the blanket and spreading it on the sand bank. My own skin was luminous in the moonlight, beside her clothed figure. She began to unbutton her blouse.
Perhaps because she was not good-looking, she liked to be brazen. The eyes were too large; the nose marred by a break. But she taunted me for a moment, willing to risk time.
And then I helped her undress and kissed her, and we lay down upon the blanket. She held back the darkness which threatened me, absorbed the impending feeling in me the way dry land took water. And with the night taken away, I was pure light, and I felt again as if no shadow could ever touch me.
Afterward we lay in the chill of the wind. Then suddenly she sat up and looked past me in surprise.”Look!”
At first when I turned I saw only the silver girders of the bridge crossing the dark sky above us, bounded by black trees and the curtain of stars. But then I made out a man’s form against the moonlit steel, the motionless body leaning against a beam.
“Do you know him?”
“Then it’s all right,” she said.
She lay back against me and smiled, and I knew immediately what she meant. She meant that if you could not be recognized then it did not matter what you did. If you were in visible then you were free, and nothing could hold you back. You had no past and no future, and you could do anything you wanted.
I put a finger against her lips and kissed her cheek. But what she meant did not work, because I knew the man on the bridge was Mitch. I had just seen that same lean silhouette against the arc light of the yard, and now he was there, above us, watching.
“I went swimming,” I said, when Jessica asked me where I had been. I ran a hand through my wet hair. “By yourself?” “With Mitch.”
I searched in the refrigerator for a beer among the jars of pickles and ketchup. I had grown used to making excuses, and it was easy to deceive someone who loved you. “Any beer?” I asked “There should be some there.” I stared, not really looking.
I had not wanted the change: it had begun in another place without my awareness, somewhere inside me. There had been no one else then. I remembered feeling that time had shifted pace, and I was being drawn into some trackless space where age made no difference. It was a realization that for me there would be no more beginnings.
I found a beer and stood for a moment, still looking into the refrigerator, staring at milk, vegetables, leftovers neatlywrapped. I heard Jessica’s wind chimes at the window. The wind always blew and the brittle icy sound was so constant that I rarely noticed it anymore. But as I stood with the cold beer in my hand, the notes sparkled like needles against the skin.
“How was your day?” Jessica asked, coming into the kitchen. “All right. I think we’re nearing it.”
She looked at me a moment. “Are you all right?”
I smiled. “Yes.”
Maybe it was the creams and lotions she used against the dry air that made her skin seem unchanged. Or perhaps it was that she thought time was of no consequence in a lonely place. Louisiana was her home, the state she would go back to some day when this work of mine was done. She never doubted that in all the years we had been together. She was a wife whose husband had gone to war: she waited knowing that separation was a suspension of real time, and that when life started again, she would not have remembered it.
Except I was not gone.
“I thought you weren’t going to fraternize,” she said.
“You mean with Mitch?”
“Is that his name? With any of them.”
“He’s new on the rig,” I said.
“You said it was a bad practice.”
They were all alone out here, except Jessica and me, but Mitch seemed more alone than the others. He stayed aloof. I wondered what it must be like to drift by yourself, the way Mitch seemed to do, to be able to erase the past by simply walking away.
“I was thinking of inviting him over for some cards,” I said. “Maybe drink a little whiskey.” “Paul, please, no.”
“You don’t know how hard it is for him,” I went on. “Olshansky giving him the shit jobs. And Mitch takes it. He doesn’t bitch or whine like the rest of them.” “That’s it,” she said. “He isn’t like the rest of them.”
“He makes them look bad, so the others don’t talk to him, either. Maybe he’s too anxious to please. But that’s not it, really. Maybe there’s something else. I only see that he’s been doing what he’s told.”
“He makes me nervous,” Jessica said, holding her arms across her chest.
“You know him then, who I mean?”
“He’s seen me. He looks at me.”
“Everyone looks at you.”
“But the others say hello. Sometimes they ask how I am. They’re polite enough to say something. But this Mitch just looks.”
I thought of Mitch standing on the bridge watching Audrey and me make love.”There’s nothing illegal about looking.”
“It’s as if he’s judging,” she said angrily, “but you can’t tell how.”
Why did her anger make me want him to come over even more? Why did Jessica’s being upset give Mitch another brilliance that I had not noticed? It would have been easy to say, “Yes, I understand the concern about him. He’s strange.” But I did not say it. I wanted to confront him, to find out whether he was with me or against me.
“You’re imagining it,” I said.
“That doesn’t make it less real.”
“I mean, out here without anyone else around, without friends, you can distort what happens.”
Jessica stared at me as if afraid. “I know. You have your work, something to do all day. And I sit around making believe.”
“I only meant… .”
“You think I care only about you.”
I didn’t answer her. I had never seen her so wild, and I wondered suddenly whether Mitch’s following that evening had been an accident or whether it had merely been the first time Audrey and I had seen him.
Jessica turned away and started from the room, but she stopped in the hallway and turned back.”Your complacency is horrible.”
I drank from my beer, and in the silence that followed, I listened to the wind chimes, each note now like a stillborn thought dead in the brain.
That night I dreamed about Mitch. It was a strange dream with shifting landscapes of giant boulders, soft Louisiana trees with mosses hanging from the branches, and the plains.
Mitch jumped from boulder to boulder, like a man crossing a stream on the rocks, except that the rocks were gigantic and there was no water. The boulders were piled randomly across the terrain, all sizes of rocks, and he leaped from one to another like a superhuman being, 20 feet, 30, from one to the next. He might have fallen a thousand feet down, and I cried out to him, but he didn’t fall. Always his leap was certain, and he landed with a single foot, the momentum of the jump carrying his body into the rock, where he grasped whatever handhold was there.
The boulders made caves, too, black spots without depth. Now and then he disappeared into a cave to stay cool in the sunless space, to defecate or urinate, to frighten me with the sudden bleakness of the boulder field without him in it.
And when he emerged from a cave, his red shirt appearing bright against the gray rock, and I was relieved that he was not dead, he would wave . . . .
Then it was Mitch, now, with Jessica, talking to her parents on the wide lawn of her ancestral home in Louisiana. It was a sedate house near Lafayette, and the trees in the background obliterated the sky. The hot humid air rose in waves, and the sky was nearly white,
Mitch seemed impervious to the heat. While Jessica and her parents sweated, Mitch stood calmly in his red plaid shirt and blue jeans, as though that were formal attire. He conversed roughly, proudly, as though he had been educated in that country. I watched from an air-conditioned room in the house.
Her parents were delighted he had come for a visit, embraced him. Jessica did not need to guess his motive for being there, and from the way she folded her arms across her breasts, I knew she was squeezing her flesh nervously, surreptitiously, with her hands.
Jessica’s father finally motioned at the sun and started walking across the lawn toward the live oak near the house. Mitch and Jessica were alone. As her parents moved away, Mitch was frozen there against the backdrop of trees and gray moss, still talking with measured words. He made no move toward her, as though he knew so well that he did not need to hurry. . . .
Then Mitch and I were running across the barren short grass plain, the low hills in the distance and the space endless before us. He was running from something that I did not know about, some crime in which I was an accomplice, though I was ignorant of the crime itself. He ran effortlessly, his hard, wiry body honed to its core, his stride elegant and mine awkward. I struggled for breath, my legs aching and tired. We ran like this for miles—I don’t know how many— Mitch slightly ahead of me, loping easily, while I doggedly followed.
Then I got a second wind, a strange sensation of deliverance, and I began to soar, feeling that I could run forever. I passed Mitch and ran ahead, uphill, circling a contour of the hill and up onto a rise in the plain. I got a rhythm of stride and breath, two steps and inhale, then letting the air out in a short burst. I raised my arms high above my head and ran.
In the far distance the mountains rose up blue-gray in the haze, shapes to strive for. I imagined the clear streams, canyons, pines. I could run that far if Mitch would. I turned and glanced over my shoulder to look for him, but I did not see him coming. I stopped and waited, thinking I had got too far ahead, but he never came.
The knock on the trailer door came in the darkness, and I sat up and looked around in sluggish anticipation, awakened from my dream. Jessica breathed slowly beside me, and the knock came again, accompanied by the frantic voice of Olshansky. Beyond the voice was a distant roar.
“What is it?” Jessica asked, waking finally.
I got up and went to the door.
“It’s blown,” Olshansky shouted, bursting into the room. “For Christ’s sake, can’t you wake up?”
I looked out. Up the hill toward the rig, the first sun slanting from the east caught a feather of gas rising into the air. It had not blown, but it was leaking badly. Olshansky was panicked and out of breath. “Who’s on the new shift?” I asked.
“Nilsson, Taggart, Mitch, Freddie James.” He counted them off on his fingers.
I pulled on my clothes. “They up there now?”
Olshansky nodded, fat-jowled.
“I don’t know. They called down.”
“What’d they say?”
“Nothing. That it blew up.”
“Have you got the other men?”
He looked at me as though this were a novel idea. “Get Sonny and J. D.,” I told him.
He rushed out, and I went back into the bedroom for my boots. Jessica was standing beside the bed, and I embraced her for a moment, the sudden warmth of her against me. I smoothed the cloth of her nightgown with my hand. Outside the wind still blew, pressing under the eaves and droning the wires. I ought to have told her how I couldn’t stand any more, how it was not the same any more, how Mitch knew. But she smiled at me, and I knew it was too early in the morning.
I kissed her and went to do my work.
Outside Olshansky had the truck ready, with Sonny and J. D. in the bed. Gas hissed from the well with frightening power, a geyser going off. Beyond the rig and the plume of gas, the barren hills ran to the changing sky, which was even blue and without clouds.
I climbed into the cab beside Olshansky.
The pickup bounced over the rutted track. Halfway up, a green truck met us, and Olshansky pulled off into the sage to let it by. He rolled down his window, and the other truck stopped.
Taggart was driving, with Jack Nilsson in the suicide. “Anyone hurt up there?” Olshansky called across. “Jack here looks to have a broken arm,” Taggart shouted. Jack smiled grimly, half-bearded and dirty. I leaned over. “What the hell happened?”
Taggart shook his head. “She let go on us,” he said. “We were minding our own business and she sprang up. Jack spooked and jumped off the platform.” “Mitch up there?” “Him and Freddie. Mitch was on the drill when it let go.”
I leaned back again, close to my window. Olshansky gave some orders and then started up again, holding the wheel tightly against the jarring of the road. I closed my eyes.
So that was it: Mitch. Maybe there had been a weak seam where I had not anticipated one, and when he hit it with the drill, there had been no casing in the hole. Gas released, the pressure of a millenium of chemistry cracked open by an ignorant bastard on a drill rig.Had he done it on purpose?
Olshansky pulled up at the rig station in front of Mitch and Freddie. We climbed down. “We’ll need a pump,” I said to Olshansky. He started to give an order to Sonny. “You,” I told him. “Olshansky, you get it.”
He was not used to being told what to do, and for a moment he stood dumbfounded.
“Get going. The rest of us are going to run a long line from the river.”
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes you could pump mud into a leaking well to balance the pressure of the gas and it would hold. Sometimes.
When Olshansky had gone, I confronted the rest of the men. A ragged collection: Sonny, J. D., Freddie, Mitch. Mitch’s face was greasy and sweatlined, and his yellow hard hat was cocked at an angle across his forehead. He wiped his face with a bandana, tilting his hat back.
I could see that face now, the blue-gray eyes framed by dark grease, the smooth scar on his cheek not holding the grease as well as the rough skin. He smiled with the corner of his mouth, but he had been too many places not to know what the smile meant.
I put on a hard hat and climbed the platform. The noise was deafening, an all-encompassing blast that shook the foundation of the rig. I checked as much as I could, the casing—as much as we had put in—the drill bit. The brown gas roared out, drifting in front of the rising sun. Maybe the mud wouldn’t hold it. I felt as though I knew nothing.
That morning I worked harder than I had ever worked in my life. We rigged the pump at the river and pulled the line five hundred yards up the hill. In close to the hole, with gas spraying over us, we labored in the shadow and poured in mud against the pressure of the leak.
The well spit like a cornered animal, the mud coming out faster than we could get it in. Then a little must have shifted down and caught, because I knew we were blocking it. More mud was sticking, and the pressure of the leak was diminishing, and the sound became smaller and smaller as if it were moving farther away.
When we got it down toward the end, I ordered Mitch and Sonny to put a cap on it. Then it was over. I went down to the office.
A few minutes later, Mitch came in. He stood against the door, holding his yellow hard hat and gloves in his hands, and looked at me. Finally he said, “We hit it, just like you predicted.” “Not the way the company hoped.”
He stepped forward, coming in close to my desk, and he put his hat and gloves down. Then he leaned forward, his eyes burning, and he said, “It won’t hold.”
“What?” The cap won’t hold. You know that.”
I got up and went to the window. There was no plume of gas rising now from the rig, and the shadow of the tower cut across the hill beyond. The platform was deserted; the men were gone.
“We shouldn’t be here, “I said. I turned again and faced him.”I saw it was no use. We couldn’t do it completely with the mud. I thought if the cap held, we could drill it from a different angle
Mitch smiled again, and I saw him as if in my dream, the thin body running effortlessly across the plain. I knew what was happening beneath the earth: the gas was forcing its way upward, blocked by the casing and the cap. But there was not enough casing. The mud would hold it for a while by sheer weight, but not forever. The gas would seep upward, accumulating pressure by increment, pushed by the tremendous force from far down in the earth.
I walked back across the room.
“I used to read histories of the places I was,” I said slowly. “About the towns and the relics of the countryside and the people. But I stopped. And there used to be a time when I loved my wife, but I was someone else then.” I stopped and measured Mitch.”A man like you is always running.” I smiled.”And someone who works without complaining has something to hide. I don’t want to know what it is. I’m not asking. I’d rather keep thinking that we’re not so different after all.”
For a while, after Mitch went down, I waited on the platform. I looked across the river and beyond the dusty cottonwoods to the bare hill. There was nothing there, just one rise after another, a curved bit of land, a flat stretch, nothing to hold against the wind.
Under me the earth was filling with gas, building for the explosion I knew would tear apart the rig station and scatter debris across the hill. But I stood there on the platform anyway, wishing it would happen.
Finally at dusk I went down, too. I descended the path toward the arc light and the trailers, and I could hear the men’s rowdy talk and laughing. I walked through the camp and to the bank of the river.
For a long time I stared at the sluggish brown water, and then I tried to look across at the sparse brush to see whether there were a blur to the leaves as Mitch had said. But the brush was too far away, or it was too dark, or the river moved too slowly, because there was nothing.
Behind me, close by, the lights of my trailer glowed softly through the dusk, and I knew Jessica was waiting for me, thinking that things were the same. I would tell her. Maybe tomorrow, or when the well blew, or when the men had recovered from their drunk. The wind blew across, and I could hear the tiny sound of chimes, like shattering glass. Or maybe, I thought, I would simply disappear. That was what Mitch would have done.