Adam is pacing back and forth on the floorboards in his office. He’s been asked to come down into the mine with the other men, something he’s been just quaking to do since his arrival. He acknowledges that he might feel some discomfort; both from a touch of closed-in feeling and a touch of nerves from being in so close a proximity to Blake. Blake’s uncomplicated spirit, Blake’s trusting nature. Adam doesn’t think Blake has wind of what’s going on between Justine and himself. Of what happens when Blake is deep in the dusty golden caves and Justine and Adam are in the green world above. Adam is afraid that Blake might mention his wife, and that Adam might swallow too hard, or look away at the wrong time, or blink too rapidly, and then it will all be over.
Adam sees the men ride out on the mine car at six o’clock each morning from the window that sits above his desk. As he scratches with his leaky fountain pen in the mine’s thick leather ledger book they march up with ease, with purpose, their axes and picks hanging firmly at their sides. When they come down at six o clock, he is still sitting with his inky hands in the same position. The miners look tired but satisfied. They’re full of soot and gristle but to get your hands dirty with ash and rock instead of ink and Adam thinks it must be such a satisfying feeling to have. Despite of Adam’s recklessness with Blake’s soft and sad wife, Adam wants to go where the men go, even just a taste of it. Maybe he’ll easily slip into their skins, feel their honest exhaustion after making arcs with axes and digging in the dark rock for something important. Numbers were abstract. Gold was solid.
The morning of Adam’s ascent into the mine, Blake shows up at Adam’s office door smiling, a cigarette clamped between his full lips, holding a scruffy pair of blue jeans and a leather hat and boots. Adam is wearing a pair of tweed trousers and a crisp white shirt, though admittedly it’s not his best one.
Blake eyes the white shirt. “Didn’t want you to get your good clothes mucky down there. You always look so sharp, wasn’t sure you had some rough clothes to go down in. You about ready?”
Adam is still tallying up some figures and weighing some rough gold, grey-black rock veined just slightly with gold. So much levity for something that at first glance is so primitive. Men have died fighting one another right here in Alaska over rock like this. Women will hold their palms up after lying down with men just to get near it.
A young mucker who is interested in learning the business side of the mine is sitting on a stool, keeping an eye on the office. Adam nods over at the boy and says to Blake, “George here will mind the store and the office while I go down, so I just have to change and I’m ready. Thanks again for taking me up.”
Blake nods, takes a deep inhale on his cigarette and walks the clothes over to Adam. “Hope they’re your size. Just grabbed some extras from the dorms, you’re pretty tall.”
Adam cradles the clothes and lines the boots up by the restroom door. The jeans smell like the buildings that the unmarried miners sleep in: stale with old sweat. “Be out in a minute. George, if you have trouble just call up one of the fellows in the commissary. Take lunch whenever you want.”
Adam goes into the restroom and transforms himself into a miner, and secretly can’t wait until some dirt and soot smudges his cheeks and hands, some grime under his fingernails. He wants to swing an ax. He wants to feel like a walking muscle. He wants to have purpose that’s outside of his own head. Numbers and notes and calculations force him inward even more than he already is, and he feels like to go physically inside something so hard and so raw, he’ll be forced to use the part of his brain that will make him feel alive. Blake’s wife Justine makes his heart race, both in the fear that Blake will discover their raw secret and her curves and hollows and dark places.
He looks at himself in the warped restroom mirror. He looks like the rest of them. His hands immediately find the pockets of the denim pants and and shove themselves in. The cotton is soft, worn in. The pocket fabric inside the pants is pilled and warm. Much more accommodating than his usual scratchy tweed. He exits the restroom and smiles crookedly, shyly at Blake.
“May I borrow a cigarette? Long walk up to the mine car, isn’t it? I have time?”
Blake fishes a thin Lucky Strike out of his green pack and lights it with a match for Adam, “All right, Adam…let’s go up.”
And they leave together, marching and talking and climbing up the mountain path to the mine car. They are joined by several other men, who are smoking and laughing. In their hands are mucking tools and lunch pails, plaid thermoses of coffee. A cook follows them up with the breakfast bucket, ready to attach it to the wire and send it in to the men already working, and Adam feels like he’s part of a lucky group, a group of strong able men who love women and life, gold and hard work. As they reach the mine car he’s not even a little apprehensive about being deep in the mine, or of spending the day with Blake, or of how he’ll feel when he has to go back to his desk.
The clouds are wild and move in and out of the Valley. Sometimes they come right up to the men as they walk, touching them with their cool vapor. Sometimes they cover the sun and create long shadows. The men climb into orange and yellow mine cars, claiming their usual spots. Blake pats a spot near the front for Adam, and then climbs into the engine, and pulls the lever. The car shakes, rattles, spews rust and coal. It goes down a little hill and past one of the small waterfalls that the men created in a recent blasting. Adam looks at the clouds instead of at the mouth of the cave, but when they get close and he feels the cold blast of air – to him it seems like the cave is breathing, exhaling frozen breath – he looks at the men and notices that they grow quiet. One of them is whispering Hail Mary under his breath. For all his excitement he forgot about the risk, but these men didn’t forget. Their smiles grew thinner and their eyes went wistful for the outside a little bit. Adam was still excited, but fear had started to lay its cold hand on his shoulder. Adam cranes his neck to see the Valley from the mouth of the cave, and isn’t sure that there’s a more perfect place in Alaska than the Valley below.
“Okay, here we go.” Blake switched gears on the mine car as they passed under the cave’s black rock threshold. It was cold. It was dark. The men switched on their headlamps and Adam did the same. Lights were strung up along the cave walls but they did very little to illuminate. It was still dark, wet, silent. “We’re going to one of the bigger rooms today, Adam. Found some bands in the rock there yesterday towards the end so we’re going back to get it.”
“That’s great, Blake. Tell me, how deep is the room?”
“Almost two miles in. Have to be careful of course. Earthquakes up here can cut through the rock and shake down a room. We have to be ready to get back up in a minute.” Blake looked at him steadily, as if measuring Adam’s fear.
Adam swallowed hard and looked back up at the cave opening, which was starting to get smaller and farther away. “I hope I can help, and not be a hindrance down here.”
Blake switched gears again and said, “You’ll help. Another presence down here is always a beneficial thing. We like company. Okay, making a turn now, hope you’re not queasy…” and they turned hard to the right and plunged deeper into the earth and rock.