STR is proud to present this story as the winner of our 2011 summer fiction contest.
I knew by the way she threw noodles against the backsplash – she was having an affair.
When I found it, I had been pushing deeper than anyone into the cave. It was as far as anyone would go. I’d been working as a geological consultant for a small mining operation. The goal, they explained, was to find any remaining ore in the old mining shafts beneath the Vulcan statue on Red Mountain.
That day, a Thursday, I’d gone about thirty minutes further than the rest of the team. With my helmet-mounted torch light carving cones through the darkness, I came upon a small antechamber which was dressed from top down in flutes of sharp rock like the organ pipes in a cathedral. I was looking up, spinning in place and taking the whole thing in when I caught my foot on something and fell. My helmet light was impaled on a rock benches jutting facet but I was fine, save for a throbbing neck and a pretty skinned-up set of knees.
I sat there in the darkness for a while. Most days I had an extra key chain flash light fastened to a belt loop, but the day before I’d loaned it to another team member and had forgotten to get it back. So I sat; nothing but the drip-drip of little drops and my own steady breath for sound.
After a while I began to feel kind of eroded. Without any light I couldn’t see my body. I knew it was there, my arms and legs, my head and torso, the stiff wire pulsed in my neck and the damp, stagnant air stung at my knees. But I didn’t feel there. It was like I had become a rock, part of the cave, my breathing the earth’s own gentle respiration. The dull pain settled in like eons of pressure.
I got to thinking about rocks and about Susan. Everything had changed since her office’s Christmas party some five months prior. We didn’t see each other much, granted, but lately she’d been as distant as the moon. We got into the habit of a regular Thursday night spaghetti dinner. Between her demanding law firm and my frequent contracts we’d become roommates more than anything else, passing each other on the way in or out. Thursdays, we resolved, would be the evening set aside for us and for spaghetti.
I couldn’t remember when I noticed it first. I think I was at the kitchen table. She must’ve been at the stove. When the time came to test the noodles she’d pluck one from the pot, spin it between pinched fingers like a marionette’s string, and with a sneer in her lips and thin, impassive eyes turn to the ceramic backsplash and fling it away. It was her disinterest I noted most of all. Whether the noodle stuck or not, she seemed indifferent. Neither disappointed when it fell limp behind the sink, nor accomplished when it stuck and slid without a sound between the tiles to the grout.
After that I began to tally the eligible men from her Christmas party. There was one guy, what was his name? Ben or Jim? He had a cleft chin, broad shoulders and small, scholarly glasses. He reminded me of Clark Kent, but with more machismo and bravado; one of those University of Alabama football types who missed the cut to go pro before turning to a law career. And then there was her boss. What was it about him that felt off? He was a svelte 50-year-old, couture in shape, fit and square faced with platinum white hair and one of those winning smiles I’d always heard of but never really seen. It was something in the way he stood next to her. Yes, in the months since, it came to me there in the clarity of the greasy black antechamber. I remembered the three of us standing in a triangle by the copy machine. To share space and conversation everyone should have faced the center but he, no. He stood cocked to the side aiming his past prime though still hungry dick straight at her sex and grinning, all the while that big winning bleached teeth smile casting his eyes occasionally at me as if to say something. He was candidate number one after all. Clark Kent fell to second.
I pressed a button on my watch. The face glowed, and for a moment I considered using it to worm my way back through the cave to the rest of the team. But the light was too dim, the path too slippery with a dozen eager surfaces ready to bludgeon or rip my head open if I fell. The rest of the team would come soon. When it was time to leave for the day they’d press on and find me. It was 4:15. Only about an hour longer.
I closed my eyes to a no deeper dark and entertained myself the way I normally did: by considering people as minerals and rocks. They made more sense that way. I thought about Susan, with her polished black hair and dark olive skin. I’d known her to be obsidian – sharp, exotic, volcanic in origin, weapon to some and jewelry to others. She was opaque but only slightly so; a dark glass. It would be 4 years of marriage in a couple of months.
Ben or Jim (Clark Kent in any case) despite his resemblance to the man of steel struck me more as iron. He had a solid jaw, industrial shoulders, held himself strong and proud like a furnace. And Susan’s boss, white-haired, jagged boned with that winning smile, but empty somehow, somehow less substantive – like pumice rock. The porous bastard.
I opened my eyes to find the cavern swollen with a gray light. There was a smooth oblong crack in the cave wall. At first I thought it was the team. I could easily have been turned around in the dark. So I waited for voices or for someone to call my name. After what seemed like half an hour I had heard nothing, so I stood and went in a few careful steps down the path the light struck against the cave floor. As I approached, the crack opened further, wider, just enough to squeeze through. I squeezed through.
I don’t know how long I was in there, but when I came out I saw dim lights approaching from the direction of the cave mouth. The gap closed. The team found me in the dark, and I followed them out. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. I couldn’t. Every time I went to say something, it was as if I’d swallowed a lump of ore. I’d gag for a second, stammer, then speak of something else. After thanking the team for finding me, I loaded up my Subaru station wagon and went home.
Susan was in the kitchen lording over a steaming pot of noodles. I went without a word, washed up and changed clothes. I bandaged my knees, laid flat on my bedroom floor for a while to straighten my neck out, then went back to the kitchen and took my seat at the table.
After a few minutes of silence Susan cleared her throat and spoke. “Back to the mines tomorrow?” she asked, head still down at the pot. Her words slapped against me like noodles.
“Yea,” I said. “Back to the mines. The contractor thinks there’s still iron ore down there. But the shafts are mostly flooded. What are you doing tomorrow? Maybe we could spend the day together. I tried to tell them it was mostly flooded down there. Be near impossible to mine anything anyway.”
Susan sighed, one of those brief, annoyed, poignant sighs she’d made a habit of lately. “Why keep looking then?” She tossed the wooden spoon between the stove eyes.
“If there is ore after all, it can be sold – processed here then shipped overseas. A drop in the pot to Dubai or somewhere. You working tomorrow?”
She picked up the spoon again, plunged it in the pot to take a noodle out. Half-way up the noodle slid from the spoon handle. “No,” she said. “Work this weekend. Taking tomorrow off.”
“Oh.” I took the newspaper from the table and spread it across my lap, but I couldn’t read. All I could do was consider the gap: the gray light, the smooth, reasoned corridors stretching in all directions and how each floor had a gravity to it, straight up or down at random but always as if walking in any other hallway. A neon lit labyrinth of indeterminate materials.
That sticky sense of erosion still clung to me. There, in the full fluorescent kitchen light with my limbs charted out like a road map across my seat, the sensation persisted. I felt like a puppet with phantom limbs, a spider web in a dark hallway, an ovular mass of rock deep in the earth slowly, surely losing.
It was a familiar sensation. It felt a lot like college. My fourth and final year had been an exercise in solitude. My only acquaintance, a fellow geology major, had graduated the semester prior and made good on his promise to get the hell out of Alabama. I don’t know where he ended up.
All I had was a small apartment with a busted television, a noisy window unit and the flat heat of a resilient summer. I was nearly done, I had to remind myself often, but my last semester I learned of a mix-up with my academic advisor. Unsurprisingly, she had miscalculated my fulfillment of elective credits (of which I was one short, she informed). A week later I started and art history class. I had not particular interest in art history, but I was told by the same advisor that it would be easy and good for me to get away from dirt and rocks for a while. She had battleship hips, chipmunk cheeks and for a woman who didn’t know what the hell she was talking about she always spoke with such enviable confidence.
That was when I met Susan. We sat next to one another in the front row. I never spoke to her, but she always spoke to me, or tried to anyway. I would just nod or grunt in response. She was far too attractive. She started saying hello to me on campus. When we passed each other she would always stop to talk. If she were on the other side of the street she would cross and chase me down. From there we began to eat lunch together at the campus cafeteria. Without much else to discuss she would go over the lectures from class, expounding at length and with passion on M.C. Escher, Magritte, Dali.
The whole thing was organic; we tapered ever down like a stalactite, naturally carried in one direction. Lunches led to dinner, dinner to drinks, drinks to fooling around and finally sex. She was my first.
After graduation she applied to every art museum in a five-hundred mile radius. Wherever she went I’d made up my mind to follow. After countless rejection letters, however, she applied and was accepted to law school. We moved back to Birmingham, married, and close to four years later I sat and she stood in the kitchen of our two bedroom bungalow.
“You’ll find ore.” She turned the heat down and shuffled the tomato sauce and beef in the other pot.
I slid the newspaper back up to the table, stood and went over behind her. She stared dutifully ahead, like she didn’t even notice. I parted her hair like a bead curtain, brushed it over her shoulders and planted one small kiss at the base of her neck and then another further up her nape and then another, each straddled side to side like footprints in volcanic sand. “Have I ever told you you’re obsidian?” I asked.
When the noodles were done, or near enough, we sat together at the kitchen table and ate in silence.
I had no word for it. Actually, there was one word, but I couldn’t use it. That place deep in Red Mountain, the gap, a place of such tenuous reality that to label it in such a fantastical way could destroy it all together. A craft, perhaps, but I wasn’t sure it was a vehicle.
After dinner the previous night, we’d gone to bed. Eyes closed, I counted the potential suitors from her Christmas party yet again: the iron furnace, the pumice rock, and – as I meandered towards sleep – I recalled another. There had been a young, pasty face staring at us always from the crowd’s edge. Someone not normally noticed, I figured at the time. Someone as easily overlooked as the furniture – pale and meek like the gypsum in the drywall: a little gypsum boy. He couldn’t have been a day over 21, a young temp most likely seven years Susan’s junior. I began to put a face to the gypsum boy, to reconstruct it, but it slipped away and I with it into sleep.
The morning obliterated all progress on the gypsum boy. Susan was still in bed after I had showered and had breakfast so I decided to let her sleep.
I piloted the Subaru station wagon onto the Red Mountain expressway. Through the haze and green, just over the hills in the distance, I caught the top of Vulcan’s head and the flat gleam of morning light against it. The largest cast iron statue in the world, if I recalled correctly. Though now it was little more than a taunting mascot of a bygone era in which men pulled wealth and industry from the earth.
When I got to the mines I noticed the team standing in a circle around the foreman. I parked the car and took my place at the back of the crowd. The foreman was making apologies, telling us how hard we’d worked. “Insufficient evidence to continue operations,” he said.
The contract had ended two months ahead of schedule. My dejected team members kicked the dirt, shuffled back to their cars and left. The foreman followed suit and drove off, and I was left alone at the cave mouth.
For a time I stood there, glancing as far as I could into the dark of the cave, then up at the sun through the trees, then down at my boots. I had made a mistake in any case. If she had a lover I who drove her there, spending my days in the black chambers of the earth, digging where I couldn’t even make a phone call, couldn’t even check in to say I loved her. Flowers were in order. But what did I know about flowers? I remembered the little scrap of iron ore I’d found at the start of the contract, the only piece left in the whole mountain. It was a flake no bigger than a thumbnail, but I figured it would make an appropriate gift as it was the culmination of a three-hundred thousand dollar, 4 month operation. It was in my glove box still, wrapped in a little rag and stowed away.
I went back to my car, found the ore flake, tucked it into my vest pocket and drove home.
The house was quiet still. I’d only been gone and hour or so. I took off my vest and boots, un-tucked my shirt and grabbed the ore flake. I’d slip into bed like I never left, fit myself against her like a puzzle piece and when she woke I’d give her the ore and declare it all geology, the cumulative mineral wealth of Red Mountain. I went down the hallway, pressed open the bedroom door and went in. Susan was squirming under the covers. I whispered her name to see if she was awake, then went in a little further. “Susan,” I said. She shot out against the headboard. She was naked. Her mouth open and closed, her lips shaped as if she were about to say my name but nothing came out. Another body, another pair of restless legs, a slender torso and head came out from underneath the covers. There, white as the sheets, as easily overlooked as the drywall, was the gypsum boy in all his pasty uniformity. Even there, with the dim light through the curtains, he looked featureless, like a blur. I could just make out an unapologetic look plastered like wallpaper across his face. His pink nipples were his only color.
I stretched out my hand, met eyes again with Susan. She still gasped for air. I held the ore flake in my palm, looked at it then at Susan. “All geology,” I said. I turned my hand over and dumped the ore onto the carpet.
I made the trek back through the cave to the antechamber. I didn’t even need a flashlight. My legs knew the way. The gap opened. I went in.
George Sawaya received his BA in English from The University of Alabama and is currently seeking a graduate degree in English with a focus on creative writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.