You are digging a hole. You’re not sure why, but it suits you. It makes it easier that you like the people you do it with. Not that there’s ever more than one person to a hole—a hole is a completely solitary thing—but the ones digging nearby, you think they make good conversation.
Take Katherine, for instance, in the hole right next to yours. Katherine had been digging her hole here for twenty years when you showed up. She loves the place, she tells you your first day on site, though you notice she takes her breaks alone.
* * *
Your shovel strikes the earth and sinks easily in. You love the smell of the dark, nutrient rich dirt as it flies over your shoulder.
All you have to do, no matter what, is keep digging. The goal is to be at the same spot for as long as possible, to get as deep as you can, to be so deep you come out on the other end of the world, or maybe, some say, a different world altogether.
Your parents were both respected diggers in their fields. You remember spending long childhood days down at their sites watching them work. Work was how they met. Work was what gave you life. And now it gives you meaning, too. You’re young and you’re strong. The muscles on your shoulders are thick and corded. Your skin is tanned from the hot sun.
* * *
You and Katherine make the most of your small talk in the early morning when you’re both arriving. She’s old enough to be your mom, but you have a lot in common: TV shows, music, food. You discuss the finer points of Breaking Bad while you put on your gear and assemble your tools side by side. She shimmies with some effort into her harness, veiny with stretch marks. You don’t need a harness yet, so you watch, leaning on your shovel for balance.
Katherine goes on vacations around the holidays. She lives in a house ten miles east of work. She has a second wife, and a slew of step-relatives with whom she’s all close: brothers, sisters, aunts, but no uncles, and a pair of purebred German Shepherds, Calvin and Hobbes.
You’re not close with your family. You live alone in an apartment with your cat, Hector.
Her anchor secured, you watch her sink feet first below the earth. You hear the soft thud some long moments later, of her landing.
You start digging.
* * *
Then one day you’re not the newbie anymore. All at once, the time at the dig site before Newbie came is a story you’re a part of. Passing conversation with coworkers, with your boss, is less awkward. People begin to remember little things about you: your favorite color to wear, your most loved candy bar.
And new Newbie is perfect for you. He is like you—eager, a little nervous, around the same age—but he’s just a little worse. Every time he blunders, you look a little more confident. Every time he messes up, your work seems more refined.
You find the others now looking to you in meetings where Newbie is five minutes late and rolling their eyes, smirking. You find yourself mirroring them.
You like to be in on the joke. You don’t stop to think whether they exchanged the same looks about you just a couple months earlier, when you asked that question, when you laughed a little too loud.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re not the first rung on the ladder anymore; you’re finally beginning to climb your way down to success.
* * *
One afternoon Katherine joins you under the smoking pavilion and asks for a light. She comments on your lighter, which is magenta and decorated with the simple evocative lines of a Keith Haring design. Katherine met Keith once at a gallery in San Francisco in the seventies. Even nicer than you’d think, she says.
The smoking pavilion stands several yards from the dig site. The long hard line of the horizon is peopled with diligent workers creating empty spaces where once there was only the earth. Don’t you think it’s beautiful?
* * *
A few weeks after his orientation, Newbie calls in sick. Coworkers snicker to each other in their cliques. They send each other private messages joking that the same amount of dirt will be moved whether he’s here or not. You admit the absence doesn’t look good.
Their pious disdain intensifies when he’s still not in the next day, a Friday. Smirks turn sharply downward. So he gets a long weekend, they say. Must be nice.
Hardly anyone says anything when he’s back on Monday. He looks tired. Neither of these things are out of the ordinary.
What is out of the ordinary is that there seems to have been negative progress over the weekend. A small change is still a change: somehow there is more dirt in Newbie’s hole than there was last week.
He doesn’t seem to notice as they look on and laugh.
* * *
On the heels of the weekly departmental meeting, his shadow approaches yours at the smoking pavilion where Katherine just left.
At first he’s quiet. Newbie lights his cigarette with the strike of a match and puffs.
“So what do you think?” he asks.
“Not much, honestly,” you say. “It all seems pretty reasonable.”
It’s a windy day. Your smoke is snatched up and away as soon as you exhale.
“Really? I think it’s a little intense.”
“Companies are always gonna want to track productivity as accurately as possible.”
“But logging every minute in a spreadsheet, every day? Yeesh.” He takes a quick drag. “Not to mention it’ll take forever to do manually.”
You shrug. You think, what does a guy like this know about productivity?
You say, “I didn’t know you smoked.”
He says, “seasonally.” Then: “shoot. The wind blew mine out. That was my last match. Could I have a light?”
“Sorry,” you tell him. You nod towards the dig site. “I lit mine off Katherine’s. Left my lighter at home.”
“No worries, thanks.”
You, lighter never having left your pocket, bid a polite goodbye and go back to your hole. The boss says you’ll be fitted for your harness next week, ahead of schedule.
You keep digging.
* * *
Another month goes by. Newbie calls in on a Monday, then a Tuesday. There are people with large, glossy-wood, metal-plated plaques stating the recipient has not been absent a single day in 25 years. Their holes are so deep they have elevators and rest stops.
Wednesday and Thursday come with still no sign of him. On Friday, even the plaque bearers start to suspect something is wrong.
* * *
The following Monday, the link to Newbie’s obituary is in our inboxes. The single paragraph is posted on the front page of his hometown mortuary. Heart disease. Coworkers arrive, log in, read it, then silently wait for others to do the same.
The boss holds a short meeting once everyone is settled into their stations. This is terrible news, he says. For the day, there are counselors on site. Everyone can take an extra fifteen minutes for their breaks.
You take your break alone, like always. Only now you let that word sit with you to see how it feels, checking its weight.
What’s changed? Has anything?
Alone. You find you don’t feel it any less when Katherine sits down next to you. Or when she asks if you’re alright. Or when she says it sucks, but this happens all the time. Not when she pats you on the back and heaves a big sigh. Not when she goes back to her hole without asking if you’re coming with.
* * *
You read the obituary three times, but could not recall a single thing if asked.
* * *
All next week, there’s a table set up next to Newbie’s old dig site. It holds a wide necked vase with stark white lilies and a greeting card lying open on its back. On its belly people take turns pen-stitching their sympathies to the family. They write that their sonbrothernephewcousin was a pleasure to work with. Fun to talk to. Left a hole when he went.
You don’t sign until the last day. You look at the names of the people before you, the messages they left. None of them, you know, gave a shit about Newbie. You didn’t either, not until now.
You pick up the pen next to the card and feel what you felt when you weighed Alone: a hole in you that swallows words and spits out tendrils of vertigo. You write.
You keep digging.
Scout Roux is a writer of short fiction and poetry. Their work can be found in Wild Roof Journal, Passengers Journal, Barstow & Grand, and was most recently featured by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. They live in Madison, Wisconsin and serve as fiction editor for Nightingale & Sparrow magazine. Tweets @scoutroux.