They dropped Jim into the sewer first this time— “you gotta babysit that black hole a minute, nephew” —reeling him out slow and the winch’s squeal like a sharp-nailed thumb pressing into his headache. After he fumbled around unhooking the harness he was all by himself down there and, safe in the manhole’s shaft of daylight, he peered out into the very dark of the tunnel: with the thin rim of brick paled by the over-glow, the sewer looked like a nine-foot necrotic eye, its pupil dilated wide. Squint and you might look clear down the nerve into the things that sees. Here, where they’d injected grout through the walls, the crown no longer leaked, but the deeper play of drips was an incidental melody like wind-chimes. The flow, up to the padded knees of his waders, was a placid hush as it wended around him and between his legs. It was peaceful, undisturbed as a tomb, and yet he stood in the city’s large intestine, a secret river of coagulating filth in a wash of gray water.
He stepped wandering downstream, something just a little further that he needed to see, and clicked off his headlamp as if to get a better look. The dark so thorough he lost track of his hands. Blind humans can teach themselves a kind of sonar, using tiny clicks of the tongue and their subtle echos to listen for the shape of the world. Jim could sense this now with his breath on the walls. Conscious, too, of his heartbeat and its vibrations through the layers of clothing and gear. As the time sloughed off—seconds like minutes down here alone, the opposite also true—he got turned around somehow, though there was only forward and back, upstream and down. In jungles, the canopy occludes the sunlight and one cannot determine north. How on featureless tundras, with the sun low—or in sand deserts, the sun high overhead—you cannot tell from which direction you came. Just one further step for the pattern to clarify, become legible. One more step.
The winch startled him and Jim clicked on his headlamp to find himself fifty feet downstream. He splashed back to the manhole to watch the Captain descend, observed how the veteran did not fidget or try and hung there as though inert from the armpits down. The Captain worked on lighting the day’s first black-and-mild and as he approached he twisted slightly toward Jim as if by will.
“Might start calling you bigfoot,” he said. “I hardly believe you exist but I’ll be damned if you ain’t right there.”
“Maybe you people call him gigantopithecus. I can’t keep up with the shit.”
“Just don’t call me late for…you know…dinner.”
When the Captain touched down, he turned his back and bowed his head and Jim worked to remove the hooks from the ring of his harness. Unhooked, the Captain looked at him, his black-and-mild aroused to near vertical like an antenna as he scrutinized Jim through the smoke.
“I got thinking about you upper-crusters last night,” the Captain said.
“If you saw my bank account, you’d see we’re…”
“You hang-dogging on me?”
“You throw ‘em back last night?”
“No,” Jim said. “I mean, I had a couple. I’m fine.”
“Right. So, the difference, way I see it—hell, you study mankind so you probably already know this, but it was news to me. See, you all think it’s just going to pro-gress. It’s going to get better and better until infinity.”
“No. That’s not what I—”
“Now you don’t. Now you see like me and the boys here.” He raised a gloved hand and measured millimeters between thumb and fore. “Everything is a cunt-hair away from catastrophe.”
And then they were wheeling Ray down and he called out a joke that was lost in its own echo. Many seconds later, Wheezy hung in the hole. “She welcome me right on in, boys, like a big-tittied bitch,” he said. He seemed almost stunned with joy.
“Wait,” Ray said, feigning a desperate confusion. “Who’s got the big tits here, you or her?”
“Shut the hell up, man. You know what I mean. Can’t you just feel her opening up?”
They bantered and ribbed and lit cigarettes. They hastily pulled in the buckets, set the bench-boards across the pipe for a working surface, and hung the dangling payload of their lunches on a jutting spike of rebar. The humidity of breath-fog and smoke. Jim wrestled to free one bucket from the suction of another until Ray yanked them from him and whacked them against the brick, squeezed them under one arm as he pulled the top bucket free.
“Slap, pinch, and twist,” he said. “That gets just about anything going. Ask your wife.”
Wheezy snickered like a freshman and the four of them carried on. Down the manhole, the topside guys fed grout-hoses that twined and curled like tentacles. Jim fumbled the hammer-drill onto the bench-board, saving it from the flow at the last instant. “Just put that anywhere, christ.” Ray laughed bitterly. “Not like the whole day is going to depend on it..”
All the pieces organized, they looked to the Captain standing above them on the bench, the crown just inches from his hard-hat. The tribal big man selected because he was battle-ready, but because he cared more too. He could see further and he might break your jaw if you pushed him.
“Listen. The boys in the office, Jules, they play pachinko with their spreadsheets and one little ball falls out per day.” He held up a small, imaginary sphere, blew it away like dandelion seeds. “It don’t go like this, of course. But today, we hit our stride. You want that bonus, you got to hang a picture of her up in your locker—old Farrah Fawcett tossing those bleached locks and squeezing them together just for you. Now, me and Wheezy, we’re grouting. Boom, boom, boom. No questions, no bitching and moaning. Chuckles, you and Jim are walking down to that goddamn spider’s nest and I want you slapping cement around like you’re building the last temple. Get it? Horn’s about to blow. Good morning. Stay hydrated. Figure it out.”
Ray pulled the kayak loaded with hand-tools and sacks of mortar and Jim trailed behind with the bench-board floating tied to his waders. He carried a bucket of anchors in a bear hug and he’d been promoted to holding the radio, with which they’d call for help if one of them passed out from fumes or they were chased down by a wall of sewage. What was to be done in either scenario was unclear.
At the spider’s nest, as the Captain called it, their brick sewer ran into a concrete chamber maybe twelve feet long before continuing on the downstream side. Here was a labyrinth of pipes of all different sizes feeding their own. Different heights and angles and diameters. There was a big three-footer of brick that matched their pipe, the joining handcrafted and smoothed over the decades by endless sewage, and others made of clay like terracotta and rough-fit into holes knocked through the concrete with a sledgehammer. Nothing holds up like the old, old brick, so Jim has been told, which we’ve forgotten how to make over the last hundred years. And so the newer concrete, still decades in place, was shot through with cracks and fissures and rot. Where it met the brick was the worst, a slime-caked opening large enough to fit one’s fist. And in this chamber the flow slowed down and dropped some of its debris and so they stood on a drift of sludge as they marveled at the work set out for them. It was their gig to make this all impervious again, Ray said, one handful at a time.
Three times Jim opened his mouth to tell Ray what had happened yesterday. How Ray had walked downstream past the Captain and him, splashing along looking for his phone. And then how, minutes later, Ray had walked by them again as though the first had never happened. Which one was a ghost or a dream. But Ray warded off everything with a laugh.
“Can I ask you a question?” Jim said.
“Five bucks a pop.” Ray itched at his scalp with the adjustment buckle of his hard-hat, took out the cigarettes he stowed between the harness and the plastic. “Unless it’s dirty, then it’s a buck.”
“How much do they pay you for this?”
From within the cigarette pack, Ray fished out a pill maybe. He popped this in his mouth and swallowed before placing the cigarette between his lips.
“Oh, Jules just covers my bar tab and drops off groceries now and then.”
“It don’t matter. Not enough. How could it be enough?”
Jim set his bucket down in the mouth of one of the large pipes, where the reddish flow was only a few inches deep, and shook out his arms. Ray dug around in a hole in the concrete. He broke a piece off like snapping a tooth out of an old jawbone and the old stone in the gap did look toothed in the darkness.
“You the type of guy,” Ray asked. “To do the easy shit first. Or you like to do the hard thing and get it over with?”
He looked at the crumb of concrete in his hand, tossed it downstream with a splash.
“I…I don’t know. Is any of this easy?”
Ray nodded side to side, lit his cigarette with gloved hands. “Yuh, yuh, yuh,” he said and let out a first exhale that seemed to reset him. “I was supposed to go to college, you know. Uncle Bert was going to pay for it.”
“Yeah? What would you have studied?”
“Hell if I know. I’da probably ended up down here anyway.”
“Hard to say. Everything seems to be more fragile than it was for, say, our dads.”
“My dad was a lot of things but fragile ain’t one of ‘em.”
Ray deftly placed the bench-board in one attempt, smoking hands-free all the while. From the kayak, he fished out a claw-hammer and a trowel and thick rubber elbow gloves and laid them out as if they were prizes one could win. He set out a battery-powered work-light and turned it on and Jim had to squint a few seconds as he adjusted. Bright as it was, the sewer beyond the light was even darker now. A hole right through everything.
“Lot of women in college,” Ray said. “Right? Maybe I could have met a good one, huh? Pretty. Got her shit together.”
“Sure. How old are you?”
“Eh, this shit makes you old quick. You know, I almost got married. Would have told you I’d probably have a kid by now. But she was crazy. Crazier than me anyway.”
“Miller Lite,” Ray laughed. “You know, it is the champagne of beers.”
“Hey, it’s only ninety calories or whatever—”
“You calling me fat?” Ray looked hard at him, shifting his cigarette with a flex of his jaw.
“Well, I am fat.” He laughed. “Used to be a lean and mean motherfucker. Used to raise hell, Jimbo. You ever raise a little hell? But…couple nights in jail, lawsuit. You learn pretty quick that nobody wins a fistfight.” He ripped open a sack of cement. “I don’t know. It’s like these hands just don’t really belong to me.”
The Great Wall of China was so enduring a project—two thousand years, more—that whole lineages worked in its shade. Men and their sons and theirs and on until the last mason knew not even the language of the first. But they weren’t building an edifice to be seen, they were patching up the city’s ulcerous bowels. More like mining than construction. And this land gouged at and spaded and overturned since almost the Ice Age. Scratching the dirt with deer antlers to obtain a handful of flint. Way north on Lake Superior they mined copper by the ton six thousand years ago, digging and banging and burning the rock until it cracked and prying through the fissures to see even the faintest glint. Souring black the whole sky to melt off the lead.
The spider’s nest was methodical, abrasive, sweating work. Dripped-on and hands cramping. They’d hammer away the rotten concrete around a wound no larger than a paperback until Jim could reach in elbow deep to swipe out the broken pieces. And they’d drive anchor bolts into what sound material they could find, use this to hold the new until it cured. The pupil seemed to constrict around them, nothing downstream but darkness and nothing up but the echo of the Captain and Wheezy and topside might as well no longer exist. The Captain says six men went missing down here. Just wandered off and were never seen again.
When they finished the first hole, a smooth swatch of fresh gray on the old gray, Ray flipped over an empty bucket and sat, smoked. To see it empty of ritual was to disbelieve in ritual at all. A little sip of death as though to inoculate him against the fear of it. A stimulant of course, a brief sharpener of the mind, and how much of this country was built on nicotine. Ray pitched the filter into the flow, watched it drift off an illegible message in a bottle: time to work again.
“What the hell are you doing down here anyway?” Ray asked.
“You want to know for real?”
“I prefer things to make fucking sense. So, yeah.”
“The whole college. Where I used to work. Heck, the whole field, the whole industry…they think I’m a racist now.”
“Ah, well shit.”
“It started with a couple black kids in my class, right. One of them misses some lectures and this other kid, who never missed once, you know. This other kid shows up and I say to her, real sarcastic: ‘Hey, Sandra, glad to see you back.’ Real sarcastic, like: ‘Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything important.’ But it wasn’t Sandra. Sandra was the other one. And what they missed…eh, it doesn’t matter.”
“You got fired over that.”
“Not exactly. It got a lot worse from there. I became a special project for a few kids, I guess. But that was one thing that actually happened. That we could all agree actually happened.”
“Huh. Sounds gay as hell. Are you racist?”
“No. Not at all. I don’t even—”
“Are you maybe a little bit racist now?”
Jim said nothing. They fought another demon. Sat. Smoked.
Ray would choose the hardest task first. Next, he wanted to work the deteriorated seam between one of the lateral pipes and the corner of the concrete chamber. It was an area maybe a foot and a half wide, just out of the main flow, that had swollen with black sludge from an eddy of sewage there pinned in the corner. Jim raked out the crevice with the claw of the hammer, like peeling off roadkill made of wet wipes and cooking fat and viscera. The smell. Then he whacked at the rotting concrete. They’d used smooth river stone for aggregate in those days, Ray pointed out, and this meant it did not interlock when the paste dissolved like smaller, jagged stone will. Thousands of years to learn this apparently. The concrete crumbled under his hammer. And then, subtle at first, a false perception maybe…whack, whack…but, no, unmistakable, that’s what it was: a light shining through the rubbled concrete from the other side.
“I seen a three-eyed camel and a mullah who could chug a fifth,” the Captain said. “But I never seen this.”
After a few of the Captain’s deft hammer blows, the old concrete fell away and revealed an opening large enough to squeeze through. From a pinpoint within—hard to tell how deep—came a light brighter even than their headlamps, if one looked at it straight. Wheezy turned off the bench light. “She wants us to see something.” He pointed at the chest of Ray’s waders, where a vague brown shape moved within the projected light, and Ray—as though under interrogation for a crime—said he knew nothing about it. Wheezy split the crew up, one side of the chamber and the other, and the light overtook the spider’s nest and on the far wall the pinpoint of light shined an inverted scene from outdoors.
“Camera obscura?” Jim said.
“Don’t you feel special?” Wheezy said.
And “hold on,” the Captain said. “Just wait a damn second. We’re fifty goddamn feet underground.”
Jim studied the image: A clearing in the woods. A shiver through the foliage as a breeze turned up its pale underside. And then creeping into this scene a shapeless creature with fur in thick tendrils and on its head the antlers of an elk, or something even larger. In rhythmic jerks this thing moved to the center, its steps ritualized, dance as invocation. And then it stood on its hind legs and it was a man but its face was a mask of bones and its cape of rope shook and shimmered and from it rose a human hand smeared with ash, palm forward as if to give a benediction.
Jim looked back to the opening and the pinpoint of light. The Ypik in the ancient days of Beringia and did the aurora light up their fur-hooded faces and did a few of them follow its trail. Wheezy stood facing it again, let it into his eyes. He seemed intoxicated somehow and maybe Jim was too because he felt, again, l’appel du vide—to leap from buildings and pull the emergency exit and stare into the sun until your eyes burn dead in their sockets. Wheezy worked to fit his body through the opening and Jim followed after him. The Captain said a few halting words but with no force behind them, as though he only wished he’d gone first. And when Wheezy entered full he said “my God” and soon enough all four of them, even Ray for all the squeezing through required, stood dripping inside a pipe maybe five feet tall. Dry as bone, the brick far older than theirs: each long and thin and soot black with the grout between them yellow as sand.
The pinpoint of light was much deeper. Jim followed Wheezy and the Captain followed him and Ray brought up the rear, all four of them crouching along without a word. As defenseless as falling down a shaft. Fifty feet deep and then a hundred. And then here was the pinpoint hanging in space right up near the crown. It was an infinitesimal spheroid of light, what stars must be made of, shining in all directions.
“What the fuck?” Ray said. He turned back and the rest of them looked at each other and Wheezy sat right down on the floor of the tunnel to gaze at the thing. Closed his eyes a moment and held out his palms as though receiving blessings. The Captain expected an explanation from Jim and stood with his hands on his knees staring at him. This close, gazing into the pinpoint, Jim saw Shelly a baby and Shelly a full-grown woman. He saw himself paunched and haggard in a bathroom mirror. And he saw Liz curled fetal, saw her eyes vacant with television. He reached out and tried to touch it—hesitatingly, as though it might burn—and for an instant his finger passed through into somewhere else entirely. In response, it seemed, the light drew down to his fingertip and, gathered there, burst bright as lightning, loud as the thunder must be to those it strikes. He flinched. The moment happened. Ray, a few steps down, had startled, crashed his hard-hat against the crown, and now shouted obscenity as though he was under attack
They fled in a hustling, crouched-over waddle. Ray’s headlamp clicked on and it was horribly alone up ahead. Fifty feet of earth above them, a mile, seconds or minutes or their wholes lives until they were back grudging through the opening out into the dark and waist-deep mainline.
The kayak and the bench-board were gone, the buckets and tools. The spider’s nest had been repaired, with fresh swatches of cement gray against gray but it could have been done years ago for the slime that coated them. When the light flashed, Ray had bitten through his lip and now he wore a goatee of blood. Jim tried to recede upstream but the Captain snatched the talk-piece of the radio, the base still clipped to him.
“What the hell is going on?” the Captain said into the thing. The boys topside responsible for this somehow. A snap of static he thought was one of them responding. “Come back?”
And when there was nothing. The Captain tore the gadget from Jim’s waders and squawked the button and again demanded an explanation from the kids up there in the daylight. Nothing.
“We gotta work,” Ray said. He fished in his hard-hat for cigarettes. “This is bullshit. Bonus, boss, we gotta work.”
“Your face, chuckles.”
“Don’t mind that shit. Get me some cement down here.”
Jim slid further upstream, just out of the halo of the crew. He kept his headlamp off.
“Think we worked as much of the live-long day we gonna work,” Wheezy said in an eerie calm. He took off his hard-hat, peeled free the headlamp, and tossed the thing into the flow. He pulled the thin hood of his sweatshirt up around his ears.
Ray lumbered and splashed upstream toward Jim. “What did you do?” he said. “You smart motherfuckers, you—”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t…you know…I didn’t…”
He lurched closer, close enough Jim felt the faint spatter of blood and spit. “You know what the bonus means or you just down here on a fucking lark? Say something. Say something, you punk ass bitch.”
Ray tore a measuring tape from his waders and threw it against the concrete and it exploded in plastic shrapnel. The Captain ushered him down a few steps, whispering platitudes or encouragement—one shocked look back which belied his control. And Jim faded further upstream, a faint gasp as he drew the first breath in a long time. Wheezy would not let him fall away.
“You scared, Jimbo?” he whispered, no light but the glow of his cigarette.
“Do you know what’s going on?”
“For the first time in my life.”
Nobody spoke as they trudged upstream. Jim was right behind the Captain and watched him plow forth in the capsule of his LED and the smoke of his black-and-mild. He was letting the man be afraid for him. The Captain who kept an exhausting, deliberate pace against the flow so deep now it did not splash as they pushed on—a tide of excrement and urine and dishwater don’t think about it, don’t even look down it’s just water. Jim started letting out little grunts as he shoved each leg through the flow. The Captain shot him a look and he shut his mouth. Jim ran on the treadmill four times a week. Occasionally, he cranked up the angle and really let himself sweat. He could keep up. Just to the manhole. Taking Shelly on her first hike and how her legs got “tiored” after a half mile and he piggybacked her the remaining three. Let her sleep against his shoulder as he sang.
“Jim, I swear to God if I’m still eating Kraft mac and cheese for dinner this time next year…that’s on you, motherfucker. I ain’t taking the blame for this shit anymore.”
“I don’t think we need to worry about that bonus,” Wheezy said.
“Shut up. Just the shut the hell up.”
Without the bonus, Jim made thirty three cents a minute. And sixty seconds a minute means half a cent per second—a denomination that doesn’t even exist and yet all of it built out of that. A tribe that offered every last cowry shell and drilled bead, every betel nut they had, to the colonizers in hopes they’d be left alone. And the colonizers had thrown it all into the fire-pit with the rest of their belongings.
The manhole where they’d entered that morning was closed—just a rumor of daylight through the perforated holes in the lid way up at the street. They stood there, three of them at least, trying not to reveal how scared they were. Ray said maybe it wasn’t the same manhole. The Captain closed his eyes to consult some inner map.
“Maybe we ain’t ready,” Wheezy said, studying the particulate in his breath-fog like the murmuration of birds. “But she’s saying, she’s saying we ain’t lost.”
“Who the hell is she?” the Captain said, the black-and-mild bobbing so much in his lip it should have fallen.
“The one telling me this.” Wheezy laughed privately a second, pursed his lips so it wouldn’t show. “She says those brothers that went missing down here back in the day…everybody thinks they got lost. But them Jews wasn’t really lost when they wandered the desert, you know what I mean?”
“No one knows what the fuck you mean,” Ray growled. “Who went missing?”
“What’d they end up finding, huh?” Wheezy said. “You think there’s some other way to do it.”
Ray lurched now at Wheezy, to Jim’s relief, with hands up in great seizing claws, red in his eyes and red still slick and bubbling at his mouth. The Captain stepped between them, called Ray off like a dog.
“Look,” the Captain said to him. “Whey don’t you climb on up there.”
“First out, huh? But I wasn’t first in, was I?”
“Them rules are blown out the window and about five miles down the road.”
“My face. It fucking hurts.”
“I know. I know. Hey, it’s Chinatown, alright? Let’s get you up there and put a bag of frozen peas on that mug. A couple cold oat sodas and—”
“Oh, you think there’s something different up there than this?” Ray said, his shattered lip trembling. “You think this isn’t just the same shit it always is? It’s this or it’s a weekend in jail or it’s no work—or too much work, goddamnit. Some lying bitch…” He started climbing up, the grotesque squelch of ragging—coagulated rootballs of toilet wipes—under his thin gloves and the rungs above him winnowed by corrosion. They never used the steps; the Captain told him that day one. “The world hates a pussy and the world hates a man and I ain’t barely either of them.”
Ray climbed up into the chimney and the rest of them stayed out from under the manhole so he wouldn’t drip on them. Jim could feel the Captain looking at him but he just stared ahead at lesion in the careful brickwork, a swollen pinprick that seemed to look back at him in judgment.
“Fuck the world,” Ray grumbled, faint and muffled. “I asked for nothing and it couldn’t even do that. So don’t ask for shit from me.”
And then the clang of the cover being cast aside, its echo ringing down to them. His body eclipsed the hole and they had only their headlamps and when he was through the rim and up onto the street it was no different.
After a moment, a long second into a minute, Ray appeared over the hole again, behind his headlamp he was little more than a pinpoint of light way up there.
“It’s a fucking ghost town is what it is,” he hollered, his voice breaking. “Huh? It’s the middle of the goddamn night at four in the afternoon. You tell me. There’s cars on the street and ain’t nobody in ‘em. There ain’t a light nowhere I dare you to find one.”
— Brad Kelly is a fiction writer and co-host of the Art of Darkness podcast. He has recently published HOUSE OF SLEEP, a work of literary psy-fi, and is currently developing the novel excerpted here as well as an experimental text spelunking the Tarot card-by-card. He is a former Michener Fellow and has been widely published in literary magazines.