Beneath the oppressive gray of smoke and silt, down below the scars of the land, deep in a mineshaft, Rober couldn’t do it anymore. It was a moment, in fact, mid-swing of a pickaxe, that he stopped, froze, and stared at the jet mineshaft wall. The other men around him kept swinging their axes, searching for the deposits that would yield them wealth and respite from this very work. Rober did not.
“Hey, you okay?” asked Frank, the lead, who had mentored Rober from his first day on the job until he’d “found his legs,” as Frank would joke.
Rober unfroze from the position, pickaxe now resting like an anchor on the dark floor below. “Yeah, what’s up?”
Frank walked toward him and looked around to the other guys. He lowered his voice, “Well, you were frozen. Holding the pick above your head in midair for a couple minutes.”
“I did?” asked Rober. “That’s strange.”
Rober looked up the shaft toward the light and sighed.
“Hey,” said Frank among the clatter of clinks and clanks, “why don’t you take the rest of the day off. There’ll be plenty of trauma to mine tomorrow, and the next day.”
Rober couldn’t remember the last time he’d left early from the job. Had it been years? A decade, even? His thoughts meandered until Frank interrupted.
“You with me?”
“Grab your equipment, drop it off out front, and take the day. You look like you could use it.”
“Thanks, Frank. I’m sorry, I just don’t know where my head’s at, and — ”
But Frank waved the end of the sentence away. “Don’t worry about it. There are going to be moments of doubt dealing with this, with the side effects and repercussions and all. It’s only natural, until you realize it’s still what you have to do. Take some time and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
* * *
When Rober made it home, his body only half as tired as it usually was, his hunger only half as strong, and his mind only half as dull, he disrobed and took a shower as was part of his daily routine. In the shower, however, scrubbing the soot and slag and dross from his fingers, his thoughts didn’t bounce from one idea to the next as they usually did. A single question occupied his mind.
Why do I keep digging up all this suffering? Repeating it? he asked himself first internally, and then with his own voice: “Why do I keep doing this? What am I doing? Why am I mining? I could be working any kind of job. I could be a semantic seamster. I could be a line mechanic. I could be a poet of found objects, an existential fabricator, a philosopher’s assistant, a plot architect, a compositional engineer, an act activist, a setting trimmer, or anything at all!” Breathless, Rober realized he’d never spoken these words, hadn’t even thought these thoughts before, but hearing them aloud, hearing his own voice bounce off the water off the tile off the glass of the shower, they couldn’t be truer. His days of trauma mining were over. Something else had just begun.
* * *
The next day, Rober arrived early to meet Frank before the team descended the shaft.
“Looking sharp in that shirt of yours. Hope you have your work clothes with you so they don’t get dirtied up.”
Rober smiled. “Frank, I’ve got to talk to you about something.”
“About yesterday? Don’t worry about it. You’ll be paid your full day all the same. Consider it a gift.” Frank’s mustache curled at the ends with his smile.
“I really appreciate that,” said Rober, “but I’ve got to talk to you about something else.”
Frank’s smile relaxed and a look of concern spread in its place. “What is it? You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for asking. But I don’t think I can work here anymore.”
Frank looked in shock, and then started laughing. With a heavy pat to Rober’s shoulder, he said, “Rober, that’s pretty funny. Especially coming from you. You’ve been the best worker we’ve seen in a long time. I mean, they say you’ve got a nose for it. That you can smell the crystalline structures of childhood abuse, dysfunctional families, and violence. Unlike anyone’s ever seen.”
Rober turned away in embarrassment.
“Don’t be self-conscious, man. They’re digging for it, we all are, trying to get those meaty chunks to fall out of the walls. Those mean payday. But you grab ’em like they’re on a shelf. We’re searching, but they seem to search you. You’ve got to appreciate that.”
Rober nodded. “And I do. I really do. But Frank, this just isn’t for me anymore. There’s more to me than just this. Don’t you think there’s more to life than just opening and reopening trauma? The day in and day out of digging for little chunks? Little rocks we can use to pay our bills?”
Frank stepped away from Rober, his face darkening. “I don’t know what you think you’re going to do out of the mine — ”
“I’ve thought a bit about it, there’s an open position for a line mechanic. I saw something for an absurdist bureaucrat in the paper too.”
Frank shook his head. “Listen to yourself. Yeah, there are jobs out there you can do. Some that won’t deal with as much suffering in the beginning. But what do you think powers those jobs, huh? What keeps those vehicles on the road, really?” Frank pointed down to the mine. “It’s trauma! We’ve got to get down there and knock out loads and loads of colonial oppression, of cultural appropriation, of systemic abuse. What, did you think everything else was just peachy outside of the mines? That we were in our own little world?”
Rober didn’t know what to say. He thought he did, but he couldn’t put his gut feelings into an argument.
“Kid, the whole world runs on the stuff. If you want to try something else, you’re more than welcome to, but this is where the money is. It keeps the world spinning, if you know what I mean.
Rober forced himself to look Frank in the eyes, his chin trembling from the weight of his decision. “It doesn’t have to, Frank. There’s got to be another way.”
The lead trauma miner laughed through his nose. “Well, hey, if you want your job back in the mine, you’re more than welcome to it.” And with a big smile, “We’ll be here putting in the real work.”
* * *
After Rober made it home, he sat on the couch and stared at the wall.
He looked around the room to his spartan furnishings: a couch, a table, a lamp, a bookcase. He looked to the bookcase that housed a minimal, refined taste of a few miners he felt he was in dialogue with, as well as the first nugget of trauma he’d ever found, a childhood memory of violence between him and his brother, a token of the many more pounds he would mine from the mine shaft, from his past. And he looked across to the single painting in his living room, a small canary in a small cage, a gift after his first year. “To remind you,” Frank said back then, “of our work reminding others. It’s dangerous, but we do it so they don’t have to.” He used to think of the canary as a symbol of perseverance and fearlessness despite the danger in its job. It used to be a memento of who he wanted to be, a man at the front lines warning others of the dangers in the world. But now, it was just a bird in a cage.
* * *
Rober sat across the desk from the lead line mechanic. She pressed greasy fingerprints into his resume.
“Well, you’ve got the right experience. A trauma miner for 15 years is no small feat. But truthfully,” she said as she leaned back, that pause to subvert a sentence, “I’m curious why you’d want to do this. We don’t get the same kind of glory you’ve been getting down in those mineshafts. There aren’t any glowing chunks you get to pull from the walls. People just bring in their vehicles, we fix the parts, and then we send them off.”
Rober nodded. “I know. It will be different, but I can’t go back. I know there’s something more to this than just mining. And I want to figure out what that is.”
The mechanic nodded. “All right, let’s see what happens. I’ll give you a week with minimal training. You’ll mostly be doing line work if you know what I mean, and if you still want to hang around, then by all means.”
Rober reached out his hand to seal the contract. The mechanic smiled back and waved. “Hands are too dirty. But I’ll see you tomorrow.”
* * *
Throughout the week, Rober worked the lines. He degreased, washed, smoothed, and polished them until they were perfect. And then he did it all over again on the next piece. He enjoyed the little crescent moons of grease beneath his fingernails after a long day, the ache in his shoulders and back from keeping them straight, maneuvering a tricky punctuation sequence or semantic alignment. He did.
But just as the lead mechanic expected, the work was missing something. There was no nugget of glistening stone, no silent, mournful, amazed awes from the bystanders in the presence of a particularly beautiful rock of trauma. There was no dissection of a past wrong, no nuance, no jolt of pain at the reopened wound. There was just him and the grease. Just him and the work. Until the vehicle was on its way.
On his last day of work for the week, he walked into the office.
“Well,” she said, “I was right, huh?”
Rober nodded. “You were. I’m sorry to have wasted your time.”
But the lead line mechanic laughed, as Frank had, but without malice or judgment. “You haven’t wasted anything. This is just part of the journey.”
With a wave, Rober turned to take his leave.
* * *
After a month of trying different positions, all the managers and bosses and executives eager to have such a successful trauma miner in their ranks, Rober found no more satisfaction than he had working the lines as a mechanic. He’d morphed the mundane into the most incredible works of art as an allegorical alchemist. He’d tried his hand at existential fabrication only to question what meaning he could imbue with his drills and cuts and welds. And he’d catapulted as a genre cosmonaut through epic terrains both terrestrial and non-, describing the strangeness of new environments, the beasts, the magic, the lore.
What Rober thought would be an exploration of other fields ended up being a traversing of the same. Many ran off the same stone he had mined for years, polluting the atmosphere with toxicity and harm. It was just dressed different. And while there were certainly many exceptions to the case, he couldn’t help but find the smog still lingering, the miasma that was colorless, odorless, tasteless, and yet there.
He tried something else.
* * *
Rober opened the gate to the meta-recyclers and walked through the yard of refuse. He saw thousands of books piled in large heaps, paintings stacked precariously to three floors high, sculptures rusted, songs and videos buzzing around, with the odd sports moment or interview rustling beneath the heaps. In the middle of the junkyard, walled in by stacks of all kinds of worn and torn treatises and declarations, sat a small hut with an aluminum corrugated roof and walls that looked more leaned than fastened. A short, grimy, gnome-like man stepped from the door.
“Rober, is it?”
Rober nodded to the gnome, now recognizing the strangeness in the man’s clothes: a patchwork jacket of Frank L. Baum’s character, the death skirt of Sylvia Plath, and a helmet in the style of John Chamberlain’s twisted metal sculptures.
“You’ve come to the wrong place!”
Rober stopped. “But this is the meta-recyclers?”
The gnome nodded. “It is, one of many, of infinite really. We might just be a recycler within a recycler, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t think I do.”
The gnome stretched his hands and cracked all ten of his fingers. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Did you want to do the interview?”
“Oh, this is the interview, you see. The end of the middle where you must realize your constraints and push through into the unknown.”
“Never mind, you’re new to this.”
Rober shrugged and followed the gnome through the winding path amongst the mountains of refuse. He noticed a mirror that held the remnants of a nude woman speaking to herself at the beginning of a novel.
“Focus, Rober. This is important. We’re running out of space.”
Rober looked out into the almost endless lot of waste.
“How big is this place?” he asked.
“It’s infinite. When you get to the end, it duplicates with the addition of having once appeared in the original junkyard and so on and so forth.”
Rober stopped walking. “I don’t understand.”
“You wouldn’t!” said the gnome. “This is all happening much too late, this really should have been pages ago, but I’m here to tell you, to herald you to your next stage. You don’t need to go back to trauma mining, but you can’t work here.”
Rober’s heart sank. “But this was the last option.”
“It isn’t. These are all crutches. No one needs this place.” The meta-gnome in his patchwork jacket raised his arms like Moses in a sea of garbage. “This is a crutch too. It’s just knowing the rules of the game and telling everyone else the rules while playing it. Not everyone needs to hear the rules. Most people just want to play!”
“Okay …” said Rober.
“It means your identity bound up with trauma is a crutch too. It means you don’t need crutches if you don’t need them. It means you can work in any way you want. What Frank said earlier was true — ”
“Wait, how do you know about Frank?”
The meta-gnome shook his head. “I can read the pages before, kiddo. And like I was saying, it’s true: the world operates on trauma in ways we can’t fully conceptualize. But just because it’s mostly used in vehicles, destroying our environment, smogging up the very air we breathe, doesn’t mean it has to.”
Rober furrowed his brow. “As in there are more uses for it?”
“As in, queue act three; it can be used for its current opposite.”
By now, Rober and the meta-gnome were at the entrance to the meta-recyclers. “How’d we get back here already?”
“There are multiple entrances. All the same, of course.”
Rober looked around curiously. “I thought I was coming here to interview for a job, but it’s all very different. I didn’t expect this.”
The meta-gnome nodded. “Just cutting to the chase, or to the revelatory dialogue.”
Rober laughed. “All right. Well, I appreciate this, whatever this was.”
“You’re more than welcome. But hurry, off to act three.”
Rober turned and walked out.
* * *
For months Rober couldn’t get the meta-gnome’s voice out of his head. The twisting and turning of logic, the implosion of it all on itself. He’d tried to figure out an identity, applying for more jobs, but having shorter and shorter stints at each one, always realizing too quickly that it wasn’t what he wanted to do, wasn’t who he was.
He sat in his living room, as he often did, staring at the nail that had once held the painting of the canary. He’d removed the picture out of a growing dislike of the cage; the painting now leaned up against the wall with only the back of the canvas showing. He stood up, not fully knowing why, but acting on an intuition incepted by the meta-gnome, perhaps prepped by himself. He walked to his bookcase and picked up the small, polished nugget of trauma that had been his first find as a young collier. He rubbed the sanded surface of it, now so easy to see the pain and anguish deeper in the rock. He held it and thought of the meta-gnome, of the rock’s main purpose: fueling our vehicles, polluting our air, destroying the world in which we live. Then he clenched it in his hand and walked outside onto the patio.
Rober grabbed a bag of seeds sitting on the gardening table and tore the top open. He sprinkled them over the earth before he knelt down and dug a small pocket to place the nugget of trauma. After he stood, he didn’t know why he’d done it, never having seen someone do this very act. But he had. He turned on the hose, doused the earth in water, and walked inside.
* * *
The next morning, Rober dusted off his grimy mining gear and suited up. He’d have to talk to Frank and hope his offer was still available; he’d completely run out of options. On his way out, he remembered the seeds he’d planted in the garden. He walked out there, and to no one’s surprise but his own, stalks of conceptual tomato plants had already grown from the seeds with plump hanging conceptual tomatoes almost dragging their stems to the earth. Rober smiled, knowing he’d still have to go to Frank, still have to get his job back, still have to define himself, but it wouldn’t be how he thought. He would be a trauma gardener.
* * *
“Because it can fertilize, Frank. No one’s ever looked at it that way, but it can fertilize other ideas to bloom. Sure, vehicles will use it, but we’re looking at it all wrong. The trauma doesn’t have to be the fuel to get us from one place to the next, it can just enhance what’s already there, when it’s been prepared and softened. Frank, the vehicles move themselves!”
Frank stroked his chin in thought. “Well, yeah. But the trauma makes them move a bit faster, with a bit more power. You know that.”
Rober nodded. “Yes, it makes vehicles a little more powerful if we’re looking in terms of trauma-power. But there are other powers. There are efficiencies we can build, streamline structures and plots and lines. It can be any type of shape or size and be powered by itself. The trauma is just a waste.”
Frank shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to do. We’ve got tens of thousands of mineshafts around the globe pumping out this stuff. There’s no way we can all just stop this.”
Rober stood from his chair, looking down at Frank. “But you can. We don’t have to mine it out, polish it, and burn it. We can cultivate it with an open heart and let it be our compost. We can let it help other ideas, let it transform into something else entirely.” Rober grabbed the conceptual tomato from his back pocket. “Do you see this, Frank?” he asked.
“Grown in my backyard with the first nugget of trauma I ever found as fertilizer. Look at it. A beautiful red concept. When’s the last time you saw one this big? This perfect?”
“That’s a nice-looking concept, Rober. I have to admit.” He looked down in thought and then back up. “In one day?”
“Yes. One day. Just think if we changed how we thought about it. It’s not meant to be burned and used up. It’s meant to sustain us, to help us see the world more clearly. It helps us savor everything else. It makes us human.” He took a large bite out of the tomato. “But most importantly, it can grow something else. Something new. The trauma shouldn’t be the focus, my friend. It’s only but one of the many aspects that make a conceptual tomato a conceptual tomato.” He held it out to Frank. “Please, take a bite.”
Rober’s former mentor eyed it with suspicion before he took it from him, inspected it, and bit into the pulpy flesh. Rober watched as Frank chewed in silence.
“Well?” Rober asked.
“Well, I haven’t tasted a conceit like that in years. In a day, huh?” He took another bite of the tasty morsel.
“In a day.”
* * *
Frank’s mineshaft was the first in the world to convert to a fertilizer plant, and then to a garden once the fertilizer had all been sold. He decided they wouldn’t keep digging, no need with stalks and bushels of fruits and vegetables and trees growing faster than anyone had ever seen. It didn’t take long for other mining operations to slow down and convert, for colliers to become gardeners. The air became cleaner, the world greened, and that miasma that drifted over the many occupations still needed for a functioning society, the odorless, colorless, tasteless cloud of trauma, had disappeared.
Rober never quite saw himself as a conceit gardener, nor did he find any kind of descriptor adequate for what he did or wanted to do. He just lived, the best he could, and cared for the trauma in ways he never had before. The world became a bit clearer, a bit more beautiful, and he worked to make it just a little more so.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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