The Big Rip

The Big Rip

In the cold, dark October morning, Rule walked alone down the railroad tracks toward the Ross Shaft of the Homestake Gold Mine. Alone in the early morning, his breath coming out in fits of steam, he felt alive. The air above ground was different than the air down below, thick with the smell of mold and decay.

Standing in front of his locker, he changed out of his street clothes into the cotton union suit, overalls, and rubber boots. Before putting on his hard hat, he slipped the dog tags over his head, the thin metal tag stamped with his name, blood type, religious affiliation, and his four-digit man number. Rule moved slowly to the equipment room, where showing the clerk behind the wire screen his dog tags he checked out his battery pack and tin of drill bits. He fastened the battery pack on his left hip, running the heavy black cord up his back, and snapped the headlamp into the slot on the front of his hard hat. Picking up the tin of drill bits by its handle, along with his metal lunch pail, he made his way to the man cage that would take him 4850 feet underground. As he approached the cage, Rule searched for Jacob’s face in the glare from the bare bulbs strung along the ceiling of the tunnel.

When the cage door opened, the men crowded into the cage like rats. There wasn’t even room to complain. They just took it. After closing the gate, the cage operator signaled the hoist operator with two long blasts and one short blast, and the cage began its descent, falling at the velocity of gravity. With the cage falling 150 feet every five seconds, the large numbers painted on the inside of the shaft to indicate each level became white blips, the operator counting each blip to track the rapid descent of the cage. As the cage approached the 4850-foot level, he signaled to the hoist operator with four short blasts to slow the cage and then one long blast to stop, and the men became men again, unloading into the darkness to catch the man cars that would take them deep inside the mine. From now on they relied on their headlamps. The only light underground.

Jacob and Rule climbed into one of the six man cars pulled behind the locomotive. They sat across from one another, saying nothing. Once all of the miners were seated in the cars, the train got underway. Rule stared at the walls of the tunnel, a breath away, and wondered how solid rock could sweat. As the train rumbled deeper into the mine, Rule was struck by the smell of mildew. Even after his shift, as he walked home along the lonely tracks, the smell stuck with him. All his life, this smell would accompany him.

When the train stopped near the entrance to their stope, Jacob and Rule stepped off with their lunch pails and tins of drill bits. With little room between the tunnel wall and the train tracks, they waited for the train to move down the tracks before walking the short distance to an alcove, blasted out of solid rock. After leaving their lunch pails, they walked a little farther down the tunnel to the manway and climbed down the ladder into the stope.

Dust hung in the air as they set the tins down in the tight space next to the slushing winch and picked up the long bars. They moved to opposite ends of the stope to bar down any loose rock from the night shift’s blast. They climbed over the ragged chunks of rock on the floor of the stope, their eyes intent on the ceiling. They made sure there were no breaches in the ceiling before they set up to begin drilling.

After moving the jackleg drills into place, they hammered drill bits onto the ends of the 3-foot steels. Holes were drilled into the slab wall, one foot apart. After thirty holes were drilled into the solid rock, Rule and Jacob, using bit knockers and double-jack hammers, knocked the bits off the end of the 3-foot steels and hammered them onto 6-foot steels. Inserting the 6-foot steels into the existing holes, they resumed drilling. The procedure was repeated for 9-foot, 12-foot, and 15-foot steels. After a 9-foot hole was drilled, a wooden dowel was inserted into the hole as a guide to ensure each new hole would be parallel to the last one drilled.

The noise, even through earplugs, was deafening, and the dust was thick and caked hard on their overalls. The work was backbreaking and monotonous and was broken only by a short break for lunch.

Time didn’t exist underground. At least, it didn’t seem to move as it did above ground. There was no sun down here. No moon or stars. Nothing but solid rock and the faint light from their headlamps. And dust. After a while, Jacob checked his pocket watch and signaled Rule by moving his headlamp from side to side. When Rule noticed Jacob’s signal, he pulled his watch from the front pocket of his overalls, tucked the earpiece of his wire-rimmed safety glasses, fogged over from the steam from his drill and smeared with dust, into his lip so he could see the face of the watch. He slipped the watch back inside his overalls and shut down his jackleg drill. Removing his safety glasses, Rule folded them and slid them into the pocket of his overalls. Without sunlight or darkness, time was measured only by the numbers on a watch.

The floor was heaped with the jagged chunks of rock blasted from the ceiling of the stope, which made getting around difficult. The blast at the end of their shift would be the last one before they ordered an ore train. It was Saturday, which meant there was no night shift. On Monday, they switched to nights, so the day shift on Monday would begin slushing rock from the stope.

Once the ore on the floor of the stope was cleared away, railroad ties would be delivered by rail car. The heavy ties would have to be carried down one at a time into the stope from above and used to add twelve feet onto the twelve-foot by twelve-foot chute. After this was done, sand and cement would pour through a 4-inch pipe fastened to the wall of the manway from the surface to raise the floor, and drilling would begin again.

Rule followed Jacob up the ladder and down the tunnel to the alcove. They slid to the ground, their backs against the walls of the alcove, and opened up their lunch pails. While drilling, there was no time for talking. Each of them knew what was required of him and talk was unnecessary. Lunch gave them time to talk.

“I was offered that job at John Deere in Waterloo,” Rule said staring down at his lunch pail.

Jacob looked over at Rule. The quiet unnerved Rule and he looked back at Jacob.

“You plan to take it?” Jacob asked.

“I don’t know,” Rule said. “Thinking about it.”

“You could leave the mine?”

“Sure. Besides, it’s what Elizabeth wants. She can’t stand it any longer,” Rule said.

“You’ve been underground for, what, thirteen or fourteen years, and now she is complaining?”

“She ain’t exactly complaining, she’s just worried, that’s all,” Rule said. “You can’t blame her. It isn’t exactly the safest place in the world.”

“I can think of lots of places more dangerous,” Jacob said.

“Yeah, where? Name me one place that’s more dangerous than here,” Rule said.

“Any war zone. The Middle East. Africa.”

“What do you know about Africa?” Rule asked.

“Not much but it has to be more dangerous than here, doesn’t it?”

“Ain’t going to Africa, going to Iowa,” Rule said.

“You took the job?” Jacob asked.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” Rule said.

Jacob took a bite of his sandwich. He stared down the narrow beam of his headlamp into the darkness of the tunnel. There are safer places, he thought. And maybe, after a while, the damp and dark start to get to a guy. But it was what they knew. Even before they graduated from high school, they knew they were going to work in the mine. It’s what their fathers did, and their grandfathers, and it’s what they did. When you turned eighteen, you went to work underground.

“You know, you’re going to hate it,” Jacob said. “This is in your blood. How in the hell do you think you’ll get along in a plant? Working on an assembly line? That’s not who you are, Rule,” Jacob said.

“At least, Elizabeth won’t worry herself sick. And I’ll get to spend more time with the kids,” Rule said.

Jacob finished his sandwich, closed his lunch pail, and stood up. Rule looked up at him. They had been partners for a long time. It wasn’t an easy thing to say goodbye. There was a sacred trust between partners underground. Their lives depended on this trust. And now Rule felt as if he were breaking this trust. But there was a trust between husband and wife, too. What about that trust? And he had his children to think about. They deserved to grow up with a father, didn’t they?

“When?” Jacob asked.

“Couple of weeks,” Rule said.

“You sure? I mean, you sure this is the right thing for you?” Jacob asked.

“No, can’t be sure. Can’t be sure about anything, can I? I believe it’s best for Elizabeth and the kids,” Rule said.

“What if they don’t like Waterloo?”

“The kids are young, they’ll adjust. And Elizabeth will be happy once I leave the mine. She just can’t relax while I’m down here. It isn’t fair to her.”

“Hell, you’ve survived this long, what’s changed? It hasn’t gotten any more dangerous,” Jacob said.

“But the law of averages catches up to a guy,” Rule said.

“What about ol’ Henry. Hell, he’s been down here for thirty years. Ain’t nothin’ happened to him,” Jacob said.

“Sure, there’s always the chance that nothing would happen to me. Or to you, for that matter. But you’ve got to admit, we’ve both had close calls. You don’t think about it because, if you did, you’d never come back down. But think about it, Jacob, there’s been plenty of times we were lucky. Both of us probably should be dead already. What kind of life is that?”

“It’s a life. One where you feel like you’re doing something. Each day, when we step off the cage into the locker room, we’re alive. We feel alive.”

“But each day, when we catch the cage down, we don’t know if maybe this is the day we don’t make it back up top. Every day,” Rule said.

Jacob patted Rule on the shoulder and headed off down the tunnel toward the manway. Rule watched him walk away, a growing shadow in the reach of light from Rule’s headlamp, until Jacob disappeared into the dark. Rule stood up and followed Jacob down the dark tunnel, his headlamp turned down at his feet.

At the end of their shift, Rule and Jacob sprayed a mixture of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate into each hole of the slab round and tamped in three or four sticks of dynamite. They pushed a blasting cap into the end of the last stick of dynamite in each hole and wired the caps together. Once this was done, Rule attached the electrical wire from the blasting caps to his belt and headed up the manway, the wire stringing behind him. Jacob waited until Rule was out before he climbed up. While Jacob walked back to the alcove to retrieve the plunger from a canvas bag, Rule unfastened the wire from his belt. When Jacob got back with the plunger, Rule kneeled to attach the leads from the electrical wire to the terminals on the plunger. He raised the plunger arm, looked up at Jacob, and when Jacob nodded, Rule yelled, “Fire in the hole,” and pushed the plunger down. The blast of the slab round in the stope below shook the floor of the tunnel and smoke billowed from the manway.

Rule looked up at Jacob again, loosened the terminals on the plunger, stood up, and coiled the electrical wire as he pulled it up from the stope.

“That’s about all the damage we can do for today,” Rule said to Jacob. Jacob nodded, listening for the low rumble of the big engine that pulled the man cars down the tracks. They walked down the tunnel, returned the plunger to the canvas bag, picked up their lunch pails, and hustled to meet the train. As the motorman slowed the train, Jacob and Rule stepped into one of the man cars before the train came to a stop. Once they were seated, the motorman moved the throttle forward and the train sped up, rumbling down the tracks, slowing to allow the other miners to swing up into one of the man cars. When all the miners were accounted for, the train gained speed, moving steadily toward the Ross Shaft. As the train got closer, the miners, sweaty from the work and heat of the mine, shivered from the cold draft that swept down the shaft from the surface.

The locker room was well-lighted and warm. The miners flowed out of the cage, stopping at the equipment room to leave their battery packs for recharging and check in the tins of drill bits. At their lockers, they took off their hard hats, removed their overalls and cotton union suits, grabbed their soap, and headed to the showers. The room was filled with banter and horseplay.
Standing back in front of their lockers, Jacob reminded Rule of the cookout tomorrow at Scotty’s house. Rule said he’d be there.

Standing in the parking lot, Jacob told Rule he’d see him tomorrow. “Sounds good,” Rule said. “What time?”

“He said any time after one,” Jacob said.

“Okay, I’ll see you then,” Rule said. Rule watched Jacob walk to his car before he began his walk home. This was his favorite time of day, the walk home along the railroad tracks, past the school. During the week, the school would be letting out now and several of the kids would run along the railroad tracks on their way home. Rule thought about his two boys who, if he decided to stay here, would go to school here and walk home along these same railroad tracks. Saturdays were quiet. Rule missed the laughter of the kids, and increased his step, looking forward to seeing his boys, who were always excited to see him.

The house was small but comfortable and Elizabeth was always waiting for him at the door. She stepped out onto the porch as he hurried up the sidewalk. She always threw herself into his arms. Even though they’d been married for over eight years, every day was a new beginning.


Scotty’s backyard was crowded with miners and their wives and kids. Rule always thought that everyone at these get-togethers seemed out of place. Their places were underground, not here, pretending their lives were normal. Their lives weren’t normal, they were underground men, living underground lives. It struck him hard. He would miss this, he would miss these moments above ground, behaving as if he were normal. Could he leave the mine for a life that was always lived above ground?

Grilling burgers, Scotty motioned for Rule to join him. “I hear you are leaving us?” Scotty asked.

Rule looked down at his feet, not sure how to answer. Was he leaving? He guessed he was, although it didn’t seem real. “I took the job with John Deere in Waterloo,” Rule said.

Scotty looked at Rule a long time, staring through the burst of smoke from the grill whenever he flipped the burgers. “It won’t seem the same around here without you and Elizabeth,” Scotty said.

Scotty was one of the old ones, one of the few who’d worked in the mine longer than twenty-five years, a lifetime underground. Rule had learned from Scotty. And even though he would never say it out loud, Rule loved Scotty.

“Have you told Gordon, yet?” Scotty asked.

“No, I’m putting it off. Hell, I’m supposed to be leaving in two weeks, so I guess I need to tell him tomorrow night,” Rule said, looking over at Elizabeth talking with Scotty’s wife. Rule wondered if Scotty had put his wife up to it, to seek out Elizabeth to talk to her about Rule’s decision to leave the mine. Elizabeth would never be convinced by Scotty’s wife, or anyone else, for that matter. Never. But wasn’t this his decision?

“How long you been here?” Scotty asked.

“Fourteen years. Can you believe it? Seems like only yesterday,” Rule said.

“It was only yesterday,” Scotty said. “Fourteen years is nothing.”

“How do you do it, Scotty?” Rule asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how do you go underground day after day?”

“I find a sense of serenity underground. It is a closed system. The temperature is always the same, there’s no day or night, there’s no rain or snow, no car accidents, no war, no chaos underground,” Scotty said.

“But I see nothing but chaos underground,” Rule said. “Every time I go down, I have this sense of foreboding, this feeling that the whole thing is going to collapse, bury me under millions of tons of rock and debris.”

“And what about up here?” Scotty asked. “The world hangs on by a delicate thread. The slightest cosmic disturbance could end it all. Asteroids. Black holes. Heat death.”

“Heat death? What the hell is that?” Rule asked.

“It’s where the universe reaches maximum entropy, the state at which all available energy has moved to places of less energy. Once this happens, no more work can be extracted from the universe. Not to mention the big rip, in which the dark energy that saturates the universe pulls relentlessly at its edges, stretching equilibrium to its limits. The universe is ripped apart and everything is set loose to drift hopelessly apart. Down below we have built a labyrinth of tunnels and shafts that seem chaotic to surface dwellers but are intertwined in such precise ways as to make it possible for us to move rock from underground to the surface with utmost efficiency. We are super-efficient moles.”

“Yeah, that’s what I feel like sometimes, a mole,” Rule said. “I don’t know about everything you said, heat death and the big rip. As far as asteroids, I’ll take my chances.”

“It is what we do every day, take our chances,” Scotty said. “We can’t live any other way.”

When Rule noticed that Elizabeth was alone, he told Scotty that he’d catch up with him later, and hurried away to join her. As he approached, Elizabeth thought about the way Rule moved and how it had always fascinated her. He wasn’t someone you could easily dismiss.

“Having fun?” Rule asked as he got closer. Elizabeth just smiled. She never felt comfortable at these cookouts.

“What does Scotty think about you leaving?” she asked.

“He thinks the universe is going to rip apart,” Rule said. “The big rip.”

“Rip apart?”

“Yeah, if we don’t get hit by an asteroid first, or swallowed up by a black hole,” Rule said. “I guess whether I leave or stay won’t have much impact on the fate of the universe.”

“Scotty’s always had weird ideas,” Elizabeth said. “I never understood what Joannie saw in him.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever understood what any woman could see in anyone who chooses to work underground. ‘Super-efficient moles,’ Scotty calls us.”

“That’s a pretty picture, but accurate. All of you down there doing God knows what. Digging. And pushing all that dirt to the surface to be spread all over the place. What an eyesore. The slag piles everywhere. Is it really necessary to bring all that rock to the surface?”

“Do I have to remind you that that’s how I get paid? Every ton of ore that gets to the crusher and refined into gold keeps the mine operating, which pays for our house and puts food on our table.”

“No, you don’t have to remind me. Thank God we are getting the hell out of this place,” Elizabeth said.

Rule was quiet. At that moment, he knew. But he didn’t know how he’d tell Elizabeth. Her heart was set on moving to Waterloo. It wasn’t so much set on moving to Waterloo, as it was set on moving away from Lead, South Dakota. But this was their home. This was where both of them had grown up. Didn’t that have some meaning for her? These were their people.

Elizabeth looked at Rule, and she knew. She knew he’d changed his mind. As much as she didn’t want to believe it, his silence told her everything.

“Rule, what are you thinking?” she asked.

Rule turned to her, not knowing what to say. “Nothing. Just daydreaming, I guess,” he said.

“You are not daydreaming,” she said. “You are thinking about something. You have changed your mind, haven’t you?”

“What? Changed my mind? Why would I do that?”

“Why would you do that?” Elizabeth asked.

“Listen, this is home. To both of us. Who do we know in Waterloo, Iowa? No one, that’s who. Not a single soul.”

“We’ll meet people. We’ll adjust.”

“I can’t do it, Elizabeth, I just can’t,” Rule said. “This is where I belong.”

“Down there. And leave me to worry every day. Sick to my stomach with worrying. Why would you want to do that to me?”

“I don’t. I don’t want to do that to you. You need to stop worrying. Nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m careful. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know how to protect myself.”

“Sure. But what about the things you can’t protect yourself against? The longer you stay underground, the greater your chance of something bad happening to you,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t want to think that way, but I can’t help it. The other wives feel the same way.”

“And they survive. They get used to it, don’t they?” Rule asked.

“No, we don’t get used to it. We live with it, but we don’t get used to it. What choice do we have?”

“I don’t want to put you through this, I don’t,” Rule said. “But this is where I belong.”

“And nothing I can say or do will change that. What about the kids? Don’t you have any feelings for the kids?”

“Sure I do. You and the kids are why I continue to go down there. You are the only things I think about.”

“Then why can’t we leave? Why can’t we go somewhere where we’ll feel normal? Feel safer?”

“Nothing’s going to happen, I promise,” Rule said. “I’m careful. And I’ll always come up. Promise.”

Elizabeth looked hard at Rule, knowing that there wasn’t anything she could say. He’d made up his mind. Some days she wished he wouldn’t come up, so it’d be over and she could stop worrying. It was worrying about it that made it so bad. She spun around and walked away. Rule watched her walk away, wanting to say something, wanting to explain so that she’d understand. But she’d never understand. He didn’t even understand himself.

Rule looked over at Scotty and then searched the crowd for Jacob. He needed to talk to someone. He needed their support, needed them to tell him he was making the right decision. Jacob would be thrilled that he was staying. They were partners. Partners stay together. And then he thought about Elizabeth. What was she? Didn’t he owe her something? Didn’t he owe her more than he owed Jacob? Or Scotty? Or the Homestake Gold Mine?


On Monday, Rule and Jacob began two weeks of night shift, so they wouldn’t be going down until 7 p.m. Scotty and Boz, beginning their day shift tomorrow morning at 7, would begin slushing out the stope. Rule and Jacob would continue slushing when they came on duty tomorrow night. They had called for two trains of Granby cars, twenty ore cars for each shift, over a hundred and twenty tons of ore to load.

Rule enjoyed the quiet walks just before sunset along the tracks that led to the mine, and he looked forward to returning home in the dark after his shift was done. He was struck by the contrast of the empty tracks in the dark hours of early morning as he walked home after night-shift with the tracks overrun with noisy school kids as he walked home after day-shift. Tonight he was eager to talk to Jacob. Even though Elizabeth didn’t understand, and had voiced her opposition, his decision to stay at the Homestake Gold Mine had settled his distressed spirit. He couldn’t make her understand but being underground changed a man, changed his spirit in the same way the leaves changed color in the fall. Winter was on its way. But winter never came to the tunnels deep inside the mine.

Jacob was already changed into his overalls and hard hat when Rule got to his locker. Rule smiled at Jacob as he set his duffel bag and lunch pail onto the wooden bench. As he changed out of his street clothes into his union suit and overalls, he noticed that Jacob was staring at him. Jacob sensed that something was up, but Rule was determined to keep him in suspense until they were underground.

Since they wouldn’t be drilling tonight, they only needed to pick up their battery packs and headlamps before getting in line for the cage. They crowded into the cage to begin the descent into the hollow darkness of the mine. When they settled onto the hard bench on the man car, Jacob pressed Rule.

“I know something’s up,” Jacob said.

Rule looked over at Jacob with a smile. “Sure, something’s up. Something’s always up, right?” Rule said.

“That’s evasive. Sure something’s always up, but this is different. You’ve changed.”

“Changed? How? I’m not sure we ever change. But then, I don’t know at what age we become who we are. Six? Seven? Before that? I need to ask Scotty. I’m sure he’d have an opinion on the matter.”

“We change, believe me, we change, every day we change. Life is a progression and each day when we wake up we’re different than who we were the day before,” Jacob said.

“Do you think so?” Rule asked.

“I do. If we didn’t change, we might as well roll up into a ball and die.”

“I disagree. I think instead of changing, we are constantly trying to find new ways to deal with ourselves despite never changing.”

Jacob stared at the walls of the tunnel from the man car. How many times had he made this trip? How many times had he seen these walls pass by at arm’s length? What was the point? He looked back at Rule, realizing that nothing down here was real. It was all a fantasy. The work meant something though. It must.

“I’ve decided to stay,” Rule said.


“I’m staying here, in the mine,” Rule said.

Jacob stared at Rule, unable to respond. “When did you decide this?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I knew it all along. I never wanted to leave, not really. I guess I was being pressured by Elizabeth.”

“How did she take the news?” Jacob asked.

“Not so good,” Rule said. “But I wouldn’t be happy in Waterloo. I know I wouldn’t.” Rule thought about this and what it meant. Happiness. Is it important? Maybe not. But it was more than that. He’d be miserable in Waterloo. That’s the difference. But would he be bringing misery to Elizabeth by staying? He had to stop thinking about it because it only drove him mad. Work, that’s what he needed.

The train slowed when it got to the tunnel that led to their stope and Jacob and Rule hopped out of the man car. After setting their lunch pails in the alcove, they made their way to the ladder down to the stope. Jacob helped Rule get the winch set up and the slush bucket cables strung out for the first pass and then checked his pocket watch. The ore train would arrive at the loading chute sometime after eight o’clock, so he needed to start down. He grabbed hold of Rule’s sleeve and pointed to his pocket watch. Rule nodded and Jacob started down the manway. Rule made the final adjustments to the winch and cables and began slushing rock into the chute. Once the ore train showed up, Jacob would begin loading the Granby cars.

In three hours, Jacob had loaded all twenty of the ore cars and walked down the tracks to ask Stever, the motorman, if they could get another twenty ore cars after lunch. Stever said he’d be back, and Jacob walked back to the manway to climb up to let Rule know what was going on. Still slushing rock into the chute, Rule was startled by Jacob’s tap on the shoulder.

“Damn, you scared the shit out of me,” Rule said, taking out his earplugs. “How many times have I told you not to do that?”

“Obviously, not enough,” Jacob laughed.

Rule pulled out his pocket watch. “Lunch?” he asked Jacob.

“I got another train coming after lunch,” Jacob said.

“You’ve already loaded twenty cars?”

“Yep. It’s been a good day so far. No breakdowns and you’ve kept the chute full. Making some money tonight.”

“I guess we deserve a lunch break,” Rule said, shutting down the winch.

They climbed up to the level above where they’d left their lunch pails. Sitting across from each other, Rule suddenly switched off his headlamp.

“What’re you doing?” Jacob asked.

“Darkness. I like the sense of total darkness. Switch off your lamp.”

Jacob stared at Rule and then thought, what the hell, and switched off his headlamp. Thrown into impenetrable darkness, without the faintest glimmer of light, they became disoriented.

“Wild, isn’t it?” Rule asked. “Not a single photon of light can penetrate the density of the earth’s crust at this depth. It’s weird how it affects every one of our senses. Scotty told me that it’s energy that gives us mass and mass that gives us energy. They are interchangeable. They are different forms of the same thing. He said that when you convert any piece of matter into pure energy, it doesn’t matter what it is, it could be that apple in your lunch pail, the resulting energy is moving at the speed of light. But this is where it gets interesting. The energy isn’t equal to the mass times the speed of light but rather the mass times the speed of light squared. This is a big number. I don’t understand it, but the amount of energy bound up in even the smallest mass is mind-boggling. He told me that if you could turn every one of the atoms in a dime into pure energy, the dime would yield more energy than the energy in the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.”

Jacob turned on his headlamp and pointed it in Rule’s face. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Life, that’s what I’m talking about. Everything. Energy. That’s it, that’s what everything is made of. Energy. Nothing more. We’re all made from billions of molecules and atoms. A glowing light bulb of energy. And billions of atoms and molecules are bombarding us every second of the day. When I turn off my headlamp, the energy dissipates. You disappear. I disappear.”

“Bullshit,” Jacob said. “I’m still here. You’re still here. Even if I turn off my headlamp, I can reach over and grab your arm. It’s there. Your body doesn’t disappear into thin air.”

“You can grab hold of my arm only because you believe it exists. You need to convince yourself that it exists. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

“Now you’re just talking crazy,” Jacob said. “I’m here, believe me. I’m here. And you’re there. I’m not buying any of your metaphysical bullshit.”

“It might sound like metaphysical bullshit to you, but, believe me, it isn’t. It’s physics. It’s what is going on all around you, even if it isn’t apparent. Just because you want to believe that the physical world fits neatly inside this package you’ve learned to accept doesn’t change the laws of quantum physics.”

“What are you getting at? Are you trying to convince yourself that your decision to stay has no real meaning, that it doesn’t matter one way or another, so you can dismiss Elizabeth’s feelings?”

“No, that’s not it at all. But now that you bring it up, it has been bothering me a little. Have I completely disregarded Elizabeth’s feelings? Am I being selfish?” Rule asked.

“Maybe the opposite is true. Suppose you moved to Waterloo but you were miserable, and you took this misery out on Elizabeth. How would she feel then?” Jacob asked.

Rule thought about this. “You have a point. We can’t ever be sure of our motives. In this way, it is easier to think of everything as billions of atoms and molecules, none of which feel a damn thing.”

“Atoms and molecules? You’re fuckin’ crazy, you know it? Time to get back to work,” Jacob said, looking at his pocket watch. Rule switched on his headlamp and followed Jacob down the short tunnel to the ladder and down into the dust of the stope, thick as fog.

“I’ve got to get going, the train should be here soon,” Jacob said. Rule watched as Jacob stepped into the manway to begin the descent to the level below. There was no reason to begin slushing rock until Jacob had a chance to load the rock that was already in the chute. This was his life, he thought. Dust and headlamps and waiting. No different than life on top. Less dust up there, sure, and no need for headlamps, but waiting. Lots of waiting. Couldn’t escape the waiting. We’re always waiting for something, he thought.

Before Jacob started down, he looked up at Rule. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked.

“Sure, why not?” Rule said.

“I mean, all that talk about energy. Atoms and molecules bouncing off of everything. What does it mean?” Jacob asked.

“Yeah, what does it mean?” Rule asked. Through the dust, he looked down at Jacob and smiled.

“You be careful, okay?” Jacob said and started down the ladder.

“Yeah, sure, you too,” Rule yelled down the shaft.

Rule waited until he was sure Jacob had cleared the manway before he picked up his jackleg drill, making his way over the clutter of rock to set up to drill holes for his new cable sets. When the holes were drilled, he grabbed three loops and hammered them into place with railroad spikes. Unhooking the mainline from the slush bucket, he ran the line through the cable loops and reconnected it to the slush bucket. After this was done, he walked back to the winch and started it up, putting on his safety glasses and twisting his earplugs into place, watching for movement in the chute.

While Rule waited, he thought about Elizabeth. Had he taken into account her feelings? How could he ever know for sure what was best for her? Was he afraid to change? Did it come down to this? Before leaving their house tonight, he had kissed her goodbye and told her how much he loved her. She didn’t respond. He asked her if everything was okay? She kept quiet. It wasn’t a good way to leave. But he left. He had to get to the mine.

Once the rock in the chute shifted, he began slushing more rock into the chute for Jacob to load into the ore cars below. Without any way to communicate with each other, they relied on movement. The funneling of rock in the chute as it fell into the ore cars that moved, one car at a time, along the tracks in the dark tunnel below.

Through the dust and noise in the narrow stope, Rule slushed rock into the chute. Below, Jacob operated the hydraulic chute, filling the long line of Granby cars. After each car was full, he signaled Stever to pull forward with a single side-to-side movement of his headlamp. The work progressed. Within a couple of hours, he had loaded ten of the twenty ore cars. As he was loading car number eleven, he pulled the lever to open the chute but nothing came out. He peered up into the chute with his headlamp. About twenty feet up the chute, the rock had become jammed.

In the stope, Rule stopped the bucket. The chute was full. Something had happened down below. Either the hydraulic chute had broken down or the rock had become jammed in the chute. He knew they hadn’t filled all twenty ore cars. He grabbed the hose and began spraying the rock, hoping to loosen the jam. Nothing shifted, so he took up the long bar and began prying the chunks of rock. Nothing moved, so he stepped out onto the rock for better leverage.

Meanwhile, Jacob started up the manway with his short pry bar to see if he could free the rock jam. The trickle of water from above told Jacob that Rule was aware of the jam.

Through the gaps in the wooden chute, Jacob pried the rock with his steel bar. In a loud explosion of dust, the rock crashed down the chute. Jacob waited for the deafening commotion to subside before he climbed back down the manway to resume loading the ore cars. Standing next to the loading chute, he pulled the lever and the hydraulic chute banged open and rock clanged into the ore car. When the ore car was full, he pressed the lever to close the hydraulic chute and motioned the motorman forward with his headlamp. When the next ore car was in place, he pressed the lever, and once again rock clanged into the large ore car. Through the dust, Jacob watched the rock tumble into the ore car, ready to slam the chute closed when the car was full.

Jacob signaled the motorman and the cars moved forward. Once the next car was in place, he began loading rock. But then something happened. At first, Jacob couldn’t believe his eyes. He jammed the lever and the hydraulic loading chute clanged shut. Unable to believe what he saw, he froze. It was an arm. Among the rubble of rock in the ore car, a hand reached out.

In a fog, he looked down the dark tunnel toward the engine at the head of the train, then back at the chute, and then at the hand sticking out of the jumble of rock in the ore car. He scrambled up the manway to the stope. Rule wasn’t there. In disbelief, he peered down through the twist of rock and dust in the chute. Next to the chute, he noticed the empty safety harness. In a frantic, he searched the empty stope before scrambling up the manway, hoping against hope that he’d find Rule in the alcove with their lunch pails. But he wasn’t there. He knew he wasn’t going to be there.

There was so reason to hurry, yet he couldn’t help himself, scrambling back down the manway to take one last look around the stope. Dark. Empty. Quiet.

Climbing back down to the ore train, the words pounded in his head. How? How? How would he ever tell Elizabeth? The words were empty. Words should have meaning. But these words didn’t. There was no way that he could give them any meaning. None. There would never be a way to say them so that they would have meaning. They would never make sense. No way to give them to Elizabeth. No way that they wouldn’t scream with pain.

When Jacob cleared the manway, he saw Stever’s headlamp next to the ore car that held Rule’s arm.

“Any sign of him?”  Stever asked.


“I called for the medics,” Stever said.

Jacob only nodded and leaned against the wall of the tunnel. There was nothing to do now but wait for the medical team. Stever kept his distance. Nothing could be said.


It took several hours to retrieve the rest of Rule’s body from the chute and Jacob waited. After the team had removed Rule’s arm from the ore car, Stever had taken the ore train back to the haul chute to unload the Granby cars. Once he had unloaded the ore cars, he hooked onto the string of man cars to begin hauling the miners out to the man cage. Rule and Jacob weren’t among them and no one asked why.

Jacob never left. He watched the medical team load what was left of Rule onto a stretcher and then onto a solitary man car behind the big locomotive. He climbed into the man car that took the stretcher and the team back to the cage where Stever waited to take them up. No one said a word.

After taking a shower and changing into his street clothes, Jacob walked out to his car. He sat there until the sun came up and then drove to Rule and Elizabeth’s house. He pulled up in front of the house, staring at the sunlight that reflected off the picture windows. When Elizabeth opened the front door, Jacob got out of his car and walked toward the house. She came down the stairs to meet him. In the first light of morning, standing on the sidewalk, Elizabeth wrapped her arms around Jacob.

Stepping back, she studied Jacob’s tearstained face. “Coffee?” she asked. He nodded. They walked up the steps and into the house and to the kitchen. What had she heard? And what did he need to say now? There must be something he should say. Something.

He sat down at the kitchen table. Elizabeth poured him a cup of coffee and set it down in front of him. She sat down across from him, picking up her cup. Her coffee was cold, but it didn’t matter. She held it to her lips. Jacob watched her, shrinking away, trying to disappear behind her cup. He looked down at the rising steam from the coffee.

“He belonged here, I guess,” she said. “He wouldn’t have been any good anywhere else. He belonged here. I knew it, even though I wanted to believe something else. I hated the mine. Maybe because I never saw it. Couldn’t see it. Wasn’t allowed down there. I hated that. Hated what the mine represented. No matter what he’d decided, the mine wouldn’t have let him go. It was truly hell for me. I had to take it. Couldn’t do anything about it. Only pray that he’d come home every day. Until he didn’t. Well, now I don’t have to pray anymore, do I?”

Jacob stared down at his coffee cup. He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t return her stare, couldn’t even think of anything to say. What could he say? Did she want him to agree with her?

“I’m sorry,” he said, not able to come up with anything else. “If there’s anything I can do, anything at all.”

He looked up from his coffee, tears streaming down his face. He felt like hell. At that moment, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to go back underground. But what would he do? If he couldn’t go back down, what would he do?

Elizabeth watched him. She waited for him to say something. Did she have a right to be angry? Did she have a right to feel anything at all? And what about her children? What was she supposed to say to them? Their father wasn’t coming home. How do you say that? They barely knew him. And now, they’d never get the chance to know him. How is that fair?

“Elizabeth, I know this is hard for you, I know it doesn’t make any sense,” Jacob said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me either. But we have to go on, right? What choice do we have?”

“Choice?” she said. She put her cup down. There was no hiding behind it now. She looked hard at Jacob, wishing like hell he wasn’t there but scared to death to think that he might leave. What would she do when he left? What? What would she do for the rest of her life? We must go on? What does that even mean? Go on? For the rest of our lives? What choice? Yes, what choice do we have? She thought about what Rule had told her at the cookout, how Scotty had told him about the big rip. The big rip. Yeah, that was it. That explained everything, didn’t it? Sure, it explained it as well as anything else. When the universe simply rips apart.

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