It was a cold morning, and the only alternative to stuffing my hands into my pockets was placing them just above the massive vibrating engine that was the dying junk ship motor. I had weighed the odds before, and the rough winds tossing the ship didn’t improve them. Deciding against the possible scalding of my palms, I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets. I remained with the other spelunkers, huddled together in one giant mass of sweat, rough leather diving gear, and oil. I pushed into the crowd and they parted for me, the unvoiced agreement that we would rotate to make sure no one fell sick like Tin-shoe Tim. No one spelunked while ill, too many cases where they dove into the wreckage and were pulled out later as dead weight. Sometimes quite seriously dead weight.
In the center of the huddle the pungent smell intensified. I stopped just short of the middle, my knees bumping against a young boy’s head. Another unspoken agreement. It was bad enough to have to spelunk for living, another to be brought in so young. The least we could do was make sure they got to the site with feeling in all their limbs. The markets were doing poorly again this year, so a few merchant's children were here to make up for losses. It was obvious from the brand clothing they wore, what was advertised as good quality spelunking gear but not what an experienced eye would choose. The majority were probably from the orphanage having just reached the age to work and were unfortunate enough to not be chosen for apprenticeships and the like. There had been some talk to increase the age threshold of labor laws, but the fatbacks would have none of it.
A crime on economy, they said.
The hard won experience of a good day’s work, they said.
Of course we spelunkers knew what they really meant. After all, the fatbacks weren’t evil. They were some of the hardest workers in the world, and I even knew a few personally. They paid for their luxury in sweat, and it was well deserved.
No, the fatbacks were machines, highly trained machines with only one purpose in mind, making the cash flow in. And like all machines, after awhile these machines start to see everything in numbers. Assets and liabilities, risk and reward, profit and acceptable losses.
This wasn’t too objectionable either. Old Tin-shoe Tim was a machine himself, the way he strove to bring up morale after a long hard day. Late nights after the shifts were over, we’d gather round after seeing the young ones home. Pints were passed and Tim would pull out his small guitar.
An heirloom, he said.
Passed down from generation to generation, he said.
It was ukulele, a folk instrument that was common novelty. I had a found a few in the wreckage from time to time, put in the research to find they were worth as much as a few pieces of chicken. But I let old Tim have his fun. He’d play for us into the night, singing about pretty woman and handsome men. Songs about making amends and making promises. And when we had finished living, we woke those who were lulled to a more peaceful place. A land where dreams weren’t figments and the grass wasn’t so patchy and grey.
We had reached the site, and the mass huddle parted as each man began to move towards his jump area. Solid thuds sounded as man after man hit his palm firmly on another’s back before moving on. It was old tradition, started by a man I’ll never meet, in a time I’ve never lived. Still, it was a small comfort and I was thankful.
I reached my station, hooked myself in, and waited for the horn to sound. The man to my right, a thin-framed youngster, gave me a small nod as he leaned back against his harness. He had been of education, but discovered too late that fatbacks were concerned about money, not knowledge. He still had a glint of hope in his eyes, waiting for the day he could wrench his existence from the mire we live in. But it had been two years since he first signed on, and he had grown complacent, weathered from the daily task. Firmly entrenched in the mire, the longer he could keep his hope, the happier he would be.
The horn signaled the start of the shift and one by one the crew began its descent into the depths below. I didn’t move. Seniority came with a few benefits that served to sweeten the idea of dedicating a hefty portion of your life serving someone. With my experience and general work ethic I was an asset so the fatback machines wouldn’t get rid of me. Not until I dipped into unprofitability.
It would be around this time I’d spend the next ten minutes chatting with Tin-shoe Tim, share a smoke over talk about who we were. It was the favored pastime of the old, comparing our past moments before our lives were not our own. Old Tim would recount his first sweetheart, a young man from abroad, and would grow more and more excited. His words would garble in his mouth as he rushed the story out, as if he could live out a few years of happiness again if he could get it all out fast enough.
Memories were much more intoxicating than any cheap alcohol I could have brought, but I couldn’t share my memories with him today. Not anymore.
“For you Tim.”
I placed the watered down alcohol on his station to my left. We’d have nights filled with laughter betting who could stomach the most before our bodies rejected it. It’d be gone by the time I got back from my first dive, some senior with no respect taking it upon himself to not let a drop go to waste, or a maybe even a youth who’d try anything to drown the pain away.
I didn’t mind. Tim would have wanted it that way.