The hole has people in it, in boxes. Glass boxes. They do not see you, but you see them. They are doing things. Moving around; doing different activities. You can watch them as long as you want – they are so close.
You are underground. A woman named Francis leads you around tunnels, wearing scrubs. Everything she says is calm, and her hair is flat like her expression. She smiles, but only at the entrance when she welcomes you – only with her mouth and not her eyes; pressing her lips together and curving the edges upward to what you know to be a smile, but doesn’t really seem like one.
“Hello,” she says. “Can I check you in?”
“Hello – welcome.” She says when you don’t respond. “Welcome – is it okay if I write your name down on my list?”
You somehow know you have to give her your name even if you don’t want to because she won’t let you pass if you don’t give it to her, and if you say something other than your name she frowns and says, “Alright,” and lets you pass though you both know you lied. She has to let you say the lie, and you have to let her give you a look. The look makes you wonder if she’ll do anything for you anymore if you keep behaving like that.
You walk past Francis and as you do she turns and says, “Is it okay if we bring in another light?”
She says it as though you run the place, but you know you certainly couldn’t because you just got there and there’s no workers there that you recognize.
You say “Sure?” but aren’t really sure, so Francis nods and gestures towards a man that was standing in the dark behind you that you didn’t see when you came in because he was so quiet and you weren’t looking for him.
He pulls on a rope beside the ladder leading out of the hole and a dumbwaiter comes down and it’s holding a light on a pole and he makes the pole longer by twisting it and pulling out more pole and unfolding the legs, and he carries it past you down a long corridor in front of you, getting smaller and smaller in the distance as the light lights up spaces further and further away, until finally he turns down a perpendicular hall and disappears completely and Francis says “I’m sorry, that won’t be enough light, can we bring in another light?” and you say “Sure,” because there’s no one else around to answer the question.
From another direction down another hallway you see a slight glow and then another, another, another, and there’s a whole stream of people walking towards you, one after the other, and they’re all carrying lights and they stand perfectly equidistant, saying “Hello,” to you as each of them passes and goes down another corridor in any direction all around you.
“Hello,” you say to the first few, but then when the tenth person passes and says hello in the same courteous tone, you’re not sure how many more “hello’s” you want to reply to because it could go on forever.
Francis watches you from her chair; almost looks sorry for you, and takes off the plastic gloves she’s been wearing all along.
“Would you like me to show you around?” she asks, and stands, knowing you’ll say yes.
“Yes,” you say. “Thank you,” and you really are grateful, because everyone else is saying hello to you but walking right past and you’re not sure if they’re very knowledgeable about the dark hallways since they’re all just following each other around carrying lights.
“Hello,” one of them says as you wait for Francis to approach. You avoid eye contact this time, and some of the “hello’s” stop, or at least become quieter. You wish you could know why any of them talk to you or what they do with the lights or where they are going but Francis is already leading you in another direction, away from the central point of all the hallways. The light people keep walking past, and you accept that you simply cannot say hello to all of them and that the walk with Francis is more important than being polite right now.
Francis carries a clipboard and takes notes every once in a while, glancing at the people in the glass boxes and talking to you as though she’s done this a hundred times.
“Here are the glass boxes,” she says, as you walk. The glass boxes go down the corridor and curve around a corner, like you’re in between two mirrors. The amount of glass boxes is more than you can count.
They are all full of people, sometimes people you know. You see your dad moving around a glass box, opening an imaginary cupboard and grasping empty air, as though he’s holding a cup. Somehow you know it isn’t really your dad down here and that if you leave the hole you’ll walk home and see your dad in the kitchen, fixing himself a cup of decaf coffee before bed, but it doesn’t upset you; you feel calm, as though seeing your dad in the glass is something you do every day.
There are a lot of people there and some of them do unsightly things in there – one man is pleasuring himself and you look the other direction, not wanting to be a part of the private moment, but finding it difficult on account of the clear walls.
“Can they see us?” you ask Francis, because every once in a while, you feel like you’ve made eye contact with someone, but maybe they were really looking somewhere else.
“If you want them to,” says Francis, as though she could touch a button and everyone would know that you were there staring at them. “Want to talk to one?” she asks you.
“Yes,” you say and look around for a familiar face. You see a boy from your class and you approach his box.
“Hey, what’s up?” you say loudly to the boy. Francis keeps watching you, not telling you what to do, so you make it up for yourself. The boy approaches the front of the box and taps on a little square of the window with a keyhole in it. Francis takes out a huge ring of keys and unlocks the window, sliding the little square to the side and folding out a glass sill which the boy leans his elbows on, sticking his head through the square hole.
“Hey! How are you doing? So good to see you.” His voice is warm and the skin on his elbows fog the glass he’s leaning on. He’s wearing a t-shirt and some sweats. You wonder if you could go in his box and hang out for a while. You stare at him blankly as he smiles, waiting for a response. You’re not sure if he’s real. His body seems real but he doesn’t live here so you wonder why he’s here, in a hole, underground.
Francis keeps walking ahead of you. Half of the hallway is like a conveyor belt, moving ahead whether you move or not. You step onto the people mover and keep staring at the boy as you slowly move away. He’s still smiling, leaning out the window, and you take a breath to say something but nothing comes out. Francis lets you catch up with her.
“How was it?” she asks, and you wish you could say you’d talked to the boy, but you didn’t, so you shrug.
“Scoundrel,” says a man carrying a light past you.
“What?” You ask but he’s already passed and Francis tells you not to worry about it; just keep walking. You want to do something. You feel the instinct to say hello to everyone carrying a light again.
“Why does everyone know me down here?” you ask Francis.
“They’re just being polite,” Francis responds.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
You realize that you want to leave so you turn to go back the way you came, but you are lost. You are not sure how long you’ve been walking and which ladder you came down.
“Here,” says Francis, pointing to one. “Use that one.”
You do, scrambling up it. At the top you hit your head on the grate, hard, and find yourself shoving your body upward, impatiently lifting it however you can to get out of the tunnel. Your flesh feels heavy against the metal as you slide yourself out onto the concrete.
You’re in a different place now than when you went into the hole, probably, but it’s fine because you’re right outside of your house. You don’t like that you don’t know how you got there or that you don’t know what happened to you.
You’re jittery from all the lights and you wish you’d walked instead of standing on the conveyor belt on the side of the tunnel. A man walks past you in a suit and doesn’t say hello, though you don’t blame him because you are lying on the ground and your jacket’s getting wet from the street water.
It must have rained but you don’t know when. You realize it didn’t smell like anything down there because you smell so strongly now – the rain, the dead leaves in the gutter, the exhaust from cars that keep driving by – all of it smells fresh, and sharp, and down there it wasn’t anything.
I don’t like being down there, you think, but when you close your eyes, you see the glass boxes. You’re curious. A car passes and you dodge the splash from a puddle, standing up and brushing yourself off. You wonder if your dog is still there, because you thought you were walking her before this but now you can’t remember. A man sleeps on the bench across the street and you have a strong impulse to wake him up and say “Hello? Have you seen my dog?” but you know he hasn’t. You calm yourself down and know your dog must be home, sitting by the door waiting to go out. You walk towards your house.
As you approach the front door you hear the screech of tires in the street and someone shouting out their driver side window.
“Watch it lady!” they say, and you turn to see Francis lifting herself out of the hole right in front of the car.
“Keep going,” she says to the driver, and he looks confused but then drives away. Francis waves at you from right above the sewer grate, standing still in the middle of the street. “Hello,” she says. You wave back but you still don’t believe she’s talking to you because you thought she wouldn’t know you once you left the hole. You wonder if you should go back and speak to her more closely, but you’re tired now and you want to go to bed.
“Do you need something from me?” you shout across the street, but Francis just shakes her head and stands over the grate, expectantly.
“Come back if you want to,” she says, watching you. She keeps watching you as you unlock the door to your house and put the key in your back pocket. The house’s smell is a pronounced mildew, but it’s warm and it’s away from Francis. When you look out the front window, she’s still standing there in the middle of the street. Cars honk at her and swerve around her.
You hope she doesn’t stay there for long.
In your house you make your way to your room, not turning on any lights. The dark comforts you more than you thought and you rush to get into dry clothes. The whir of a fan reminds you that it had been hot earlier today but that now it isn’t. A soft snore escapes the crack in your parents’ door. It’s not like it was in the hole. No one says hello.
You think about it as you lie down in bed.