Chapter Six

“If you’ll watch your hands and feet, we’ll start the descent!”

This was a good group, Jefferson guessed. Interested enough to pay attention but just impatient enough to get to the gift shop so that they wouldn’t linger after the tour and ask questions he was unprepared to answer. Possibly a few tips to be had. And the girl with the red hair: she was naughty. A very nice group, indeed. Perfect.

Well, not perfect. He’d much rather be racing his Nova, the one that sucked up all his discretionary income. It was orange, his Nova, and it had radical hubcaps and a stand-alone tachometer the size of an old-fashioned alarm clock. When he was inside his car, he was one fast Navajo. Everyone said so, even Cloddy White Feather, whose lime green Dodge Dart was the envy of every punk-ass drag racer in Maricopa (except him.) So, yeah, if you got technical about it, no, this group here didn’t make things exactly perfect. Perfect was the rumble of a V-8 in one ear, some Snoop kickin’ in the other ear, and gravel flying every crazy direction, with nothin’ but horizon in front you.

But not even close: this was the best group of the day. The last one, with all those Germans – nightmare city. This one had regular people. Americans with cameras and fanny packs.

There were 16 of them, four fewer than the maximum allowed by state law in this particular brand of industrial elevator, the kind where you entered from one side and exited from the other; where the metal floor had rounded nubs, like a ribbed condom; where you didn’t have to worry about making scratches. Jefferson stood in his usual spot, in the front left corner, next to the control panel. His passengers unconsciously arranged themselves into four neat rows. (Jeff had started noticing stuff like this. After experiencing several hundred trips in the elevator – 32 descents and 32 ascents a day for the past three weeks — he could accurately predict where his guests would stand, where they would look, what unfunny jokes they would make as the box creaked downward beneath the earth’s surface.) The cute redhead pretended not to look at him, but that was all right. He already had a fine mami waiting for him on the rez.

Angel. Girl was no angel whatsoever! And that was the point. That thing she did with her tongue. Damn!

The trip from the lobby down to the excavation site took one minute and 32 seconds. Jeff knew this, because after a few days of leading tour groups into the subterranean depths, he decided to memorize the recorded narration that automatically began when the elevator doors closed and ended when the journey was finished, 512 feet down. If you recited the facts and figures and anecdotes slowly, like one of those voice-over artists who did the movie trailers – “In a world. . .” – it took more than two minutes. If you spat out the narration like Ludacris stoked up on meth, you could tear through it in about 30 seconds. But if you did it the way the boss did it on the tape, with pauses in the dramatic spots and a tasty sense of propulsive rhythm, like that old piano player his pops liked, Count Basil or some shit, 90 seconds was just right. People actually listened; they were hypnotized almost, the way pops got when Captain Basil picked out the blues with a sly right pointer finger.

“Some visitors find the change of air pressure slightly discomforting,” the recording said. “Try pinching your nose, closing your mouth, and blowing softly, just as our desert ancestors did thousands of years ago!”

Jefferson Jiminez had never had an inner ear problem, in or out of the elevator. And he found it strange and sort of funny that so many visitors, mostly white ones, he noticed, scrunched up their face and clutched their head and looked to their spouse for support after the elevator started moving, and especially after the announcement came through the hidden speakers.

“We are now passing three-hundred feet,” the narrator intoned, “far past the survival point for most homo sapiens lacking auxiliary oxygen and electricity. But fear not. In the highly unlikely event of power failure, do not panic. Your trained guide will direct you to the nearest emergency station, stocked with flashlights, breathing equipment, and diversions for the children.”

Jeff scanned the faces of his group. They always looked mildly anxious at this point, and someone, usually a fat white dude in a windbreaker, made a lame quip about “having to go someday!” and everyone else — usually more fat white people – laughed along nervously. Couples, especially the younger ones, possibly doing a day trip from their honeymoon at the Grand Canyon, tended to squeeze hands and shoot each other knowing glances meant to connote eternal love, or some such shit.

He smiled at a lady wearing a black baseball hat with the title “Devil’s Advocate” stitched across the crown. Why were white people so damn fat? Jefferson wondered. Maria, his older sister in the wheelchair, now she was stupid fat. But all she did all day was watch Springer and eat Funyons, feeling sorry for her fat ass. She had, like, an excuse. All these white people, they’re legs worked. They didn’t have to sit home collecting disability and boring everyone with stories about what could have been, dreaming about Russell Crowe taking pity on their sorry self.

This was a bus group, he conjectured. Desert Adventures. Or Harvey’s. You could tell: they already had t-shirts and shit from the Dam and the Dick.

He wanted to ask these dumb ass white folks how they felt about visiting a place where hundreds and thousands of his people were buried, slaughtered like cows at the hands of white murderers. But his bosses had told him not to mention anything political. Or sexual. Or religious, or whatever. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out; show ‘em the cave, do the routine, drop ‘em at the gift shop.

The elevator shook a little as it neared the bottom. More jokes, no doubt.

He didn’t need to, because it was all memorized by now, natural as the national anthem, or the spots on Highway 114 where his Nova changed gears when he had the pedal pinned. But Jefferson ran through his script in his head, just making sure. This was showbiz, sort of. Lost world . . . human expression . . .frozen in time . . .extraordinary document worth more than the Mona Lisa . . .scientists believe that this was part of a sacred ritual . . .beginning of civilization as we know it . . .let’s all take a moment to marvel. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

What all the excitement was about escaped Jefferson Jiminez. They were just some old paintings, and they weren’t any good, anyway. It was like some drunk old Indian wiped his ass with his hand and then scraped it on the walls of his cave. Seriously! Jeff’s little sister could have done them. He could have done them. Seriously!

But, whatever. The white people liked them. And that’s what put the octane-booster in his ride. The boss always reminded him of that. “No matter what you think about our visitors, you’ve got to treat them like they’re your personal guests in your personal home. You’ve got to treat them special. Like they’re your family.” That’s what Mr. Lenny told him.

The elevator screeched to a halt. Jefferson pulled the lever to open the back doors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said solemnly, “welcome to the Painted Cave of Slippery Rock.”

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