The place expanded and contracted, given his mood and the morning. It had gotten much better since the Winter finally let go its frigid stronghold in the valley; they had a commissary now, a dining hall, some workers were allowed to bring their families. He was still alone because he didn't go into the caves, he only punched numbers and filed ledgers so any family he might have wasn't yet allowed up. Not that it mattered, since he had no family to speak of, not one of his choosing at least.
When the valley started to fill up a bit with women that weren't for hire, his loneliness became somewhat unbearable during the day. He was alone in his office, which was its own little building, while the other men (rough and crude as they were he enjoyed their company) went into the caves and pulled out gold and sent it down a track. After the geologist analyzed the load he was given a set of numbers, which he recorded and turned into dollars for the owner. He then turned the remaining dollars into payroll for the men, into paid bills for the food, for the heat, for the floors, for the chair that he sat on all day and sometimes all night. He did most of this alone, save the conversation with the owner and a manager or two, or a few forced words at the dining hall in the evenings or to the cook when he picked up his lunch (at his own given lunch time, the other men ate in the caves).
He was alone all day, and slept in a small closet attached to his office all night. The other men (those who were not foreman and did not have a small house onsite allotted to them complete with a priorly formed family unit to keep them warm) slept in dormitories with ping pong tables and shared baths. The dormitories reminded him of where he lived when he attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio: tall ceilings, lots of loud voices calling out in the late hours, the stink of sweaty young men and unwashed clothing. He had had his share of camaraderie in school, but in this lonely profession at this lonely place in this lonely state he felt a bit like a shadow. His shoulders that were always bony became a bit stooped, driven forward by his shyness and introversion.
The new women helped, even if they were married to the men in the caves. Their happy voices called out each other and their children, enough children lived here now that soon the mining company was turning one of the apartments in the large new dining hall into a school for the ten-odd offspring that had joined this bizarre community. The owner had asked him if he wanted to teach math or more intricate accounting to the older children, and he agreed, glad for distraction, glad for change, glad to be able to hear his voice speak out loud for extended periods of time and to hear voices speak back to him earnestly. The small homes with the small families inside were quite close to his office and quarters, and he sometimes could smell the bread baking smells that he had so missed, and when he passed the tall windows on his way to the owner's office he peeked askance at the cozy interiors. They were full of modern and familiar things: toasters, Felix the cat clocks, rag rugs, radios (amazing they could get a signal up here), calendars with movie stars on them. The grey planks of the small homes shone silver sometimes, and the red framed windows and red doors gave a cheeriness that hadn't existed prior to the improvements that were made right around the women's arrival. Roughness was being covered up a bit. No longer did the place look like an organized Civil War era factory camp.
There was another improvement, another pleasant advance: movies were being shown in one of the larger dormitories now. He had come to one of the showings, held rather late because of the stubborn sunlight, but the men and the older children and the wives with no very young children stuck it out until the movies would start at midnight. The younger men and the older boys threw popcorn and cat called Rita Hayworth or whomever the main actress was, and if he closed his eyes he felt as though he were in a move house back home, and not in some lonely gold mine in South Central Alaska.
To be close to the new wives, to sit sometimes next to one of them (when they arrived the women of hire had discreetly removed themselves back down to the town down the pass - twenty miles below), was a frustrating and blissful experience for him. Sometimes he allowed one of his bony tweed knees to graze a soft cotton skirt, sometimes he was able to stare at a lower lip for longer than an instant, while the wife and husband gazed in rapt attention at the flickering screen. Sometimes he imagined he felt pulses of recognition, of attraction when his leg ever so slightly brushed along the fabric of one of the wives' skirts. The wives' lips were usually red, ripened with lipstick brought up from civilization. Hair was glossy, shined with shampoo and good brushes also lugged the miles and many feet of elevation up. The lack of trees in this place, the low plants and squashy emerald tundra only accentuated these women's allure; red was more red than red, black and blonde hair stood out and turned the valley into a painted postcard. To sit next to one of them and begin a casual, slightly intellectual conversation was aching fodder for his imagination. He was harmless, though. The men in the caves had nothing to worry about. He was too kind and too smart to attempt anything other than a church-parishioner like relationship with any of these women. But it didn't stop him from quietly looking. Or thinking. Or wanting.