“So what’s your name and what do you do?” puffed the tall, bronzed, high-rolling, tuxedoed man, as he lit the Cuban cigar clenched between his teeth. The fiery fairy lights from the San Francisco skyline some 50 floors below were indistinguishable from the man’s diamond cufflinks twinkling through the blue haze of cigar smoke. No slouch himself, the dapper, silver-templed Robert nonchalantly popped a large, chilled prawn dripping with cocktail sauce into his mouth, and before he could savor the sting of the horseradish through the tears it inevitably brought to his eyes, he was blinded by the memory of his grandmother’s diamonds.
Once again, the long-ago 12-year old stood dry-eyed at the coffin of his “Mee-Maw,” captivated by that ice-cold sparkle that anesthetized his soul against any pangs of conscience that might later ensue. He heard that loud, annoying, raspy whisper of his mother confiding to his father, “Poor little Robbie—he’s so upset by seeing his poor Mee-Maw like this that he can’t even cry.” Even at 12, it pissed him off that his mother didn’t seem to realize that everyone could hear her! But pissed or not, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from that diamond brooch in the shape of a fan pinned to the velvet bolero jacket covering her favorite sleeveless, black brocade cocktail dress. But the real show stopper was that magnificent triple strand of round, brilliant diamonds draped just so over Mee-Maw’s fleshy and slightly inappropriately partially-exposed, mottled bosom. That didn’t look so nice, but the diamonds more than compensated for any lapses of good taste.
Mee-Maw was loaded, all right. Her second husband was an investment banker who retired and died well before Wall Street turned into a gambling casino. The problem was that there were twelve other grandchildren—so her fortune wouldn’t be left just to Robbie and his family. But most regrettable of all, those diamonds and that brooch accompanied her into eternity, which, as his father used to say, really burned his ass. The more Robbie thought about it, the more it burned his ass, too.
No one knew why exactly why Robbie began collecting gem and minerals books, but everyone was amazed that he could distinguish a chrome tourmaline from an emerald, or a spinel from a rubellite, or both from a real ruby. Oh, and it didn’t stop there! He could take a gold ring, analyze the color, bounce it in his hand, tap it on his tooth and tell you the carat count. He also knew the difference between silver and platinum, which really amazed his mother, who couldn’t tell pewter from a tin can. And his old man? Well, he didn’t know his ass from hole in the ground.
After school, he’d wander down to The Strand, the main street of his dead town, and peer through the window of the local jeweler, Mr. Malcolm Sully. Mr. Sully was always bent over something, absorbed into another world trapped inside a grain of sand. The first time Robbie tripped the jangling bell by walking into his shop, he was struck by how long it took Mr. Sully to refocus his eyes on the larger world of his own store, his mole-like reorientation to the air he seemed to be tasting for the first time. Mr. Sully was a short, spare, compact man, who always wore a white shirt and a tie. He held his hands out in front of him, as if poised to play the piano. Meticulous manicured fingertips for meticulous work, and…what was that? Nail polish? Yes, clear nail polish! Robbie had asked his mother about that and she told him that sometimes, professional men in the public eye who use their hands for very delicate work, often wear clear nail polish, because it made them and their hands look and feel cleaner, more transparent, more antiseptic, more trustworthy. Mr. Sully’s hair, though neatly cut and slicked down, flopped a little over his forehead, which gave him a slightly exasperated look. A jeweler’s glass was always at his right eye, and when he’d take it away, the dark, contracted rictus of skin circling his blood-shot, yellowish eye looked more anal than facial. That very image convinced Robbie that he’d never spend eight hours a day looking through a jeweler’s glass, but his passion for jewels and precious metals continued to burn.
And burn it did. His excellent scholarship in math and science haloed over all his other subjects. His stellar grades set him apart from the other working class chumps of his provincial high school, who doggedly chased balls and big-breasted cheerleaders instead of dreams. The good news was that Mee-Maw’s trust funds magnanimously covered the gaps left by the generous scholarships he was awarded. In fact, there was more than enough left over for travel and other indulgences. The bad news? There wasn’t any…yet. So, amid the flurry of so much pomp and circumstance from his high school graduation, and the fanfare and adulation from his family, Robbie left home two weeks before his 18th birthday to attend a first-tier research university where he immersed himself in the study of geophysics. It wasn’t long before he became acquainted with the international mining industry through grant funding, and that’s what eventually lured him down from the ivory towers of academia and into the dirty business of digging.
And dig he did. He loved excavation equipment of all kinds— the bigger the better—but his first love would always be the spade—nothing like driving that beautiful pointed steel tip into the earth with a good solid stomp on the blade’s shoulder, courtesy of a hard-soled, steel-toed boot. In theory, long before he had ever been in an underground mine, he was fascinated by the mechanics of mining. Many a night, he’d lie awake considering the delicate balance between blasting and boring to open passages and then securing unconsolidated substrata and loose rock from falling into shafts and tunnels which would impede movement and block ventilation.
Not that he was a poet or anything, but mining struck him as a metaphor for life itself—figure out what you want and where it is, get the best tools to do the best job (preferably on someone else’s dime), get in, get out, and by the time the whole thing collapses, you’re nowhere around. But who hasn’t had their heart broken by that face-slapping breach between theory and practice? Theory is so beautiful—theory lets you believe what you think you know. Practice pulls the rug out from under you and reveals you to be the sniveling, idiotic coward and/or incompetent nincompoop you had always hoped you were not.
During his first on-site inspection of a new boring and tunneling machine, he made a horrifying discovery which began with the hollow, metallic clang of the cage door shutting behind him at the above-ground entrance to the mine shaft. He tried to ignore his throat closing up on him, the liquification of his knotted intestines, the cold sweat oozing out of every pore of his body, and his heart pounding louder than the jackhammers deep in the mine. Every foot of his dizzying, vertiginous descent through the mine shaft revealed not the glinting of diamonds and gemstones that had so fired his dreams, but the leaden dread of claustrophobia, unleashing a panicked conviction that he was being buried alive. He arrived at the bottom of the shaft soaked and sullied with every fluid, foam, slime or solid his body could excrete, secrete, spew or explosively expel in response to a fear even worse than death itself. As he lay wretching, writhing, and almost unconscious on the floor of the cage, he could feel the explosions reverberating through the surrounding bedrock. Some kind soul had brought him back up to the surface, and he had recovered almost as soon as he was back above ground once again, but the whole experience had embarrassed, mortified and unnerved him enough to make him swear off tunneling for gems ever again.
But…wait a minute! There’s always a Plan B! What about open pit mining for diamonds, gold and silver? And hey, there’s even copper ore to be had, which is also nothing to sneeze at! The reassurance of open blue sky above him, though, was all rather tentative, and it wasn’t long before Robbie became convinced that the deeper the pit, the more likely it was that heavy metal contamination from arsenic, lead and zinc would be the death of him.
Not one to be deterred from his original plans, he established ties to diamond and gem traders and also made some smart investments here and there in lightweight excavation equipment. At first, he had lots of legitimate affiliations through the mining industry, but after a year or so, he went out on his own. He never seemed to have a real home, a real office or any employees—just various business cards, each with its own website, none of which was linked with the others. His family, long accustomed to his being a loner, lost track of him, but from time to time, he’d show up unexpectedly, bearing gifts and dressed to the nines, just back from a trip—or on his way—to Africa or Switzerland, or wherever it was he went. Whenever his family asked what he’d been up to, he talked about the mining industry, and his role in it. No one really understood what he did, but whatever it was, it sure was impressive!
Back in the States, he put his expertise to good use by working as a private contractor with landscaping companies and do-it-yourselfers to access underground plumbing, cabling, sewer lines and drainage systems. “We dig—You fix. We’ll make it look like it never happened!” Before he knew it, he had scores of private golf courses, private parks, church cemeteries, little league baseball fields, etc., among his many clients. His specialty was to be as unobtrusive as possible, to get the job done without disturbing normal business, sports, social or religious functions. He could camouflage a work site, if that was important to a client, by bringing in huge potted bushes, trees and other foliage to make the work site almost undetectable to the naked eye during regular daytime business and recreation hours. Anything noisy, dusty, smelly, or unsavory could easily be relegated to the cover of darkness. As long as he didn’t have to dig down too deep, no problem. He used everything from folding shovels to mini and non-mini crawler excavators. When he wasn’t digging, he was thinking about digging. He even had a little silver coke spoon in the shape of a shovel. Everyone got a kick out of his company’s name: “Can You Dig It?”
Women just loved Robbie! And why wouldn’t they? He was very “diggable,” so to speak—rugged but not chunky, intellectual but not nerdy, mature but not old, good looking but not self-conscious, sexy but not aggressive. And he always smelled soooo good! He was a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond. It would surprise no one to see him scaling a pyramid or stepping out of a stretch limo. He loved nothing more than standing behind a beautiful woman, and kissing the back of her neck, letting the scratchy stubble from his chin send little electric shivers down her back before connecting the clasp of some stunning gemstone necklace that would take her breath away. The payoff was the swoon that always guaranteed at least one throbbing night of passion. Since he travelled constantly, no one really expected a commitment from him. His work kept him in the dark, so he kept everyone else in the dark. To him, women were like jewels—each one, a treasure with its own facets of enchantment. As was also true with snowflakes, no two were identical. And given the given (women, jewels and snowflakes), there was a lot more where that came from.
“So what’s your name and what do you do?” asks the tall, bronzed, high-rolling, tuxedoed man with diamond cufflinks, once again. Through his horseradish induced tears, Robert stares transfixed at the glowing tip of the Cuban cigar clenched between the man’s teeth.
He blinks his eyes, smiles a big toothy, cocaine-induced, feel-good grin, and extends his right hand, just as his unabashed answer surprises even him: “Rob Graves.”
Photo Credit: The King George Festoon Diamond Necklace, bluphire.com