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Dreamscapes - Stories from Across the Globe

Chinese Syndrome
Joseph Guderian

Hank Croix walked out of the pharmacy mumbling to himself when he couldn’t get a refill on his prescription for sleeping pills. He was told he’d have to wait until the doctor returned to the drilling camp next week. Didn’t matter to the stupid old pharmacist how dangerous it was to work without sleep, dumb shit, Hank thought, as he stared at hard earth on the way back to his quarters.

That morning he lay awake waiting for the alarm to buzz, his mother’s voice rode into the dark bedroom with the screeching wind blowing out of Prudhoe Bay. After sixteen months drilling for oil in Alaska, Hank Croix had learned to ignore the sound of the wind, but not the shrill voice from the grave.

It always sounded like it did when she was in the asylum, and always stirred a memory that had haunted him for years, lately with great frequency. Henry—she pronounced it Ahn-ri—Look who come to see us. It’s Uncle Bill! He’ll be staying with us for awhile. Her words set the scene for Hank: the hot sun, the sound of the Gulf surf, the little boy digging in the sand of Galveston Beach.

He’d watch the boy continue to dig in the sand, paying no attention to the visitor. The boy knew that Uncle Bill wasn’t his real uncle, and he could see that he hadn’t brought him a gift like he had the last time. He was standing in the hole up to his waist, hauling out sand by the pail-full, faster now with the appearance of this lanky man with the thin moustache, the shiny boots and the big buckle on his belt.

And when the man spoke: That’s quite a hole you’ve dug there, boy. Pretty soon you’ll have dug all the way to China, Hank continued to ignore him, but later would ask his mother if he kept on digging would he really get all the way to China?
Why yes, sugar, she’d smile, but you’d likely meet a nice little Chinese boy diggin’ from the other side, come to play with you. Mama’s voice always ended up soft and soothing before she left his memory.

As he showered and dressed, Hank wondered if the persistent, childhood memory meant that recent events had been prophesied on that day long ago? That nice little Chinese boy hadn’t come to play with me. Papa can attest to that, he thought. Mama was wrong about the little boy, maybe because of Uncle Bill.

Later in the dining room, Hank was sipping his third cup of coffee before heading for the field when one of his roughnecks sat down across from him. "What’s going on, boss? We’ve drilled three holes and come up dry. Are you sure this slope’s sitting on top of oil?"
"I can’t explain it, Slink," Hank answered. "All I can tell you is what the geologists said. Drill through the frozen tundra, go down another eight thousand feet, and it’ll be just like tapping a keg of beer. They seen the mud from that depth. No sign of oil. We’ll keep at it, Slink, until they tell us to stop, or until they stop paying us."
"We’ll all be talking to ourselves, Hank -- like I seen you doing the last few days-- unless we hit a well today."

Hank couldn’t remember a more frustrating time. He’d been working the oil fields all his working life, first in Oklahoma, then in his native Louisiana. He’d worked years in the hot deserts of Iraq, and now had acclimated himself to the frigid north slope of Alaska. It was his job and he moved with it as easily as a white collar worker moves to a new building.

After nearly thirty frugal years, the last ten of them as a driller, he’d amassed a nice nest egg, an investment portfolio valued at a million dollars. Maybe I’ll retire soon, he thought. Start a permanent home. I ain’t too old to start a family with a good woman. But right now, Hank’s mind was focused on why his team hadn’t struck a well when all of the geological data pointed to a rich field under their drilling. The derrick had been wheeled to several locations and Hank’s crew had come up dry at every one of them.

Once full of energy, driving his crew hard, Hank was feeling tired. 'I use to sleep good', he told the field doc. 'Now I wake up a lot and can’t get back to sleep. I use to be a calm fellow, now I shake in the dark, never sure what I’m afraid of. When there ain’t no oil in the ground, I feel like there’s ain’t no blood flowing in my veins. And then I see the boy digging in the sand.'
"What the hell’s going on, Chauncey? Are we doing something wrong?" he’d asked the field manager.
"Can’t tell ya a fucken thing, Hank. I don’t tell the bastards where to drill," came Chauncey's curt answer, intended to put an end to the questioning.
Hank shook his head sympathetically and said, "We’ll keep at it, Chauncey. Maybe we’ll get lucky before the replacement crew comes in."

But this morning, it was more of the same. The bit cut fast and deep, just as it had on previous drills but when he examined the mud that came up from the last hole, close to ten thousand feet down, there was no sign of crude.

The crew was nearing the end of a fourteen hour day and the last of a fourteen day rotation. Everyone hated to see the shift end on a note of failure. They knew that two weeks off would mitigate the frustration, but also knew how pissed off they’d be to return and learn that the alternating crew had hit a well.

Friday was steak night, and Hank would leave camp in the morning, not bolt out after a shower the way his crew did. No jet flight to Fairbanks for him like the young studs looking for bars and broads. He’d catch the bus down the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse, a dry town, a joke to the young workers. "Two weeks in Deadhorse is like beating a dead horse to death," went the chant. Hank never let on about his arrangement with the Deadhorse Inn. His room always came with a bottle of good cognac.

When the work day ended, Hank stayed at the drill site after everyone had left, circling the scarred earth that looked to him like an empty grave. The wind off the bay started to pick up and carry in a flurry of light snow. He pulled the strings on his parka tight and stopped. He heard something, a sound, no a voice coming from the ground. Maybe it’s the wind, he thought. No, it’s a voice, but I can’t make it out.

He wished for the wind to stop for a minute. But he was certain; it was a voice he’d heard. The voice came rapidly and choppy, like the wind but it wasn’t the wind. It was a voice, a Chinese voice. The day of digging in the sand on Galveston Beach rushed into his mind-- Mama, Uncle Bill, the sand pail, the Chinese boy.
That movie he saw in Iraq, The China Syndrome came to him. A nuclear melt down burning all the way through the earth to China, like Mama said. We’re not that far away. The world is a small place, and I know about the yellow hordes who want what we have. Maybe I can stop them!

All of the transportation back to the housing area had departed, so he began a hurried walk made faster by the wind at his back to the manager’s office. There was a light showing through the Quonset hut window, so he knocked and opened the door.
"Hank, what the hell are you doing here? You’re off the clock, and you should be getting ready for two glorious weeks in Deadhorse."
"I have to talk to you. Chauncey. What do you know about the oil industry in China?"
"Hank, for Christ’s sake! What the fuck are you talking about? Are you planning to go drilling in China?" Chauncey calmed down. "All right. What do you want to know? They got a small industry, mostly in the northeast. Not much news about it, but they’re more active down in Thailand. But the way their economy is exploding, they’re gonna need more oil then rice and tea. So why your interest?"
Hank was silent for a minute, collecting his thoughts. He didn’t want to say something that would sound crazy to the boss. "Chauncey, you know the way we come up dry on four holes, like there's no oil down there. Well, do you think it’s possible that the oil is being stolen?"

Chauncey raised his eyebrows, lit up a cigar, stared over his half glasses at Hank, and then offered him the cigar box. The driller took one and put it in his pocket. Then the boss said, "OK, Hank, what’re you got stewing in that crazy fucken Cajun head of yours. Pump it out."
"I’m thinking that the Chinese could be using horizontal directional drilling to steal our oil. I know that couldn’t be done from their mainland, but what about using submersibles off the coast? They could be tapping into our wells and pumping them dry."
"Am I hearing you right, Hank?"
"The oil’s supposed to be there, Chauncey. So where’s it at? And I heard some voices"--he stopped suddenly before going on. "It’s an act of war, ain’t it Chauncey? Shouldn’t we ask the Coast Guard to investigate? Or tell the lease owners? Seems to me it explains the reason why we’ve been coming up dry."

Chauncey took a big drag on his cigar and blew the smoke at the ceiling of the hut, and said, "Hank, do me a favor, will you? Go to the dining room. Get a nice fat steak. Go to your room and get some sleep. If I wasn’t afraid of getting fired, I’d give you a few slugs of booze to relax you. Tomorrow you get your butt out’a here, find yourself a piece of ass in Deadwood. I hear there’s a horny squaw just waiting for you down there."

Hank recognized trouble in the boss’s face. Was it anger? Surprise? Would it pass? He wondered what his face looked like to the boss. He wished that he had a mirror to see. Why does Chauncey talk like that to me? He’s known me for years. That I don’t go with bad women. Once when I was drunk in New Orleans. But I confessed that to the priest four or five times.

Hank left the hut dissatisfied, talking to himself, replaying the conversation he’d just had. He thought it best that he follow Chauncey’s advice and walked to the dining room.
"You hungry man, Hank?" Ho said standing over Hank seated at a table near the kitchen counter.
He looked up, startled to see an Asian face staring down at him, smiling. "Oh! Sure, Ho, I’ll have some dinner if I’m not too late."

Ho grilled him a t-bone about an inch thick and he sat picking at it. Could Chauncey be somehow involved? he thought. Maybe I should go to the Coast Guard myself. There’s a lot at stake. When the word "stake" entered his mind, he looked at the t-bone in front of him and strained his mind to find some significance. Who can I trust, he wondered. He was certain that the voice he’s heard earlier was Chinese. He stared at Ho cleaning up behind the counter.
Hank was afraid to eat any more. I hope I can sleep tonight, not see that hole in the sand—am I able to stop the yellow horde from taking over the world?
"Something wrong with the steak, Hank?" chef said, bringing him out of his thoughts.
"No, nothing wrong, Ho. Thanks. I’m just tired. Time to hit the rack."

Nothing seemed clear to him tonight. His muddled mind knew where he was, what he was here for, and understood the disappointment of not getting the job done, but it all was clouded by a sense of threat. Was he really on the brink of discovering a conspiracy that would have earth-shattering consequences? Or was he unconsciously looking for an excuse for failure as a driller?

He walked around trying to decide, trying to tire his racing brain before heading for his room. It’s good to have a private room, he thought, the privilege of his position and years on the job.

"Oh, my baby, what have I done?"
"It wasn’t your fault, Mama. Papa didn’t die because of you. He was killed by the Chinese. They killed him in Korea, Mama."
"I was so lonely, Henry. You know what it means to be lonely, baby. I missed your father and needed a man."
"I wanted to be your man, Mama, but you drifted away from me. Always thinking Papa got killed because you were bad. I was the bad one, burying you alive in that sanitarium. If only I’d made a home for you… If I stayed with you maybe you’d a got better."
"I was dead to everything, Henry. You knew that after the visit when I didn’t recognize you. There was pain on your face, baby, but made no difference to me. Wouldn’t made no difference if you’d stayed with me, sugar."
"I’ll stay with you now, Mama. I’m going to be a hero against the Chinese like Papa was. You’ll see. You’ll be proud of me. You’ll be proud of me."
He closed his eyes. Tonight for the first time in months, he heard the sound of the wind screeching out of Prudhoe Bay and it shook every inch of his body.

The Deadhorse Inn had a few guests besides Hank Croix, mostly hunters out for deer and salesmen looking to peddle a new chemical or piece of equipment at Prudhoe Bay. At last night’s seating for dinner, Muffin Smart, a Creole who owned the Inn, watched Hank move from table to table warning of a forthcoming war with China. He screamed that the Chinese were stealing American oil, getting ready to attack, and they must be stopped now. Muffin did his best to quiet Hank down.
"I thought this town was dry," said one salesman. Another added, "I want some of what he had."

When Hank didn’t come down for breakfast in the morning, Muffin worried and opened the door to his room. He was in bed with his clothes on curled up in a fetal position, his eyes open. He stared blankly at the innkeeper when he shook him.
"Hank, I know you gonna be pissed at me, but you need a rest back in the lower forty eight. I’m gonna call Prudhoe to come get you.

The driller turned over away from Muffin, mumbled something about digging in the sand, and closed his eyes.

©  Joseph Guderian May 2007

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