"You need to keep those two in front of you spaced out. Watch 'em. You can't have them go merge on you."
I called out from a dozen downtrodden yards behind him. When he whip-turned to question or acknowledge or just in startle, that is when it happened. Slap. Both holes like running quicksilver moved senselessly to the middle and before the out-classed boy could spin back around, the two were merged.
"You see," I gestured with my hands and bit down on my words, "if you don't keep all your attention on them, they will get away from you."
He turned back around and surveyed his part of the herd. Being a new driver, he had only a handful to manage. It was for him a learning run. You cannot give a new guy, particularly a young boy like this with distractions and expectations and a belief in growth and a tendency to hide his hands in his pockets, a hefty number of charges to keep track of. You want to keep the number low enough that, if he fails miserably and all of them merge into one, you can still sell the hole on the specialty market or to the industrial jobbers or the open-license resizers.
Small holes always go better at auction. Everyone can use a small hole. And if a few do slam into each other and merge on the drive, well, a lot of people can use a mid-sized hole. And even the most experienced drivers get lazy or distracted or try to herd too many holes on a drive and soon enough a few slide into merge and you end up with a mixture of small holes, midsized holes, some oversized holes. What you want to avoid is the really, really big ones. They are harder to drive, harder to sell. If you end up with an unplanned massive hole, you want to make sure it forms closer to the cash end of the drive than the high provisions beginning. Driving that thing all the way to auction from way out will beat a man like being locked in a room with fourteen desperate nymphomaniacs.
"Listen, kid, you have to feel what the hole is intending. You've got to get ahead of it, anticipate what it is going to do. You've got to control the hole. You drive it, don't let it drive you. You can't be reacting: you have to be planning. If they just wandered off to auction, you wouldn't have a job. They try to get away from you, wander out of their lanes, go off on their own, end up merging out of pure dumb happenstance."
The boy was looking at his remaining charges and nodding his head as I talked. I wasn't scolding him: he simply had to learn. The best drivers do not have any specialized, hidden knowledge – they have an edge, they can sense when something is about to happen. They get between incautious holes. They vigorously spin the ones with variable edges, get them honed for travel. They get to the center those holes that would wander to the edge, get to the edge those holes that seem to want to wallow in the center.
Later, I'll tell this new hand about Stoner, the guy who let his entire phalanx of the herd go rogue, ended up with a huge hole. A hole so big that we had to reroute the remainder of the holes around it. It threatened to swallow the full herd and that would be the end of that drive's purse – no one could use, or afford, a hole that large.
In the end, Stoner just walked up to the hole and jumped full in. That damn hole was so large we knew he was never getting out. I'm pretty sure he did not know he was never getting out. Just the gut instinct of a seasoned driver caused him to strike into the act. Some of us went to the edge, to see if he was able to break the hole down to a manageable size that someone might be able to drive again. But he had not. Some holes cannot be filled. Stoner was surely still in the hole when we had to dump it at a discount to a one-eyed absence specialist.
Up ahead, the new driver let another hole get out ahead of him. I watched him lurch forward trying to catch it. And then he made a rookie mistake: he tried to step on the edge of it, thinking to pin it flat and stop it.
I laughed as his foot slid in. Luckily it was small hole, and he sank in only ankle deep. The hole kept moving and there he was, skipping along on his one free leg, trying to keep up.
"Son, lie down. Just go down on your rear and your foot is going to pop out. Keep hopping and that thing will lead you all the way to market." Common sense sometimes goes out the window when you are trying to learn the shiny new specifics of a blustery new profession. The science of hole herding has to be respected.
Without words he went down and, sure thing, out thundered his once consumed foot and the hole resumed its original size. Smart thing, without even getting up he used his prod to steer the hole into a less perilous course and slowed it considerably. Only then did he jump up and get around to the front of the hole, settling it, getting it in true line.
Typically, you have to fall out of a lot of holes before you learn that coming out you have to stay the driver, recover your composure, use your upper body, a firm plant of both legs, and reclaim the hole. It is not going to spit you out and then wait for your next instruction. It goes on. If you let it.
This new guy had already learned to focus on two things at once, to think of himself as the master of the hole even when disadvantaged by the hole. I don't mind showing him the depravities of driving, of getting the holes to move and act like they were one without being one. If the attitude is right, the details can be picked up. Maybe he has promise. Maybe there is a future in this for him.
Two of Ken Poyner's poetry collections and four of his short fiction collections are widely available. He lives with his power-lifter wife, various cats and betta fish in the southeastern corner of Virginia. He spent thirty-three years in information security, moonlighting as a writer. Now, he writes dangerously full-time. His story, "The Detached Regularity," appeared in Issue #42 of The Cafe Irreal; "Suspicion" in Issue #49; "The Taming of the Orikind" in Issue #57; "The Revenge of the House Hurlers" in Issue #63; "Lover's Art" in Issue #67; "The Growing Compromise" in Issue #69; and "Dreams of Haberdashery" in Issue #74.