|We're proud to present the winners in our annual writing contest, which range from rollicking short fiction to meditative poetry. This year's Grand Prize Winner, a short story by Tom Hester, stood out for its arch and accurate capturing of certain elements of our favorite small Southwestern town. Hester managed much the same word wizardry with a different set of locals in a story that was a finalist in last year's contest, "A Point of View." This time, his story combines that observer's eye with what some might call a mystery....|
Gold digging is lonesome. The finding part, if you're not careful,
changes a person for the worse.
by Tom Hester
A late morning in June a couple of years ago, Bob tied his burro Josephine to the fire hydrant outside the coffeehouse on the corner of Bullard and Broadway. The sun warmed Josephine and glinted off the dinged prospector's pan dangling from the pack frame. Traffic did not slow. Silver City traffic does not slow for the sight of a loaded burro and a bearded, tobacco-stained miner dressed in dirty jeans, rotting work boots and crumpled felt hat. The "Harvard Athletic Department" T-shirt was clean. For that, had they seen it, drivers might have braked.
Josephine's soulful eyes narrowed to a mean slit when she tugged against the halter and tried to nip a fly from her right flank.
"Stay here a while, Josie," Bob said. He talked to the burro as a man accustomed to speaking only to burros. He untied a backpack from the frame and started toward the street corner where steps led to the sidewalk, almost level with Josephine's belly.
A crowd had gathered to watch the old man and his burro. Some of the coffeehouse loungers on benches facing Bullard slouched forward. They were men made prematurely arthritic, first by booze and tobacco and then by years of sprawl and slump. Their heeler hounds nudged toward the edge of the curb to sniff. Josephine's coat steamed the complexity coffeehouse dogs love to smell. As though conducted by a choral director, the loungers sang out a single soprano note, "wwooooeEE," and then collapsed back onto their chairs and benches.
Two couples had come out of the coffeehouse to investigate Josephine's mournful, hiccupping heehaw.
The older couple expressed amazement. The younger couple, amusement.
"Have you seen this donkey before?" the older man asked the lanky, college-age man next to him.
"Naw, man. New to me."
The older man stepped closer to the burro. His albino right leg, spindly and hairless, was inches away from Josephine's nose.
"I'd be careful there, sir," the younger woman said. She could see that the burro was contemplating a bite.
"John," the older woman said. She spoke the name with a mother's tone, command steeling care.
"Oh, right," John said as he jumped back. John was clearly a person of proper order. That morning he had asked Constance to iron the khaki shorts to go with a seafoam-green polo shirt. The shorts had knife-sharp pleats.
"You like my Josephine?" the old miner growled at the four at the edge of the sidewalk. They were poking visually through the packframe contents. Rusting skillet. Rock hammer. Chipped enamel tin cup.
"Cool, Gabby," the younger man said.
"Yes, your donkey looks pretty much like the real thing," John said.
"Well, she's a burro, not a mule, not a donkey. And if you pinch her, she's real enough to kick the living...," the prospector's voice trailed off. He lived by the code of the Old West in which the fairer sex need not hear the coarse language of the mining camp.
"Follow me inside, I got something for you," the miner ordered. The couples turned from Josephine and did as Bob directed.
The coffeehouse's shadows cooled the noonday light in a space so high and wide that any sound seemed to curve before reaching an ear. John and Constance, who rented a cottage on Pinos Altos Street during the first long vacation of their lives, sometimes spent half-days in the place, reading historical romances or peeking at other customers, listening to the ssssssssssWWWWHuuh of the espresso machine. From the moment they saw the shabby sofas and scattered, scarred tables with people to match and as soon as they used the toilet, mounted like a throne in a 19th-century nook, these tourists from a town near Carbondale, Illinois, knew they had found the heart of southwestern New Mexico.
The prospector tossed his pack on the table near the front. The dirt-stained bag struck the wood as if Bob had brought down a sledge.
"I'm John Coburn," John said to the miner, whose wrinkles and creases looked milder than they had in the day's glare.
"Bob," the miner said. He shook hands with the men. Both John and the young man felt the calluses and the muscles in the grip. "Some call me Gold Bug Bob." Bob glanced at the faces ranged around the table.
"Have you been doing this long, Bob?" John said. John was anxious to have each person's occupation, bona fides and particulars accounted for.
"‘This'?" asked Bob.
"This mining thing. Looking for gold."
"I came to Pinos Altos, New Mexico, in '88. Broken down. My wife had left me. My arbitrager deals were pickled in martinis. So I drive west from Connecticut towards no place in particular. And I climb out of my Mercedes, breathe in the desert air and feel freedom brush me like a fox's tail, and yeah, in a half-minute I know I should have been doing this all my life."
Bob said the last words looking at Constance. Desire swam in his blue eyes. He arched his shaggy right eyebrow, the size of a woolly caterpillar. It twitched. He peered at Constance. She suddenly realized that Bob wanted to stroke her right cheek, to run a rough thumb over her soft skin. His voice had lowered an octave, into a caress: "Don't you ever think that you should just go in search of what life is all about?"
Constance smiled through a blush and stumbled back toward the young woman who stood apart from the others. Constance stammered, "I... I... I." Embarrassed, she turned to the young woman and said, "I am Constance Coburn. John and I are tourists here from southern Illinois."
"Hi. I'm Debbie."
"Ohh," Constance crooned. "My daughter's Deborah. She's about your age, too." Constance wrung her hands and then pushed them straight down against her khaki shorts, splaying her fingers across her thighs.
Debbie said nothing but turned her attention to the men. John, who had witnessed but not understood the flirting eyebrow, was asking Bob what bank he had worked for and whether now he was working with anyone else.
"Gold digging is lonesome," Bob said.
"Why's that?" John pressed.
"The digging and sluicing parts give no problem. It'd be good to have a hundred fellas help out. But the finding part, if you're not careful, changes a person for the worse when others are about." A squint and tensing jaw muscles turned Bob's scowl into a threat. He chewed on a brown edge of his moustache.
"That's why," Bob continued as he grabbed the pack and pulled open the flap, "I'm giving you folks this." The old man shook the pack; rocks and leather pouches tumbled onto the table.
More than one of 10 or 12 rocks the size of a woman's hand had lacey extrusions of metal, giving the effect of Spanish combs. Other stones glistened black, as though they held secrets. Bob's hands trembled as he pulled at the thongs closing a pouch. He poured golden powder and pebbles out on the table, forming a small mound.
"It's all yours," Bob said.
The four said nothing for a moment or two. Then John objected. He asked if the rocks and the powder and the pebbles were gold. Bob said they were. John said there must be hundreds of dollars of gold there. Bob said thousands, probably.
The young man, who was called Kevin or Kev, said that Gold Bug was really "J. Beresford Tipton." Kevin was a media major with a deep thirst for 1950s television. His infatuation for "The Millionaire" (on which Tipton had been the title character) and "Paladin" combined with incessant playing of Dark Souls and Crysis videogames. This love of wading in the shallows pushed Debbie to plan for a split when she went to grad school, though Kev had not picked up her clues.
"You just can't give total strangers thousands of dollars' worth of gold," John said. His voice had risen and at least one person in the coffeehouse turned toward the group to catch the drama. A gaunt, stiff customer, who sipped a mug of latte while reading Darnton's essay on a massacre of cats in medieval France, tried to decipher the commotion. Other customers scarcely glanced up from their laptop or tablet screens.
"I just did give you thousands of dollars of gold, mister," said Bob. "I'll leave you the pack so's you can carry the gold home." In Bob's farewell Kevin caught a trace of Jimmy Stewart with a heavy dose of Henry Fonda. Without another gesture, the miner shuffled out the door. In the stillness of the room Debbie smelled sweat, cigar stench and camp smoke swirling about the place where Bob had stood. A reflected shaft of light glinted from facets of a rock on the table. The two couples could hear Bob talk to Josephine as he unknotted her tether.
"Well, that was certainly a surprise," Constance said. "Tell me, Debbie, did he... Did Bob affect you?"
Debbie didn't answer. She leaned over the table to open three other leather pouches.
"All of them have the same gold dust and nuggets," Debbie announced. "There must be thousands of dollars here!" Debbie held her head between her hands and rotated it as she sang the last sentence. It was a dance of delight that a three-year-old girl would make.
"Well, we've got to decide what to do," said John. He had fished a credit card from his wallet and was scooping the golden powder back into a pouch.
"How do you mean?" Debbie said. "Just divide the rocks and bags among the four of us." Debbie's sharp voice cut through the murmurs of the room and the whir of the compressor for the cold drink cabinet.
"We don't have any idea what these rocks and dust are truly worth. We need to have them appraised and then we can sell the entire lot and divide appropriately." John spoke with an even, authoritative accountant's voice, the one used to warn a business owner that she should watch her inventory or a middle-aged client that a 401(k) is a necessary tax write-off.
Debbie nodded at John's little speech. Kevin was hefting a piece of ore, marveling that something so small could be so heavy. Constance was thinking about Bob's eyes.
John retrieved Kevin from his apartment on B Street the day after the four had returned from Tucson's premier gold dealer, a hairy, wheezing man whose belly shortened his tie. He reminded Debbie of someone who had once sold her a used Torino, though he did not chew on a matchstick like the car salesman. But he was an expert, and he used words like "rare, museum-quality specimen" to convince them that he wasn't short-changing the value of their lode.
After the dealer announced an amount that caused Debbie to suck in a breath and after they emerged from the arctic of the dealer's shop into Tucson's mid-June furnace, the four could not stop thinking about the gold that lifted them out of day-to-day life into the realm of a consumer's paradise. It really wasn't a lot of money compared to a year's income, at least for the Coburns. But because the gold money came without any warning or work, it could be spent extravagantly. Gleaming cars, with initials like LXX and SLE, parked at random angles in their minds. They wandered through a mental kitchen with quartz countertops and a refrigerator the size of a boxcar.
When John had steered his beige 2006 Buick into a stopping place on B Street, he looked down at his lap. His shorts were blotched with taco sauce. Coming home they had ordered a meal from a Benson, Arizona, drive-in, and this morning with schemes and stratagems swirling in his brain, he had neglected to put on fresh clothes. Nevertheless, John felt new. After the trip, he and Constance had talked into the night, as they had not done in 30 years, and instead of rewarming cold regrets, the Coburns two-stepped into the future. At an instant, seized by the joy of being with a partner for a new enterprise, John had held Constance's face, pinching her cheeks softly. He had kissed her as a lover might.
On I-10, returning from Tucson, the men perched in the Buick's front seats, giggling and running bragging riffs on their dreams, while the women were cocooned behind. The car's air conditioner circulated rich odors of well-worn taco grease. Two checks lay on Constance's lap and her eyes swung from the desert stretching outside her window to the zeroes on the checks. She was thinking about her life, about her children, about John. Before they reached the Dragoon Mountains, she was describing to Debbie daughter Deborah's troubled marriage. Tears coursed down Constance's face and puddled in foundation makeup along her jaw as she described son-in-law Ron, taking over his father's auto parts store and knowing the parts catalog better than he knew Deborah. Small-town tedium and narrow-mindedness had infiltrated their lives and made brittle their bond.
And the Coburns' troubles were more than just Deborah and her kids. Constance and John had gone on vacation to Silver City so he could have some time to take a fresh look at things. Ten years before, John had accepted as partner a younger man, a really brilliant accountant, who just announced that if John didn't sell out, he himself would leave. He had the three largest accounts in their town and now he was taking away the whole firm.
The Coburns had sacrificed to build the business, to make sure that Deborah and her brother Peter had a solid footing. But it was all eroding. Peter lived in Boston and never called. Didn't even come home at Christmas. And Deborah, always nearby, a mom with two lovely children, was announcing that she was moving to Santa Cruz. No job. No house. Just an unused degree in elementary education and a wild-hair idea that she could stroll some sunset-flooded beach in California.
Debbie comforted the older woman and whispered that maybe the gold money would smooth things out.
Debbie's suggestion was John's conviction, and that was why he and Kevin were circling Silver City streets, looking for Josephine.
"Think about it, Kev," John said when they dropped them off the night before. "We got this much money from Bob. That means there's more and we should help him find it. But first we got to find him." John's argument made sense to Kevin, though memories of The Treasure of Sierra Madre worried him a bit.
The Buick nosed down Kelly. John had to scrape the curb in meeting a soft-drink truck.
"Keep an eye out for that mule!" John demanded.
"Burro," Kev said.
John swung the car in a boat-like swath onto Cooper and back around on Broadway. Several blocks to the east, he caught sight of a flash, as from the bottom of a gold wash pan. He floored the gas. The Buick shot, so to speak, through the stop sign at the city museum and was bouncing to a stop at the Bullard traffic signal, when Kevin, twisting in his seat and almost standing to look out the left, back window, shouted, "I think I saw Josephine up that street!" Kevin was pointing over John's left shoulder.
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