In the hills, gold. In the city, bones. Hammers on iron build the veins; bodies crushed to dust to make the streets. Under those streets, men and women gather, the dispossessed, the lost, and vagrant. They smell of sweat and garbage, of halitosis and illness, alcohol and antiseptic. They wear raggedy clothes on raggedy frames, and shuffle sore feet in tattered shoes in front of glowing barrels that warm calloused hands, the nails caked with filth. They talk in low tones, about things that had been and things that might be, and more, unlikely things.
Thomas talks about his wife and her breasts. Mostly he talks about her breasts. If you ask him about it, he waxes on about how time has rubbed her features out like sand blowing on stone, and her chest is all he has left. Carter goes on about how he’d had a 401k and a house on Sunset, between the palm trees and the yucca. He talks about his Porsche, but pronounces it Por-SHA, as if he’s speaking French. Tucker talks about men. Men who will pay you in booze or cash or a cheap meal in exchange for your lips wrapped around a cock, or a delivery, or a fight. Sometimes he talks about men in the sewers, who take you away to a government agency and stick needles in your brain until you’re either psychic or dead.
There are undercurrents, of mental illness, of deviance. You think that’s harsh. You think it’s hard that I describe it as deviance. Surely, there are better words. Surely, there are more understanding words. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean deviance like the preachers and the politicians categorize it. No one here gives a shit. I mean like Frank, who likes to pull the teeth from rats and use them to comb his pubes. Or Shawn, who stares a little too long at the baby dolls in the tattered catalogs he carries around, the front of his pants tented. Deviance.
Under it all, though, is those eight words: In the hills, gold. In the city, bones.
I asked Tucker about it once. It was summer, and we were sweating by the tracks. Someone had scored a case of Bud, and we drank them warm while sitting in broken lawn chairs under the moon. Beside us, the rails of the Santa Fe stretched into the dark, the metal gleaming dully in the lunar light. Weeds crept between cracks in the ties, their heads poking up like sleepers waking. Moths fluttered by a patch of fiddleheads, their wings winking moonlight. Tucker belched.
“You ever hear about bones and gold?” He was looking over with a slight tilt to his head. His eyes were on my stomach, the skin still taut despite time and beer. I shook mine to break the silence.
He took a swig. A streamer escaped his mouth into his beard. “They say the city was founded by four brothers. Tough bastards, to the last. They made their fortune in the hills, digging for gold. You know how it was back then – money was yours if you put in the work. None of this credit, nine to five, two point five kids, taxes, and mortgage bullshit. You worked, you got paid. A man could live back then.
“Anyway, one of the brothers has it out with the other three. He owned the titles to the mines and wanted a bigger cut. So, they went in to inspect the place, and only three come out. No one knows what happened in there – the brothers claim the tunnel collapsed, and crushed him.
“But, and here’s the but – a big ol’ Kardashian mound of butt – when I was growing up, my grandpap swore there was a procession the next night – horses pulling a carriage, all black. It went down to the cemetery, and then up High Street after. They found it the next morning all burnt out, and the driver’s throat slashed. Never did find the fourth brother’s body.”
“They got rich, though. Real rich. Built the city, built the roads, made the railroad come out this way. When they passed, there were no heirs, and they found the mines had been tapped years ago, but the city stayed rich.”
He paused for a moment, looking up at the stars. He belched again. “Know what I think? I think they made a deal down there, with the Devil. I think they traded a life, and their souls, for a bit of wealth.”
He threw his beer can into the weeds and cracked another. “Where else did they get the money? Mine was tapped. Where’d it come from? Ain’t normal.”
He finished talking, and we drank in silence for a bit. Something occurred to me.
“You ever go down there?”
“Got to be under the stars. Small spaces make me nervous. Was why I could never own a Volkswagen.”
I sat for a moment, thinking. When you live the way I do, you have time for several things, thinking chief among them. When you think too much, strange things creep in. Superstition, mainly. You start to think if you do this thing, then maybe you get a fiver, or if you do that thing, maybe you find a good piece of food in the trash. Now, I’m not saying I thought I could meet the Devil and enrich my life, but I did think that maybe I could find a vein someone missed in that mine, and get a little rich. Fuck magic, I’m practical. I turned to Tucker.
“What if I get you some Valium?”
“What if what?”
“If I get you some Valium, would you go into the mine with me?”
He mulled it over, chewing his beard. Every now and then, he glanced at my chest and stomach, at the little V of muscle over my hips. I hoped he’d settle for the Valium. He belched again, and after a moment where I was sure I’d hear the words ‘for a blowjob’, he just nodded. Maybe he was weighing the possibility of being bit. Maybe he’d had the same thought I did – just one vein, that’s all a man needed. I hoped he was right.
I stood and staggered over to the shack beside the tracks and pissed on its wall, then raised a hand.
“See you tomorrow, Tuck.”
“Yeah yeah. Just make sure you get those pills.”
I shuffled off to my pallet under the trestle and laid down, visions of lucre dancing in my head.
The Valium came cheap – two tablets for a scrap of toast and some bacon. It was dear – I got it once a week from a short order cook downtown who didn’t mind sharing occasionally. I waited until Fergus finished chewing the meat, the still-warm scent making my stomach grumble, and held out my hand. He shook two little yellow pills into my palm and patted me on the back.
I found Tucker curled up in an old Army blanket on the lee side of the tracks, his beard matted with drool and leaves. I nudged him with my foot, and he roused slowly, grumbling, and sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes and the foliage from his whiskers. He held out his hand and I passed him the pills, which he squirreled away in his vest. He sat up and dug out a water bottle, pulling from it for a long moment. He swished and spat, then stood and wandered over to the shed and pissed on the wall. He walked back to me, washing his face with his palms.
“When we going?”
I looked up. The sun was still low in the sky. “Pretty soon. We need to hike those hills, and I want to do it before it gets hot.”
He grunted and pulled a bag of jerky from his pack. He passed me a strip and chewed one himself. It was sweet, salty, and chewy. My mouth watered as I ate it, and I went to my own pack, grabbing the surplus canteen. I drank long and deep, the cool water clearing my throat, washing the sting of salt from my lips.
I took a couple of minutes to grab things I thought I’d need – the canteen, a couple Twinkies, a ball-peen hammer I’d stolen from a construction site (you never know when you need protection), and a hank of rope. I didn’t think I’d need everything, but better safe than sorry. Tucker appeared at my elbow a moment later, a small bag under his arm as well. His eyes were a bit glassy.
“Took the Valium already?”
He shrugged. “Just one. I get carsick.”
“You know we’re not driving.”
I shook my head, and we headed out of the camp. No one really watched us leave, since it was normal for people to come and go. We trudged from the bridge and the rails to the east end of town. It didn’t take long for the sidewalks, already broken and grassy, to disappear, and the buildings to thin out. Eventually, those too disappeared, and we found ourselves in the hills. The grass was sere and brown, drought having grabbed the county by the balls and refusing to let go. For its part, the ground was uneven; the short blades of grass obscuring holes that threatened to turn an ankle or twist a knee. We followed the highway for a while but eventually had to cut across, into open country.
The sun had begun to climb, and the day was getting hot. Sweat rolled in rivulets down my back, staining my already dirty tee, and making Tucker smell like a kennel in a rainstorm. My throat itched, and I took a sip from the canteen, the water trickling down my throat and easing the dull ache there. Our feet kicked up dust, and the wind blew patches of it in small whirlwinds that played among the scrub brush and stunted weeds. We came to a rise in the earth, the hill sloping up, a scree of pebbles and sand underfoot, sliding away like eels beneath out heels.
At the top of the hill was another, the beginnings of the mountains, and cut into it was a small entrance, the sides and top shored up with thick beams. A sign on a post nearby warned us off.
PROPERTY OF MCLEOD INDUSTRIES
Tucker walked past it, spitting a big glob of phlegm at the metal square. It stuck then slid down, leaving a snail trail. I watched it for a moment, and then followed him in. Inside, the tunnel yawned like a ravenous throat, the light fading, and the dark speeding to the deep like a shadow locomotive. We pulled out glow sticks, snapping and shaking them until they glowed with an eerie green.
“How do we know what to look for?” Tucker was peering at the walls as if they would heave up nuggets at the right touch.
“It’s gold. You know. Shiny. Probably be harder to see, though, since there’s all this dirt.”
We walked a little apart, one on each wall as we went, eyes close to the stone and soil. Every now and then, I would stop and brush at the wall, dust sifting to my feet, hoping to uncover something. We’d pause while I did, Tucker following suit, then move on when it was just more dirt under that first layer. We walked like that for a while, our steps making small echoes in the dark and the silence.
The tunnel went deeper, and we came to a crossroads in the path. Tucker looked around, then back at me. His eyes were glassier. He’d taken the second Valium. He scratched his crotch and spit again.
I looked around, kicked at the dust on the ground. It shifted, and I could make out a line cut into the earth. I stepped past Tucker and kicked at another spot, unearthing another line. I guessed they intersected somewhere further on. I imagined that under all that grime was a five-pointed star and a muddy brown stain that had once been red. I had an idea and pulled the hammer from my pack.
“Tuck. Come here.”
He wandered over, docile as a cow. The Valium was full-bore in his system now, and his eyes were half-lidded.
“Stand here.” I guided him to the center of the room. His feet kicked up more dust, and I could see an eye etched into the ground. He looked down.
“Not sure. See if you can clear it off.”
He scuffed his feet, his head hung. I raised the hammer.
“Think it’s some sort of fucki-”
The hammer came down hard. He finished the sentence with a guttural, choking sound, and his legs kicked once, dumping him on his ass. I slammed the hammer down again, and the room filled with a short crack and the smell of copper. Blood had begun to fountain from the hole I’d made with the hammer, and I stepped back to keep it off my shoes. Tucker just lay on the floor and twitched.
“Okay,” I addressed the dark. “Gimme what you got.”
I waited, for ten minutes, then fifteen. Nothing came, no hot wind from the throat, no susurration of voices. After twenty, I packed the hammer away and made my way out of the mine. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed I’d know if it worked. We don’t live in an age of signs and wonders unless that sign is Free Donuts. I passed the entrance and stepped into the sun. The tunnel was dark behind me, and still. I thought maybe I should have done something with the body, dug a little hole, or stuffed it in a mine cart. Then I thought no one is going to miss another bum. They’d probably say a little prayer in thanks of his suffering being over and then go to brunch, matter of fact.
I stretched and took a deep breath. I didn’t feel any luckier, or any richer, but I did feel better. Like someone had knocked the cobwebs from my brain for a bit. I walked back to the highway, my step light. A car passed, and something flew out the window, a bit of paper that fluttered in the wind. I snatched it from the ground as it circled around my shoe, and held it up to my face. It was a five, green and fresh, a simple crease through the center. I held it to my nose and smelled the paper. It smelled like perfume. It smelled as if my luck was changing.