The quarter dropped past the switch, an electronic greeting warbled, and the wheels of the slot machine spun. A bar, a space, a seven. No winner. Grady looked in the bucket beneath the machine and saw two quarters lying fallow there. The credit display read "41" and he knew he had four more quarters in his pocket. All totaled, less than twelve dollars remained from the forty he started with. A bad night. Breakfast tomorrow? Or put it all back in to chance for a big one? God, he hated decisions like this.
"Cocktails?" It was Shireen's husky voice coming up behind him. "You want another one honey?" she asked over his shoulder. "How's it going?"
He didn't turn around. He continued to stare at the machine. He wouldn't have to pay for the drink, not as long as he was playing, but he'd have to tip her. Sigh. Another decision. "Sure. Scotch and — "
"No more than an ounce of water. I know." She patted his shoulder. "Be right back, honey."
He decided to keep the four quarters in his pocket. That's it, absolutely. Not touching those four, he vowed. He hit the Max Bet button and pulled the handle. Damn near all the slot players these days just pushed the "Spin" button, the slot machine equivalent of a remote control. You don't have to get up to change channels anymore, you don't have to read a paper to get the news, and you don't even have to burn the calories to pull the handle to lose your money. The whole world was nothing but buttons. Grady still pulled the handle. It was his little bit of rebellion at the modern age.
By the time Shireen returned with the drink, he had worked the 41 credits up to 68. The wind was blowing a bit warmer now.
"Here ya be," Shireen said cheerfully and set it between the machine he was playing and the next one. Christ, they cram so many of these things in here you hardly got room to put a glass. But then, Grady remembered with a wry grin, there was the night when being close to the woman playing next to him at the Oasis in Mesquite ended up with two days of naked keno from her room. Knee bumping has its rewards. "Thanks, babe," he said to Shireen, and dropped two quarters on her tray. "Last one, though. Even if you beg me."
She patted his shoulder again, this time with a little rub at the end, a gentler pat than a friendly waitress usually gives to make her customer think she's interested in him. This one was for real, and he knew it. "Bout had enough?" she cooed. "Not so good tonight? I'll fix you breakfast. You know that. If you need it."
If I get hungry enough, he thought, but he said, "Thanks, Shir, but don't thaw the steak out yet. She's turning for me."
"I'll come back in a few minutes to see how you want your eggs done."
Grady continued to tap the "Bet One Credit" button and pull the handle, winning a couple of cherries and a triple bar, but four minutes later, when the scotch was gone, so were the credits and the two fallow quarters from the bin. Four left in his pocket. What the hell. Mixed bars on the first two, a cherry for two credits, then two sevens and. . . a blank. Now he had just two quarters. Wouldn't even buy coffee. Credit Button, handle yanked. Blanks. Broke.
He stood and stretched the casual yawn of the loser, trying to appear to be carefree but trying not to think about how much he'd dropped, Shireen re-approached. She always had great timing. "My stove or yours, honey bun?" It was their joke. Every time he had a losing night, Shir made the offer. Only once had he actually taken her up on it. It was a great night, but boy, can she not cook. He wondered how her ass got so large. Couldn't have been her own cooking.
"Yours," he said. "I'm about out of propane. Kipper's coming by Thursday for a fill, if he's sober."
She was surprised and elated in equal measures. "You mean it? If you do, I'll tell Hank I'm leaving early." She glanced around the tiny casino. There were four slot players, two elderly men shriveled like oranges left on the shelf a month too long, and two equally wrinkled old ladies sucking cigarettes. The only other gamblers were two guys at the blackjack table. Katrina at the roulette table sat on her stool with her arms crossed and looked mortally bored. She hadn't had a roulette spin in probably two hours and the last two craps shooters were now the two blackjackers, trying to lose money by a different route. It was a damned slow night and a low handle for Hank. He'd let Shireen go early alright, if only to save the four bucks an hour he paid her. "Missy can handle this place by herself," she declared to Grady. "I'm ready to go."
Grady lifted his jacket off a hook on the wall next to a silent jukebox and pulled it on to leave the dingy casino and go back out to his Arrow, his old RV out back. The Nevada desert was still cool in March, especially late at night, so he zipped the jacket up, stuck his hands in his pockets in a futile dream he'd find forgotten coins there. The desert didn't stay warm when the sun disappeared, especially when your money disappeared with it. He'd had four scotches that Shir had brought him in the last hour and he was feeling a little adventurous anyway. That, and it had been two weeks since he'd been to Goldfield to see his consort over there. Melinda was in L.A. for the rest of the month while her husband was on his annual reserve commitment so there was nothing to make the drive for anyway. It was almost eleven, he'd had a few drinks, his part time no-tell was away, he was broke. Damned if Shireen's ass wasn't looking pretty good.
He passed Shireen again as he headed for the door. "You need anything?" he asked. "I got some of that Kenyan coffee today at Raley's. You got milk?"
"I got everything you need, sweetie," she answered and patted his cheek. "And you know it. You want me to come by and get you?"
At least it would give him a chance to brush his teeth. "Sure. I'll go get my nightie and wait for you. Maybe I can catch the late news. See how the market did today."
"Be there in a flash," she said and walked away towards Hank's office. He watched her bob and sway in her casino tights as she walked, a well-rounded willow tree in a gentle wind, and he could tell from her prance that she was excited. Breakfast might not be at first light. They might not even be asleep by then.
Grady made his way to the casino exit, which wasn't very far, considering the whole casino wasn't much larger than a couple of rooms at the adjoining hotel. Even at that, it was one of the biggest places in Tonopah. There wasn't so much as a pay toilet in all of Nevada that didn't have a gambling opportunity within arm's reach, but out in the middle of a deserted state, a place this big was the equivalent of Caesar's down in Las Vegas.
On his way out he passed the $1 machines, the ones he never touched and no one else ever played either. He never had enough stake to play long enough to hold out for a winner. You really needed three or four hundred. But then, you had to be prepared to drop three or four hundred, too. Behind the $1 machines, lined along the wall like tombstones, were the nickel machines, home for sixty year olds with a lot of time but no courage for larger denominations. There were times when he only had twenty dollars to wager and the nickel machines looked good. Four hundred nickels would play for a long time. Getting drinks from Shireen with a fifty cent tip on each one, and if he played the machines carefully, he might end up with four hundred and ten nickels. A profit was a profit. Sometimes he saw trading quarters and nickels for pulls on the slot machine as his version of Wall Street. Without some kind of edge, the odds of making money weren't much different.
Outside, the crisp air was clear. A Nevada desert on a winter night was stunning. You could see a long ways if there had been anything out there to see. There were always a few of the crazy theorists in town who'd tramp out in the night air hoping to see a flying saucer, though most of them hung out over around Rachel, the town with a road sign that said, "Speed Limit Warp 7".
The back lot of the casino was near empty tonight. No guests in the hotel either. That would change in another month when the local wild west festival drew them in. Town would be full then. Drunks from Vegas parking all over the place, even up where Grady lived. They'd park anywhere they damned well felt like it, then puke in his yard before driving off over his bicycle, if he was dumb enough to leave it outside again. He walked up the short hill, past the row of dilapidated RV's like his, backed in and hooked up for the night. Hank made the RV'ers a great deal, twelve bucks a night, water, electric and sewer dump thrown in. Great deal when most other RV parks were going for fifteen to twenty a night. But the retirees whose eyes bulged out in greed when they heard Twelve Dollars, including cable, like they'd really discovered RV Valhalla, were the same ones that were in the casino pumping nickels into the tombstones every night. Hank got his fifteen a night out of them, and more.
On the deserted street behind the RV park, Grady's own old motorhome sat in the dark. An extension cord snaked into the grass and off into the darkness past the last three open RV spots, then around the grocery store dumpsters and through a short patch of weeds. The far end was plugged into the outlet on the last RV parking spot, which nobody ever used because there was a junk '82 Ford sitting there with two flat tires. Hank had taken it in trade one night for a credit he never should have given, but those emerald eyes fluttered and he gave her ten thousand before his brain overcame his penis. When she gave him the car in exchange, she added a treat in the back seat. Hank left the car there as a reminder of his good fortune. Grady plugged his cord into the hookup there and Hank never came to look. The 14 extension cord would only carry enough current to power the 110 appliances and the heater fan. He had everything but an air conditioner in the summer. Small sacrifice for freedom.
Grady unlocked the door, stepped up inside, and closed it behind him. Cool night, but not enough propane for the heater until Kipper came by. Maybe Shireen was indeed his good luck for the night since the slots certainly weren't. The weather report said another Pacific front was coming in Friday, so he needed the gas to keep warm over the weekend. Unless Shireen had learned to cook.
The motorhome had been a nice one in its day, thirty feet of faded aluminum on the outside and musty smelling carpet and upholstery on the inside. It was quite spacious for one person, especially one who really only needed half that size vehicle to live in. The couch in the front folded out into a double bed when there was double occupancy, which was pretty rare unless Melinda ventured over. Other times, Grady just slept on the unopened couch, which was actually damned comfy. He'd slept in worse places, especially during that twenty-two month sojourn on a steel table with a two-inch mattress. The kitchen in the middle was small but utilitarian, with a propane stove, double pan sink, good storage, though never enough, and his principal survival mechanism, the microwave. In the mid-section, two single beds straddled the aisle. On one, Grady had turned unused space into storage by adding cabinets which were filled with bags of rocks, books, various nuts and bolts, bottles of liquid that might have been cleaner or polish or mouthwash — he never took them out of the drawers anymore anyway. The other bed held assorted unfolded clothes, tools, cans of stew and chili bought in a sale at the grocery story, a broken ski binding, a pair of rubber flipflops, and scattered coins. Eventually, he'd need to clean the bed off if he ever planned to use it again, and when he did most of the flotsam on the left bunk would move to the cabinets on the right bunk and become transformed into potentially useful stuff residing "in storage". Grady hated to throw anything away. You never know when you're going to need a bicycle chain cleaner again, even if your bent bicycle is still laying in the yard where the drunk from Vegas ran over it last year and a greaseweed bush had sprouted through the spokes. He might fix it someday and need that chain cleaner.
In the back, a small bathroom with a chemical toilet filled the rear of his home. Whenever he needed to empty the tank, he always drained it at night so Hank wouldn't see the fifty feet of corrugated tube snaking down through the grass to surreptitiously dump at the RV slot by the '82 Ford. He wasn't going to push his luck by leaving it hooked up like the electricity. Or even dumping it during the day when Hank might see him. At first, Grady had just run the tube down the street and into a vacant lot, figuring the weeds would hide the effluent, but he forgot about the prevailing winds and pretty quickly found he couldn't stand his own pollution. The casino toilets were always available, as were the showers for the RV park inhabitants. There was a code to get in the door of the shower room that was given to RV'rs when they checked in, but since the code hadn't been changed as long as Grady had been parking out there, he usually took his showers inside, where he could stand in the warm water for as long as he liked. The small shower in his own bathroom and the chemical toilet sufficed for pressing hygienic needs, or when it was too cold to walk across the lot to the casino or the showers in a robe and slippers. At times he longed for a tub, to have a long soak in a tank of hot water, like he used to do, a glass of Macallan sitting on the edge, a Monte Cristo spiraling smoke up to the glass tiled ceiling, but it wasn't all that bad a substitute to drive out to Alkali Springs and sink into the geothermal pool there. All that was missing was the scotch, the cigar, and the ceiling.
Grady brushed his teeth. Baking soda and peroxide. It helped his breath, but nothing ever took the real bitterness in his throat away. He finished, rinsed his mouth, and as he put the toothbrush away in the drawer beside the sink, spotted the after shave. Why bother, he wondered, he didn't need to seduce Shireen, but he splashed a couple of squirts on his hands anyway and rubbed it around his face and neck. Wouldn't hurt to show a little gratitude. Outside, a car pulled up by the door. It was Shireen, in her old Dodge.
"Hey, Milken, let's go," she called out the window. Shireen called him Milken, she said, because it made her feel like she was hip about Wall Street and knew the players. She didn't know how right she was.
"Be ready in a minute," Grady answered her. "Got to put on a shirt."
"Oooh, can I come watch?" She got out of the pickup, leaving it running and hurried into his home. He was standing by the stove, pulling a polo shirt over his head. "Hey," Shireen asked from the door, "where's the show?"
"You get a private screening later." He sat on the sofa to trade shoes. Off came the old running shoes, on went a pair of worn oxblood loafers.
Shireen sat on the swivel chair by the door and looked at the collection of papers and objects on the small table in front of her. "When are you going to take me to Vegas?" she asked.
"I'll take you anytime. Let's go. Tonight. Right now."
She picked up a small pamphlet from the table, Gold Panning for Beginners. "Yeah, but I don't want to stay in a crummy RV. I want to go some place nice, like the Mandalay. I hear that's cool. Or maybe even Bellagio. We could shop."
He stood and picked up his jacket to go. "Then maybe you better read that, too. I ain't exactly got a bag full of placers to cash in yet. Still working on it."
"Ah, come on, everybody knows you still got some stashed away somewhere. I've heard the stories."
"I was misquoted."
"You were smart enough to run with the big boys on Wall Street so I figure you were smart enough to put some away. Hide it from the government. Out here, that's considered good sportsmanship."
"Yeah, well at the New York Attorney General's office, it's not. Come on, let's go."
She dropped the pamphlet and went out the door. He followed her and locked it, leaving several lights on."
"Ain't you going to shut off the lights?"
"Keeps the vandals away if they think somebody's home."
"Like somebody would really break into this thing. They might get hurt."
Shireen's car was warm and even if the passenger seat was broken and sat stiff upright, unable to recline except all the way flat, it felt good to Grady to ride in something besides an open top jeep. This thing wouldn't make it far in the desert, he thought, but it wouldn't be all that bad for the three hours to The Strip. Or even as far as Goldfield if Shireen let him borrow it some time. Melinda wouldn't care, anyway. Flat ground was all she needed.
At Shireen's house up behind the old mine museum, they got out to go inside. "Would you get that sack behind the seat?" she asked him. He pulled the brown bag out and heard the clink of bottles. He looked inside. Rum. A quart.
"Where'd you get this? Liquor store's closed this late."
"From Hank. He can be a sweetheart sometimes. Sells it to me at his cost, when he's in a good mood."
There weren't many gamblers in the house tonight so the take was low, so Hank's mood couldn't have been all that great. Two possibilities: Hank's "cost" that he quoted her was two dollars higher than he really paid for it, or he quoted her another price, which she agreed to pay at a later date. It didn't matter to Grady.
Shireen's house was neat, though sparsely furnished. Shireen always said she was saving her money to move to Reno and maybe she was. She certainly didn't believe in spending money on frills, like lamps in the living room, or dining room chairs. Or a dining room table. Or any place to eat except sitting on the couch. A true utilitarian.
Grady set the bag on the counter by the sink and took the items out. Rum, lime juice, club soda, Angostura Bitters. "Looks like the makings of something here," he said.
"Look in the fridge."
He opened the big door of the side by side. The refrigerator was as Spartan as her home. Milk, loaf bread, juice, some eggs, two cartons of yogurt, and a small plastic container of fresh mint. "Where'd you get this?"
"Missy brought it back from Henderson this weekend when she went to visit her mother. Guess what I'm thirsty for?"
Grady smiled. He always enjoyed it when he realized he had introduced someone to something that stuck. With Melinda it had been cognac; with Shireen it was mojitos. "I have created a monster."
"Maybe," she answered. "But one with good taste. I'll take one now, garçon."
"Mixed metaphor, my dear. In Cuba you would say, 'Un mojito, señor. Make mine like Papa's.' "
"Just make the damn thing now. I'm going to get out of this tourniquet."
When she came back in a bathrobe, he had two mojitos waiting, sweetened lime and rum and club soda on ice, with crushed mint leaves to make it fragrant. He handed her one. She took both.
"Thanks. Didn't you want one?" she giggled.
He ignored her, took one glass back and drank from it. They sat on the couch and stared at the wall. "You want to watch the tube for a while?" he asked. "Relax a bit?"
"Yes ma'am. Let's just sit a while."
She picked up the remote from the coffee table in front of them and clicked on the set. "I know what you want to see. I know what turns you on." She flipped through the cable channels until she found the one she knew would excite him. Bloomberg. "You'd think you would be cured of sticking your nose in that stuff. Two years in Atlanta didn't seem to teach you much, did it?"
"I'm a slow learner."
He watched intently as the crawler displayed the day's closing prices.
"Well, big boy, while you see if the market went up, I'll see what I can get up too." She reached for him, but he clasped her hand in his and trapped her.
"Hold on. I want to see what my stocks did."
She pouted, but he continued watching the screen. She could wait. Fortune couldn't. In a moment he had seen all his holdings wipe past. Three up, two down, one unchanged. He came out a little ahead. He was going to need some more cash from the account soon, but would have to stretch it until Melinda came back. He had been worrying lately about their relationship. The account was in Melinda's name, and if things soured with her, he could lose the whole bundle. Maybe it was time to move his trading elsewhere. Shireen watched the ticker too for a minute and actually seemed interested. The Dow was up 53 points that day. Abruptly, Grady changed the channel to some western movie.
"Was it good for you too?" she joked.
Grady finished his mojito and set the glass on the table where Shireen promptly picked it up and set it on a coaster. He settled back on the couch and put his arm around her. "Better than a Lafite."
Shireen shook her head. "I don't know what that means, but it sure escapes me to understand why winning in the stock market would be better than something to do with your feet."
Grady sat silently for a while, spinning something around in his head. In a minute he pulled her near, stroked her arm, and whispered sweet nothings gently in her ear. "You ever had a trading account?" he asked softly. "In your name?"
In the morning Grady was almost awake, almost emerged out of a dream of driving in Connecticut in a Porsche, autumn sun trickling through rainbow foliage to warm him on a Saturday afternoon. He was rising out of it slowly, withdrawing ecstatically like he had with Shireen a few hours before, letting the image shimmer in afternoon sunlight, lingering sweetly as does the taste of d'Yquem on the palate, slowly withdrawing without disturbing the serenity of exquisite success, when Shireen's stubby fingers caressing his hair from where she stood by the bed yanked him out of Connecticut and back into Tonopah, Nevada.
"Morning, love," she whispered. "How do you want your eggs?"
As if it mattered. She could only make scrambled anyway. "Very hot. With a little cream."
She handed him a cup. "Already got that for you. Biscuits will be done in five minutes. That enough time?" She smiled coyly.
"For a quick shower, yeah."
She sighed. "How quickly you forget."
"What time is it? I'm supposed to meet Ernie at the café at eight."
She looked at the clock radio by the bed. "Seven-fifteen. Takes you five minutes to get to the café. That leaves us forty." She stroked his arm with her fingernail. "How do you want to spend it?"
She pushed him away playfully. "Men and gold," she complained. "I thought it was women you couldn't get enough of."
At 7.30, they ate the biscuits and fried ham and scrambled eggs with bits of white shell stuck in the dark yellow yolk of the farm eggs Shireen picked up at the Mexican market. Grady wondered if they were actually chicken eggs they sold at that market. They didn't taste quite right, but then many things from Shireen's kitchen didn't taste quite right. If he didn't get sick by noon, he'd figure the incubation period has passed.
"Thanks for breakfast, Shir. And thanks for everything else." He smiled tenderly at her. He didn't feel tender, but he was practiced at the look. It usually worked.
"Thank you. I enjoy cooking for a man. I could do it for you a lot more often if you wanted me to." It wasn't the first time she had made the offer, nor the first time Grady had demurred.
"There's plenty of takers to choose from around here, honey, and some of them would actually appreciate it. When are you going to find a good man to make a feast like this for every morning?"
"Not for me," she answered, shaking her head. "I been struck by lightning twice, so I'm staying indoors from now on. I may play the game, but I don't want to own the balls."
It would have been a clever line, if she'd thought of it, but that was Carolina's line. Carolina used to be Shireen's boss out at The Bunny Ranch where Shireen used to sell personal services by the hour before she left for the casino. Grady didn't even know the ranch existed until he met Shireen, but he knew Carolina now, and he knew where Shireen's aphorisms originated. But he laughed lightly and let her think she had been witty.
"Another game someday soon, I hope?" he asked.
"Anytime. I like you, Grady. You're nice. And you know about good things." She seemed genuinely tender for a moment, and Grady felt a stitch of guilt for his lack of affection for her. He liked her okay, he had enjoyed the night, but he wasn't particularly over-whelmed by her company. She was good for a some-time friend, and that was about it. She'd brought him drinks at the Old West Casino and she'd fixed him a decent breakfast. Anything in between was incidental. Affection was not gold. He neither sought it nor valued it. But though he lacked the feeling, he could give the performance. "Thanks, babe. I like it here too. You're easy to talk to. Maybe we can mix mojitos another time?"
She leaned over and kissed him, and he saw the dreaded look of attachment clouding her eyes. "Time to go," he burped quickly. "Can't keep Ernie waiting." He let her kiss him for a few seconds, then broke it gently and stood. "I better scoot. Ern wants me to take him out to Columbia today and the old coot gets mad if I'm not there by the opening bell."
"Onto something?" she asked.
Grady remained passive. "Who knows with Ernie. We take my jeep, he shows me where to go. It's a good trade. You mind driving me back to my place?" He put his arms around her shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze. He gave her attention, she gave him a ride home. That was a good trade, too.
Shireen drove him back to his RV. It was cold outside in the morning, and even cooler inside the Arrow without the morning sun to warm it. Grady brushed his teeth again, grabbed a backpack from where it was hanging over the storage bed, picked up his hat and his rock pick, and went out to his jeep. Fifteen years and somewhere in excess of 100,000 miles. A dented, scraped, primer speckled, bug and mud splattered exterior to prove it. Everything else he needed was still in the jeep from the last trip out, including the two five gallon jugs of water. Ernie would have everything he needed in a knapsack. The man should have been an Indian, he traveled so light.
At the café, Grady pulled up to park at five to eight. He could see through the window the wild storm of white hair that told him Ernie was still there. The other indication sat on the ground outside the café. Riffle, Ernie's indeterminate breed dog with a short black and tan coat and a perpetual lolling tongue and half-closed eyes, was parked by the door. That dog had a way of making the desert seem hotter, the way he slowly heaved each breath through an open, slightly slobbering mouth. Grady stopped to pat Riffle on the head. "Hey, Lightening. Ready to go fetch?" It was their game. Grady accused Riffle of being lazy and Riffle ignored him.
Inside, the café was almost empty. The real prospectors, as Ernie had reminded Grady numerous times, were out at sunup, not sitting around at the café having croissants and marmalade half way through the morning.
Ernie was perched on a bar stool talking to Jenna, the waitress, coffee cup in hand. "I think you'd look great in a pair of gold earrings," he told her. "I could have that doodlebug down at the jewelry store make 'em for you out of a couple of my placers. He may squeal a bit when he sashays, but he knows how to make baubles. You'd look good."
"Oh come on, don't call Edward a doodlebug," she replied. "Nobody else seems to care if he's gay. I like him. He's a good guy."
"I'm a good guy too, honey, but I pan for my gold. You know what he does for his."
"Oh, bull, he does not. Everybody thinks that old goat up the hill is sweet on Edward, but it just ain't true."
"How do you know?"
"I asked Edward about it myself," she answered smugly. "Went right up and asked him."
"You mean you said, 'Hey doodlebug, you piping the mayor?'"
Before she could answer they both noticed Grady, and his entrance gave Jenna a chance to change the tune. "Morning, Grade," she called out to him. "Your usual?"
"The usual," Grady said.
"And don't skimp on his latte this time," Ernie recommended, then confided to Jenna in a low voice. "He gets so damned cranky when he hasn't had enough latte." They both laughed. Grady let it be. Another price of freedom.
"I was about to leave you," Ernie groused. "Figured you were still having 'breakfast' with Shireen."
"What was it, on CNN this morning?" Grady replied. "But oh, but I forgot, you don't dabble in high tech stuff like television. Or radio." Grady sniffed the air lightly. "Or deodorant."
Ernie chuckled at him. "It was on CNN alright — Carla's Nosy News. "
Carla Caprice was Missy's sister, and the cook at the café, ergo, the desert drums, the Tonopah network. When real news was in short supply, which was generally the case unless there was a wreck on the highway or the Splendor Brothers had stolen another car or a flying saucer had landed in the cemetery and scooped up all the bodies, talk up and down Main had to be about who was sleeping with who. Of course, real news would be a gold strike. That's when excitement shimmered like the heat waves in the desert for a few days and prospectors from every dry claim within a hundred miles who'd heard about the gold trampled each other to get to Tonopah and then slog through desert looking for the waterfall that poured yellow dreams out of the hills. A strike was also an open season for boinking, the secondary activity to finding the gold. Boink-ees were eager to find boink-ers who might actually hit it rich and feel like sharing a bit of it. To Grady, the boink-ees were just investing in an IPO. Choose your horse and hope it comes in. It was a time when anybody could sleep with anybody and nobody was going to bother talking about it. Unfortunately, since there hadn't been a strike lately, sleeping habits were now the news and Grady's movements were fair game. Especially fair game, being an outsider.
Jenna came back with Grady's coffee. She had overheard. "I read it in the paper, too. I think it was in the Different Positions Wanted section." She set the cup down and giggled at him. "So how was it?"
There wasn't much point in denying anything. "The eggs were ok. Biscuits too."
"Yeah, Shireen can pop open a can of biscuits like nobody I ever seen," Jenna assessed. "But you damn sure didn't go there for the food."
"Tis true that fair weather leaves in haste when discussing matters of the chamber. Evil winds will surely follow."
"Shakespeare again," Ernie grunted. "Did he write a line for every situation in your life?"
Since they didn't know the difference, Grady wouldn't tell them he made it up. He knew very little Shakespeare. They knew even less. "So far he has."
Ernie resumed his conference with Jenna. "So how 'bout them earrings? They'd look good on you."
She filled his coffee cup and smiled at him. "No thanks, Mr. Hammet. But you're a sweet goat to offer." She walked away.
Ernie shrugged and turned to Grady. "How about you? You ready?"
"Thanks, Mr. Hammet, but I don't need any earrings, either."
"Nothing makes you feel old any faster than a young thing calling you 'mister', or 'sir', does it?" Ernie allowed. "It used to bother me." He sipped his coffee thoughtfully for a moment. "Sometimes it still does."
"Well, hell, Ern, Jenna's nineteen. You're, what, sixty? What did you expect?"
"It ain't the gold I'm looking for," Ernie answered.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, it's the chase. And you like chasing it here, too."
Ernie looked at his watch. "It's eight-fifteen. The real prospectors have already found all the gold by now, but we might as well go give it a try anyway."
They both picked up their cups and headed out the door. They both knew Jenna knew they'd bring them back.
As soon as they exited the café, Riffle, the dog seemingly without synapses, suddenly leaped to life and wagged his tail. "Let's go, Rif," Ernie called to him and patted him on the head. "The placers are running." As soon as they headed for Grady's jeep, Riffle bounced ahead of them and jumped into the passenger seat then over into the back to settle down on Grady's pack.
"If that dog pees on my pack again," Grady told Ernie, "you'll both walk back."
"Don't tell him where to pee and he won't tell you where to drive."
"Tell me where to find gold and I won't care where he pees."
They drove out of town on the highway to the North, up into a small collection of hills that surrounded Tonopah, and headed across the basin to the Columbia turnoff. The sun to their right was warm, but the wind flowing through the open jeep was still cool at eight in the morning. By the time they headed back in the evening, if they came back at all that day, the air would be warm from the day's hot currents rising off the basin floor towards the mountains. Grady looked around at the sky. No clouds, no rain, no shade today. But your neck burned, not your eyes, when you spent the day walking the desert with your head bent over searching for a vein.
They turned left off the highway onto a dirt road scraped out of the top layer of the basin till and immediately began to stir the dry desert dust. It swirled behind them in a long brown drifting cloud and coated the inside of the jeep. Grady drove faster, trying to outrun the dirt but the faster he pushed them the more they were victims of the vortex and the dust seeped into their clothes and eyes and gums and by the time Grady stopped the jeep near the old bauxite mine, the vehicle and its occupants were both as brown as the ground around them.
"Wanta stop and see your girlfriend?" Grady asked.
"Sure, when we get back to Tonopah. Why are we stopping here?"
Grady smiled. They might make fun of him with Shireen, but Ernie had his dalliances, too.
They were near the remnants of a long-abandoned mine town, eighty years dead, where crumbled building foundations striped here and there through the desert scrub were all the evidence that 3000 people once lived and mined and ate and danced and howled at the moon on the edge of the dried lake bed where the bauxite was peeled from the earth. Two shacks still stood, more recent additions, perhaps thirty years back, when someone tried to re-establish the mine but never had the luck or the money or the energy to build it all up again. Old Belinda Riggeto spent a lot of time here, and the neat grounds around one of the remaining shacks was evidence that a guided hand had molded its landscaping. Patio furniture made from a telephone company cable spool and two folding chairs sat near a firepit of circled rocks. Thin smoke from aging embers wisped up from the pit attesting to recent use, but there was no fire builder in sight.
"Belinda's a real prospector," Ernie grunted. He didn't have to finish the observation. One more stab at Grady's lack of respect for being out at dawn.
"You could have said we'd leave at seven. I would have been there."
"Hmmmph. Not likely, not with you smacking with Shireen all night."
"But we set the time to meet before anything happened with Shireen. You can't accuse me--"
"Don't try to trap me in existential arguments," Ernie cut him off. "I'm not a man who argues well."
They got out of the jeep to go up to the shack. Belinda must not have been around or she would have come out to throw something at them. It was her way to say 'hello', to toss an old rum bottle at visitors. Riffle hopped out, sniffed the lingering smoke in the air and trotted to the firepit to search for food droppings.
"Yoo hoo, you old bitch, where are you?" Ernie called out.
"She's not here, Ern."
"I know she's not here. You think I would have called her an old bitch if I thought she was?"
They went into the cabin. The door had been taken off the hinges and turned on its side across two old window frames to make a table. The floor was clean, swept of all dust but the morning's settle, and a chair and small table beside it were all the furniture in the room. Shelves on one wall held three different bottles of liquor and some books; a volume of Walt Whitman, a dictionary, and "On Death and Dying".
"Place always has a woman's touch, don't you think?" Ernie evaluated.
"I don't feel right coming into her house when she's not here. She'll say we stole her jewelry."
"She ain't got nothing left to steal. Gave damn near everything she owned away already."
"Better make sure she's not dead in bed," Grady suggested. "You know where the bedroom is, don't you?"
Ernie grunted again and looked in the second room and shook his head. "No, she ain't stiff in bed." Then he smiled. "Not even at sixty-two."
A small cupboard sat in one corner of the main room, with a few cans of food and a plate. An iron skillet and a sauce pot hung on nails on the wall, the only cookware in sight. Both were soot-blackened from simmering over the firepit. There were two plastic drinking glasses on a small shelf, with a fork, spoon, and knife stuck down inside one of them.
"She got any water over there?"
"None here. You think I ought to leave one of our jugs?"
Ernie shook his head. "We'll stop on the way back. If we have any water left, then we'll leave it for her. Can't leave somebody in a place like this with no water."
They went back to the jeep. Ernie called to Riffle who got up from lying beside the firepit, sprawled in the sand, fruitless in his food search, and hopped into the back again. They drove away and Grady headed the jeep on down the road skirting the dry lake bed. "Belinda's peculiar," he said a few moments later.
"Well, everybody who comes out here thinking they'll get rich looking for gold are somewhat peculiar, don't you think?"
"Agree. But Belinda's a special case. She's, ah. . ." He didn't want to hurt the old man's feelings in case he really did have a thing for the woman. "Ah. . .incomplete?
"You mean is she mentally off balance in addition to stage three cancer?" Ernie clarified. His voice was calm and serious. "I suspect so. She comes into town now and then, but in the last few months she's been spending more and more time out here. She ain't been taking any more chemo, so I like to check up on her whenever I get out this way. We all should."
Ernie always wanted to check up on Belinda Riggeto, a frail and ailing woman digging in the desert for the magic rocks that might put some sparkle in her remaining life, and Grady was happy to bring him out now and then. It was painful for Grady to see Belinda out there too, and he knew they were watching the slow demise of a fellow prospector sinking into the windblown desert like they all would do some day. The desert dwellers only had each other out there, and even among souls that craved solitude as much as they did their soft metals, there was comfort in knowing one of your own breed would at least check up on you from time to time, if only to see that you got a proper burial. A little humanity in the desert was the welfare for the lonely.
At a split in the road, Ernie pointed wordlessly to the track that took them away from the lake bed and began curving up into the broad range of small mountains that extended North and South away from the basin. Jagged chunks of basalt from nearby lava flows spread across the sloping valley like shards of gravel tossed haphazardly in the sand. The old jeep trail skirted the field past the rugged spill and generally followed the path of the ancient flow back towards its origin, a worn and wounded cinder cone five miles out ahead. As the road began to steepen, Ernie leaned out of the jeep and peered intently across the ground. Old prospector eyes had a pattern recognition built into them like a filter. Rock after rock, spill after spread of old volcanic seepage, all looked alike to Grady, but he knew Ernie was looking for just the right combination of clustered rock formations that would signal a quartz outcropping. And with it, maybe gold. The older a prospector's eyes got, the more the filter covered the lens until he couldn't see anything else but signs of gold, didn't want to see anything else, didn't look for anything else but treasure in the dirt. As his time in the desert diminished, his desperation and determination to find gold or silver or anything of value out there accelerated. Grady wasn't there yet, but he knew Ernie was. It was late in the game for Ernie and time was running out.
"What do you see?" Grady asked. "Anything look good?"
Ernie didn't answer for a moment, continuing to scan the horizon, and then, "Everything out here looks good."
"Should we stop?"
"No, the gold here's not ready to be found. When it is, we'll find it."
They continued on up the road for another quarter-hour until they reached a small saddle between two peaks where the desert behind them that seemed to be endless was matched by the desert beyond them that continued even more naked and barren. On the other side of the saddle, the road ran down into the next basin and range and endlessly cleaved on into the distance further than human eyes could see. How many feet and tires had rumbled across that path, sniffing the air and the ground, looking for gold that wanted to be found, but never was?
"Let's stop here," Ernie called out. "I want to walk the beds." He got out of the jeep, knelt by the side of the road and examined the rocks laying there. Grady came around the jeep to wait for the master's judgment. "I been around here a couple times," Ernie remembered. "There's some exposed tertiary up that ridge and some weathered quartz but I never seen any deposits." 'Deposits' only had one meaning to a prospector. To Grady, it might have been a term for a bank or a dog, but to Ernie, it only meant precious metals. No other.
"We can go down that little draw and sift a bit," Ernie suggested. "If that quartz vein ever had anything in it, that's where it'll be."
Grady reached down for a fist sized lump of basalt and stood up, then hefted the rock two or three times in his hand to get a feel for it. It was solid, and he liked the feel of solid in his hand. He didn't like things he couldn't feel the weight of, or the color of, or the hardness of, or the future price of, and holding a rock in his hand reminded him there was a tangible world out here that gave him all those sensations. He threw the rock, as hard as he could, and watched it land in the dirt fifty feet away.
Ernie watched the stone arc away too. "You realize that rock was probably laying there for ten thousand years until you came along and ruined its day?"
"Yeah, but now it'll have a better view for the next ten thousand."
Old Ernie occasionally waxed philosophic while in the desert. It was something Grady had gotten used to. It was as if the man's senses, his intellectualism, began to glow out there, and Ernie became at once a prospector, a historian, a prophet, a believer. It was what Grady enjoyed about the man. Garrulousness in Tonopah became humble respect for the world around him when they came to the desert.
"Grab your pan," Ernie said. The moment of reverie was over. "Let's go, Riffle. Work to be done." Without seeming to remember Grady was along, Ernie headed out across the ridge. Grady could swear the old man walked two inches taller out there, the stoop in his back straightened out whenever he was following his nose toward riches. Grady ran to catch up. His own back felt stiffer as well. There was something about being out in this desert that brightened a man's life. He had heard that from other men, how it transformed them. Grady didn't know what it was, but it didn't matter. He felt it, and that was what mattered.
In the desert, burning sand reflects as much heat as the sun pours on it, igniting the air throughout the day, turning and blowing it in currents, shifting the sands grain by grain, inexorably eroding the rocks by saltation, until the pilot light goes out at night and the sands cool back to stillness. A desert day in the middle of Nevada in late March can be blistering, but the nights can still be cold, brittle cold. A last winter North wind can frostbite bare skin, and bring whispers that might be ghosts, might be the gold itself tantalizingly beckoning, to drift across the rocks and float away laughingly into the night.
They searched and panned and tramped the hills in a fruitless day that left them with nothing but sunburns, and late in the evening, they camped in a small cove on the side of a hill where they would be sheltered from the night wind. A fire of sagebrush and old mine timbers cooked their meal, and along with a lingering gold fever, wicked away the cold night air and made tomorrow look promising. Ernie sat beside the fire with a notebook, reading some past entries and making new ones in the worn spiral-bound folder. Grady wrapped himself in his sleeping bag, cradled a cup of coffee and sat with his back to the fire, looking up at the stars. A gibbous moon hung to the south, and he looked up at it silently.
"Think we need to go further along that ridge to the South," Ernie proposed. "Last time I was that way looks like about August last year. Made a note to myself to go back down there, but I never did. Don't know why."
"You're just getting forgetful."
"Hell, that's why I keep the journal, to help me remember these things."
"I used to do that."
"Still have it?"
"Nope. Got confiscated for evidence."
Ernie continued to jot and draw in his book for a while. When he finished his current entries, he slowly flipped back through the book, reviewing recent history. He held each page gently and read his notes with a soft look of reverence on his face. Grady never asked what Ernie wrote in that notebook, and Ernie never offered. Grady wondered if there were directions to gold deposits hidden away in that book, or maybe something less significant, like the secrets to the universe or the meaning of life.
When Ernie finished perusing his notes, he lay the book down beside him and found Riffle there, dozing and content. The dog's day had been more successful, chasing pocket mice, a kangaroo rat, and even a jackrabbit that scampered away with such disrespect for a dog that Riffle had to chase him over a crest of basalt and stay gone a good half hour to prove his tenacity at bunny hunting. Now, Riffle lay curled next to Ernie, between his master and the fire, and dreamed of tomorrow as well. Ernie patted Riffle lazily then picked up his notebook and made one more entry. "Riffle caught rabbit today. Very proud," he told Grady. "It'll be true in history, at least. Isn't that the way history is written anyway?"
"History is what the docket says it is."
"What do you see out there?" Ernie asked.
"More sky than I could have ever imagined. I wish I knew more about the stars."
"I can help that a bit." Ernie reached into his knapsack and withdrew a small pamphlet. "Here," and he tossed it over to Grady. It was a simple guide to the night sky of the southwest, with drawings of the major stars. "Better if you have binoculars, but I don't carry them."
Grady sat up and opened the guide. "Why do you even carry this? I would think you'd know them all by now, as much time as you spend out here."
"Something to do when Rif doesn't feel like talking." He patted the dog again soundly, and Riffle's tail thumped the ground twice in appreciation. Man loves dog, dog loves the earth, the earth nurtures man. They all take care of each other. It was an understanding.
Grady leafed through the book and stopped at the appropriate page for the sky of January, February and March. He peered to the North, found the big dipper, Ursa Major, and not far away, the little dipper. At the end of the handle was Polaris. He was proud of himself. "Okay, so I found the North Star," he announced.
"Ah, yes, she chases him around the heavens."
"Ursa Minor, the little dipper as you call her. She spins around chasing her man, the big dipper." Ernie moved over next to Grady and pointed at the shapes on the page, then up in the sky. "The North Star, Polaris, at the end of the little dipper's handle, is stationary, and Ursa Minor revolves around it. Further out, the big dipper turns too, throughout the year, circling the same point. The Navajos said the woman, the little dipper to us, chases her man around the heavens, ever to pursue, never to have."
"Sort of like gold," Grady noted.
"Sort of like success," Ernie added.
"You know a lot of Indian stories?"
"I know a lot of Indian truths. They understand the earth."
"Do they know where to find gold?"
Ernie smiled. "Whether they do or don't doesn't matter. They don't need to. To native Americans, the land itself is the gold. Everything you need to live and thrive on the planet comes from it. Know why the sun moves slowly, and never comes up in the same place two days in a row?"
"I remember my college earth science classes, yeah."
Ernie moved back to sit next to Riffle again and picked up a piece of old timber to toss on the fire. When it landed in the coals, sparks fluttered upwards and seemed for a moment to mingle with the stars. "Forget all that stuff," he explained. " The sun moves cautiously and never comes up in the same place two days in a row because long ago a foolish rabbit tried to kill the sun, and forever after, the sun peeks slowly over the horizon, and changes the place it rises from each day, in case the rabbit is waiting for him again."
"I must have missed that part of the class."
Ernie picked up a stick and stirred the fire more, turning the coals and releasing more sparks. The new wood caught and flamed and the camp was lit in shimmering orange for a moment. "It's a Paiute legend. Everything that moves has life, and life can be affected, or controlled, by the other forces that also have life."
"But why a rabbit? Why not a more noble beast to tackle the sun?"
Ernie shrugged. "Who knows. Maybe originally it wasn't a rabbit. The old legends, the stories, the explanations for the earth and sky were spoken from father to son, from elder to young warrior. Details change with each passing, perhaps, but the fundamental belief is still the same as a thousand years ago. The earth is a complexity of life and all things are interrelated. Cause and effect."
Grady stared at the woman spinning and thought about Ernie's statement. "I don't know whether to believe that or not. I used to think chance ruled nature, that there were certain odds you had to contend with, then when I figured out how to change the odds in my favor, I decided maybe nature was the one taking the chance by letting mankind tinker with it."
Ernie was silent for a few moments, slowly stoking the fire, then, "Maybe it does. Maybe the Indians were completely wrong and the sun comes up in a different place each day because the earth's rotations cycle our planet through a series of wobbles. It's possible that our weather is simply a function of the different planetary cycles, and everything is predictable. Chance favors nothing."
Grady turned to look at his friend. "Which one do you believe in?"
"The rabbit story is a lot simpler and easier to understand. Dogs understand it." Ernie patted Riffle again. "That's why they naturally chase rabbits. Dogs understand everything. Too bad we don't."
Grady watched the heavens chase each other for a long time, while the fire burned down to coals and he was left only with the cold blackness of the night. Ernie and Riffle both snored and Grady wondered if he could ever sleep as peacefully as his friends. He zipped his sleeping bag up to his face and tried.
In the morning, Ernie puffed and blew on the fire and added fresh wood until it was blazing, made his prospector's coffee, a quarter cup of grounds in the boiling water, and they ate granola bars with the bitter coffee. Riffle ate dried dog food from a plastic bag in Ernie's knapsack. It was chilly again in the morning, but the fire and the coffee seemed to make the sun come up faster and by seven o'clock, they had doused the fire, struck camp, and headed back out into the desert.
"Let's pan a bit today," Ernie suggested. "Hate to admit it, but my knees took a beating on that scree yesterday. Don't feel like walking so much today."
Grady hated to admit it too, but at twenty years younger than Ernie, his whole body didn't handle the all-day walking so well either. "Fine by me. Lead the way."
Throughout the day they moved from one wash to the next, finding sandy traps where two stream beds converged, or where the main stream took a hard bend. Ernie would stand for a moment, like he was receiving signals from some unseen guidance system, scratch his jaw, tilt his hat back, put his hands on his hips, look to one side of him then the other then behind him, and finally point to a spot in the stream bed. "Here," he would say. "Let's give 'er a go right here." The ritual at each spot was almost identical. Grady wondered if it was a conscious superstition or something Ernie wasn't even aware he was doing. Eight times that day, they stopped to pan, digging down into the dry bed of the wash and sifting through several small shovels full of sand with a little water from the five gallon jug Ernie had taken with him from the jeep. By three in the afternoon, Grady was tired, sweaty, gritty, and discouraged. They had found nothing. "This is damned hard work for crap," he finally said, dropping his pan in the sand and sitting back in the thin shade of the stream bed. "Even if we find anything, it would take the rest of my life to make two bucks at this."
Ernie looked at him like a coach whose player was giving up. "Did you figure everything was as easy as making money in the markets?"
"Easy? Man, that was rough. Trading's an evil game."
"Did you just trade? Did you ever actually buy a stock and hold it?"
"Some, when I started out. I'd look for undervalued stocks and buy to hold, but the action was too good in trading to plod along and hold onto refrigerator companies until they cycled up two points. Hard to find good companies. Used to spend hours searching my charts, looking for possibilities."
"Did you ever find any?"
"Sure, I got a few, and made a few bucks out of them, but like I said, there was quicker money in trading. Every day, every morning, at the bell, slamming those keys and beating the guy across town or across the world somewhere on his own computer. Maybe that's why I liked it, the action, not the money."
Ernie dropped his pan too and sat down near Grady. "I owned some stocks for a while."
"Yeah? How'd you do?"
"I don't know. I don't remember. All I remember was waking up every morning reading the papers to see how they did. Then I got to listening to financial experts telling me the market was going to crash or it was going to the moon, or was going to roll over and play dead for a few weeks. 'Put it in bonds', they'd say, or 'consumer cyclicals are dead, go for high tech', they'd say, or 'you just can't beat the money markets'. Whatever they said, I gnawed my fingernails to the bone at night waiting to see what the close was like and what my stocks did. Worried myself sick. That's when I knew the market wasn't for me." He looked around the desert and took a deep breath of desert air. "I'm better off out here where I get rich on my own hard work, not waiting for somebody else to blink or to take it all away from me. I sold what little stock I had and said No Thank You to Mr. Market."
Grady picked up his pan, scooped a handful of sand, let it filter through his fingers, and concluded, "Maybe you're right. I had all the action and now all I've got is the same dirt you do. Different path, same destination."
"But it's free dirt. Let's call it a day, what do you say?" Ernie suggested.
They packed away their pans and folding shovels in the jeep and drove away. On the way back down the valley to the highway, they came upon Belinda's cabin again, and this time, an old Ford sedan with a crunched front fender and only one headlight sat parked beside the shack. Belinda was home, so Grady pulled up and stopped. Not too close. Belinda could still throw a rum bottle pretty far. "Want to check up on her?"
Ernie looked at the shack through squinted eyes from sunburned cheeks. The day's sun had aged the man before Grady's eyes. A subsidence into a dispirited dissolution emerged. "Yeah, probably should," he answered tiredly.
Ernie got down out of the jeep slowly, his old joints aching more than he wanted to let on. "Mind if I take your other water to her?"
"Not at all."
Ernie went to the back of the jeep and pulled the plastic container up to the edge. Only then did Riffle jump down, equally worn out. "Tell you what," Ernie said. "I think I'll take her the water and stay a while. Make sure she's alright. She can give me a ride back into town later. You mind?"
"No, in fact I was just thinking of taking a quick run by Alkali Flats and soak in the hot spring a bit. Sure you don't want to come with me?"
Ernie looked around at the shack, the old car, the cable roll for a table and the endless desert for a back yard for a woman with no time left to enjoy such splendor. He shook his head. "No, I'll pass. Stay here and give the old woman some company. She hasn't got long, and maybe I can help ease the journey. But let's go back out again, okay? I like prospecting with you, Grady. Got a couple other places around here we can look, then maybe we can take a run over Pioche way. Take us a couple days up in the mountains. It'll be cool. Rif likes that part of the country."
"Sure. When you want to go?"
"Soon. Tomorrow, today, yesterday. Let's keep moving."
"You in a hurry?"
"Nope. I got all the time in the world out here now."
"No, you ain't," Ernie said, with a sad look at the sunset dipping down over the distant basalt spires. "I ain't got the years left that you do, but you've wasted too many of 'em already." He brightened, and took the plastic water container down out of the jeep. "But. . . I aim to make the most of what I got. Me and Riff."
Without another word, Ernie trudged towards the shack, struggling to carry the five gallons of water, but making his way to be with Belinda. Riffle followed him. Belinda still hadn't come out to throw anything at them, and Grady wondered if the old woman needed anything else besides an Ernie to help her along. Ernie would know what to do if she did. He would take care of her.
Grady looked around at the emptiness of the desert and loved it. It was a beautiful silence, and he wished he hadn't burned up so many years back in the cacophony of civilization. He should have been spending his life out here all along. The gold out here was worth far more than he ever thought it was back there. Didn't matter whether he ever found it or not.
At the door, Ernie looked back at Grady and waved a quick goodbye, then disappeared inside. Ernie might have been just another old man fighting the inevitable pull of gravity and time and slowly losing out to both, but the needs of another human being this day overcame any mortality of his own he might be facing. There ought to be a lesson in there somewhere for Grady. Maybe it would come to him.