Smoked oysters, red wine, and Darla's brown skin
open to air in the middle of changing her shirt.
I'm drinking whiskey, playing old songs—
the one about the girl we want, the one
who left. The woman outside watching the fire
she built might not be as pretty, but her white dress
and black hair dance in these mountains. The railroad
strike is over, the harvest is coming north.
All the candidates have a plan; they're waving
hands, taking shots at each other. We won't
make any more no matter who wins, but we love
to keep talking: okay, so that woman's a little
hefty. So this job goes nowhere. We'll build
some tables to work off the price of this room.
Tomorrow we'll hike the trail, climb into
the mine. The election's months away.
From the valley floor you can see the old railbed winding out of the mountain, red piles of iron tailings, caves blasted and left, the back of a hole driven half a century into rock. Snow laces the high peaks. Engine rebuilt, suspension gone, the old truck got us here. And it's easy, walking this trail. A meadowlark song floats over cactus, A hawk glides in blue. Then we start climbing. The path switches back and back, ranges open to the next state, the nothing town shrunk to a mound of toys. One truck inches the highway. A duster fogs acres a few miles south. We splash our faces in a stream on the way, sit in a pile of flowers. There's the sound of machinery, flies, birds, a creek spilling down. A stack of rocks painted red marks another trail straight up. Maybe tomorrow we'll go that way, find the ridge they say it leads to and walk it. Maybe we'll take some horses. But today, we're going into the mine.
Two hundred feet down, open and black, they called it the glory hole. There wasn't any gold, just iron ore, low grade, but the price was high enough, the labor cheap. A damp pool seeps cold up the day. The smell of bat guano's everywhere, sweet in traces, pungent, something to gag on in the wrong breeze before it wanes and shifts. We don't see them, but we're told there are thousands, tiny, all male. They could be ghosts, come from another continent to hang all summer in the same caves, wives left hundreds of miles behind. The way down is a toe hole in rock, another, slide and crumble, grip and stretch, face, flesh against stone. Doug and Sue live here, and they've been down. They say it's amazing. They say there's a waterfall inside, frozen so clear flashlight goes all the way through. They say the climb told Sue she was strong enough to do anything. One at a time, we ease over the edge. Loose rock, red boulders, and one slips over, drops ten, fifteen seconds before we hear it stop. We laugh. We've only come to visit. We go back.
It was the other side of an ocean, tropics no glacier
reached. Before mountain, mammal, oil; before
any of us. We were young. Naked in the garden,
the woman I came with hugged a donkey.
She said it was time to tell secrets. I stole a package
of baseball cards. I want her breast in my hand.
She laughed. We sank in a cold spring, soaked and
stared at peaks across the valley, laced white back
to the Divide, all of it twisting and swelling in our hands.
We came back in winter, sat in the hot pools amid
falling snow. And years after she left, after I did,
she stood by a window, nightshirt drawing her
against starlight, as if waiting. I was another visitor.
I lay on her couch pretending sleep. Someone
brought out a mirror, powder to keep us talking
till dawn. It was another life. Another woman
reached for my hand, drank till she stopped talking.
Someone kissed her. Someone danced alone.
I wanted to go home. How about another
piece of pie? Called once to a podium to receive
applause, nerve stalled. I was strapped to a bed.
It’s past time to leave. She went in the bathroom, and stayed.
Of course there's death. A son gone
to needle and bone, the wild cells' pain
and blank sucking the body slack. And this time,
it's not someone else. A midwinter zero for days,
then it warmed and snowed all night. We needed
groceries, nails, and the hardware store closed
at noon. The driveway was fifty yards long, white
to our knees. She said we'd better shovel the whole
way before we drove ruts so deep we'd have to be
towed. It was five miles to town. I had to get out
and no one came to plow. It was the hostages in Iran, the rescue
mission botched. She said when gas hit a dollar a gallon
she wouldn't drive. We laughed. I was falling in love
with someone else. We were going to double the garden
size in spring, can and stock for the whole next winter, build
a porch along the back, a deck to wrap the other side.
It was going to save us. I can still see her mouth stone
as she walked out the door. When I went after her,
she hit me twice. I threw her into the snow,
gunned the truck, spun and slid and rocked out.
Across the valley, they've been planning a village for years,
and someone's finally begun-- a stone house,
but walls thin, with gaps way too big plugged
with mortar, corners not joined. How will it hold
the roof? He doesn't want to know. Summer days are long.
Today, clouds that come down every afternoon
have barely crept over the north ridge by noon.
Maybe they'll hold off this time. I'll soak in the hot pool,
help cure the brain's damage numbing these fingers.
There are cabins, electricity, people every day
strip off their clothes, dip in. It must work.
An hour later it pours. Past midnight the couple
in the next room stuff a towel under the door, but
we can hear the voices. She's crying. Then walking
the deck outside, head turbaned, a shroud in moonlight.
Or it's freezing rain three days and the wife's out
with that guy again. She swears he's "no threat";
that I'm what she chose. If only I could keep it going
the way I used to, though I tell myself that's just another
cartoon and not what a woman wants. Rub her shoulders,
her feet. There are roses. I know what she wants, and
I can do it. When Tom the cat gets bashed again,
the kids are in stitches. The plastic mums
in the window box look gorgeous from here. Isn't that enough?
Morning in Wyoming mountains, vacation, new love
I could hardly believe-- the lucky accident
we're all crazy about, a horse turning up
a slab of rock with tracks of a whole species
vanished millions of years. The missing piece
comes to hand. "Good fortune, unpredictablity,
contingency. The kingdom lost for want
of a horseshoe nail." The story said it was snowing,
and the geologists' last trip back for the season.
There's always a lesson: don't give up. A stitch
in time. Darkness before light. We don't care
if the story's true. It never is, but we don't
want to know. Then it storms, hails. The children wake.
That morning I wanted coffee so bad I bought a knife.
She found a man to tell her how to turn
the knob, pump the handle with a finger over
the vent hole, light the stove. She made coffee.
I carried the knife all summer, never
used it; for years it's lain at the back of a drawer.
Outside this window, the man slumping down the street
needs a jacket, food, a shave. His torn
flannel shirt is mine. He's looking this way.
The candidates are talking on TV and tonight
we're having a party as if to celebrate.
The front stairs are painted for winter and one coat
looks like enough. The kids started school. It was August
when Wolcott found that shale. They'd been working hard,
they kept on, and they found more. He was
"the world's leading expert"; he knew where to look.
Iron bolts stick from the crumbling concrete of the steam engine foundation in the ghost of the old blacksmith shop. There's a railroad spike caked and rusted orange-brown. A locked gate's over a steel culvert. Cold blows up from another country. It's the other end of the mine. By horse and mule, they hauled up lumber, stone, concrete for blacksmith, steam engine, general store. It was almost a town. Now it's scrap. The gate over the culvert's white and heavy. Today we brought the key, and we're going in. We pull the door open, bend to fit the three-foot square, step against the wind. Dim flashlights, hands braced on metal, we balance and ease down. It's slippery, we can't stand or see the bottom, but we're not alone. Someone calls that it's not far, someone else laughs. It's colder.
At the bottom, the light shows a small pile of rock on one side, damp timbers shoring the tunnel, more floating in water. We pick and balance over rock and timber to stay dry. Then the water's higher. Then there's no place to stand. We'd have to wade to go on. The water's cold. It's dead quiet. We don't know what's on the bottom. The ancient beast that lives here must have stopped the ripples just in time to throw us off; she's eaten the snakes, the rats have fled. The stench chokes us. It isn't a dream; but why are we here? The pool must dry up ahead, or it did once, or there's a fork, a different way. No one remembers exactly, but they say the passage comes out at the Glory Hole where we could have climbed down. Doug says we can get there, but I don't want to wade. Didn't we come for fun? On the right, a timber's wedged across a door and there's more rock fallen at the bottom. It looks like we could squeeze through. We push off the timber, slip through the doorway and step. The ground's solid. It's another tunnel, wide enough for two, for the cars that ran the ore, for something we can't imagine. For her. We pick our way over it, laugh at the joke. There's another pile of rock where something caved to narrow the passage, but we pass by. Then a shaft on the right, running straight up, and Doug climbs a few feet, but can't get further. If this rock fell, we'd never be found.
Unwrap this candy, smell it, taste it. Eat it.
Slowly. Imagine a line from the heel of your shoe
to the toe. Tell me, exactly. Write it down.
Of course Keisha won't stop talking.
Carlo's learned to widen his eyes and ask any question
as if he meant it. Do fish have sex? Do dogs
stink more than cats? Who cares about the subject,
how to make the verb agree. The sentence doesn't end.
The real teacher's pretty and young; she'd rather be
anywhere else. And so she is. Gas gauge
on empty for days, first snow on the way,
of course I remember. I was lucky to have the job.
Lurie Watts outweighed me thirty pounds. Out on bail
she'd come with her friends to see the new school, filled
the doorway: "I'm a woman, you best remember."
It was twenty years ago. So Cornelia pulled out
her cigarettes, picked up my book and walked out,and the whole seventh grade howled after her.
Not that they wanted me gone, or these do now. Third childmurdered at elementary school. Will they learn
to spell their names, how to make someone listen?Hundreds of thousands wait to die in Somalia, in Europe.
Winter's coming early. The kids are reachingfor the rotten fruit they've stored, they're getting ready to throw.
Once it was a dream. I'm not sleeping again.They're laughing, crowding against the door.
What town do we move to this time?
The end of the tunnel is a wall. I can't see it, but Doug called, and I believe him. I could follow, see for myself, but my flashlight's weak; I don't trust it to last the way back as it is. Surely he'll be here again with the others any second. There's no other sound. I pan what light I have, barely further than my body can stretch. There's rock. I want a glass of water, a view of clouds camped against mountain tops. What's he doing at that end I can't see? A woman I knew in Nebraska had a gall bladder that went wrong, cancer, children grown and gone. Two in the morning she got out of bed, went to the basement and shot through her brain. Another date's cancelled for the funeral. A creak the other way socks blood to the throat, breath stalls. I don't want to think.There was still plenty of ore when the mine quit, but the work was hard. What the miners could get wasn't worth it. Another minute, Doug's back. He says we could search the first tunnel, make the dry ground and find the other end. But I've been here long enough. We turn to walk through the door the way we came, over rocks and timbers to the culvert's bottom, flash the light along the water again. Whatever treasure the beast's guarding is somewhere we can't see. I don't want to look anymore. We start up the corrugated drain, and the going's almost easy. Light grows at the other end. Cold wind builds at our backs.
In fall, the bats fly south, meet the wives
they left. I'm welcome back here any time.
In the winter, I can ski, sit in the pools. That knife
disappeared when the old house was sold; maybe
it's in a trunk in this basement. Maybe I gave it
away, or it's lost for good. I've bought others.
I can search the rest of that mine. In the city,
back again, a woman walks by the window,
tight dress cut low. I don't know the language
the couple at the next table speaks, though
I've heard it often. I lean over. I listen harder.