Winner of the 2011 Gival Press Short Story Award
Nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize
(Photo by Marlin Ezell.)
Praise for the work:
"Dr. Sims, a history professor and expert in the mining era, employs Jace, a geology student, drummer, and Grateful Dead and Phish aficionado, as his guide on a trip to an abandoned mineshaft.
As the pair descends into the mine, into distant history, Jace explores his more recent past. He wrestles with his relationships, the 'complex bonds' of his life: reflections on his absent father, memories of his dead mother, and recognition that the situation with his Uncle Brad and Brad’s girlfriend, Keiko, has reached a critical juncture.
When their excursion takes an unexpected turn, Jace realizes he can no longer hide behind his music. Brad is returning, Keiko has not been well-life is on the line.
The Music She Will Never Hear is a tightly composed, original exploration of a young man's experience of death, life, love, and the liberating power of music. Imprints of pressure and time–the ponderous formation of white mountains and moonstones, thunderous strikes on a drum, arduous pumps to restart a heart–provide the story’s rhythm, enhance its specific gravity, infusing it with a musicality that is a pleasure to hear. "
—Daniel Degnan, judge
The Music She Will Never Hear
On the way to the mine, the historian lets Jace control the radio, if there are any stations out here at all. After listening to some fuzz, the historian says he wishes he had some tapes, some of his son’s tapes, lying around. He laughs. “What is it that they say? ‘Not your father’s music’?”
Then he asks about Jace’s music. Jace reaches down into his backpack, pulls out a pirated album. He tells the historian that the band isn’t on the radio much, that they are called Phish, a concert group, a live phenomenon, how they played at Red Rocks and you just wouldn’t believe the sound. How the beats and chords blasted out from the stage in the half shell, that orange-pink cave. Then he stops himself.
“Guitars and drums and keyboards, but it’s not rock?” the historian says.
“More like fusion. Jazz, rock, bluegrass, maybe, a lot of improvising. I guess it sounds like rock to people who don’t know it or it looks like it from the long hair and the clothes.”
“Sounds a bit like that Garcia fellow and his tribe. Hell’s Angels and all that business.”
Jace chooses his words carefully. “It’s not exactly like that, Dr. Sims.”
“Go on, let’s have a listen,” the historian says. “I like it already.”
Jace pops the tape in. While it plays, the historian glances at the tape deck. On this field trip, the historian wants to know about more than just heavy metals. He has called in Jace to tell him about the harder stuff. Carbons. Mites, tites, rites. Complex bonds. School me, kid. Give the teacher a lesson in rock.
After a few songs, he turns the volume down and smiles at Jace. “How about your outfit? What do you play?”
“My band’s not playing now. I’m drums. Brad, my uncle, he’s upfront, sings and plays lead. Keiko, his girlfriend, she got bored and picked up tambourines, then took over for the keyboard player when he split. We lost our bass player too, so maybe she’ll learn that.” He laughs.
“What’s so funny?”
“Girls can’t play bass.”
“What about those all-girl groups?”
“That’s different. She doesn’t get along with girls. Besides, she likes to hide on the platform, only show the top of her. Thinks she’s fat.”
“Ah,” the historian says. “Yes. You’re behind your instrument, too. All of you are.”
“Didn’t think of it that way.”
The historian’s hands shake as he drives west. They enter a tunnel. Jace imagines that a stone door closes over the entrance behind them, and then an animated bird pumps TNT ahead, to force a rockslide over the only way out.
Now the historian’s face scrunches up. “Keiko? One of those in my world survey course.”
“One of what?”
“A Keiko. She came to my office last week. Falling behind, she said. Otherwise I wouldn’t remember the name. It’s hard to pick out a face in a class of hundreds.”
“Sounds like her. But she’ll get there. Holed herself up all weekend to cram for midterms.”
“Right. So, Keiko and your uncle?”
“He’s only a few years older than us. My grandma said they needed extra time to recover from raising my mom before they could have another kid.” He laughs, and the burst of air from the back of his throat surprises him, and then he has no air left.
“Your mum. Where does she live?”
After they stop for breakfast, once the historian’s stomach is full and the coffee kicks in, he taps his thumbs on the steering wheel. A pebble hits the windshield. Clink. Then the shush of light rain and the swish that wipes it away. Jace twirls a pencil, a stick of soft graphite he uses to sketch impenetrable carbon bonds of diamonds, those bastards that last through the worst heat and pressure. That was how it started, the twirling and spinning, the drum stick tricks, over his muffled snare and in front of heavy metal videos, to imitate the stunts those drummers could do, the way they nailed not just the skin, but the rim and hi hat. With the whole body, all the force they had. That’ll kill your ears, Grandma always said. He didn’t care about damaging his hearing, but he couldn’t lose it completely. The silence that followed the final crash would hurt more than the loudest pound.
Jace tries to make getting to the mine fun. “You said you have children, right, Dr. Sims?” he says.
“Sure, though sometimes I forget. My son is good at making himself scarce.”
Jace has no answer.
“You know,” the historian says, “my mates at the School of Mines said you’re quite a whip in the geology lab and I should request you as my guide. Lucky for me, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Guiding’s a job. It’s not bad.”
“So, Jace is an unusual name. What does it mean in Japanese? You must be half or—?”
“My name means moon, and I’m not Japanese. I’m white, and Ute.” He mumbles this last part, because it’s none of the historian’s business, and because Jace is not used to the topic. His association with Keiko confuses people, but at least the historian won’t ask any more dumbass questions about names and groups and who came from where.
The historian nods. Origins are his business. “My wife and I, we look different, too. She’s what you call black Irish. White skin, black hair, dark eyes. Her family wasn’t too thrilled when I came along. You know, another English invasion.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” This is a bullshit comparison, but the old guy is backpedaling. He is really trying.
“But before long, the differences fade away. Life will get easier for the two of you.”
“You mean for my uncle and Keiko.”
“Right. For them.” He checks the rear view mirror. “It will get easier for you, too.”
The tape has reached its end. The historian punches the power button. Tell me some mine legends, he says. So Jace indulges him. This is the true work of the guide, and it’s harder this time because this client is not the tax lawyer or the curious senior citizen tourists, trying to escape through a cave, to be kids again, in the dark. Jace asks if the historian knows the one about John Henry’s hammer versus the steam engine, if he knows how the tunnels were made. Of course he knows that one. The historian says his head has been in the Old West for years now, and he’s touched a lot of the remains, but this mine, the one they’re about to reach and one of precious few that isn’t closed off, is a first for him. How many times has Jace been through this one? Twenty-seven. Will it look like the historian imagines, like the books say? Darker. Sound like? Twenty-seven leaky faucets. No, as many second hands, Jace tells him. Tick. Tick.
The historian’s specialty is the mining era—the magnetism of the gold and silver rushes—what brought whom to the Rockies and why. Hunger, greed. And what kept them panning. Starvation, pride. So Jace wants to tell him not about wet caves and what grows within, but about other phantoms in tales he has learned outside of the School of Mines, echoes in a darkness for which the historian’s research money isn’t meant. The historian will think this myth is passed down from Jace’s elders, that Jace actually knows his elders, rather than from old smelly books he dug up in the library.
“You ever hear the one about the moon versus the coyote?” Jace says.
“Can’t say I have.”
“The moon wanted the living to bury their dead, but his enemy, the coyote, was for cremation. Since the coyote was right on the ground, it was hard to stop him from swaying the living. Eventually the moon gave in.”
The historian responds, but Jace doesn’t listen. Out the window, below the interstate, in a valley town where even the trees are trucked in, the taller pines lean down, shelter the new growth as best they can, and their highest eaves rest on the halt of power lines.
Sometimes you can learn everything you need to know just by checking a window, looking through it, past your reflection, into what you can’t see from any other angle at any other time. If you leave the blinds open just a crack, a moving object, say it’s a rock, or a snowflake, or a man, a stranger, might come at you from the south, from the bus station. Or maybe he hitched. Maybe he walked, just wandered off. Maybe he parked, sat, waited. Just around the corner.
On a day in eleventh grade, when Jace stayed home from school, the man had walked the way only a messenger can, or a guilty child awaiting punishment. His hands were full, which made his steps slower, made his concentration more a part of the movement. His face poked up to check address numbers, and as he came closer, he appeared taller, the curves of his hat more defined, the thing in his hands more baglike than box shaped. Jace knew where the man was headed. He grew larger on the sidewalk until he cut a right angle, proceeded up the cement path that split the front yard. If Jace opened the window he would hear the man’s boots: Click, tap, click, tap, click. No scuffs or drags. The bag lay flat over the man’s palms, and Jace imagined him presenting it to Grandma. It’s a beautiful covering for the box, she might say. A nice way to wrap up my daughter, but we prefer urns. Have you people kept her in a box all this time?
After the man disappeared under the cover of the porch, Jace dressed without making a sound. He wanted to hear Grandma say it. But what do you wear to accept your mother’s ashes from your distant cousin, or would-be neighbor, or uncle? How do you prepare for a moment you’ll have to remember and retell for the rest of your life? It was a Thursday in 1993, he’d say, eleventh grade, when I was out sick from school, so sick I’d lost my voice, and I was wearing my Rockies jersey, or my red t-shirt, or Brad’s flannel. Not boxers. That wouldn’t do.
At first all he heard from downstairs was a Do you need a ride to the station? But then, through the storm door, came the man’s voice, the upward pull on the middles and ends of words, so that each statement sounded a dozen questions. It was that intonation, that tongue which to Grandma sounded foreign enough to wince at, lean forward into, that put Jacy at ease. Perhaps the women on the reservation, women besides his mother, sang baby Jace to sleep with that very pattern of rise and fall. Perhaps Grandma had to change his tune when he found his voice.
Jace threw on the best shirt and pants he could find. As he zipped up, he raised his head. A figure moved in the corner of his eye, through a crack in the blinds, down on the street, away.
Even with his hands free of the bag or box, the man constricted his movement. He shoved his hands into his pockets, he still hunched over. His hat hung by its string around his neck and onto his back. Jace could see the hairline now, just a slight receding, nothing like Grandpa’s low tide, and a black crew cut. And then he saw the ears: tiny coils of brown.
Jace opened the window and heard the man’s steps. They were not clicks or taps at all but thuds. Hey, he wanted to say. I know you can hear me.
At the kitchen table, once Grandma couldn’t stand it anymore, she made Jace open what the man delivered. He untied the bag, pulled out the box.
“What is it?” she said. “Feathers? Beads? Turquoise?”
He opened the latch and held up the treasure: a rose quartz. Its mount had severed from the chain. The crystal was chipped and soiled, but still shined pink.
Grandma brought a hand to her mouth, backed her chair away from the table.
Once she had made it to the driveway, Grandpa said, “It was the last thing they argued about. Grandma didn’t want her wearing it. She didn’t want your mother doing a lot of things.”
Jace knew this, knew how it all must have sounded to the neighbors: a good girl, a nice Arrowhead Academy girl, trying to civilize those people. And if that isn’t enough, she goes and lets one of them work his charms on her.
Brad is Keiko’s official boyfriend, and he is, officially, Jace’s uncle. It’s October now, and neither of them have seen Brad since July, since Jerry Garcia reached his deathbed. Brad called Keiko last week to announce his visit. If she hasn’t failed out yet, Keiko is still on the historian’s official roster of students. The historian is Jace’s client this weekend, who pays to have someone with a permit, someone who knows rocks inside and out, to take him underground. Jace is the guide. But these labels are all coincidence, and fail to explain the actual roles each of them plays.
When Jace and the historian check into the motel at the end of the first day, the historian stares at the key in his hand and looks toward the east wing, where a bed waits. “I’m knackered.”
“Okay. I’ll get settled in my room, see what’s on TV.”
“Sure. Do as you please. It’s your holiday, too.” The historian reaches for his wallet, pulls out three new bills, and rubs them together until they squirm apart. He stretches his arm out, toward Jace. “Get yourself something to eat. This should be enough for a haircut as well.”
While the historian sleeps, Jace dreams. All of last summer was a dream. Every day he spent with Keiko glimmered, even in the pouring rain. Pitter patter, rat-a-tat. Besides counting beats, and pounding them out of course, this is what Jace can do: judge a stone by its color, cleavage, hardness, and by its specific gravity. Sometimes you can find two stones in one. That’s what his rock guidebooks say. Hold a purple stone up to the light and you’ll notice the golden glow of citrine inside. One day on the Phish tour, a day when clouds threatened, when Keiko was asleep, he opened her bottle of thyroid medication. No capsules inside. Not two, not one. Without them anything could happen, any expansion or contraction of cells, tissues. It would show in her middle, and in the glow of her skin. Her hormones need a special transmitter, a daily call, to send messages—stay where you are—to those eggs stalled out on the sides of their roads, their pathways into the dark tunnel, and then outside. By October the signals sit stagnant with three months worth of blood. Wash me. She keeps saying it’s just her thyroid messing with her cycle, but Jace wonders if a new life is starting to grow.
But that’s now. This was then: the summer Phish tour, the stolen moments alone with her. Like the day when Brad was off trying to score concert tickets in the parking lot of Red Rocks theater, when Jace and Keiko snuck into the cave on the side of the pavilion. The going rate was getting higher, and in there they could climb and pull and crouch and enjoy the show for free. No one would know. It was harmless. They just sat there, enraptured by the music, and stared into the golden-coral-pink-blue-everything-is-possible sky when Brad was nothing and nowhere, like everyone else but they two.
That’s what it was like last summer when Phish played at Red Rocks, or Mud Island, or Finger Lakes. Once the music starts and you grease up and all your cylinders kick in and the pistons are really pumping, and you sweat and pulsate and start dancing around, you’re not just one pathetic little engine anymore, you’re on the superhighway: thousands of individual bodies moving as one amoeba.
One night in Vermont, at the end of the tour, when it was late but no one was tired and gone was the novelty of card games or hackey sack, Brad grabbed his flannel. “Going beer hunting,” he said. But Keiko knew better.
“Hope your weapon backfires,” she said. She did not look up from her knitting.
Just before sun-up, in that slice of night too late for activity and too early to start the new day, Jace heard a hum from the edge of the parking lot. It was the engine of whoever dropped Brad off, some floozie he met last week maybe, when he ditched Jace and Keiko to go to some nearby Grateful Dead shows. Jace bolted upright, slithered out of Keiko’s s sleeping bag and into his own on the bench seat. It was a cold night, so he was already back into his clothes. Keiko did not stir when he peeled away from her.
Brad rolled open the door and grabbed Jace’s foot. “Dude, wake up. Jerry’s tweakin’.”
Jace lifted his head, rubbed his eyes longer than necessary. It was a good act.
“It doesn’t look good,” Brad said. “The rest of the Dead tour’s canceled. They’re talking Betty Ford Clinic.” He squeezed Jace’s toes on that last part, then he leaned onto the feet, rested his chin over the ankles. “I should have seen it coming. The way he kept the volume down at Giants Stadium, and how all those chicks cried and clapped when he was barely making any noise at all. Just leaned onto the guitar pedals, like they kept him upright.” Brad straightened up, let go of the feet. “If things don’t get better, they’ll send him back to California. A bunch of us are gonna meet there no matter what. So we gotta get going. I gotta get you guys home and be on my way.”
Jace climbed into the front passenger seat as Brad started the engine and pulled out.
“I might need to take the semester off,” Brad said, and Jace could hear it in his voice then: ten years of an older sister’s records fading out, another chorus lost, another groove scratched. “I can graduate next year. School seems like such a joke now, compared to this.”
It’s not like it was a member of Phish on that hospital bed. Their band will still go on. It was just the old guy from the Dead, and old guys croak all the time. But Brad couldn’t go on without the music’s front man, the voice inside all that vinyl.
On the tour, sometimes Jace drove. Sometimes he navigated. That morning, on the way home, a somber morning because they’d just gotten word of Jerry Garcia’s hospitalization, Brad just needed Jace close by. Once Keiko was up and in position, Jace sat on the floor between the front bucket seats, listened for the tempo changes or never ending drum solos on the tapes. At this spot, Brad could elbow Jace’s shoulder when they reached a bridge, as the strings rose in pitch and speed, and the vocals held onto a note. And Keiko could cup the back of his head as he nodded on the accentuated beats. Sometimes she thumbed the edge of his ear, circled around toward the center until it tickled and he jolted away. On the floor he felt the bumps in the road.
It was during the return trip, the don’t-worry-everything-will-be-fine movement west, that the pounding slowed to a thud at the right front. Brad pulled over. No cussing. No words at all. No kicking, and very little sound as he walked to the back. Then the click of the tailgate.
Keiko whipped out of her seat, opened her door, and followed Brad.
Jace took his spot on his bench seat and faced the back. He set his chin on the headrest, curled his fingers over it. He watched Brad shove blankets and duffels aside, and pull up the trap door. No jack. No spare tire.
“Where is it?” Keiko said. One hand dug into her hip, the other flailed.
No answer from the driver. The spare tire pit held only a quilt, the old pink one Grandma had threatened to burn. It protected something square. Brad looked up at Jace as he lifted it. It was heavy enough to strain his face and neck muscles, but Brad made the bundle look weightless. All that time it had been there, in the van’s belly, and through a steel sheet felt every splash, every bouncing rock, the wind below. Brad let Keiko unwrap it: a stack of early Dead records, imprints of half-planned riffs and spontaneous jams. Anthem of the Sun, American Beauty, Skeletons From the Closet. Tracks useless to moving forward in a cassette and CD era, but necessary to remind them of their precursor, their source, their uncle father sister mother of sound.
When Grandma had finally cleaned out her daughter’s room, Jace was old enough to get out of the way. It was a curse, she said, for anyone to wear a dead girl’s clothing or shoes or earrings. Grandpa boxed and carried and dumped all of Jace’s mother’s things, but when Grandma wasn’t looking, he placed one stack of records under each boy’s bed, with a set of headphones to the hi-fi in the basement. There they could sift through what she had left behind.
Keiko didn’t touch the records. She didn’t whine. She set the bundle down and held Brad.
Jace shoved his hands into his pockets and hit the road. Eventually there were signs. Not just the green of this route or that, the white of watch your speed, the blue of filling station or rest area ahead, or the red of you’d better stop, but brown signs indicating an interesting turn off.
It was a cold and quiet walk at that hour, as blue-black gave way to lavender. Glass shards twinkled on the shoulder. A stray dog zigged and zagged, then rushed toward and behind a rock wall with watermarks at its base. Water was here, then one day it fell away, down chutes of dirt and stone, into pools, through valleys, and eventually released into the sea. Gone. And it left dried remains, sediment lines to help us remember a time we never knew.
With thumb pointed up, he trotted backwards on the shoulder. He stopped, jumped, blew on his hands. A car pulled over. Behind the wheel was a fat man in a beige jacket. The passenger window was down. Jace leaned in. The man offered a price, and stroked Jace’s hand.
He walked another mile, maybe two. Head down, the chill burning him now. Lights poured over him, passed him by. Just ahead a station wagon sputtered onto the shoulder, crunched rocks, flashed one taillight. An arm appeared out the driver’s window, waved him forward. It was chubby, a white blob against black pavement and sky, with dark fingernails.
When he told the driver how many miles he and his uncle had covered and how far west they were headed, she let out a low whistle and picked up the CB receiver. “You’re gonna need a good tire. Up here’s an honest mechanic, sells quality parts. Normally on a reservation, they’d bleed you dry, but not these people. Got the fear of the Lord in ’em.” She made the call, woke up the man in charge. He would leave the door open. “Ten miles ahead,” she told Jace.
“Thanks.” He scanned the interior. A bumper sticker on the glove box said On the eighth day, He listened. No radio. No tape deck. The back seats were folded down, with boxes on them.
“What’s in the back?” he says.
“The Good Word. That’s what I got to give, or sell, sometimes. On my way to Burning Man now. Those kids frying in the desert, they need some inspiration. They’re a tough crowd.” She raised a finger, wagged it twice, then held it still. “But at every concert I hit, I always catch a few before they enter, reel them back out. Return to sender.”
When they reached the gas station/garage/general store, Jace carried in a soiled and tattered sheet of paper with the tire’s diameter written on it. The door creaked open and then slammed shut behind him. The lights buzzed. Two employees, husband and wife probably, spoke in chains of inflections until it was settled. A price. Behind the counter, the wife rubbed her eyes and said, “It must be quite a trip, to drive through the night like this.”
When he stepped outside and loaded the tire into the back of the car, the sky was more purple than blue. The driver was pleased. She honked and waved goodbye to her friends, peeled out of the lot. “It’s going to be a fine day,” she said. “Like the days when I sell my lucky Bible, you know, the last in a box.”
Jace bought her last three Bibles for ten dollars. She dropped him off a few exits from the van, where Brad and Keiko waited.
“Good luck at the next show,” he said. Now, as dawn broke, he noticed the amulet that clutched at her throat. It was round and white and it stole the light from her skin.
Jace can’t sleep. If he’s going to try to win Keiko back, he should use the historian’s money to buy her a gift. Across the street from the motel is a shop in a long barn, shined up and ready for traveler’s checks. On its roof a billboard sized sign shouts up to the interstate: PRECIOUS GEMS. He enters the store and unzips his jacket, a heavy jacket that makes him worth watching. His hands stay in his pockets as his eyes scan the merchandise. He does not enter the shopkeeper’s blind spots.
He peeks out the window, through the blank space between signs. The last slice of sun sinks behind a peak to the west. On the other side of it is the resort town where Keiko studies now, in her parents’ ski lodge, where she begs her cycle to end, or to begin again. She is waiting for something to crack, to break down and pour out.
He passes over the dross and toward the shiny rocks. And then he sees a stone that looks just like the one in the driver’s amulet: pearly, opaque, but too clear to call white. The shopkeeper tells him it’s a moonstone, a gem whose main element is wind, and whose known to transmit magnified emotions, lunar energy, psychic perception. “It’s a third eye,” she says.
Once the shopkeeper unlocks the case, Jace holds the moonstone up to the light and tests its weight with a dip of his arm. Solid and full of complex bonds. Impossible to break. He sets it on the counter, and it clanks against the glass, as if to tell the stones below, Hey, up here, look at me. I’m free. Jace removes his billfold and separates two notes from the third.
The shopkeeper wraps up the moonstone and hands it to him. “Lucky girl,” she says.
As Jace and the historian return to the mine the second day, the historian hands Jace a stray branch. It is pointed on top. “Here. You’re the guide.”
They walk for a while, crunching dried leaves until their feet fall into step. It takes a while for the bird noises to find his ear. There is a quiet that follows the tour, even months later.
Above them, the moon hangs low with a blue blanket tucked over its middle. Pines keep their arms down, but near the bottom, some reach straight out and curl up. They stretch wider down low, away from the trunk and its waterways. They brown and crisp easily this close to the dirt, and the roots below.
The soil hardens as they climb. Slate chips away and slides around. Their toes break it off, and their heels skate back a little on tiny sleds of it.
A hawk blinks, casts one eye down on Jace. He wonders what it sees from its perch, if it can make out the whole mountain range, or see what’s ahead.
“Jace, over here,” the historian says. He waves a hand and points to something important on a rock wall, a scrub tree sprouting out of a crack where stone meets dirt. What Jace notices is a carving off to the left, above the sediment lines: “100 years come around, 100 years underground, 1988 and where’s my mother lode?”
The historian says he wishes his wife were here to name this sprout. “She really knows plants. So the soil, that’s not completely foreign to me.”
Up top, there’s never enough traction underfoot. But below, in the mine, that’s the world Jace can sink into. He knows it by feel, and by ready-made notions of what the underground world should be. Caves, holes, mines. Stalagmites, biotites. Lights on helmets. Chisels and scythes. Tracks, trains, engines. John Henry tried to beat the machine with his hammer underground. That’s what they tell you in school. What Jace knows are tough rocks, knows what makes them burst, give way, tumble, hide under their neighbors. The historian wants to find out what’s inside, what’s bubbling, spitting, what’s pulling them down.
Before they go in, Jace scans their surroundings, imprints the image: white aspen branches cast out what gold leaves they have left. Below them lies a wash of dirt slopes punctured by slouching telephone poles: crosses falling over tracks. Jace knows the wires they carry, how they hug the old trunk lines that lead the interstate along and then swizzle away. But they always veer back, always return to parallel the streets. They are, as the historian told him over poached eggs yesterday, the same routes to the same destination, but they stop now for shopping centers and resorts instead of bridges and county seats. Still, they follow the same rivers. These lines guided Eisenhower’s construction and now his roads have made them obsolete. But they stay as Western flavor: an attraction, a reminder of how far we’ve come.
The historian stops Jace. He is short of breath from the altitude and the excitement. He can’t wait to start a day of time travel, to fill the gaps in history books. Maybe Jace will get a thank you in the fine print of the historian’s next book.
He pats Jace on the back and motions toward the mine. “Artifact is history where there is no memory,” he says. “All that ever happened or might have been lives inside of something we can touch. It must, or else it never was.”
Maybe it’s the coffee pulsing through him, but Jace wraps his head around this. Yeah, he thinks, we feel a surface, judge its heat, blame its simplicity, praise its usefulness, its place in the evolution toward what we want need gotta have can’t live without today. Right on, old guy.
Jace pats the historian’s back and leads him in. He is ready to move Dr. Sims beyond the basics of rock. Igneous, volcanic, metamorphic. Mites, tites, rites. Those are easy. Jace is here to tell him about what else is down there, what can distract or obstruct, what can console. And he does. He leads, listens, and nods at every question, even if it’s too dark for the historian to see him. In here Jace does important work.
When the historian asks him to pound, Jace says, “We’re not supposed to, Dr. Sims. Mine access permits are pretty strict.”
“I’ll take the heat. Just find a spot and nail it.” He pauses as he hands over the instrument. He does not have to show Jace how to use it. It is the guide’s tool. Jace has been here before.
Jace finds a target and taps. The historian steps away and finds his own spot. They pound in unison for a while, and then their paces stagger, like a gang of hammers forcing spikes through railroad ties and into dirt, or slate, or impossible rock below. Clink clink. Clink clink. For a long time nothing breaks, but they make a rhythm, tap out a pattern. Veins bulge above the historian’s brow, sweat slides down his neck. His breathing offers a loud wind accompaniment, but it can’t keep tempo with the percussion.
“I’ll try over there,” he says, and points around a bend. The words barely come out. He smiles and grips Jace’s arm. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
Jace stares at the wall in front of him. They are supposed to be taking samples, photographing the site, getting a sense of the everyday reality of the prospectors’ search, like they did yesterday. His boss told him that’s what the historian is known for: sniffing out the real story behind the mining myths, getting into character. Jace is just paid to identify stones, explain formations, point out hiding places of gems that may have been passed over. He is here to demonstrate the safe spelunking practices he absorbed from expert geologists. Some guide.
When it happens, Jace is just around the corner, pounding the daylights out of a certain groove, as the historian instructed. Then he stops, doubles over, and hears only silence. The dripping has stopped, and the steady beat of the historian’s hammer is gone. No echo. Done. Over. This is what Jace will tell the paramedics when they arrive.
In the darkness, he reaches for the historian. He kneels next to the old guy’s body, and he takes the moonstone from his own pocket. He presses it to the historian’s pulse points at the left wrist, then the right, moves it over his torso, over the cavity of organs to upper chest, holds it over the place where he thinks the pounding happens, where the blood landed once it reversed its flow, where the force begins and, if he doesn’t do something quick, where the force might end. He knows he should press hard, should lean onto the historian and smother him with a chance at resurrection, bounce him back to life. And so he removes the stone, pushes and pumps, covers the Dr. Sims’s lips with his. Puff times three. Jesus. They made it look so easy on St. Elsewhere.
He runs away. Through the tunnel, down the slope, wet and muddy sorry excuse for an exit, and then he’s back on the trail, where he hurdles erupted roots and ducks under branches and shrubs sprouting from rock. He hears only feet and breath, feels the downward pull of the historian’s wallet and keys in his pocket. Each step stays on the ground too long, each stride too short, wasting time, wasting air, losing another minute, second, instant. He is not supposed to hear the slap of feet and breath, not supposed to concentrate on his own sound at a time like this.
He stays upright, no tripping or wheezing, all the way to the parking spot, where he finds a cellular phone in the historian’s glove box. He punches the buttons, gasps under the beeps. “Come on, motherfuckers,” he says. “Answer.”
The paramedics appear like a hologram. They work their magic—one two three one two three, listen, again—and they blow used air into the mouth from which the history flows, oxygenate the blood that stills in blue trails beneath graying skin. They beg life from this stranger, give him breath, help him draw in and expel the stuff on his own. But the heart takes its time in responding. It slows as it comes down from the fight, the return of blood to its sender.
They say Jace was right to let the historian lie, to resist the urge to drive him away, that a miracle kept him alive. That it’s not every day you see a cardiac down in the hole. Not anymore.
The ambulance shrinks as it rushes toward the nearest hospital, a hospital that fixes a lot of heart problems, in the closest of Colorado’s resort towns. Lots of old guys feel the pressure on the chair lift, or in the hot tub, or by the fire, where the blood starts to boil, hits obstacles, bottlenecks between build up on the walls of its paths, its closing tunnels, and rushes back home, overflows. So they keep specialists close by to clean up the mess.
Before the paramedics left, they told Jace to call the patient’s family, to follow the ambulance in the historian’s vehicle. He knows the way, right? But instead he stays, lets his feet sink into the mud as he watches the ambulance shrink away, and as the rain pastes his hair over his face. It feels slimy, and it narrows his view. In the distance a train gives warning. Here I come. Fear me. Jace is supposed to move faster, to hurry up and follow the historian to the place where he will heal, where he will come out a better man.
The moonstone. Before Jace gets in the car, he has to go back down into the mine, to find what he left. It is a slow walk—no hurry now that the life is saved—slow enough for him to notice that out here the aspens have dropped most of their yellow leaves and that the chill carries a warning of impending first snow.
In the mine, the darkness swallows him and the air thins exponentially. He wheezes and searches. Fingers travel walls, then ground. Beams of headlamp and flashlight bounce and swing. They catch the usual debris: shreds of rope, pencils, loose pennies. Too dark in here to retrieve any object that might slip out of hands or pockets, especially if it’s brown, yellow, or copper.
He stands where he stood just minutes ago as he pounded the wall. It was foolish and illegal to follow the historian’s whimsical orders. He walks around the curve, into this alcove the historian found, where his heart stopped. Jace kneels down into the mold his knees made earlier, beside the indentation that the historian’s back left in the dirt.
This is where he set the moonstone down. It was a silent release, softer than you’d expect at a time when your heart is an Allman Brothers drum solo at a million decibels, to compensate for the other guy, who’s lost his volume, his treble, his bass. Jace holds it up now, and his headlamp draws out the gem’s pearly coloring, that shade between clear and white that’s so hard to name, even in full light.
Keiko will hold the moonstone under a lamp, too, once he gives it to her. She’ll either say what the hell kind of gift is this or she will say Oh, Jacy, you know me so well. She will embrace him and stroke his ear with her right hand and rub the stone with her left. Together they will hold it, test the weight of all it offers: lunar energy, a third eye. But it will still feel light after all, because, as they will remember without saying, the moonstone’s main element is wind.
Right now, he thinks, she must be sitting by the window, watching the last of the aspens’ gold eddy down, away. Maybe the altitude will affect her cycle, apply some pressure to her stubborn female organs.
Outside again, Jace dials the people in the historian’s address book. No answer from the wife. The son is at work, working on a Saturday at a place where they play classical music to pacify callers on hold. Jace waits. The music does not calm him. Frantic violins and cellos burst above the kettledrum’s thunder. It is a tune to be performed live, so that the musicians in the pit can strum and strike with the appropriate violence in the neck and fingers, and on stage a ballerina can dart here and there in a fury. Keiko would know this tune. After all the running around, she would finish with a slow, soothing flourish. He is sure.
Over the phone, the historian’s son stays composed. Just a low Jesus Christ and a Shoulda known this was coming, then a sigh. He gives thanks to Jace, the witness and rescuer, the messenger of this not shocking news. It’s lucky, he says, because the hospital is close to his workplace, to the restaurant in a hotel Jace has seen in glossy advertisements. The son will be there in no time. “Drive yourself home in my dad’s car. Call us at the hospital and tell us where to pick it up. Might not get there for a few days, but don’t worry, we’ll pay you for your trouble.”
As he starts the engine, Jace pictures the historian’s son behind the wheel instead, a miniature version of the father: short and wiry with curls more gold than silver. He is driving his father home. A small, dark-haired woman stares out the passenger side window, knitting and crying small diamonds. They fall into her lap, shine up to her face. She turns around to check on her sleeping husband until they approach their house at the end of a dirt road. Maybe it rests on a hill, sits apart from the others. Maybe it is humble, or dripping with ornate artifacts as proof of the historian’s life spent sifting through forgotten days. It is a bi-level with an entrance down below, or a colonial, with two shuttered bedroom windows for eyes in its face, and blinds open just a crack.
When you’re on the road, like Jace is now, alone in the historian’s car, you think about other travelers. Those who’ve gone before you, those who’ve turned off here or at that exit back there, and you wonder whether they strayed from their routes, or continued over the pass, and where they ended up, if they made it, and who they thought about along the way, on this road or that. The last thing Brad said to Jace was a hook. He wanted to fight. “What can I learn at school that I can’t pick up out here?” It’s been a while since Brad has played. He must be ready to burst.
In order for Brad to visit Keiko, he has to skip the Phoenix show between the northwest and southern legs of Phish’s fall tour, where things are really blowing up now, because since Jerry’s death Baby Dead has really struck gold. Brad stays close to see what’s inside, but he has a day or two to spare for Keiko. He probably can’t wait to tell her all about how the band has changed, bigger and more popular, but still better, to assure her the sound hasn’t lost its magic, that it was okay for the band to sell themselves out to MTV just once, that it was worth it for a song like “Down with Disease.”
Brad travels light. That much Jace knows. Some practical and some useless items sag in his pack, with the photo of Keiko, taken when they met, when she still danced, in her thinner days. In costume, in position, under lights that ignore the fleshier parts that shine up the muscles and bones. She looks away from the camera, to something higher, out of reach. Since the doctors committed Jerry and Deadheads called Brad in for support, the moon has cycled three times, but Keiko’s cycle has stilled, frozen up. Without regular cues, you lose your rhythm. Jace thinks that tonight, on his way back from Oregon Washington British Columbia, Brad drives with the photo propped on the dash. He taps a beat on the wheel and serenades the photo as he drives, tells it that he’s almost home, that he’s okay, that everything will be different now. The photo stares back and says I’m dead. It’s a new me that awaits your return, that swells with new life. Maybe.
The historian’s glove box vibrates, and a high-pitched ring shakes Jace back to right here, to this road. He answers the call.
“Hey,” the son says. “The old man’s still ticking. My mom wants to repay you. If—”
“No, it’s nothing, really.”
“Oh, well, okay. Hey, which class are you in? Nineteenth Century American?”
“I go to a different school, in Golden, for geology and chemistry.” But I take the bus to Boulder every weekend, he wants to say, and sometimes I help Keiko with history.
“Chemistry. That was my thing.” He pauses. “Don’t drop out like I did. I predict you should get hell from the old man if you do, and I sure don’t want to hear about that.”
The son grew up here, after his father left home, migrated west. Jace heard the difference when they spoke earlier, but something in the intonation, in the way a guy not much older than him could sound like an old English historian, put so many years between them. Something protective and concerned and underscoring the shoulds and sures sounded a rhythm learned early on, through regular listening. Repetition and imitation. It was a natural pattern, an imprint.
From the south, the mountain moves closer. So tall and official and useful now. It still blocks Jace’s view, hides the town of heated sidewalks and patient lovers. Respect me, it says. Snow blankets not just the mountain top but its face, too: white and opaque and silent. The cover is highly anticipated, and around here it falls harder and faster and earlier than anyone can predict. It is the impromptu high, the call to action, the moneymaker. The sounding: come forth and conquer the Rockies. They’re all yours, the ads say. Name a star for your sweetheart up there, or here, name a peak or a ski run, or just one little mogul, after yourself.
Copyright © 2012 by Kristin FitzPatrick.
Kristin FitzPatrick's short stories have been awarded the 2011 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been recognized by Glimmer Train and has appeared in Colorado Review, The Southeast Review, and Epiphany. In 2009-2010, she was writer-in-residence at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati. She teaches English in the San Francisco Bay Area and is at work on a novel. Visit her website:
Visit this author's homepage at http://www.kristinfitzpatrick.com/