In the hills of the high desert, while lost and careless and probably a little drunk, you stumble across a vein of gold, break out your pick-axe and go to frantic work chipping and hacking out a space large enough to fit into.
It’s just big enough, except the fragments you pull out in ragged fists with bloodied knuckles, instead of throwing them out to make room for yourself, you pack your fucking pockets with them. Pant pockets, vest pockets, balled up in your cheeks like a dense plug of tobacco. With these remnants of this busted vein pushing out at your seams, you try to squeeze in.
It’s too tight.
So you swing the pick-axe and make some room. And the piece goes into a pocket and nothing has changed except the hole is bigger.
The realization happens: this is what it means to strike gold, always digging and pocketing and toiling. So you call out, “Eureka, gold!”
You clap your dirty hands over your mouth, afraid that someone will hear, will come running with their own goddamn pick-axe and follow the vein further up and dig their own too-small hole and truncate the vein, cutting off the source. But your hands get there too late, and there are nuggets of dull yellow in them and the sound gets out and it follows the hillside and canyon walls and the wind carries what it can until it is heard and the boom comes.
When it comes it looks like salvation, a brigade of pickaxe wielders sleeping in an organized array of tents until you find the tenacity to fell the few trees in sight and put up a store and a brothel and a church. You dig and drink and fuck and fucking dig.
You ride out with overflowing pockets and saddlebags, to cash in because of course gold is worthless until it’s weighed and priced. You come back and return to the work, but what you took is gone, you start a new hole.
It’s heavy work, day in and day out. This work is murder. People die doing it. When the first one falls over, after you relieve them of their lode, you construct a fence around the top of a nearby hill, leaving one graceful tree to mark the cemetery from a distance. Over time you bury the dead with alarming regularity, the tree looking down at the sharp markers of stone you inscribe and set and level.
Then this: you lose the line of gold. Your pick-axe finds only rocky soil and sandy soil and bedrock and heartbreak. You turn around to retrace your steps but behind, you’ve chipped away everything between the holes, carried it off, leaving an empty rut.
Unceremoniously, you pack up and leave. You take your tent and your wooden church and your now-dull pickax and ride on.
Sometimes you think you left something, dropped while digging. In the quiet dark you think about coming back to poke around and maybe find out what you lost. But you would find only a tree looking down on an organized array of worn rock with unreadable epitaphs, surrounded by a failing fence.
This piece originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Center Street.