Beyond the Western
The dull thud at the tip of the shovel had talked to him, not only through his ears, but totally. Into his hands and up the stiffness of his arms it came, through the quick riot of nerves suddenly on red alert, through all the passageways of recognition. It was wood! At its tip was wood, a cavernous wood, a chesty wood, an enclosing wood. Promise poised itself, like awards' night and names to be named. Light leaped at his back, behind his head.
through the awesome sky of darkness he could feel the star draining,
down through the thirty-five years of a hole. For a moment everything
was frozen and he'd know this time forever; not a single moth
traversed the light's span, not a sound was made or heard; above him,
millions of miles away, but at his back, the weight of a star was
known. He did not look at his friend, sure that Eddie would not wake
up no matter what he did. This was his time.
He scraped slowly with the shovel blade, moving gravel and hardpan and small rocks across a flat surface.
The star, though, was heavy. It bore down on him, but the tool was like a toothpick in his hands. John Deere and Napoleon DeMars be damned. They'd not known this, the light of such a star warm on the back of the neck, and dry was his throat, and dry his lips. He dared not seek the wine bottle someplace behind him. In this vacuum he heard nothing. Even the silence was heavy, field of an anode, grip of a battery, the moon held at bay from good old Mother Earth.
Cleared, the wooden surface he'd hit was about two feet by three feet. That it was man-made seemed obvious. In the air hung his father's face, his father's words about dreaming the good life. The sweetness of the wine came back like a retort. It crawled in his mouth smoothly crusty as talc or chalk. It coated his teeth, more so the backside nearer his tongue. At investigation it had granules as small as anything the tongue tip could isolate. The star loomed. He wasn't sure now whether it was overhead or underfoot, but that it was here!
Now a muscle began to talk to him, high on his back, just under one shoulder, at first an ache as dull as a starting toothache not yet localized, then telling of its small rawness. Perhaps it was descendent, alighting from someplace far away. Eddie could never understand all of this. It would drive him off the hill in a mad hurry. It would drive him off, noisily on his way. He'd fall, he'd scramble, he'd tear his knees. There'd be a glut of curses and terror in his heart, for this is where it had all been coming, all the damn time, all the crazy time, all the days and all the nights and all the bottles and all the kegs and all the nips secreted in pockets from bosses and supervisors and the merest of friends when his throat had been driest. He'd been coming here since his father had told him of the good life that dreams would bring him to. No longer were there any secrets. It was all out here in the open in this magnificent pit under the weight of a single star; and then he could hold off no longer, and the bottle came alive in his hand and leaped upward and emptied downward and celebration came his due with the sweet mustiness working its reverent way.
The star was still heaviest on his head, the whole onus of it; not on his shoulders or his back, for he could have shoveled forever, but on his head, thick with a headache and a throb and the punch of a single star no man had ever known.
Struggling for leverage, he finally managed the tip of the shovel under one long edge of the flat surface at his feet. Like a crow bar the long-handled shovel exerted enough energy to pry loose a piece of wood. Gold and silver and stones shone up at him! His father's face, old bottles, old inscriptions, odd shining, the loosing of dreams, the whole angular mass of lights and reflections, all came at once, blinding him, a blitz of a blitz of light and color he'd never know again.
It was the barest and most lucid moment of his life that came at him then. And he knew he'd be trapped. That life would change so dramatically and so abysmally that he could never catch up to where he was right now.
All of it he saw, and there were no dreams and no silence and no small darkness where he could huddle himself alone with his memories.
Dreamer Tony Falcone, the star burning on his neck, still a ponderous weight in his mind, tipped the bottle once more to his lips, and drank off the contents. Then slowly he began to cover the star buried so long at his feet.
Treasure there is someplace in life, at your feet if you stop to breathe, around the corner if you turn it the right way at the right moment, at the end of a quiet lane you might find yourself in by accident. Of this Tony Falcone was sure. Absolutely sure!
things rang true about Tony Falcone from the very first word said of
him; he drank inordinately, excessively, purportedly without care,
and he dreamed the same way, full-blown, full-scale dreams, wide,
ambitious, Mississippian, artistic no less, and with an inveterate
regality. His father had said to him one day when Tony was just a boy
with a supposed minor attention span, advice which he remembered just
about every day of his life (at least sober, and part way to that
other place he inhabited so often), "Dream all you want, son,
dream like you might be king, which you won't be, but they can't take
it away from you; just don't do it crossing the street or walking
down the railroad tracks. Pay all your dues as they come up, crow a
little bit when in luck, shut up when you lose, but dream all you
want. It might just become the biggest pleasure of your life. There
are worse things to hold onto."
His father was only half right in his advice. There were the dreams, the endless and rich flow of them; and there was the mesmerizing bottle, the endless temptation somehow just a little too much each time for him. That too was dreamstuff of another order, a whole magical elixir which, inexplicably, came to be in itself both cause and effect, end of a means and means to an end, a thing by and for itself. What else it gnawed at, licked its chops over, was all of time.
Thus he had come, into his thirty-seventh year, a bachelor cut right out of the drinker's mold, a bit shaggy most of the time, starting to thin in his hair, eyes clear only slightly more than half the day. As a town laborer his hands were callused by pick and shovel, his back still showing ridges of muscle not yet worn down in their due. But, above all of this, indisputably, he was an Earthmover of the first measure. Tony Falcone did not call himself a laborer or a shoveler, not a handyman hidden under another title, but Earthmover. Not two words, but one word, rolled up into its cosmic greatness, its spatial and glorious reach. He had dreamed it into existence, into place. No foreman or job super, and no peer could take it away from him. Earthmover he was and Earthmover he would remain.
Eddie Wiggins, tea tippler extraordinaire, brass rail bucko of the first order, current co-owner of the trench they were at the moment excavating under the hot August sun, flung a shovelful of gravel high, wide and handsomely to the other side of the pile and said, to Tony and the massive sense of oppression hanging like hate in the air, ""I'd give my best arm for a cold one right now, Tony. A frosted glass, a bottle with ice still clinging to it, sliding slowly down the side of the glass, slippery, oozing, cold as the fires of hell when they are long out. What the hell time is it?" The wrists he held up were bare of adornment.
His dry tongue rode around the orbit of his dry lips, raspy, abrasive, catching on high dry spots. His beard was a day and a half old. Sandy hair he had, full of moisture the sunlight kept catching hold of. The large and awesomely veined hands spread about the shovel handle seemed sculpted out of a blue-red granite, the veins as vivid as tattoos. Thickly square on the ends, his fingernails looked as if they had been abraded by a rugged rasp. One might have called him handsome, but no one, after a second look, would have called him out of place in the trench.
In his best friend's face, Tony could see a bit of the hangdog holding forth. Did his own eyes have that same look in them, the last mile look, an also-ran look, their assurance and the day itself practically shot to hell already, and it not yet three p.m.? He decided very quickly that they did. If he had looked sharper he knew he would have seen it a lot earlier. Hell! He would have seen a lot of things a lot earlier, but what the hell makes time so special now, now when all the dyes are cast. He'd kept saying that to himself for so long it seemed that it must have preceded anything being wrong in his life in the first place. Effect coming ahead of the cause. He tried to think that over and decided to take a huge shovelful on his next scoop, it was easier that way; the body allowed so much relief of itself, for itself, and that included the mind. Such an out! Giddiness, a surge of joy he knew was temporary at its absolute best, flowed through him. The bright, flashing tip of the shovel slammed into the earth, cocked itself almost at once under a measure of hardpan and gravel he thought no man could possibly dredge up, and then the body pitch and sense of timing came geared together smoother than the best wine could ever be, or ever do. A definite knack was required of all this, that was for damn sure.
For the briefest moment he was partly relocated down the street, on a high limb of a tree looking back at himself in the trench, seeing himself for what he was and where he was and what he was doing. The shovel, came his immediate response, was no different than a scalpel. Surgeons, too, did their digging, didn't they, down through the matter of the body and the brain, clawing and pawing and ultimately finessing their way through to some resolution, some appointment in the narrowness of spaces, just as he was here in earth's open aorta, this passage across the face of the earth, this single line of a massive network that would never be fully measured. Struggling in his mind was the idea of eternity and the plane he was currently on extending itself out into space and into limitless time. Being a part of that plane was important; on a pedestal or in a ditch, makes no difference, you can extend yourself only so far out on that limitlessness.
All of it hit him, as it often did, but there was no getting away from it; here in this life, locked to this place. He drank, he dreamed, he knew it, and nothing was going to change it. That was one sure thing in life, and having anything that was a certainty was often a joy to hold to one's self. One could grab onto a certainty. Could almost wear it. Toga. Mantle. Robe. A cover against most anything. Better than a body bag, for sure, or a poncho looped about you in war's action, in the rain, in a far land. Been there, almost done that, he thought.
Again, looking at his companion in the trench, fellow Earthmover on the face of the earth, color and complexion added to that assessment as he noted the redness pervading his friend's face. Eddie, as usual here in the late noon of the day, was brick red, partly due to sunlight and partly due to whatever it was they had managed to knock off the night before. There had been bottles and glasses and kegs and cans and liquid movement for much of the night, and he couldn't remember past one certain point... when they had the argument about hidden treasure on Vinegar Hill.
He had yelled at Eddie. "Damn fool drunk! What do you think old man Haskell and his kid have been digging up there for these thirty-five years? Not for their health, I tell you. They know something, trying to keep it from us. I keep seeing a box at the end of my shovel, a metal box, the pot at the end of the rainbow, and I know it's full of gold and jewels and enough other crap to knock our eyes out. Every day of my life I've dreamed of it, even before I knew they were digging up there. I hear the sounds that come with it, the sound my shovel makes at contact, the squeak of old hinges trying their wings once again, the spill of such shining you couldn't imagine in a hundred years. We could lie on the beach until our last drink had its way with us. I tell you, Eddie, there's something up there, and they know it, and we know it. The stupidest thing we could do is to just plain forget about it. That'd really scratch a lifetime."
"You dream too much, Tony my friend." His voice was thick and tortured in a sense, as if words were being squeezed out of him. Resting one foot on the heel of the blade, he leaned on his shovel. His chin sat on the tip of the shovel handle, posing him part Atlas. Tony knew he'd remember his friend that way forever, whenever that came, as Eddie continued: "You stare out at space all day like you expect to see a star. You're never going to see a single one in the daytime, so why look? Then, the way you always do, getting loose or getting tight, I don't know which it is, you turn around and stare at the ground under your damn feet like you're in some holy place, or like something's going to pop up in your face you've been waiting for. It's just not going to happen like that, Tony. Things don't go that way for us. All that stuff is way, way beyond us. We're in our place, come hell or high water. We dug our way in. There's no way out for us."
There was a basic finality to his words, one without question, as if all had been drafted and done long before them, cut, shucked and dried. He added a closer he thought would be a telling one, "And, besides, you think too damn much! All the time thinking!"
Nothing new in those words; he'd said them before and most likely would say them again. A smile was offered with that pronouncement, a half smile of instant neutrality, of taking back a piece of what had been said.
Tony smiled too, realizing he had just gone through the old argument. It must be a sign of our desperate straits, he thought, or our universal acceptance of being where we are and what we are. But I'd still rather have a drink, too! There was, appreciatively, nearly a kind of music and rhythm to his voice as the phrase sounded slowly in his ear, at the back of his head, at some hollow place he had no control over, indeed where much odd conversation took place in the accompaniment of spirits. Almost a song, he said under his breath. A thousand times he had uttered that phrase, and knew it was a part of him. Against the current obstacles he managed to wet his tongue, remembering, tasting.
Everything didn't have to be so cut and dried, did it? A laugh began in his throat, as he found appreciation for his own humor.
"I'm going up there after work tonight, Eddie, and if you don't want to come with me, that's okay. But I'm going. Soon's they're are out of there, I'm up there." He let it sink right in with his friend, who, he knew, could never take the chance that he might come up with something, something big.
The bottles purchased had been dirt cheap, a Muscatel they sort of withdrew to when finances demanded. Before evening they were well into the storied steps of the bottles, Tony's tales at last charming and mesmerizing Eddie so that he agreed to make the climb up Vinegar Hill, "come hell or high water".
would have celebrated, but they were already primed at partying.
The climb up Vinegar Hill was not without incident; Eddie falling a number of times, yelling out in the poor light that he might be damned to death for what he was trying, trespassing on somebody else's private dreamland. Tasting dirt was not his favorite outing at any time, and here he was, out of the trench he had spent his day in, and still locked into the taste of old earth, all of loam and gravel and hardpan; Tony, finding it clumsy to tote the extra fuel for lamps he had determined they would need, because the Haskells never worked late hours.
in his protracted agony, he fell face down in the path, cursing at
first the whole mountainside, finally managing a laugh only Eddie
could understand and decipher, and he'd bet on that, he'd bet the
farm on that, whatever damn farm that would be in all of creation. A
drunk's laugh only another drunk would understand, all the stress
sound and punctuation in place. Believing for the moment that he was
only slightly dizzy, he suddenly felt the affinity that brothers
have, sharers, fellow sufferers; it cut right into him, a full
presence, a knowledge once put aside would not be brought back to
light, but if accepted, came down on a man hard as an avalanche. Life
came down with it, heavy as rocks, the tumble of agony and truth, the
big bang of reality trying to get its way into the slightest crevice
of his mind. He felt the penetration of, at once, despair and truth,
fact and fiction, loss the likes of which he had never known. The
gold nuggets, the storied and dreamed nuggets, like the hard yellow
of Lifesavers, came once again to fill his mind, the gold nuggets and
bright silver by the bucket, and stones so precious in life they had
entities of their own, and coin so varied in size and so crude in
inscription he never would know its meaning.
He saw the words tumble from the corner of his eyes, the flash across the coming coins, the words even before they were in his eyes---their alliterative powers rolling in his mind---Cents and sense and silver storm, and only silver keeps you warm.
Eddie, of course, could not be told of this, could not be advised of this impact, could not even be warned. It would not be fair of me, not fair to him at all. They think that we cannot think, that we cannot mine the mind, the they of his thought suddenly having the faces of just about everybody he knew in the whole town, in the whole world for all that matter; the finger pointers, the scorners, the nose-in-air judges, the temperate pretenders, the closet drunks, a vile collection of hoax and hokum spreading all across his wet life. They can't even believe the song that wine sets free or the words that leave off from where they themselves left them, in their darkness, in their lightness, in their great states of privilege. He could feel his face screwing up for a scowl, or a sneer of disdain. "Damn 'em all," he caught himself saying, as if it were a mark of punctuation.
Dusk had long gone over the rim of the hill when they arrived at the dig, as Tony sometimes called it, an angling and huge hole down through rock and gravel and ten million years of tossed stone, a hole whose walls carried the mark of more than one glacier it would probably prove out, a hole thirty-five years in the making, a dream in the minds and at the hands of a man and his son. From the rock walls to the span of the hole to the sense of depth that rose out of the bottom came a fistful of reality. It punched Tony right in the face, made him catch his breath. Thirty-five years at this was more than reality. It had to be more!
He and Eddie had carried lanterns to the site, and a supply of kerosene. They had brought no tools, depending on finding them at the site. The Haskells had, through the long years, etched a path up the long climb of Vinegar Hill, making the ascent much easier than imagined. Tony was not disappointed to find shovels and picks and buckets and ropes in a small shed situated down in the hole, behind a locked chain link fence in front of the shed. The key, without difficulty, was found on a nail behind a pole, and they entered the site. The crest of hell, it seemed to Tony, had risen in their faces; real, with measurement and handles for touching, grasping. If this was daily fare for the Haskells, then the thirty-five years could only be assumed. No one could face this without reacting. Heat, he was sure, rose in their faces, a massive cloud of it that should have been dogged down and cool.
Freddie Rippon's old mushroom house at the edge of the pond, from years past, leaped into his intelligence, how the steam at planting time rose upward like an energy on the loose, the spawn smell as thick in it as tadpoles in a May pool, the taste of sterilized loam still moving on the air from that long-past summer when he and the others had lugged it in baskets to cover the months-treated manure base in the multiple level beds.
Back came the manure pile, too; in the dead of winter, stripped to the waist, they had tossed it into the turning machine, spraying it, the fertilizer having its way, steam rising around their bodies from the turning pile as if they were caught in flameless fire. There was, he vaguely remembered, a kind of hell in that too. He tried to recall how one whole crop had suddenly gone to disease in one weekend, tried to remember at whose feet that fault could be placed. It all faded too fast as if discovery was truly afoot. He grasped his smooth-handled, long-handled shovel. He knew where he was. For the time being anyway.
the glare of the lanterns they dug and picked their way through shale
and stone for more than two hours, talking and grunting and drinking
their way to wherever it was going to take them; China or hell, it
getting sweeter by the minute, until Eddie lay down his shovel and
placed himself beside it, his second day within a day of labor
suddenly over and done with.
"My ass is dragging, Tony, and I feel like I'm some damn kind of idiot for being here, never mind breaking my ass at the same time. I'm tired and now I feel like I don't give a hoot if we never find our way home again. I just want to sleep a while, but you can have the dreams. Just let me be." Vapor came with his words, a wet mixture of muscatel and syntax. His lower lip had begun to drag itself under his words; the B's and P's and V's falling away first, the first casualties of speech, shot down in mid-sentence. Eyes he no longer trusted had long since called for something at the back of his brain, and he seemed to meld himself into the floor of the hole, his back twisting about until it found its mating with Earth. When his eyes closed, his breath coming a hoarse escape, now and then a bubble at the corner of his mouth, Tony knew his friend could probably sleep the night away if need be.
The shovel in Tony's hands was an instrument indeed, and it pried under the pressure of his foot at the floor of the hole, tipped at the right touch and the right angle and came up with a mouthful of basic earth. Home was where he was, in his own place and the dream beating at him as real as the stones about him. With apparent ease he tossed the shovelful to the next level above his shoulders. Across the span of his back nothing fought back for another hour. He could shovel with all the John Deeres and all the Napoleon Demarses of the world, legends of their own, that was for sure. For long hours he could shovel, and in the worst weather and under the eyes of the hardest boss imaginable, and fighting the spill of Mother Earth all the time all the way. They rarely thought about Mother Earth fighting back, but he knew.
The shovel rang at the touching, as it hit at stones in the pile, as it came back down to where his feet were, as it flashed in the light of the lantern like some sword being wielded in the half light of history.
He was glad his friend was asleep, that he was, for all intents and purposes, alone at this task, that the silence between strokes and slices and swings up over his head was meant for his ears alone. It didn't matter what he'd find, not on this night or any one night, but that it was waiting there for him, as cold and as clear and as bright in its shining as any treasure would be, a perfect end of any dream; the eyes closed, the shine still coming unstifled from the long years of burial, the spill of all the years at his very feet. That was the way it would be. It didn't have to be this night. He knew that. It didn't have to be now, not at this precise time. Perhaps it didn't have to be in this hole.
smiled at the buzzing all about him, the two lamps whirring away like
slight engines, now and then small delicate wings coming past him in
the air, the light itself throwing a shine up on the walls and
leaping straight upwards out of the hole. Only some distant star can
see this light, he thought, the shaft of it climbing outward on its
own beacon, its own endless journey, pursuing the star. To address a
star, like this, was part of the dream, part of the treasure itself.
This was proof positive! Now it had hands and knuckles to it, stiff
forearms able and adept and sufficient for the job. Eddie could never
know it, and was better asleep; this was the part that Eddie would
never be able to handle, this coming so close, this spanning such
distances to come so close.
An awesome energy traversed his shoulders and his upper arms. None of the past day was lingering there in the muscles. He felt the handle of the shovel, knew its smooth surface much like his own skin, could even feel the sense of his own sweat down inside it, the way sap lays under bark and skin of trees. God, he felt strong and close to something. Perhaps that star might at this moment be closer than it would ever be.