Thursday, August 25, 2005

Moonlight in Manaus


Our American Airlines 767 had stopped en route from Santiago to Miami to make a scheduled stopover in Manaus on the Amazon River. We deplaned, went through customs, and stood quietly as uniformed guards opened up our bags and strew our intimate effects over the bare wooden tables in the open-air "Aduana."

I loved it. It was rough, and it smelled of mud and diesel. Around us, impossibly green palm trees rustled as parrots landed and monkeys screamed down at us for introducing our pale skins into their midst.

The heavy-set customs agent with three stars on his olive drabs handed my suitcase to his assistant, a thin young man with no stars, but an AK-47. Although I had five pairs of gold lame slacks and pair after pair of high-heeled pumps, they seemed relatively uninterested in the contents of my bags. They were looking for something else. I was glad about that. But, it gave me a chance to reflect upon the fact that I had begun to dress like a 1940s film noir movie actress after spending time in Paraguay.

The warm air felt like primordial ooze.

There were tepid puddles of muddy water in the road, strange accumulations of water in buckets and in the lids of cans that were scattered around the periphery of the open-air customs area. In the distance, I could see the windows of the control tower. They mirrored the sky, which looked all too much like the face of Zeus swooping down to pluck up Ganymede.

Mirrors everywhere but the images did not correspond to what one would expect to see. I moved my hand to the left, but the image in the mirror remained motionless. The mirror instigated some sort of unrepresentable presence that provoked a effect that approximated delirious joy.

One had to be careful of mosquitoes here. Dengue fever was everywhere.

And yet, I was inclined to believe what I saw in the mirror. A spider monkey hopped up on the edge of a galvanized trough. It perched on the edge. I could see the reflection in the water, but it was not of a spider monkey. It was the head of a woman, the face blurred, the head shaved, a number tattooed on her bald pate. Nervously, I looked into the hatbox I carried containing my cabaret act headgear.

My father would be horrified to learn I had tried my hand at being a lounge singer in Asuncion, Paraguay. I was Carmen Miranda on acid, a critic had once said. I looked back at the spider monkey and the water mirror at its feet. The image had changed slightly. The woman now had a feathery boa around her neck.

"Disculpeme, senor, Es permitido fumar?," I asked.

The customs agent's assistant reached for his AK-47 as I started groping in my handbag for a pack of Salems.

"That's okay -- I'm trying to quit." Not worth it, I thought. My head was beginning to hurt. The truth was, I was tired, suffering a little from sleep deprivation, and more than a little punchy from the night before. A guy who said he wanted to place a big order with my company -- 2 containers of titanium dioxide pigment for his paint factories in Ecuador, and -- more importantly -- who would fill out the Ambassador's questionnaire -- tried to rough me up after dinner.

He couldn't handle the cognitive disjunction between me as sales rep and me as diva. It was a moonlit night -- one of those nights where thick, glowing clouds flit across the sky, passing in front of the pearl-white full moon. We were in a dark corridor near the back alley (error #1) and I was talking to him about the "travestis" I had read about (error #2). They were beautiful, I said. They were real drag queens, I explained, and I adored their fashion sense (error #3).
He shoved me up against the wall and tried to punch me in the face.

He almost got away with it, too. After all, we were in a country that distrusted women traveling alone, and I was afraid to make waves. I blamed myself for it anyway. I probably deserved it. Still, the red marks were turning to bruises, the other scuffs and rubs were fading. Did I mention he was an American, too?

Santiago -- Manaus -- Miami

Strange connections, strange delay. The air smelled like life squeezed from a green, slimy tube. The fact was, truth had become some sort of behavior, not perceived fact, or a confirmable sequence of events. The airplane was not small, but I was far away. I was looking at myself reflected in the dark RayBans of the customs agent. I was the subject of my own narrative in this strange stopover land, and I didn't know quite what persona to invent.

In the mirror of his eyes, my bruises spilled over into the air around me, my confusion spiked up around me like pipecleaner pompoms. I was thin, very thin. Sadness had no quarter here.

I heard the roar of jet engines, I looked up, and the American Airlines 767 was taxiing down the runway. Without me. I looked at the customs agent. His three stars glinted in the thick, surreal light.

"Don't worry. It happens all the time. You must pay a fine for missing the plane, though. You will stay in our hotel." He seemed cheerful. I felt resigned to my fate, and hence somewhat indifferent.

I watched the enormous silver bird make a turn and begin to head toward me. The nose was huge. The distance between the passengers and me was vast. I was on the wrong side of the skin. How would I kill time until the next opportunity to fly out? When would that be? One week? Two weeks? I was headed back home, but fate was conspiring to make me run through a few levels of purgatory before allowing me to rejoin my life's guide, whom I had so coldly rebuffed six months before. Dad didn't deserve to lose his assistant to the "infierno verde" of Paraguay.

"Do you have entertainment at your hotel?" I asked. "I sing and do a cabaret act..."
I would need a few days to heal, though. The bruises were deep. Makeup would only partially mask them.

I saw the customs agent look toward his assistant, his harsh expression turning soft, doglike, devoted.

"It doesn't matter -- I could start tonight," I said. I wondered if I had brought in enough aspirin or Alleve. The aesthetic issues of bruises? Costuming could remedy that. Beside, I expected more bruises would come shortly as long as I stayed in the shadows and away from the place I needed to be.

The mirror hanging on the far wall of the customs office glinted as the chrome bumper of a car passed in front of the open-air structure. I looked up and saw myself reflected there; white shirt, khaki pants, gold watch, hair pulled up in a bun. My face, however, was a shapeless blur.

By then, my eyes had already begun fill with tears.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Machine in the Garden


Captain, now Major Harville, turned slowly down the highway exit ramp that took him out of Righteous City and through the rough hills some cartographer had the nerve to call mountains in this remote part of southeastern Oklahoma.

In 1962, when he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada, Harville had the opportunity to see a piece of performance art. The Swiss concept artist and sculptor, Jean Tinguely, had decided to construct a special piece for the part of the world that specialized in above-ground nuclear testing. He called it "Study for an End of the World No. 2." It was, officially, a sculpture group. It self-destructed on March 2 in the presence of an audience in the desert, and 2nd Lt. Harville, newly commissioned and circling overhead.

The next day, a bright yellow-red nuclear pillar of fire would illuminate the desert sky and would fuse the surface of the earth. Harville was flying to Fallon when the test went off.

His all-too-close proximity to that pillar of truth made him vomit blood for two days.

Harville had bought a small farm on the edge of Three Horses River, not because the water was good for kayaking, or because the wild roses made natural arbors across the paths and topographic lows as they mixed with the vines that honeycombed the trees and old stone walls. Harville bought the land because the town of Righteous City had a small air strip and a munitions depot. He could fly his plane and tie it down outside the hangar. He could drive to the farmhouse, sit and gaze upon his wife and children. For a moment, the murky, dark jungle never existed. The murky and irreducible conundrum he carried around in his mind was troweled and tilled into a sweet, little garden.

It was a lie, and the twisting column of deception made him vomit bile for two days.

"Our lives are satires on the technological world," said Major Harville. His wife was not listening. "My words are satires of information society."

Either she wasn't listening, didn't care, or both. Harville's art would countervail the technological world by juxtaposing the structures and objects of an ancient religion against the structures and objects of western society as he understood it. He saw it as a Wayang Kulit performance of shadow puppets from Bali, against a backdrop of fires of napalm, of the bright, vaporizing flash of a mushroom cloud.

Before leaving town that morning on his way from the airport to Yahweh Springs, Harville stopped by the Trail of Tears Café for coffee, scrambled eggs, and biscuits with sand plum jelly. He read the "Righteous City Times" and noted that a woman convicted of poisoning her husband and drowning her paraplegic son was scheduled to die in the electric chair.

"I see myself as a patriot," she had told a reporter. "I've been holed up here for 10 years on Death Row. I'm trying to make a point here. Women are not nursemaids."

There would be no redemptive Wayang Kulit performance for her. This was not a southeast Asian archipelago. This was the West. The kinetic art in her life would be the electric chair.

Later, Tinguely's destruction machine, "Homage to New York" would exist only as a fragment -- a couple of bicycle wheels and a can.

If she had apprenticed with Tinguely, perhaps she could have made her own destruction machine instead of murdering her helpless son. The components of her art: fragments of her son's wheelchair, her husband's baseball bat (the one he used when he smashed her favorite lamp), the tin of arsenic purchased at the chemical supply company, a pair sensible pumps she wore to Sunday evening service, wires hanging down ready for plugging in to dissolve the moment in electrified, blockbuster-level spectacle.

"Both the theory of the state and the theory of so-called revolutionary dictatorship are based on this fiction of pseudo-popular representation -- which in actual fact means the government of the masses by an insignificant handful of privileged individuals, elected (or even not elected) by mobs of people rounded up for voting and never knowing what or whom they are voting for -- on this imaginary and abstract expression of the imaginary thought and will of the people, of which the real, living people do not have the faintest idea, is constructed both the theory of the state and the theory of so-called revolutionary dictatorship." She was quoting Michael Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, but the reporter for the "Righteous City Times" did not realize it, and attributed the entire block quote to the murderess.

The tiny pink and white roses that bloomed on the bush that had gone wild and climbed up the entire west wall of the house wafted a sweetness that made him think of Laos and the textured, polyphonic music of the khene, the bamboo pipe.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Fragile Aura

"I think something is wrong with me," I said, trying to keep the melodrama out of my voice as I sat down next to the new flashing and whirring piece of equipment in Dad's laboratory basement. His latest project involved modifying the "aura detector" he had bought from his friend Gustrha so that it was more sensitive and could detect the aura of people from a distance.

"Everyone thinks that at one time or another. Don't believe it. It's just the world trying to get you to exterminate yourself. It's an 'eat or be eaten' world out there, and if the predators and bullies can get you to take yourself out, then it's less work for them," said Dad. He was in one of his rare brooding moods. I was starting to regret having said anything at all.

"The Swarovski crystals seem to work in the new aura detecting equipment," I said, trying to change the subject. "At least the equipment seems to be picking up signals really well."

Dad leaned over and made an adjustment to one line of crystals. They glittered as the white light source behind them made them emit a dazzling, prismatic array of colors. The aura detector was a combination of radiometer and signals detection, which could pick up frequency signatures at depth or at a distance. Every substance had a frequency, so the uses of the equipment were basically speaking, innumerable. Once one knew the correct frequency, they could then tune in the device and locate the strength and location of the source.

"Here, hold this," he instructed me. I held a gold wire that was attached to a thin gold mesh. "It's 18 karat. I think it is better than the 14 karat, or even the 24 karat."

Leaning over the equipment, he fussed around, then paused. Flipping a few switches, he paused again. "This can't be right," he said. "There is very little likelihood that you're really as negative as this is reading."

"Well, I don't know about that," I said darkly. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. Something is wrong."

"Are you having trouble with your medication?" he asked.

"No. It doesn't have anything to do with seizure disorder," I said. I stood up and went to a table that contained a stack of topographic maps waiting to be filed. I recognized the top one immediately. It was of Jacob Lake, Arizona, near where Dad and I had explored the Blue Cave years ago, in a quest for the famed "Pink Lady Bandits Treasure.

"I'm sure that whatever you're feeling is completely normal," said Dad. "If you're feeling bad because of thoughts about a guy, you should put those thoughts out of your mind. Men are not honest. They are opportunists. You should never blame yourself for anything."

I could tell my conversation with Dad would be reassuring and would make me feel better about myself, but it would not solve anything. I continued to have the same problem no matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to change my behavior, my attitudes, my approach. Nothing helped.

"Dad. I am doomed. I will never be able to have a successful relationship," I said.

"Why do you say that?" asked Dad. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn't really listening. A crystal had dislodged itself and he was using a gold wire to try to guide it back into its holder.

"I can't stand the idea of having anyone coming into the place where I'm living," I said. "The idea really bothers me."

"Well, you have to admit that the place you're in is a real disgrace," said Dad. I thought of the gaping hole in the ceiling where the sheetrock had been removed in anticipation of doing serious repairs on leaking pipes and roof.

"Yes, but even when I'm in a place I'm not ashamed of, I still feel the same way. I just feel as though something is crawling around inside me. It's horrible. Like having a tropical worm crawling under my skin and then bursting out," I said.

"Love is not enough. Instead, it makes it worse. The skin crawling feeling just gets worse," I continued.

"Sounds like leishmaniasis, not love," said Dad.

I picked up the stack of topographic maps and straightened them out.

"I'll get these filed," I said. "Sorry I've let them stack up."

Successful at last with the errant Swarovski crystal, Dad leaned back in his chair and surveyed me briefly.

"I know it must be hard. You're all alone, and you don't really have anyone you can talk to or relate to," he said. "You're probably attracting all the wrong types. There are people who are attracted to quiet types, and they probably think you won't judge them, plus you are probably coming across as defenseless. It's all in your aura, you know. You can't do anything to change it - it's your spectral fingerprint."

"Do you really think that's it?" I asked.

"Absolutely. Your aura is very fragile. This means that your frequency will be easily damaged by another person. You have to protect yourself."

"I don't know how," I said. "And, what I'm doing is ineffectual. Nothing seems to do much good. I'm a fool. I keep trying."

With that, the machine lit up in a blinding rainbow show of prisms and jagged pure color. Dad emitted a low whistle. "Well, I certainly didn't expect that."

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Devil's Redemption


The thin, young devils wore skinny black ties, black wrinkle-free slacks, snow-white short-sleeved cotton shirts and carried New Testaments in their shirt pockets. They stood at the opening of the Cave of Whispers where I knew, now with utter certainty, that Stanton’s dad had stored the jade artifacts he had smuggled back from his tours of duty in southeast Asia. I needed to get out of the cave, and there was no way to get past the two young men who had shouted what could have been interpreted as a greeting or a warning.

They moved toward us, and, without quite knowing why, my heart started beating fast. They looked innocuous enough - like the bicycle-propelled missionaries one would see in many parts of the world. I was not so convinced.

“You can keep all the mandala carvings. They’re the small, roundish jade ones,” I said. Stanton turned his head quickly and looked at me, eyes wide with surprise. “But the statue of the woman belongs to Stanton. Or, more precisely, it belongs to his father.”

“Are you sure you should be saying this?” asked Stanton in a low voice that could not be heard over the sound of rushing water.

Droplets dripped from the roof of the cave, and I could hear the roar of the river behind us, as it emanated up from the large, round hole that had been created by the collapse of a block of limestone. Anyone not paying close attention would fall many feet down into the turbulent waters of an underground river, a tributary into the larger river raging a few yards away.

Even though I did not grow up in Yahweh Springs as Stanton had, and I did not explore the wilds of karst and Three Horses River, I could feel his attachment to the place. The Yahweh Brethren were interlopers at best. At worst, they might have established a cult of criminality or even suicide.

“God’s Hostage,” I said back to him, my voice low. “It’s the only way to break the spell.”

There was something about the Yahweh Brethren that made me skeptical. There was no way that they could support their compound by selling organic food and operating the local Speedie Trip, no matter how wonderful the cooking might be, or environmentally friendly the products. They had to obtain money from outside sources. Many such groups were able to pry large donations from members. Others promised healing and safety to lonely elderly citizens who listened to the radio and television programs. Still others operated criminal scams, ranging from credit card fraud to trafficking in drugs, illegal documents, even artifacts.

Judging by their non-responsive expressions, the two young missionary types did not seem to have heard what I was saying. Perhaps they were not Yahweh Brethren. I was not taking any chances.

“We saw you go in and worried that maybe you had gotten hurt,” said one of the young men. He looked to be about 19 or 20.

“We’re okay,” I said. The cave floor was wet, the air was cool, and my soggy Nikes squished as I made my way toward them. Stanton did not move.

“This is public land. It’s part of the River Conservancy,” I said. “So, I guess that it means that anything anyone finds here has to be turned in to the government. Do you know anything about rare jade carvings being found around here?”

The slimmer of the two looked excited. “No, but I’ve always thought there might be something. A couple of months ago, we used to see lights coming from here. I wanted to check it out, but Brother Cyrus said we had to finish our reports for the home office.”

“Only because you procrastinated and we were about to miss the deadline,” said Cyrus. “Elder Minnis was getting seriously chafed about it.”

“What’s in here?” he leaned his mountain bike next to the cave entrance. “My name’s Dan.”

“Nice to meet you, Dan. I’m Ophelia. That’s Stanton,” I said, extending my hand. “Are you part of the Yahweh Brethren? You aren’t quite dressed like the people I saw at the Speedie Mart.”

“No. We’re LDS. We’re on our one-year mission trip. We got lucky and drew the Righteous City – Yahweh Springs district,” said Dan.

Cyrus snorted a laugh. “Sure. Sounds good on paper. Lots of things to do on the weekend if you like mountain biking and kayaking. But the Yahweh Brethren are pretty resistant to our message. They keep to themselves.”

“Yeah, I even bought hemp soap for my sisters for Christmas. I was doing anything I could to strike up a conversation,” said Dan. “My parents were so worried that I had gone “Yahweh” that they had a couple of elders visit us.”

“Do you think the Yahweh Brethren are doing any sort of other business?” I asked.

“You mean like artifact smuggling?” asked Dan. “Wow. That would be cool.”

“No it wouldn’t, you dimwit,” said Cyrus. “We would probably be shot for getting too close to some sort of hideout. It would be as bad as the meth lab we ran into that day.”

“Oh yeah. Don’t remind me,” said Dan. “If we hadn’t climbed up into the tree, their Rottweilers would have torn our throats out. I think the dogs were insane.”

“Very likely,” I said. “I’ve heard that they are bred to be really aggressive, and the owners grind up methamphetamine and put it in their dog chow.”

“Hey, there’s a business opportunity,” said Dan. “My dad has a feed store and people are always looking for new mixes of dog food. Maybe a new blend, Guard Dog Chow.”

“Personally, I don’t think so,” said Cyrus. “They stay in their compound and they are busy filling envelopes and sending out stuff to people who send in donations. If you donate ten dollars you get a hemp bracelet. If you donate more, you get a Yahweh Peace and Love medallion, and so forth.”

“How do you know that?” asked Dan.

“Do you remember Melody?” responded Cyrus. “She told me all about it.”

“Then she went back home to her parents. I thought we had a chance with her. She was this close from coming to our services,” said Dan. “You blew it. You started talking to her about her family and her cats.”

“I’d like to ask the leader of the Yahweh Brethren anyway. Or, just talk to him or her,” I said. “I think that perhaps some of the people at the top could have an interest in artifacts.”

Stanton suddenly moved from the shadows where he had been standing noiselessly.

“Look, Ophelia. You’re shivering. You’re going to get pneumonia if you don’t change out of those clothes,” he said, wrapping his arm protectively around my waist. “This can wait.”

“Yes, sir,” said Cyrus. “Sorry to keep you. If we can help you look in caves, just let us know. Here is our card. You wouldn’t be interested in attending a church service, would you?”

Stanton took the card and shook their hands. “If it will help you somehow, we’ll definitely attend. We’re at the motel at the edge of town. My name’s Stanton Harville. You can just ask for our room.”

Stanton half-pulled, half-carried me out of the cave entrance and into the sunlight. It had gotten cloudy and threatened rain.

“Sorry to be in such a hurry, but I’m worried about my wife,” he said. Dan pulled his mountain bike out of the way, and Cyrus moved some of the brush out of the way to make room for us.

“Perfectly understandable, sir,” he said.

“What’s going on, Stanton?” I asked. Stanton did not respond. He grasped me tightly around the waist and, half-jogging, we covered the distance between the cave and the old house where he had lived as a boy, and where the truck was parked.

Once at the truck, Stanton pulled me inside. The wind had changed and was blowing cool, moist air from the north. Dark, low-lying clouds started to move toward us.

“Is it because it looks like it’s going to rain?” I asked.

Stanton replied with a terse “no” and proceeded to pull me toward him, his hand on the small of my back, pushing my hips into his. His lips searched for mine, and he kissed me, the image of blue flames replacing his eyes, his hands, dark, scorching, hungry.

“You just don’t understand, do you?” he said. On the driver’s side, he held my hand with a grip I had never felt before. It was the hand of a person holding onto a frayed, wet rope or a slippery rock as they dangled above sharp rocks and raging waters.

Once in the motel room, he peeled my wet, muddy clothes from me. “You’re ice cold. You have to get out of these,” he said.

“Is that what this is about?” I asked.

“No,” he said. He covered my mouth with his, blocking out any words of question or protest that I might have. His hand pulled back my hair, and he massaged my shoulders and my neck as he held himself tightly to me. I found myself warming, from the deepest nether regions of my being. My core burned for him.

Later, warmed by intimacy followed by a long, steamy shower, I sat on a small vinyl chair next to a round table. Stanton walked to the small closet that contained hangars and ironing board. On the floor was what appeared to be a pile of blankets. It turned out to be something else.

He pulled a Pendleton blanket off a wooden box, slid the oak top to the side, revealing a mound of curling paper excelsior. Through the shreds of paper, I could catch glimpses of the content. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“I would do anything to have you back,” Stanton said.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Desert Warfare


"Attack the supply lines and you have an easy victory. Of course, it's not an easy defeat for the opponent. They die of thirst and/or exposure. People think that Genghis Khan won because of the psychological impact of impaled heads and burned villages. That was not true. He won because he was impervious to attacks on the supply lines. His army had supply caches all over the steppes in Central Asia."

Captain Harville was bored. His command had a talent for providing briefing sessions that could not possibly be more irrelevant and useless to their mission. He was preparing to pull at least 10 sorties in Laos, and, to boot, he would be charged with setting up a post in some still undetermined location, probably along the Mekong River.

It was remarkable how this brief sojourn in Saigon was proving to be so useless. He had hoped to be given some useful information: maps, contacts, information about villages, Charlie infiltration, etc. Instead, he was being ushered into a polite little gathering where a crustily professorial retired colonel was holding forth on the tactics of Genghis Khan. Harville half-expected mint juleps on the verandah or crepes suzette with crème fraiche. There was something about the French colonial architecture that put him in mind of Charleston or Savannah, but not, oddly enough, of New Orleans.

The lecture ended and the small clutch of military and department of defense gentry privileged enough to attend clapped politely in response.

"Col. Bildersnapple has time for a few questions," said the embassy's new military attaché. Bildersnapple? What kind of name was that? He must have misheard it. Perhaps it was something like Bilders-Eppel. Well, he certainly did not care, thought Harville.

He didn't dare pose the question that was in his mind, which had something to do with asking the stuffed-shirt spider monkey why on earth he thought it was acceptable to come to Saigon and play gentleman-scholar with their lives? Couldn't he stick to something more relevant like, say, peanut farming in Argentina? Suddenly he hated the man with a bleak, unbending hatred that was all the more licorice and thick for not having something objective to pin it to, for lacking even the basics of humanity - a tangible face or mappable heart.

Somewhere in America, young girls wearing red-white-and-blue uniforms were going door-to-door selling candy, but never themselves, to obtain money that would be used in ways explained in the fine print in some brochure somewhere. If they were young, they were Bluebirds, and they wore their uniforms with pride. They sported pressed white cotton blouses, dark blue skirts, red button-front vests with a light blue bluebird on the pocket, and dark blue beanie hats, each item with light-blue embroidered bluebird. Their mothers took turns being the Bluebird mother, the most enthusiastic ones focusing in on the kinds of crafts and activities they enjoyed themselves. The sad-eyed mothers who had brothers or uncles in the war would marshal the young girls into young, innocent forces for good, as they painted coasters and did decoupage of patriotic themes.

Somewhere, rather everywhere, in Saigon, young girls wearing tiny little silk dresses were being sold by hard-eyed mothers who imagined they could finally have enough money to compensate for 8 or so years of having to care for the unwanted offspring of a brief, mercenary encounter with a dumb, lonely, inarticulate man in a uniform.

"Colonel, I wanted to say, first of all, that I really enjoyed your lecture." A non-descript brunette who was obviously too young and inexperienced for whatever position she had landed at the American embassy was talking.

Harville tried to keep his face as expressionless as possible. He felt an almost irresistible compulsion to make some sort of lewd gestures with his tongue. The urge was intense, and completely out of alignment with the level of disengagement he felt. She was mousey and serious.

"Does Genghis Khan's strategy of 'punctuated caching' have any applicability for our troops in the jungle?" she asked. "Particularly in a jungle already honeycombed with enemy underground supply caches - that is to say, caves?"

Col. Bildersnapple cleared his throat and placed both hands flat on the podium in front of him. He leaned forward in her direction.

"Genghis Khan's ideas can be understood by just about anyone, which is just part of his genius. Just think of them as little desert pantries," he smirked at her.

"You are one stupid old mule," thought Harville. The image of the masterpiece mural, "Guernica," came to mind, and he thought of Picasso's image of a horse caught in incendiary bombing, writhing in the agonies of death.

"I prefer to use the word 'larder' because it derives from the word, 'lard,'" she said. "It resonates with current policies, procedures, and," she paused. "Personnel, so perfectly."

She looked pointedly at Bildersnapple's wide hips and fulsome gut. Harville smiled and held back laughter. You're good, he thought, appreciatively.

As expected, slender young attendants wearing white linen short-sleeved shirts over pencil-thin black pants milled about, proffering trays laden with drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Harville decided he would make the customary and expected polite grunting noises and leave before he got himself in trouble. It was bad enough that he was going to have to go to a place he would always have to deny he had ever entered.

As he walked down the wide, congested avenues of Saigon, he veered off on one of the narrow side streets. The old anxiety had started to return. He gripped the old but reliable Walther P38 sidearm he kept with him at all times. It was time for some target practice.

The alleys behind the brothels were usually the best. The back doorways were stinking maws that turned ordinary mortals into insatiable hunters of wormy meat and quick profits. Stupid rats, bloated with their own diminishing sense of proportion, would stand on the nasty piles of refuse and stare vacantly off into the distance.


"Gotcha, you shameless glob of puke."


"You make it too easy, you hunk of spit."


The pile of dead rats took on the form he wanted it to take. Death could indeed be purifying, he thought to himself.

You've got to get the story straight first, though, he reflected. Stupidly, unexpectedly, he felt his eyes fill up with tears. The image of the terribly plain but feisty embassy worker came to mind in spite of his desire to rid himself of all emotions except an icily controlled rage.

She would have to wait.

Black Gold


I carried every bit of “luck regalia” I had with me. I wore my lucky hardhat, wore my lucky Yogo River sapphire ring, my Virgen de Caacupe (Paraguay) medal, Virgen de Guadelupe (Mexico) medal, and sported other assorted amulets and mojos, some from Kenya, some from Turkey and Azerbaijan. The truth was, I thought I needed them. Dad and I had put everything we had into this exploratory high-risk “rank wildcat” well.

Instead of poring over old maps, dusty books from used book stores, reprints of treasure tales, and stories from mining camps, I had decided to get back into oil and gas exploration. It was Dad’s idea, but I was pretending that it was my own. I was tired of being someone’s stooge in Paraguay, and Stanton’s games were too painful. Times had changed, and the quests for gold and treasure that used to animate our conversations were a thing of the past. Black gold was a thin substitute, but it would do. The price of oil was high, and there was a high demand for gas to fill the high-pressure pipelines crisscrossing the midsection of the country.

Dad had embarked on a 4-well drilling program. We were on the third well. The first two were marginal. We set pipe to produce the wells, and they were producing oil with associated gas, but they also produced salt water, which had to be disposed of through an injection well. It was expensive, which meant that, if we were lucky, it would break even. So much for a return on investment (ROI) of 6 to 1.

“I refuse to be depressed or defeatist,” said Dad. “Sure, this well was not what we expected, but there was a lot of encouragement. I’m using it as a chance to test the equipment. I needed to make adjustments, and have done so. It’s working really well now.”

I once heard someone say that “gold fever” was like compulsive gambling, but I came to think that explanation was a bit simplistic. A person who is enraptured with the search for gold or treasure, has an narrative that instantly intrudes and takes over one’s entire being, one’s consciousness. Poor “gold fever” victims were caught up not only with magical images of shining, glittering gold, but also with the freedom and power that such wealth seems to promise. Perhaps the true allure lay in the fascinating narratives that described the saga of the treasure, gold, loot, or booty. Not only were there fascinating plot twists and turns, one had to puzzle out aspects of human nature that are usually kept well beneath the surface.

We had drilled through our zone of interest and samples and cuttings made by the drill bit and then circulated up via the drilling mud should have reached the surface and would have been retrieved from the shale shaker by now.

This was the third well on this play. We had leased a block of acreage that covered more than two sections (each section has 640 acres), for a total of around 1,500 acres. Like most of our prospects, this was in a remote locations in Okfuskee County, near the small town of Boley, a historically African-American community, about 40 miles from the county seat of Okemah, which was once the center of “Five Civilized Tribes” while Oklahoma was still “Indian Territory” and not yet a state of the United States (or “Union” as people used to refer to the nation). At one time, the town of Okemah had a population of around 3,200 but it had been falling off rapidly. The depopulation was so severe that the town no longer had its own hospital and its major employer, Wrangler Jeans, had closed its factories in order to take advantage of low wages in Mexico, or, more likely, Saipan.

The town of Boley was almost, but not yet, a ghost town. The Magnolia Café had been boarded up, and most people grabbed coffee and slices of rubbery pizza from the convenience store gas station that also sold oil, antifreeze, potato chips, aspirin, ephedra-laced stimulants, Cokes, and beer. “Bubba’s Ribs” billowed fragrant hickory and grilled meat haze from a portable smoker. A hand-painted picture of a pig in a chef’s hat and apron, with a big smile on his face festooned the side. A long line of people waited to purchase ribs, brisket, and sausage. In the summer, a snow cone / flavored ice place also attracted long lines.

Years ago, this area prospered. There were big royalty checks, service company jobs, drilling company jobs, and employment for all those who provided support services. One could still see the signs of former wealth. There were moldering mansions in the middle of Okemah, and even a few in Boley. The big boom years were in the 1920s. However, in the late 1970s and early 80s, a boom returned. This time around, most people squandered their new-found wealth on big trucks, big flashy prefabricated homes. Most were repossessed during the collapse of the late 1980s.

Going out to the wells brought back memories of 1980-82. As a fledgling (and very over-confident) young petroleum geologist, I was convinced the boom times would last forever. I tried to convince Dad to buy a drill rig rated to 12,000 feet, a fleet of company vehicles, an office building (just a small one!) and perhaps a small plane (just a little Cessna!) to get to our more remote locations.

After I graduated with a BS in geology and moved to Amarillo, Texas, to work for Diamond Shamrock, I quickly came to appreciate the benefits of a Lear jet, although flying at 40,000 feet in a 6-passenger jet made me aware I could get quite hooked on “pulling G’s.”

Thankfully, Dad ignored the business insights and advice of his daughter and suggested that I try my hand at building my own empire instead of interfering with his. Always the calm diplomat, Dad did not say it in those terms. He was, however, very compelling. I was hooked. He would give me oil and gas prospects, loan me the money to acquire oil and gas leases, and then I would go to operators to sell working interest, or the leases outright, while retaining a royalty and/or working interest.

Being the antithesis of Dad, and very risk-averse, the oil and gas prospects I was given to invest in made my stomach fill with butterflies. They were all high-risk, potential high-return oil and gas ventures that had the potential to yield a 30 to 1 return on investment. They also had the potential for total failure, with all investors losing all the money they had put up. This was not appealing to me. However, Dad was willing to lend me $50,000 to buy oil and gas leases on prospects he had been developing over the years as he took breaks from being a gold / silver / “hard rock” geologist. Dad had been very successful over the years in oil and gas, so his track record made me a believer. The lifestyle he lived – exciting travel, interesting experiences, leading teams – excited me as well. Despite my misgivings, I plunged in.

If the truth were to be told, I was overwhelmed by the attention. It was something I had craved for years.

My preference was to buy existing production and to extend old fields. By using new techniques, I wanted to recover more oil out of the old, low-production wells. This business strategy annoyed my normally placid dad.

“No way,” Dad said. “I hate that kind of business approach. There’s never any pay-off. You’re just trading dollars. Plus, you get nothing but problems with these old wells. You’ll never make any money, but you’ll always have big bills for operating these dogs.”

Certainly some people had gotten burned by buying old fields and old production, and no one wanted to tangle with some of the environmental issues that lurked out there. My senior-level environmental science final project involved a detailed study of a well, the Hospital Lake #1, located on the edge of a large spring-fed pond on the grounds of the Griffin State Psychiatric Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma.

The lake was ringed by native cedar trees and prairie grasses. In the summer and spring, wildflowers bloomed, and redbud trees blossomed. Although the topsoil was thin, it was lushly carpeted with thick, springy grasses, except for the place where an old tank battery had leaked, spilling oil and saltwater into the topsoil. What was worse, the spills traveled down gullies and small tributaries, effectively poisoning fish and disrupting the pH of the water. Stanton and I hiked around the property, took pictures of endangered migratory birds.

We tried to imagine what we could to do stop the vicious cycle of erosion and further contamination. By the time we visited it, the area of contamination was marked by deep gullies, which had cut into the iron-rich, blood-red Garber-Wellington formation. The Garber-Wellington was one of the mid-continent region’s most important aquifers. There was always the possibility that contamination could enter it and then travel for miles. So, saltwater spills impacted not only the vegetation, the pond, and the ecosystem (which included endangered migratory birds that nested here), but also the aquifer.

Back in Okfuskee County, The lease road to the well was partially graveled. Where it was not graveled, there was soft sand. It was treacherous when dry, but fairly firm when wet. The toolpusher had planted watermelons on the old drilling locations, where there was good drainage and sand. The watermelons thrived beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They were absolutely magnificent – the size of the Black Diamonds you could purchase from the watermelon-growing sand deposits along the old braided stream channels of the South Canadian River. Each summer, Rush Springs had an annual watermelon festival. It was well-attended by watermelon aficionados, quilters and crochet-doily makers.

Surprisingly enough, the Watermelon Festival seemed to attract bikers of all kinds – from the scenery-loving retirees on Honda Gold Wings, to highly tattooed Harley owners. Some may have been Hell’s Angels, but I had no way of knowing. Stanton and I visited the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival on one of our road trips together.

Although watermelons grew well here near Boley, Oklahoma, in the heart of Okfuskee, County in east-central Oklahoma, it would be a challenge to organize anything and to attract people.

In the meantime, part of my job included negotiating “surface damages” and developing a plan to restore the land to pre-drilling condition. Unfortunately, I found out that there were unexpected damages, not just to the land, but to any number or type of livestock. Would you believe that the sound of a drill rig, the clang of big metal tongs on drill pipe during a connection, the shouts of roughnecks as they muscled the big pipe and chains, could make a prize bull lose its mind and become sterile? Who would imagine that the presence of a seismic survey team would make hogs go insane and unable to eat a good meal, thus losing weight?

Stanton laughed when one woman told him that her prize bull had become impotent after a seismic survey. “He was really high strung and after that, he could never maintain his concentration,” she said.

“Who cares about concentration. There’s something else that has to be maintained,” said Stanton to me afterwards. We laughed, pure joy in the knowledge that we were now married.

“Why don’t you pretend to be a seismic-traumatized bull tonight?” I asked, laughing.

Earlier, I had stopped at a local QuickieMart to fill my 4-wheel-drive khaki and gold Suburban with gas. When I went in to buy bottled water, something about the cashier reminded me of Stanton, and I felt very lonely, very alone.

The mood in the geologist’s trailer was jubilant. To be honest, I was shocked. I expected the usual atmosphere of resignation and grim determination.

“Check it out, Ophelia” said Dad. He handed me a bag with samples.

Dad was leaning over the microscope, and dropping little beads of xylene on the samples that sat in what looked to be a miniature pie pan used for panning for gold.

“The oil just streams from it. Good cut, great porosity. I’d say 30 percent, easily. Great fluorescence. Just smell that oil and gas – strong, isn’t it, Ophelia,” said Dad.

“Wow,” I said, weakly. This is what we had been waiting for, dreaming for, putting our hopes and dreams in. In this area, each well could potentially produce a half a million barrels of oil. There could be as many as 12 wells in this field.

“You think you can live on your revenue from this well?” asked Dad, laughing. Mentally, I calculated what my monthly revenue would be for just an average well in this area. It was a shame that Stanton could not be here to celebrate with us.

It was good. I scooped up some of the cuttings that were bleeding oil, put them into a little glass vial and placed a stopper in the top. I had a new amulet, a new lucky charm, a new mojo.

Tomorrow was going to be a good day. I could feel it. Tomorrow would be a great day. Perhaps Stanton would come back into my life.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Secrets of the Hidden Trunk


"What kind of treasure is this?" Marcus asked in sheer disgust, as he sifted through the contents of the tin trunk we found in the old mine workings. It was just exactly where the old map had indicated, except what we found inside was a far cry from the gold coins, jewelry, and nuggets were hoping for. "I can't believe someone would go to the trouble of hiding a chest in an old mine, and then to draw a map to show where is was."

Marcus rolled up the sleeves of his thick cotton twill khaki-colored shirt. The muscles in his thin, wiry arms twisted like rope as he lifted the metal chest and brought it to a flat place in the arroyo.

"There's some sort of water barrel in there, too," he said. "Should I get that out, too?"

"I have to say it's pretty weird," I said. "I wonder why someone would pack silk skirts, slips, and blouses in a trunk."

So far, all we found in the trunk was women's clothing. I found it to be interesting, and I suspected that the owner of the trunk had not been much older than I was. Perhaps she was 16 to my 15. Still, it was clear that whoever had packed this trunk was a teenaged girl. There was a card, a silk heart, a little journal with doves and flowers on it, and a daguerreotype of what appeared to be her mother and father. They were a grim set of individuals. The technology was to blame, though. Who could possibly look spontaneous while sitting frozen in one pose for 15 minutes at a time while the chemicals congealed into the patterns of light and shadow?

"Look at this pink silk blouse," I said. "Is this what they used to call a "mutton leg" sleeve?" I asked.

"How the heck would I know?" said Marcus.

"Marcus, you don't have to get testy with me," I said.

"Oh, no?" His voice dripped sarcasm.

"Look at this map. It clearly indicates treasure. It does not indicate used clothing, or a Goodwill store in the side of a ravine."

His negativity was getting on my nerves. I lifted another heavy silk skirt. It was black, with gray velvet trim. The articles of clothing were well-made, and were, in my opinion, quite beautiful. I was shocked that they were in such good condition. It must have been due to the arid climate, I surmised.

"Marcus, it's not all clothing, diaries, and photos," I said. "Here's a jewelry case."

"What?" Marcus lifted up another skirt to see if there might be something else secreted away in the depths of the chest. He sucked in his breath as his investigations revealed something even more startling than the jewelry case.

It was a dagger with a heavy gold sheath encrusted with colored gemstones. It was spectacularly beautiful and I could not believe a young teenaged girl would have such a thing.

"What on earth do you think she was doing with this?" I asked.

"Maybe she was getting to ready to run off with her boyfriend to get married. Maybe this was something she had inherited and she wanted to have it in case they ran out of money," said Marcus.

"Why did she leave it behind?" I asked.

"Maybe she died in the flash flood that happened here during the California Gold Rush," said Marcus.

"Or, maybe she was kidnapped," I said. "Perhaps she just simply never got away."

"Well, whatever it was, she did not come back to the old mine diggings. It must have been too dangerous," said Marcus.

We both sensed that to enter into the Scheherazade territory of a thousand and one narratives would save no one's life. It would merely extend our journey in this ambiguous land -- a territory that was painful in that occasionally the stories we spun came all too close to nerves and real pain.

I turned my attention to the small jewelry box. I opened the delicate black lacquered lid quite cautiously.

Inside was a tiny trove of treasure, of colored gemstones, gold chains, gold jewelry. It looked like a dowry chest, except for the clothing, which made it look like a girl preparing to elope. The jeweled knife was, to put it mildly, an oddity. It was inexplicable.

"Could it have been a girl from a local brothel?" I asked. "Was the owner a prostitute? Was she planning to run away?"

Marcus looked at the skirt and blouses with a strange expression. It approximated sadness and compassion without being obviously so. A breeze ruffled his dark, longish hair, his finely cut jaw was not yet hardened into adulthood. It occurred to me again that he could easily be on the cover of a teen heart-throb magazine. My stomach trembled and I looked down at the jewels.

"What bothers me most about this is the fact she never got away," said Marcus. "My mom was an amazing cook."

It was a jolting non-sequitur.

"I don't get it," I said. It wasn't true. I understood it perfectly.

His mom had dreams, but she never had the opportunity to pursue them in a form that made any sense to anyone but herself. So, she traveled in her mind, and she hunted treasure in the far reaches of her imagination. She would never have admitted that, however. For her, the work she did to detect "sympathetic vibrations" on a map, with rutilated quartz crystals accompanied by chanting was very real.

"There has go to be something here," said Marcus, grimly. "Something more."

He grabbed up his flashlight and returned to the old digging. Crashing through the brush, he used his rock hammer to clear more space. While he crashed about, I placed the small items of jewelry in the palm of my hand and contemplated them.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Treasure at Living Springs


"Wait - don't go in the mine. The map says the treasure is buried somewhere off to the side, near an old tree, which, by the way, doesn't seem to be there any more," I said. I was looking at the treasure map, feeling increasingly frustrated by the landmarks used to indicate location. Didn't people realize that trees could die and disappear and that structures could be torn down and others placed in their stead? The northern Sonoran desert here in the California and Nevada border area, with its rocky desert pavement terrain, sparse and stunted Joshua trees and mesquite scrub, seemed unchangeable and unchanging. It seemed to be totally impervious to the caprices of nature.

However, this was evidently not true. The old map was a little over a hundred years old, and even though some things were clearly the same, most were altered. Signs of human activity had undergone a subtle but profound process of erasure, and few of the structures on the map remained. The storage shed, mill, and bunkhouse were gone. The opening to the mine was boarded up, but vandals had torn away some of the old, graying planks. A narrow, deep ravine held evidence that it was not always a dry creek bed, but that there was often flash-flooding, which transported large boulders along with gravel and other debris. I noticed a patch of green vegetation on a ledge on the side of the arroyo around a little bend from the old mine entrance.

We were standing at the entrance of the abandoned mine entrance. According to the map, the old gold and silver mining operations were active in the late 1860s, when Farley Kritzoff buried the gold, pink garnets, and rubies. Now, nothing was left except collapsing timbers the color of bleached bones and a few rusty implements and shards of glass turned blue by time.

"I'm going in anyway," I said. "Hand me a flashlight."

"You're crazy," said Marcus. "Plus, I don't think it will do any good.

Marcus sat on a rock next to the mine entrance.

"This is strange. The treasure is in some sort of mine, all right," he said. "The map shows another mine, but this is a tiny one. It is located next to what appears to be a water well or a spring. At any rate, it seems to be a source of water."

I looked over to Dad, who was about a hundred yards away, scanning the horizon with his equipment. He had lost interest in the mine shaft and the maps when his equipment determined there was nothing there. I could tell he was merely indulging us by taking us on what was likely to be a wild goose chase.

I refused to admit the possibility that there may be nothing. It would be terrible if Marcus' mother had died for nothing. I guess in a certain way, everyone dies for nothing. Even if they have died for something, they end up dead, so it's the same outcome however you look at it.

"A well? In this country?" I said. "Highly unlikely."

Marcus pulled a scrap of paper in the bundle of the maps. It was hand-written with spidery script, and faded black ink.

"What's this? It's not really a map. Directions, maybe?"

"This doesn't seem to fit with the others, but somehow it got mixed in," he said.

Jhn 4:14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

"It's a Bible verse," I said, quietly.

Marcus ignored me. Instead, he was looking intently across the small arroyo, or wash, to the small cluster of trees.

"Is that a mine opening?" He pointed to a dark shadow in the back of the creosote trees.

We gathered up our rock hammer and other assorted items and made our way across the rock-strewn wash and up the steep bank to the brush and trees. Surprisingly, the ground was wet beneath our feet in what seemed to be a small, dry creek tributary coming from the cluster of trees.

"There's some sort of spring here," I said.

"Then the maps and papers are right," said Marcus.

As we approached, we found there was indeed a small mine opening. More precisely, it was a digging, since it too small to be considered a mine.

"Help me pull open the door," said Marcus.

"Watch for snakes," I said. "And scorpions."

"Don't worry," he panted as he pulled apart the small, faded, weathered boards and sticks that blocked it from view. He let out a yelp.

"There's something in here!"

I pulled out my flashlight. The wide ray of light, together with his, illuminated the small digging. In the corner was a metal-clad trunk.

"Wow! Here it is!" Marcus gripped the edge and pulled it toward him.

It was an old tin chest, with rusty metal lock and leather straps. The tin had been hammered into star, moon, and filigree shapes, making it appropriate as small end table as well as a storage item.

Marcus pounded on the rusty padlock with his rock hammer until it gave way. The lid was stuck tight to the opening, and we had to work hard at prying it open.

"There's something inside!"

The lid broke free and we leaned close to see what might be inside.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Lost in the Spiderwebs of Night


The blood on my hands was as yet invisible, but it was there all the same. The night was thick and wet. The tropical storm that raged a mere hundred miles offshore would taunt all those who would dare to predict its path, or the direction of its fierce winds. Miami was a convenient stop-over on my way back from Pedro Juan Caballero, Paraguay via Asuncion, then Sao Paulo.

Images of Stanton kept surging into my mind’s eye. I had never expected to meet a person who would affect me so much. We had met only a few hours before, but already I could feel that some ineludible destiny was in operation.

The destructive force in his marine-blue eyes met my own. I knew my eyes were unreadable except for a few people who really knew me. Dad was one. Years ago, my friend Marcus did. But, I had done my best to distance myself from them over the last few years. Now it was time to come back. Now it was time to plunge into the dark, hot cauldron of need. Running was not doing anything for me except exhausting me.

But, there was the question of Stanton. It would not be possible to keep secrets from him.

Seated on the small balcony overlooking beach, I listened to old recordings of Celia Cruz, singing of azucar negra. My favorite song of hers, “te busco,” (I look for you), floated in the thick wind. In my hands, I twisted an octagon of hand-tatted lace I had bought at an outdoor artisan fair at a tropically lush plaza in Asuncion, to the scream of parrots, the chatter of small monkeys perched on roofs. Her deep, expressive voice. My thin whisper of despair.

Thick multi-colored threads, surprisingly strong in my fingers as I pulled, twisted, worried the lace. The lace was called “nanduti” or “spiderweb” in Guarani, the indigenous language of Paraguay. It had its own story. At night, if hearts are not pure, the lace will come alive, the web will grow and a spider made of the flesh of soldiers who died of thirst in the vast and harsh Gran Chaco desert will sit in the middle and spin a ghastly web of bone and hair. When you awaken, your lace will be gone. In its stead will be ashes and the smell of death mixed with starflower

In Paraguay, I was visited by the Pombero, one hot, tropical afternoon as I lay in a shuttered room, trying to sleep as sweat dribbled down my belly. The Pombero appeared to me, its husky, insistent sexuality more real than anything I had ever experienced. It was the incubus figure I had feared from the moment I knew what it meant to suffer from fugue states, and to have strange, unmappable lacunae in my memory and my consciousness. According to indigenous Guarani legend, the Pombero came into darkened, shuttered sleeping rooms during the heat of the afternoon, during siesta. If you opened your eyes while you were drifting to sleep, you could catch a glimpse of him through your eyelashes, his hairy body simultaneously solid and transparent. If you were a young woman in a small village left depopulated from war casualties and you were losing hope of ever finding a marriageable man, you just might wake up pregnant. If you were a young woman living in a household of women, you might also wake up, likewise pregnant.

If you were a woman who had imposed herself on this culture, a woman with alien and unrealistic dreams, you would wake up deceived, defrauded, and aware that something had happened to you, but not sure of what that might have been.

You would feel, in contrast with the hairy, ungainly Pombero, utterly hairless, utterly helpless.

This was as good a place as any to stop doing the things I really should not be doing. I had blood on my hands. A force higher and greater than anything I had ever suspected existed was pushing me toward the knowledge of what I would need to do to take the blood away, or at least neutralize it enough to enter into a state of bartered grace.

South Beach was a convenient place to lose my heart to the beautiful stranger who saw directly into the shame I kept so carefully guarded.

Monday, August 15, 2005

All That Glitters


Marcus and I stood next to the old, collapsed entrance to the main “addit” of the abandoned gold mine. We were here with his mother’s treasure map, and were trying to find the gold coins and rubies and pink garnets that Farley Kritzoff had said he had buried near here. The sky was the robin’s-egg blue that I had begun to associate with the border between southern Nevada and California, and the desert floor was yellowish-brown in color, speckled with chunks of pyrite-flecked quartz and creosote bushes. One had to be careful where one stepped. Diamondback rattlesnakes were common here, and it would be easy to step on or near one, and risk a potentially deadly bite.

“Don’t go any closer.” Dad was standing next to the Jeep and was taking measurements of something.

“Why not?” I moved closer so I could get a look through the opening. Weathered gray boards were loosely nailed over the entrance.

“Old explosives. Cave-ins. Snakes. Methane gas,” he replied. I edged back. Seeing the interior didn’t seem so interesting to me. It wasn’t worth cave-in or snakebite.

“Why are we here anyway, if we can’t go in?” I asked. “Isn’t this where old Farley Kritzoff supposedly buried the gold along with the coins and the garnets his partner was trying to steal from him?”

“I’m not so sure about that any more.” He took another measurement and wrote it down on the map. “According to my equipment, the location has moved. It was coming up near the entrance of the mine. Now it’s out in the pediment somewhere. But why would he bury it in the pediment? That does not make any sense.”

After his mother died as a direct result of searching for treasure maps, Marcus had felt driven to find out more about the man named Farley Kritzoff who supposedly created the maps she had purchased at a yard sale.

Marcus had told the story to us on the drive. Basically, old Farley Kritzoff had immigrated to America in the 1850s from a place near St. Petersburg, Russia. Back in Russia, he worked as a goldsmith for Peterhof, the sprawling complex of gardens and fountains that Peter the Great had built on a model of Versailles, and which Czar Nicholas I was determined to expand and maintain. Kritzoff’s job was to gold plate the fountain nymphs on the west end of the grand chessboard-like palace.

At night, Farley worked on his experiments. He had developed a method of detecting gold using quartz crystals, gold wire, and pulsing electromagnetism. One night, though, a member of the czar’s secret police saw Farley working with one of his devices. He approached Farley and accused him of selling secrets to the Ottomans. It was at the height of the Crimean War and Farley knew that if he did not flee the country, he would be in serious trouble.

He had heard of the California gold rush, and of a town named Sebastopol on the Russian River. It reminded him of his grandmother’s hometown of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, and he thought it must be a lucky place. Farley never made it that far north, however. Distracted by the Nevada strikes, and then the gold he was detecting to the south in the desert, Farley stayed in the southern Nevada, southeastern California wilds. His equipment told him this was the place to stay.

It was a good idea. The mountain rivers had gold washed out from veins somewhere in the mountains. Farley’s good luck held. He found a good vein – a lode deposit. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money to open up the mine. So, he partnered with a man from Chicago.

His new partner, Jeremiah Dickerson, owned a couple of saloons and a dry goods store. Everything went well at first. They mined the ore, and had a small mill and processing plant a short distance away near a water well. Then, Jeremiah Dickerson turned up one day at the mine with a mail-order bride from Baltimore. The mine fascinated her, and she came out every day, inquiring about the production methods and chemical processes. With dark, sleek hair, flashing hazel eyes, and skin like the flesh of a pear, she was beautiful.

Also quite ambitious, she loved the finer things in life. Before he knew it, young Jeremiah was having to find ways to finance a mansion in Tonopah, as well as trunk after trunk of silk, jewelry, and furniture hauled over the Sierra Nevadas from Sacramento, and then from Reno.

At the same time, even though Farley and Jeremiah produced the same amount of ore, the mill and processing output began to mysteriously shrink. Farley suspected monkey business. It was said that he stopped trusting his partner and decided to get out of the business. One night there was a mysterious series of robberies. The processed gold disappeared. Then Farley disappeared. Everyone thought Farley had taken the gold as a way to get his share and leave the business.

To everyone’s dismay, Farley turned up dead. He had been shot in the back. There was no gold, no evidence of anything. All he had on his person was a crumpled paper with scribbled writing, “Desdemona or gold. Six steps or an “X.””

Jeremiah’s wife’s name was Destella, not Desdemona. She, however, turned up dead of arsenic poisoning, too, a mere six weeks later. The sheriff suspected that it was suicide and that she had drunk the mercury and arsenic-laced chemical cocktail used to separate the gold from the ore, and to make an amalgam. Jeremiah started claiming he heard Destella reading poetry to him at night, or weeping. Several people heard the sound of a woman sobbing near the place she had planned to build her mansion. No one saw any apparitions of old Farley, but people were certainly curious about his gold.

The missing gold was never accounted for. The missing gold coins, pink garnets and dark fire rubies stayed missing as well. The story soon became fodder for treasure tales and treasure hunters. Legends sprung up around it, and it was considered bad luck to let a woman on gold claims, or to let her have a hand in the operations of the mine.

National Geographic sponsored one treasure hunt, using new radiometric technology, but it turned up nothing. A series of psychics said that the spirit of Destella was there, and that of Farley – and that the real reason for the disappearance of the gold was a love triangle. Destella was, in reality, Farley’s second cousin, and that the two of them had plotted a way to get Jeremiah’s gold, as well as his saloons and dry goods store.

Thus, it was suggested that the loot was not only the missing gold from the mine, but that there were also gold coins and bullion from the operations of the saloons and dry goods store.

“If you find gold in the form of treasure, it’s even better than finding a high-grade deposit,” my dad explained one day. “But it’s best to have a mine and claims, too. Then you can melt down the bullion and say it’s part of your gold mine production. You don’t have to worry about anyone claiming that the treasure is theirs.”

What had excited Dad about this particular treasure tale was the idea of determining how old Farley’s quartz crystal, gold wire, and electromagnetic energy device might have worked.

“I still wish Mom had not bought these maps,” said Marcus. “I still can’t believe what happened.”

“I can’t either,” I said. I looked at the small trees on this side of the mountain. We had ascended the foothills to an altitude with sufficient precipitation to sustain vegetation.

We stood in silence. I did not know what to say. I reflected on the words that Dad had said to me earlier as we drove to pick up Marcus.

“I really hope it’s there. It would be great, especially after what Marcus has been through,” I had said to Dad a few days before. Marcus was not dealing well with the loss of his mother. Granted, their relationship had been troubled, but in all honesty, sometimes the tough relationships are the ones one misses most, I realized.

The sounds of Marcus cracking his rock hammer against a chunk of highly altered rock startled me. I looked at him again. A violet shadow darkened his eyes, and his physique was more wiry than ever.

He was sixteen, but his age seemed indeterminate now. At times, he looked 14, at others, he could have been 18 or 20. His lips still had the alluring curve I noticed the first time we met. They were teen idol lips, I thought. I remembered the way they had felt on mine the first time we kissed. My heart felt it would beat out of my chest. Had I ever been kissed before? Perhaps, but it was on the cheek, and the chaste brush hardly counted.

“I’m interested in finding out how his detection device worked. Sure, I’d like to find the treasure, for Marcus’ sake. If we can get the detection equipment to work, we’ve got something we can build on,” said Dad in the single-minded way he got when he was working on an idea.

Farley did leave behind some notes – a bound leather book, with crabbed handwriting and diagrams. Most of the writing was in Russian. However, there were a few passages in English. There were diagrams, equations and partial maps.

After Marcus gave it to Dad along with the other maps that his mom had bought, Dad put it away. He put it in the drawer of an old wooden roll-top desk in desk rundown antique shop in Sparks when he was shopping for furniture for the Carson City office.

The tale bothered me. I suspected that some of the details were apocryphal. The notebook didn’t seem to have any personal details at all – it looked like a lab notebook of a mad scientist.

I read Farley’s notebook. What bothered me was the strong, misogynistic underpinning. For him, women fell into various categories. Women were either prostitutes (with hearts of gold, of course), cruel and controlling madams, or grasping opportunists (gold-diggers). The “nice” women were schoolteachers or long-suffering wives who could drive long distances, tend horses, and mind their place. There was nothing else.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Marcus. “About Farley?”

I nodded.

“Yeah. Farley was a weird person,” he said. “And not in a good way.”

“Do you think we’ll find anything?” I asked.

“No,’ said Marcus. “I don’t expect anything good any more. I don’t expect anything. I am going to start reading the Stoics. I just wish I had paid more attention in Introduction to Philosophy last year.”

“You took Philosophy?” I asked, incredulously. “Your high school offered it?”

“Yes. We could also take film-making,” he said.

“We read Kafka,” I said. “A guy turns into a cockroach in one of the things we read. I dies because someone throws an apple and it sticks in his back between his wings. It rots and then he rots.”

“Cool,” said Marcus. He slammed the rockhammer into another large chunk of rock containing a quartz vein and prominent crystals.

“The other Kafka story was really disgusting,” I said. “A guy invents a torture machine for a prison. It is like a jeweler’s engraver’s needle. It engraves a message on the scalp of the prisoners. It engraves it over and over.”

“Stupid, obvious metaphor,” said Marcus.

“What? In Kafka’s story?” I asked. It hadn’t seemed all that stupid or obvious to me. But, it was not like anything I had ever read before.

“No. This rock. This rock hammer. My head. Pain. My thoughts,” said Marcus.

I thought of me lying on the x-ray table at Palm Springs Regional Hospital and Dr. Spangarten raising my hopes, then dashing them again as he allowed the possibility that I was troubled psychologically. I was, to put it less than politely, probably a nut case.

Marcus smashed the rock again, this time with blinding force. I smoothed the features of my face and tried to look unperturbed and imperturbable.

“I think Dad’s ready to go in,” I said. It was not quite true. Dad wasn’t thinking of anything of the sort. He was busy taking measurements with his equipment. But, we needed to move things along.

“Yeah. Let’s get this over with,” said Marcus, darkly.

“Yeah.” I responded probably too vehemently, but it didn’t matter. We needed to go in. We needed to move to the next level.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Fugue State


January 7, 1974.
I lay down on the x-ray table and tried to maintain a cynical, tough-as-rawhide attitude. The effort was exhausting and ultimately pointless since I had little or no recall of what had happened. Palm Springs General Hospital was decorated in desert pastels. The walls of the x-ray room were a pale sandy rose, and I wondered what they would find. My neck muscles ached from where I had clenched them tightly. "Take a deep breath, dear," said Raylene, the x-ray technician whose nameplate was also in a desert pastel color. "Now release."

Repeating the sequence several times, the x-ray machine clicked and whirred. I tried not to think of what they might find. Something was causing blackouts and whatever seemed to be happening to me. I could no longer deny it, nor could I conceal it. It was no wonder I was considered a freak and a nerd at school. Since I could never remember the "episodes," I shuddered to think how many I might have had in class or in the hall.

"You are a very pretty girl, Ophelia," said Raylene. "You look just like a painting I saw in a book once. Actually, I think it was called, 'Ophelia,' too. I'll bet you have lots of admirers back home."

"Not really," I mumbled, trying to be polite. What boy would possibly like me? I was an embarrassment, a blot on society. I thought briefly of Marcus, and wondered with alarm if I had suffered a brief "episode" in his presence.

In the doctor's office, I fixed my eyes intently on the reproduction of Marcel Duchamps' modernist painting, Nude Descending a Staircase. The fragmented, angular arms and legs, the multiple images of a body in motion made me think of frames of a film superimposed upon each other. It was the record of discrete moments in time frozen onto a single moment in time. It displayed repetition of an action, but with gaps, and with the color effectively bled from it. The painting effectively represented in visual form the condition of my memory.

"We can definitely rule out a brain tumor, aneurism, or any other dramatic organic cause for what is happening," said Dr. Spangarten to Dad and myself.

"It is a shame her mother cannot be here at this time, too," said Dad. "This is going to be a great relief for her."

It was not much of a relief for me, though. At least they could do something about something like a tumor or an aneurism. It would be an explanation.

"We could do more tests, but I don't really see the point," continued the neurologist. "I will recommend following up when you get back home, and I will make a few referrals. Do you have any questions?"

Dr. Spangarten looked at me. Dad responded instead.

"That should do it. We will definitely follow up," he said, then stopped suddenly as he noticed me starting to shift my weight and squirm in my chair.

"Sorry, Ophelia," he said. "Did you want to ask a question?"

I looked up, paused, and looked into Dr. Spangarten's ruddy face, thinning and well-groomed hair. He looked like he spent some time on the golf course, I thought. He probably had one of the houses I saw while riding my bike to the canyon horseback riding place. They were white stucco with ornate desert gardens and pools in the back. Or, it was possible he lived near Marcus. The thought gave me a small knot in my stomach.

In addition to Duchamps, Dr. Spangarten's wall had a reproduction of Giacomo Balla's painting of the multiple, superimposed moving images still painting of a dachshund on a leash. It, together with Nude Descending a Staircase, perfectly represented my emotional and cognitive states.

I nodded slightly.

"Yes. What is it that has been happening, then?" I asked. "I know we don't know why."

"I think that you have been having mild seizures. It could be a very mild form of epilepsy. Or, it could be a hormonal or an electrolyte imbalance. Those are things you can find out when you get home," said Dr. Spangarten. Despite the grim news, his voice sounded kind, non-judgmental.

"Oh. Is there anything they can do?" I asked.

"Yes, there are any number of things. I would recommend that you speak to a therapist as well. There may be something precipitating them as well that is not organic," he continued.

So he did think I was a nut case.

Oh well. That made two of us.


On the drive back to the hotel, I made a suggestion to Dad.

"I think we should call Marcus and see if he wants to go check out his map," I said. Dad nodded his assent.

"That's a good idea." He rolled down the window. The day was surprisingly cool, and the Santa Ana winds had died down. The air was crisp and so clear the colors stung the eyes.

"This weekend?" I asked.

"Good." He smiled. "Let's do it."