Today I’m posting Chapter 15 of High Pocket. In this chapter, Jake meets up with Ben to celebrate Jake’s 30th birthday. Over Bison Burgers and plenty of drinks Jake does a lot of growing up when he learns about the risks Ben is willing to take to make big money at the Homestake, and then uncovers some of the surprising details of his father’s adultery.
I went to work the next day and the day after that and the next week. It went on like that for a few weeks. Me and Sandy didn’t speak much at the bit window. It’s not that we weren’t friendly, we were. It’s just that there wasn’t much to say. Maybe he was making plans for the gold, but he didn’t discuss it. Everything seemed called off until I talked to my dad. I felt like I was sleepwalking. I went to work, did my job, came home, slept, and went back at it again the next day. Another Sunday dinner went by and my dad was there this time but I didn’t talk to him much either. No one brought up the ball game, no one brought up anything.
Then I got a call from Ben and he wanted to take me out for a drink for my birthday that was coming up in a week.
“Just the two of us. Like the old days,” he said.
We drove over to Hickok Bar in Central City and got there around 7:00. The place was near empty, a small Western bar with phony spittoons dotted around like empty planters, a pool table, a juke box and the best Bison Burgers in the state.
“Well, guess this is it,” Ben said when we sat down. “The big Three-O. You want a Lone Star to cry in?”
“Sure,” I said with a laugh as the waitress came over and we ordered beers and Bison’s with habanero spread.
“Sometimes when I see the kids,” Ben said, “running in and calling me dad, it’s kind of hard to take. I don’t feel that old. Don’t get me wrong, marrying Gena was the best thing I ever did. No regrets…”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I’m the one who’s over the hill. You’re only 28. You’re talking like we’re two old duffs ready for the final reckoning.”
“Shit, sorry. How the hell are you? How’s Mary and you doing?”
“Great,” I said and stopped. He looked at me for more. “Simple as that. More than any other before her.”
“Are we talking marriage?”
“I’d say I love her if you asked me, but marriage is something else.”
“She sure is pretty and Gena and her got along real good, I think.”
“Yeah, she liked her and mom.”
We sat quiet for a few moments, then Ben started reminiscing.
“Remember that time we were going to break into J&E’s Hardware and steal all the mountaineering stuff? Gonna run off into the hills for the rest of our lives? Our getaway plan,” he laughed.
“Yeah, crazy man.”
“We were serious, though. At least I know I was. Sometimes I still wish we did it, just to see if we could have done it.”
“Ah, hell, come the winter, if we made it that far, we’d have froze our asses off.”
“Maybe so. But, shit, I’d like to think I tried something like that just once.”
The Bison Burgers came, we ordered more beer, and Ben added a couple shots of Wild Turkey to the celebration. We spent some silent time chomping our way through the great plains and the fire sauce, and I felt like both of us had something on our mind we were avoiding. For me, of course, it was my dad and Sylvia, and I guess deep down I’d hoped that’s what was on his mind, too.
“How’s life at the Homestake?” I asked to get talking again, and I walked right into his thoughts sort of speak.
“I got an opportunity that’s come up,” he said.
“What do you mean? What kind of opportunity?”
“Exploratory drilling into rock cores.”
“Don’t you even joke with me. You know how dangerous that is. Red’s not even cold in his grave for fuck’s sake. And what about all your talk about the rich managers and the lowly miners?”
“Hey, I got expenses, man.”
“Yeah, a new boat, a new truck…buying a new house anytime soon?”
“Who knows?” he stopped a moment, “Gena’s pregnant.”
“Really? I mean, good for you. But, you really want four kids?”
“It’s a little late to ask that question dont’cha think?”
“Course it is,” shrugged. “But are you sure about the production contract?”
“Hey, I’m not an idiot. I’ve seen the geologics. They look damn good.”
“What level, who’s running it?”
He looked up from his burger, and I could see he didn’t want to answer. I stared and waited.
“Olner’s, 4100 I think, not sure yet…”
“Olner’s level? Are you fucking crazy? That guy’s an asshole.”
“Yeah, I know, Capital ‘A’, but he produces like a son of a bitch.”
“How big are the bonuses he’s offering?
Ben wiped his greasy hands and fumbled with a cigarette, obviously stalling the answer.
“Oh,” I said, “they’re that big, huh? Is this your getaway plan?”
“Very funny,” he said.
“Okay…but, Ben, watch yourself…I mean it, really watch your ass with this guy.”
“Course I will, I got mouths depending on me.”
We sat quiet both thinking our thoughts, and we might be sitting there still, but thank God the waitress came over with a cupcake with a candle in it and set it down between us. I blew it out, took another shot of whiskey, and forced myself to speak up.
“Well, now I got something I want to say,” I said, and my voice must have sounded different because he put down his beer and looked me right in the eyes. “I want to know…”
I sputtered out, hanging out there, with no way back.
“Go on, Jake. What the hell is it?”
“It’s dad. He’s running around with someone else.”
I said it as fast as I could just to get it done and over with; and when he didn’t react, I thought maybe he didn’t hear me right.
“There can’t be any doubt about it,” I went on, “I saw him myself, with McFelan’s wife, at a restaurant in Rapid City.”
Still, he didn’t say anything. He took a swig of beer and looked back at me. I couldn’t read his face.
Then he said softly, “I know. Sylvia McFelan…I’ve known for some time.”
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘you know?’” I jumped on him. “How fucking long is ‘some time’?”
“Nearly a year.”
“Jesus!” I yelled.
A guy at the bar turned around. I leaned in.
“Here I’ve been thinking I’m the only one with this great big dark secret and you over here have known it a year. Christ Almighty.”
“Don’t get sore, Jake. I was going to tell you.”
“Oh yeah? When the fuck exactly were you going to tell me?
“All right. Sorry. Okay? I was going to…but I didn’t…”
He stopped there. I sat back up, took a swig of my beer.
“How’d you find out?” I asked.
“You’re not going to like it, Jake, not one bit.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“Gena told me.”
“I said you wouldn’t like it.”
“Gena. For god’s sake. How did she find out?”
“It gets worse,” he smiled a little, “You sure you want to know?”
Instead of getting angrier, I laughed out loud, and damn it felt good. Here I’d been walking around like I had a secret heavier than Mt. Rushmore on my shoulders, and now I was glad to let them carry some of it.
“The mayor told you,” I laughed and now he broke up, too.
“Mom told her,” he said.
“Mom? Oh come on, Ben. Mom? How the hell does she know…?”
“Wives know Jake. Look, I was going to tell you lots of times, but Gena promised mom she wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“She told you didn’t she?”
“Jake, you’re thirty for God’s sake. Get married already and learn the secrets of life…women tell everything.”
“Yeah, guess they do…”
A quiet moment went by.
“He’s a bastard, I do know that…” I said.
He didn’t answer me, and this time he didn’t look at me either.
“You don’t think he is a bastard?” I challenged him.
“Sure I do. Course I do.”
“What’s mom going to do about it?” I asked.
“She’s already doing it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She told Gena she could live with it.”
“You’re kidding? She said that?”
“I thought the same thing at first. But Gena told me if mom accepts it, it’s really not my business.”
“And dad knows she knows? God, this is sounding like a goddamn soap opera.”
“It is a fucking soap opera. And I don’t know if he knows…but could be.”
He leaned forward and spoke softer.
“Jake, he’s our dad, right? And there she is our good, old mom. Little league and cookies and all that. But, shit, when you come down to it, they’re just folks. Plain and simple folks. Like everybody else.”
“Yeah, well, bullshit. That’s what I say to that.” I was still huffing and puffing. “Not everybody is screwing everybody else.”
“Dad ain’t the first or the last. That’s for certain.”
“You haven’t said nothing to him then?”
“What for? What the hell would I say?”
He was right, “what for?” Suddenly, there didn’t seem much point in it. What was I going to do, tell him he was a bad boy? It’s funny how everything can change in a minute like that. I sure as hell didn’t like what he was doing, but who was I to tell him what to do? Shit, he sure wouldn’t like it if he knew what I was up to with Sandy. And if he didn’t, so what? I wasn’t about to listen to him. In fact, I was about to ask him to help me to get it done. Jeez. Crazy.
I’m not saying I understood my mom in all of this. I didn’t. I don’t know why she put up with it. I don’t think I ever would. But who’s to say what you’ll do before you do it? She had it worked out for herself. I guess the rest of it wasn’t my business. I mean, I couldn’t find fault with either of them for being parents. They were good at that.
“It’s a lot to think about,” I finally said.
“Now don’t get me wrong,” Ben said serious as could be, “If I found out Gena was arm and arm with some sonofabitch, I’d pity him because I’d kill him and maybe her, too.”
We both laughed and ordered more beer. I could say that we drank into the night, which we did, and that everything was peach pie. But it wouldn’t be the truth. There’s no denying that I felt better about my dad, sure, but not good by a long shot. I know Ben didn’t either. Not inside. We got up finally, and he drove me home, or steered me home is more like it since he was too drunk to drive.
I fell into bed with my clothes on, my head spinning and the name Doug Olner, Doug Olner, Doug Olner going round and round in a swirl in my brain. What the hell was he up to? He was one of the top contract performers in the mine, rich contracts, sure. But he was a corner-cutter, too, a risk taker…though it was his crew that would be doing all the risking.
And the 4100’ level bugged me, too. That level had been played out a years ago. I didn’t want to think it, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were planning on digging up from there, not down. Up to the 3800? That can’t be, I told myself. It can’t be. Then I thought again about those guys I heard talking about that lose track on the Supply Level as I was about to come out of the abandoned adit. What were they really doing there? Repairing track or replacing it for heavier gauge? And why right at that spot?
The questions kept spinning and spawning new questions until I finally blacked out, and sleep came on.
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