Today I’m posting Chapter 21 of High Pocket. In this chapter during the final week of preparation, Jake says a silent good-bye to his family, and Mary has a surprise gift for Sandy.
We had a lot of work to do on the engine. We took parts off and then put them back on until we could do it blindfolded. Sandy wasn’t in the best of shape, and I’m not just talking about his injuries. He smoked like a chimney and drank a fair amount, but hell he never was the one to call it quits as the cold nights came on. We had to reinforce cabinets inside the camper shell too so they could handle a heavy payload: up to four or five hundred pounds of gold! It was crazy to imagine them stuffed in a couple weeks from now. We sure didn’t want gold falling out onto some border guard’s foot if we happened to get searched as we crossed into Canada.
And we talked about how we’d turn the gold into money. We knew we couldn’t go to a bank and put it on a scale and ask for dollar bills. ”We could make jewelry,” Mary said in a sort of joking way, “like four-leafed clovers, and sell them.” What seemed most likely was to stake a claim somewhere in the Canadian wilderness an say we mined the gold there. Hell, there sure wasn’t any way of tracing it, no serial numbers.
We went on like that late into December with Christmas only a week away. I was on my way to pick Mary up to drop some gifts off at my folks and decorate the tree. It was weird to think I wouldn’t see them on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning like always. I didn’t like to think how they would worry when I didn’t show, specially my mom. Anyway, tonight we’d decorate the tree and I’d tell them my presents looked better under the tree than sitting at my place on the floor. Hell, I knew I was going to have to say something to my dad so they all didn’t think I died when I didn’t show up at the Christmas Ball.
On the drive over, I couldn’t get Mary off the subject of her dad. She was real concerned. She went on and on about the way he was acting, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is the way she put it. She stopped for a second to catch her breath.
“He’s just smiles and laughs when I tell him he’s got to slow down and relax.”
“You’re not used to him. He’s happy. That’s all it is.”
“Happy? It’s like he woke up a different person.” She got very serious. “What if there isn’t any gold down there? That’s what I keep thinking about. Do you know what that will do to him? It makes me shiver just to think about it.”
“That’s why I don’t let myself think of it. We’re going down there and that’s all that matters now.”
Truth is, I was as worried and spooked by how close we were to going after the gold as she was, but I kept it to myself.
We turned onto Grand and it started to snow like crazy, putting a new coat of cotton on everything in just seconds. We managed to slip and slide our way into the house with cheers of Merry Christmas and the kids squealing and my dad handing us a couple of hot mugs of eggnog.
“Looks like it’s really dropping out there.”
We handed our coats to my mom as she came up and kissed us both and Ben hollered “Howdy” from his place by the fire, his leg still in a cast.
“Great looking tree,” I said to him.
He’d been the one in our family to pick out every year since he was ten years old. He seemed always to know the best ones on the lot, how they’d drop, how long they’d last and how fresh they were.
“You’ll have to do my part in decorating this year,” he raised his cup of egg-nog to Mary.
We shot the breeze for a while, and I kept thinking how this was going to be the last time for a long time that I’d be talking to him face to face. Boy, it felt weird. It was all I could do to stop myself from telling him what really was going on with me.
“Don’t keep talking all night,” my mom yelled over to me. “We all have to help decorate tree.”
“I can’t wait,” I said with a laugh, but I meant it. I felt like I was going off to war or something and this was the last time for everything, a farewell party.
Mary was helping the kids rearrange some of their bulbs to the higher branches. She had Susie in her arms and was holding her up to put up a red bulb.
“Here’s your reindeer.” My mom handed me a little wooden ornament I’d had for as long as I could remember. The paint was nearly worn off and it was missing an ear.
“Santa gave him this ornament on his first Christmas,” she said to Mary. “I have pictures of it somewhere. Ben got one too that Gena’s putting on tonight. Do you remember Robbie when we got them?”
“Plain as yesterday. They were at J&E’s when some things were still handmade. They’ve been lost and bitten and I don’t know what all, but still there they are.”
We went on like that for a what seemed like a very short time and then the tree was finished. We turned off all the lights and plugged it in. The kids all went “AHHH” and squealed with delight. My mom flicked the lights back on and got us all to stand around the tree for a picture, Ben hobbling over with Gena’s help. I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell I’d be next year at Christmas, and what it would be like not being here at home.
My mom and Gena and Mary went into the kitchen to get dinner together. Me and Ben and my dad sat around the fire, quiet mostly. It was comforting to sit there and listen to carols on the radio. The dinner soon came on the table and we carried the kids in. They were damn near asleep, and after all the candy-canes and cookies they ate, they weren’t much hungry for dinner anyway. But they perked up some when the dessert was served. My dad opened a bottle of good sherry he bought and poured us all a glass. The whole evening was just racing by faster than I could hold onto it.
“I bought the sherry someone else ought to make a toast.” He looked at me, and I nodded back to him, both of us silently understanding one another. I raised my glass, and then it just popped out.
“I want to make an announcement. Me and Mary are planning on getting married.”
I don’t know what the hell came over me. But I knew I wouldn’t have another chance before we really did get married to tell them all. Ben reached across the table and shook my hand. I kissed my mom and Gena, and the kids were laughing and giggling. I looked at Mary and she didn’t seem to be shocked. My dad said something about Christmas surprises, and then he stood up and put his glass in the air.
“Here’s to Mary and to Jake. To the both of you. Good luck and the blessings of love to you today, tomorrow, and all your lives together.”
“So when’s the big day?” Gena asked.
“Have you planned that far?” my mom asked, I think hoping she could be part of the planning.
“Sometime next year,” I said. “Sometime in Spring.” My mom smiled.
Not long after dinner me and Mary had to be getting home. The snow had eased up some so we figured we could make it down Grand without needing to put chains on. I picked up the kids one at a time and gave them a big kiss good-bye.
“When is Santa coming?” Dwayne asked, nearly half asleep. Then the other two, Susie and Robert, started asking the same thing.
“Next weekend will be Christmas Eve. So it isn’t far away at all.”
Gena came over gave me and Mary a kiss and hug, “I’m so happy for you two. I was beginning to think the day would never come.”
“Congratulations again, big brother,” Ben yelled from his chair, and I’ll see you at the Ball next Saturday.”
“Have you been before?” my mother asked Mary. She said no. “The music is wonderful and everybody’s so dressed up. It’s just something to look forward to. Gets you really in the Christmas spirit.”
Before Mary could say anything, and I’m sure she didn’t know what to say, my dad handed me a small Christmas tree Ben had picked up for me. “Let me help you out to the car,” he said making it easy to get to the door.
My mom gave us both a final kiss and I felt funny as hell knowing she was saying good-bye for a lot longer than she knew. I drew back from her, “I love you, mom,” and gave her another kiss. She stood in the hallway and waved to us as we headed to the truck.
“Let’s get you in there,” my dad said to Mary, opening the Bronco door. “It’s the coldest night of the year so far, and feels ready to be Christmas.”
I was on the same side of the truck, heading to the back to put the tree in, and my dad closed Mary’s door and grabbed my arm before I lifted the tailgate.
“I don’t know how to say this” he began. I waited for him to go on. “Well, I. . .we, won’t be seeing you at the Ball. Right?”
I didn’t really answer so much as I just look at him.
“Look, son, let me ask you straight. Are you sure about what you’re doing? Damn sure?”
He drew back, “Then all I ask is that you be careful and don’t be afraid to back down if you have to. Understood?”
“Sure thing, pop.”
He pulled me into him and hugged me tighter than I could remember.
The next week, which was the last week before going down into the mine, is still sort of jumble in my head. It was either Monday or Tuesday that I got over to Sandy’s and finished the truck with him. And sometime during the week we drove to Puma to fill the truck and extra tanks with gas to avoid any questions in Lead, but still the gas attendant there couldn’t help but ask where we were going in the dead of winter. “To Mexico,” Sandy said, and that shut him up.
Sandy was calmer during the week, like I hoped he would be. He was different, though, there’s no getting around that. He seemed distant. But he wasn’t running around like Mary said. You could talk to him, even if everything you said he brought back to the 3800′ and the gold we would soon be hauling out from it.
Later in the week, we started packing the truck with stuff we wouldn’t need in the mine with us. We held off on the retrieval gear until Friday night. Mary was also busy closing up the house, covering stuff and emptying out closets. Sandy still hadn’t made any plans for what he was going to do with it. For me, it was easy. I rented the place I lived in, so I just told the landlord I was moving and that was that. And the place was furnished, too, so there wasn’t much for me to take that I didn’t throw away.
What stands out most for me that week is how I kept going over and over the in my mind the new plan we had to get past Olner and his crew, all the things that had to go right for us to even reach the new bore hole on the 3700’. Getting to the cyanide vats was going to be tricky all by itself, but the thought of what I had to do once I got there was enough to get me jittery and my heart pumping faster than I liked to admit. I’d feel sure one minute that I could do my part to get the whole thing rolling, then the next minute I was sure I’d screw up or get caught before we even got started. I knew I had to shake off my old fears or I’d never pull this off.
On one of the last days of the week, the three of us sat around the fire and Sandy told us his news.
“I should have been a thief all along or r an actor or some goddamn thing. It was easy as pie.”
“And the car? Goddamn it, Sandy, you got the car there?”
“Is the Pope Catholic?” he laughed out loud, a little too loud. “The car is there!” he boomed. “I did just what I said I would, good and good.”
He started laughing again, low at first, then he went on for awhile and he got louder. To tell the truth, his laugh made me uncomfortable. I looked over at Mary and could see she was upset by it, too. Finally, he stopped.
“I wheeled the car right onto the cage, told the operator I was picking up steel from the supply adit.”
“And they believed that?”
“Hell, yes. I believed it myself. I pushed the car right past the new operations go for the 3200’. No one even looked at me. I got down there about 3:00. Nothing was going on. Not really anybody there today.”
“So where is it? Just tell me exactly where it is.”
“Where would you like it to be?” He was enjoying the hell out of this little victory.
“You left it right at the gate?”
“You could stick your hand through the gate and grab it. Nobody’s going to move it with the holiday coming on.”
“Shit I hope not.”
We ended up a bit drunk with the fire roaring and us recounting all the items we’d packed into the truck, going over the list of things left to do, and a final crossing-off of the things we’d changed our mind on and didn’t need to worry about anymore. Then Mary got up and went into the other room. When she came back in, she had a gift in her hand that she handed to Sandy.
“What the hell?”
“Open it,” she said.
I knew what it was, Mary told me her plan on this a few weeks ago. Sandy read the card out loud: “Daddy, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Life. Love, Mary and Jake.”
I got a kick out of her adding me to the card. He stood the card up on the coffee table and tore off the paper. It was a plain box he held now, and he paused like he suddenly knew what was inside. His hand shook a little as he slowly lifted off the top half of the box. There was paper covering the object inside, but from the shape of it, he knew his guess was right. He held off reaching for it a moment or two more. Then he dug in with his good hand and pulled out the yellow miner’s cap with the number fourteen freshly painted in white on the side. It looked brand new, like it’d never been worn before, and I think at first that’s what Sandy thought. But he held it up to the light and looked inside and saw the repairs. He took off his watch cap, and put the cap on real slow.
There was a moment or two there when all of us were quiet. The cap was a symbol of just about everything we were doing, of lives lost and hope abandoned and now reborn again in us. We all knew it was an important moment and we let it linger. Then he took off the cap, rubbing his thumb over the cap lamp where the golden nugget had been hidden for all those years.
“Gawd, honey,” he said in a whisper. “It’s a beautiful thing. Damn if it isn’t.”
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