by: Diana Bollmann
Desperation, paired with a slew of impulsive choices, leads to a hidden danger found in the most banal of places, a backyard toolshed….
She inched closer to the bluff, the rounded tips of her Keds jutting over the two hundred foot drop. The salt-teased air stung her nostrils. Her heart sat heavy in her chest. She gasped a breath and thought of Wade . . .
One Friday, not quite a year ago, after her shift at the county landfill had ended, she stopped in for a nightcap at Dirty Pete’s Bar & Grill in San Francisco. She sat at the bar with her feet aching and her back as stiff as a washboard smoking a cigarette as she washed down the last five days with a cold pint of beer. An overhead TV tolled the war in Vietnam’s latest carnage, though it seemed no one was listening. Preoccupied, she hadn’t noticed the older guy who sidled up beside her, until his jacket fringe brushed her arm.
She turned to look.
His moist tobacco breath misted her ear as he leaned closer. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” he asked.
“What’d you say?”
“Wade,” his hand extended.
“Beryl,” she said sheepishly.
“You and me, we’re supposed to be together.”
“Oh, yeah? Says who?”
Wade reached for her hand. “Your long blond hair told me so.”
Beryl tilted her head, then scooped up a bunch of hair that ran past the middle of her back. “It’s a fall.”
“A what?” His pitch rose.
She touched the hair above her forehead. “This is real. What’s attached to the headband, is fake.”
He removed his hand. “Oh.”
“Someday, you grow your hair out – for me.” A little boy grin teased his lips.
“Maybe . . . no. I don’t promise favors to strangers.”
Wade capped her fingers with his. “If you gimme a chance, I won’t be a stranger for long.”
They stayed at the bar, knocking back a few more beers as they chatted about themselves.
“I’m all talked out,” Wade said, two hours later. “Wanna go back to your place and make love?”
Beryl lowered her eyes, cradled the last of her drink with her hand. “I don’t go all the way with people I just met.” But inside she was horny as hell and craved a man’s touch. How could she say no to such a tempting offer?
A month later, they rented a double-wide together on an acre in rural Marin County. Almost forty, Beryl’s life had now run dry of its youth. At the cusp of middle age, she feared facing the next twenty years alone. Wade could not have appeared at a better time. A Clark Kent to her Lois Lane, he was the right antidote to her despair, despite their fifteen year age difference.
“How’s my special lady?” he said his first weekend home from his job at the McKenna Mine in Northern Nevada. “I brought you somethin’.” He handed her a round package wrapped in newspaper.
She tore it open. “What is it?”
“Ore from the mine.”
“You stole it?”
“It’s not worth much.”
“You shouldn’t take things that aren’t yours.” She pointed to a shiny spot along the stone’s edge. “Is this gold?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, how ‘bout that,” he said as grasped her shoulders, his fingernails outlined in crusty dirt. “Do me a favor? Just keep it….for me?”
Take it, Beryl. It’s a gift….from a guy.
In time, her own hair had begun to grow. She’d surrendered to Wade’s constant pleas to “give him some real hair to touch.” Her soft waves, concealed beneath the headband, a daily reminder of the holes now knitted together by his presence.
In the evenings, when Wade was out of town, Beryl did the household chores, played folk tunes on her autoharp, and watched her favorite variety shows on TV. She didn’t mind the separation in the beginning. But after a while, she resented his absence. It’s like being single again, she thought on one of those nights alone. Bored and pissed off at herself for choosing a guy who worked outside the Bay Area, she decided to organize the tin shed located at the farthest edge of the rental property. With a corrugated door, half off its hinges, the shed contained an assortment of junk from former renters: rusted tools and cracked plastic containers.
She headed behind the trailer, flashlight and trash bags in hand, but stopped in her tracks when she saw the shed in the dusky amber-gray light, its door now repaired and secured with a padlock. She stepped away. Wade never said anything about fixing the shed. And where was the key?
Beryl ran to the house, rummaged through the junk drawer by the kitchen sink. No key. Where could it be? Then she thought harder and then it came to her. The same place as the spare to the trailer: above the bedroom door. She ran a broom along the door’s upper casing. Two look-alike keys fell onto the linoleum.
Once outside, she tried them both. The second key worked. She stuffed the lock and key inside her pocket, flung open the door and shined the light inside. Tarp-covered mounds cluttered the area, the odor of fresh earth seeping into the space from underneath the canvas fabric.
What the hell . . .
Beryl propped her flashlight into a nook on the shed’s wall. She placed her hand atop one of the chest-high mounds, then grasped the tarp fabric with trepidation. When the tarp gave way, a glimmer of gilded luminescence radiated from underneath its cover.
Oh, Wade, what have you done?
She let the tarp fall to the ground, staring at the pile of gold-studded quartz, feeling both fear and wonder. The other mounds, once uncovered, revealed more of the same. Hundreds of rocks with gilded clusters set deep into their jagged surface. Worth what? She had no idea. Wild guess…..a quarter million? Maybe more?
Beryl threw the tarps over the mounds the way she’d found them. Her heart racing, she secured the lock, picked up her supplies, and returned to the trailer. Two weeks earlier, she’d decided to quit smoking. What a laugh. Just when she’d made an effort to better herself, something crazy comes along to fuck it up. Now in need of a cigarette, she fished out a pack of Marlboros and lighter from inside a cracker box tin. She sat at the kitchen table, lit up, leaned back, and blew a ribbon of smoke above her head.
So many deadbeats had come in and out of her life since junior high. Some cruel. Others liars, or stupid fools. None of them worth the price of a glass of beer or a good burger. Was Wade another one of those losers? She took a second drag, felt the weight of her body against the chair. Another letdown. Another draught of happiness tapped out of her soul. Wade. He’d be home late the next day. What was she supposed to do? Tell him what she saw? Just let it go?
The next night Beryl kept a watch out the living room window for Wade’s arrival. Her gut ached. Months of unexpressed anger festered beneath her skin. She thought about their latest fight, one of many over the past three months…..
It was lunchtime. They were in the kitchen, at their table for two, eating scrapple and toast. Beryl took small bites while Wade scarfed his down like a stray dog at a garbage heap.
“I got a letter from PG&E yesterday,” Beryl said. “They’re raising the rates again.”
“Quit complaining. Just pay the fuckin’ bill.”
“That isn’t why I brought it up. I need help with the expenses.”
Wade looked up from his plate, a piece of scrapple stuck to his lower lip. “Work’s been slow.”
“Then maybe you should come home, get a job around here.”
“How stupid can you be? There ain’t no mines in San Francisco.”
“I can’t keep paying for everything, Wade. The bills, groceries, gas. And what do I get from you? A few bucks for food maybe? A Sunday brunch at the Pancake House now and then? I’m telling you, something’s gotta change.”
Wade calmly set his fork down beside his plate, and leaned forward. His bull-like nostrils flared and a fiery rage flickered in his topaz eyes.
“You think mining’s easy? A thousand feet underground, the heat burning like a sonofabitch?” He jumped up, knocked the chair into the adjacent refrigerator, his right hand fisted.
“I oughta . . .” She scrunched down, shivering, palms to her head.
“Aw, go fuck yourself,” Wade said, as he headed for the door.
The engine knocked in Wade’s Ford pickup as he pulled into the driveway. He’s here, Beryl thought. Wade hopped out, then turned to look at his truck before he walked to the door. Beryl noticed a piece of canvas sticking up from the bed. He’s got another load.
She dashed to the kitchen, caught her breath by the stove. Seconds later, the screen door creaked open. Her body stiffened.
“Hey,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“Know what.” He moved in, stroked her long blond fall with a rough touch.
“I opened the shed.”
“So, you saw.”
“Yes, I saw.”
“It’s not what you think. I found the vein about ten miles from the main stake. Mined it myself in my spare time.”
“Doesn’t McKenna Mines have a claim on that piece?”
“Well . . .” he wiped the sweat off his brow, “not if they don’t know about it.” He shifted, leaned in to her ear. “Hey, it’s about time I got lucky. And you wanna know the best part? There’s tons of high-grade ore still down there.”
Beryl turned around, face flushed, hands folded across her chest. “I’m not going to jail because of you.”
“You gonna tell somebody?” He gripped her wrist. “Nobody’s gettin’ my gold, Beryl. Not even you.”
“Let go of me!”
“Not until you say you won’t turn me in.”
Her eyes welled with tears. “What’s happened to you, Wade?”
“I mean it, Beryl. You better not call the cops.”
“You….” He held on, slapped her face hard with his other hand.
“Thief!” She jerked her arm to break free, but couldn’t do much in the tight space.
“Where’re you goin’?” Wade released his hold and struck again. She hit the wall – stunned – then went for his groin. He jumped back, deflected the shot.
“You messin’ with me?” His next slap knocked her hard against the counter.
She screamed and again tried to flee, but he pushed her back. His fists raised and face contorted with anger, he stepped closer.
Her eyes darted to the block of knives on the counter. She reached across, grabbed the chef’s knife from its holder, held it out front.
“Back off,” she said, waving the knife from side to side.
“You’re not fuckin’ up my plans….”
He lunged forward. She stepped aside to avoid his attack. But the timing was off. They collided as Wade’s body slammed into her blade. He stepped back, eyes wide with rage as he stared at her.
“You bitch!” Blood oozed from his chest. “I’m gonna kill you.”
“I didn’t mean it, Wade,” She said trembling, her mouth agape, and let the bloody knife fall from her fingers. “It was an accident.”
A milky haze fell over his eyes as he slumped to the floor, unconscious.
“Oh, God, what’ve I done?” But no one heard her cries.
Beryl leapt to his side, checked for a pulse. Nothing. Waves of nausea coursed through her body. Now what? The more she looked at Wade, the faster the room seemed to spin. I’ve gotta get him out of here.
With much difficulty, she dragged Wade outside through the back door. When she returned to the kitchen, the metallic odor of old blood had taken over the trailer. Her hand trembling, she brought the knife to the sink, rubbed the blade clean repeatedly with a dishrag, then placed the knife in its holder. With a bleach-soaked rag, she got on her knees and scrubbed the linoleum in frenetic arcs across the kitchen floor. When finished, she surveyed her surroundings, exhaled long and hard through pursed lips. No one will ever know.
Outside, Beryl stood at Wade’s feet and looked at his lifeless form, spread-eagle on the ground. Where will I put him? She shined the flashlight across the yard, saw a beat-up wheelbarrow beside the shed. The shed. A perfect place to stash a body. It would take a while before anyone found him there and she’d be long gone by then.
Her breathing labored, she lifted Wade into the wheelbarrow. The uncut grass made the trek from the house to the shed a tedious battle of stops and starts. Her muscles ached and her mind reeled a loop of anxious thoughts. What if moving Wade was a mistake?
She pushed the wheelbarrow to the edge of the lot, unlocked the shed with the key she took from the house and walked inside. Piece by piece, Beryl picked up the gold-filled stones from one mound and tossed them out the door. She pulled Wade inside, her clothes soaked with sweat, then covered his body with the discarded stones. When finished, she placed the tarp over the mound and checked the area with her flashlight. An eerie chill moved through her as she stepped backwards to the door. What am I? A murderer?
The word echoed through her world-weary soul. How would she run from the police and avoid getting caught? She looked again at the covered mounds of gold-strewn stones, then padlocked the door. A twisted smile tainted her lips as she turned from the structure and strode briskly to the trailer. By midnight, she was on the road, heading north in her battered up Toyota, her life with Wade a vanishing memory.
The northern winds whipped against Beryl’s face as she stood at the cliff’s edge, her eyes closed to the boundless sea below. What would it be like? She lifted her foot, let it idle in the abysmal emptiness that buffered her from the fatal fall. One short step and it’d be over. Freedom. The end of an ill-fated existence. So simple.
Yet, as easy as it seemed, was this final leap her best and only choice? Her foot touched back onto the rocky soil. She took in a breath, exhaled with a long drawn-out whewww and headed to her car, parked in a vista view lot a quarter of a mile away.
Beryl walked behind the car and removed her keys and flashlight from her pocket. She surveyed the parking lot. Good. I’m alone. She unlocked the trunk, pulled back the thick canvas cover and shined the light inside. Gold. Shimmering in its gilded glory it shined throughout the car’s ratty interior. Her eyes welled with tears. She’d found a way out.
The trunk secure, she started the car, then let it idle, along with her musings about the future. With this gold, I’ll get my beach house in Jamaica. A meager compensation for an otherwise shitty life.
A heavy fog came over the bluff as she pulled onto the two-lane road. She was heading to one of the mining towns north of Redding. They offered cash for gold. An easy exchange, with few questions asked. She switched on the radio, set her mind for the long ride ahead, as Joplin’s “Down on Me” piped through the car’s scratchy speakers. The fog thickened, making it harder for her to see. Still, Beryl rode on.
“I was first on the scene,” Officer Beck told a reporter the next day, when they’d found Beryl’s Toyota at the bottom of a ravine. “What a shame,” he said, shaking his head. “This fog’s a killer. She should’ve pulled off the road sooner.”
Officer Beck stood off to the side, watched the melee of cameramen, reporters and law enforcement personnel depart in their respective vehicles. Unflappable and patient by nature, he waited until the last car had disappeared down the Coast Highway – then pulled out a gold-studded stone from his pocket and let it sparkle in the late morning sun.
Diana Bollmann’s short story “Rotation,” was named “Story of the Month” in Long Story Short Magazine. She has also been published in The Sedona Journal of Emergence and Trivia:Voices of Feminism. You can find more of her words at her website, The Road Not Taken, dianabollmann.com.