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Winner of the 2018 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers

To: Mom

From: Charley

Subject: Project Gold Rush

August 18, 2016

Dear Mom,

Yesterday, Chris and I received a contract to install our hybrid hydraulic braking system in a national long-haul trucking fleet based here in L.A. Also, we received a note from our former long-haul trucker of a father that read:
Boys--Fm out on a mining claim near Tonopah. Dying. You want to
    see me? Be quick. If I were you / wouldn't. But Fm not

I said, right away: Not our circus, not our monkeys, brother.

Chris shook his head. He said we should first consider carefully, as always, the price versus the cost of the situation.

My brain was considering Del, but my heart was still at your Colorado picnic table under the catalpa last October, the checkered cloth under your mismatched dishes, black coffee, ham steaks, the visceral mustard of Mary Lou Vargas's famous potato salad. You were having one of your spells--do you remember? When you're there but not there, riding the thermals of your own mind, spelunking through your darkening memories? Either that or you were mentally rehashing what I thought was an especially boring sermon that day. I gave you my arm when you struggled up and down the church steps, but I could have been Aunt Mano, could have been Chris, could have been a wooden crutch. I felt wooden, for sure, puppet-like, hard and cold and splintered. When I stood up, you stood up, too. The wind blew dried leaves off the tree, opening pathways to the sun so that it flashed like shagbark paparazzi, the image of you impressed with light like a reverse X-ray, into and through me, seared onto my bones.

You really looked at me then, and your eyes somehow twinkled pure blue, color flooding over the milky altostratus film that has settled into them over the past years. Your eyes, for that brief moment, were again blue like Chris's eyes, like your sisters' eyes. The NOAA says that altostratus clouds are thin enough to reveal the sun as if seen through ground glass. The NOAA says altostratus clouds do not produce a halo effect nor are the shadows of objects on the ground visible when they are present. The NOAA dabbles in poetry, magic, and forecasting.

You smiled, placed your hands like cool velvet on both of my cheeks.

I don't know who you are exactly, you said, but I know I love you.

Your old dog, Cass, started barking at an invisible squirrel.

Turn green, dog, you scolded. It's my favorite of your insults.

Do you see shadows on the ground, Mom? Or do you see only hazy sunlight as if through ground glass? What do these questions, these stories (if you can read them, if Mano reads them to you), make you feel?

Thomas Edison had a low opinion of Ouija boards. Chris has for some time been in possession of an original Frank's Box built by Frank Sumption, who loved dogs and chasing ghosts and who himself passed on in 2014. Sumption modeled his boxes after the occult listening machines Thomas Edison built to try to prove the quackery of Ouija enthusiasts. Chris and I spent the past year building various iterations of Shack Hack devices, anticipating your death, but none picked up much otherworldly chatter on the AM dial. In truth, not even the original Frank's Box works. There are online communities devoted to Thomas Edison's views of the occult in the context of a wider spiritualist movement, his desire to scientifically quantify communication with the dead, and most of them would likely agree that the Shack Hacks that me and Chris built were real crappers, despite our collective advanced engineering degrees.

I have long admired Thomas Edison. I wonder what he would think, like I wonder what you think, about the recent societal discussions of neurotypicality across the human spectrum.

I love my aunts like mothers, Mano and Sister Agnes Mary. We are all of us kids a team effort, the product of the collective maternal efforts of you three sisters. But love like a mother is a pale simile for the way I love you, Ruth, my actual mother, for the way my heart went sonorous and resonant when you touched my face, deep music vibrating all through me, like a double bass.

When Chris pitches our hybrid hydraulic braking system to city managers and CEOs, he calibrates his emphasis on potential savings in price versus the potential savings in cost after he reads the room. For him, the faces reflect the degree of volatility in the oil markets, which is based on forecasting of an invisible future supply and demand, the degree of instability in the Middle East, or the possibly unsettling results of a long-shot presidential campaign. Beyond the sociopolitical factors, Chris, like all skilled salesmen, makes spot judgments about values and truth and bait.

It occurs to me that Chris sees me as a pale simile father, despite my lifetime of striving to be the man of the house (house being a metaphor now for family generally, for you and Chris, especially). I am only nine years older than him, after all, but how often did I hear that "man of the house" bit from you, from Mano, from Sister? I wish you understood then the way I imagine you do now, Mom, the ways that operated on me. I forgave you all eternally long ago in light of the many other ways you shaped me, but I wonder if this is one of your enduring memories: My little boy heart, earnestly beating, the three of you taking turns stacking responsibilities like lead weights upon it.

Maybe there's another sort of parent love out there, Mom, that Chris needs, and maybe Del is ready to give it to him.

To: Mom

From: Charley

Subject: Project Gold Rush

August 19, 2016

Dear Mom,

The hydraulic braking systems we design and build capture the energy of deceleration so that it can be applied to acceleration, and when the price of gas is high, Chris describes eloquently the available cash savings in fuel alone. These days of cheap gas, however, make price less an incentive for investment, so he emphasizes the costs. Lower fuel efficiency could mean that Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Reno may someday rival Delhi and Beijing for unlivable air quality, for nature-deprived children with asthma and poor muscle tone. Chris makes visible the connection between commercial vehicle fleets and the melting ice caps, makes the suits believe he can help them rescue a polar bear from drowning in an endlessly warming Arctic waterway. He makes the polar bears personal.

This deep analysis of price and cost is one of many reasons we should all be proud of Chris.

Thomas Edison was too difficult for public school. He was homeschooled by his mother and father; the latter had been thrown out of Canada for his firebrand, impolite politics. Thomas Edison's father taught him critical thinking and distrust of government. Chris and I agree that our own father taught us only distance: miles versus kilometers, synapse versus flesh, blood versus gasoline. Nevertheless, Chris wanted to make an effort, so we did.

You might be surprised that I found Del's mine, surprised at how I found it, but it's no surprise to me. We beat the L.A. traffic to the lonely Nevada highways today. The wind was steady and relentless, shaking the low-lying sagebrush on the steppe but not angry enough to disturb the sandy ground. Spirits and heat vapors shimmered above asphalt and desert alike. Cirrus clouds formed mare's tails in the shape of maiden's braids. Raptors rode the thermals far above--so far away I couldn't tell if they were eagles or vultures. Let's dispense with the portent of the obvious vulture symbolism. Let's say they were eagles for the sheer joy of siding with optimism, said optimism likely the difference between the success or failure of any quest--mythic or modern. Chris and Chris's phone stayed in the car. They were both impatient with me. I licked the tip of my finger and it came up from the earth crusted in sand, sparkling with flecks of mica. It tasted vaguely of strawberries--mostly like sucking on a penny. A grain of sand settled between my canine and my first premolar and remains impossible to dislodge. I have annotated your AAA map, perhaps beyond recognition.

Thomas Edison had an especially insomniac brand of genius. He took frequent short naps on lab tables, in his desk chair. Anywhere Thomas Edison felt sleepy, he went ahead and napped. Like Thomas Edison, like you, I am plagued by insomnia, but I am more successful at navigating through cloud triangulation than I am at napping. I feel like you might know what I mean by this, that you, more than anyone, understand me. Perhaps not. I wonder if you are still able to nap on humid summer afternoons.

The shadows stretched toward us first, then the signs themselves appeared near ground level on the side of the road. One was a Trump/Pence campaign sign. The other was handwritten on plastic board edged with federal safety yellow reflective tape, stuck with wires into the ground, waving gently (there was a breeze and a rather notable absence of the divine): Lost Gun, $1000 Reward, No Questions. I pulled off the road, called the phone number listed, got the "voice mailbox is full" recording. A dirt road--rutted in some areas, washboarded in others, led back toward a looming range of desert mountains. A rusted old cattle panel blocked access, the "No Trespassing" sign was sun-faded, near illegible, but the chain and padlock that secured the fence to the post was shiny-new.

Chris said no shit, and we both just knew this was the place Del wrote us about, and I tell you again, Mom, though I know you already know it, that sometimes just believing something is true--like that you'll find the father that left you--makes the thing solidify in the world, appear in front of you.

Jesus, Chris said. How many found guns you think they have?

It was late. We have returned to the effervescent antiseptic chlorine float of the Tonopah casino/hotel hot tub. Tomorrow we will return to see how our father will receive us, the grown sons he didn't raise, hasn't spoken to in ten years.

To: Mom

From: Charley

Subject: Project Gold Rush

August 20, 2016

Dear Mom,

Here is a story Del told me when I was a boy about when he was a boy, about a thunderstorm that hit during his paper route, the velocity he created, his frantic pedaling through the deluge toward home. The storm gutters were backing up, the puddles trying to catch his tires, take him down, but he had skills, became one with his old Schwinn American. Just as he rounded the corner, lightning struck the metal of his handlebars. Del said the world went TV fuzzy, static framing a black and white image of his street, his house, like he needed to adjust the rabbit ears of his brain. Del said he never did fall, that he made it home and dried himself off and the world kept orbiting the sun, the moon kept orbiting the earth, the aliens kept sending envoys to all three.

Did Del tell you this story? Is this why you loved him? What was lovable about him?

Del saw his first ghost that night; his first alien abduction happened not long after. The lightning electrified Del, marked him. The lightning made Del a hero to the boy I was. And I maybe have seen him like that since, not actually seeing him with my physical eyes, perpetually awestruck. In my imagination, Del is more mythic than human, but really, Del died sometime between his writing the note and our arrival at the mine.

Del's fourth wife Brandy said he was killed by a collapsed wall of cloudy magnesite, rocks like thin milk, like altostratus clouds, and turquoise blue mcguinnessite, rocks the same color of your eyes, of Chris's, in the federal mining claim Del and Brandy purchased at the bottom of the recession in 2009. When she told us we could go down and pay our respects, Chris snorted. Respect for what?

Brandy says they couldn't retrieve his body, but that this is what Del wanted, to be buried in the mine. I think he expected to expire first of all, though, not be killed and buried at the same time, she said. She and her sons, our half-brothers, made a gravesite by arranging a series of milky-white magnesite pieces in a heart shape just to the left of the mine entrance. The boys were at work, she told us, laying sod in town.

She handed me a crumpled piece of notepaper that she says Del wrote as a last will and testament. Fully uncrumpled, it is one sentence long: The feds don't need to know nothing about this.

It's the same handwriting that's in our note from Del, but when Chris showed Brandy our note she frowned at him.

That ain't from Del, she said.

Who else would have written it? Chris asked.

That part ain't my problem.

Here is what the website says Thomas Edison says, in his autobiography, about the afterlife:
"Now, I don 't make any claims whatever to prove that the
    personality survives what we call "death. "All I claim is
that any
   effort caught by my apparatus will be magnified many times, and it
   does not matter how slight is the effort, it will be sufficient to
   record whatever there is to be recorded. Frankly, I do not accept
   the present theories about life and death."

Thomas Edison sold mass-produced cement houses to the American public, but he could not design a device that could hear the dead, nor did he try to design a device that could listen to the trapped thoughts of mothers suffering dementia. I have an iPhone in my pocket, spend my days writing code, utilizing design software. Del's family uses an outhouse next to a chicken coop that has maybe a dozen skinny hens scratching around in it. They haul water in once a week in a giant cistern tank on a rickety old trailer. The propane tank has gone rusty. The mining claim is played out, historically stingy. It gave nothing to the original 49ers. It was picked over again during the Great Depression and abandoned by 1948, the year the Edison branch of the Detroit Public Library opened in a rented storefront overlooking the expressway. Del overlooked the children of his first marriage for years, and then he died before he could look any of us in our eyes, most of which are the color of the mcguinnessite that buried him.

To: Mom

From: Charley

Subject: Project Gold Rush

August 21, 2016
 Mom, sod for commercial jobs is delivered by the pallet:
          480 square feet of sod
          8 foot rolls of Kentucky bluegrass
          60 rolls per pallet in drought-tolerant, disease-resistant
          emerald blue

There are no specific industry recommendations for watering sod in the first few days. Only it has to be kept evenly moist until rooted. It takes careful monitoring and attention and should probably require a full Army Corps Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of the water table in Tonopah, Nevada.

Each of those sod rolls weighs at least 30 pounds, and to see them carried, two at a time, on the wiry shoulders of a 14-year-old boy shocked my heart electric like Del's handlebar lightning.

The sod supervisor leaned close to our young half-brother, who pulled back, threw up his hands, and yelled: I'm just trying to do a good job.

The supervisor squared his shoulders, pointed at the boy's chest. You're getting paid by the square foot, not by the good job.

Another boy, unmistakably related, stood up behind the first, yelled at the supervisor. Turn green, jackass.

Chris tugged at the elbow of my shirt sleeve. His other hand was spread open over his heart, his eyes welling. Mom, he said, his voice strangling in his tears.

Did you give Del your turn green insult? Or did he give it to you?

Thomas Edison spent two years pursuing domestic rubber horticulture with Henry Ford and Henry Firestone (who share initials and inventive automotive fortunes, just like Chris and me) in his lab in West Orange, New Jersey and in his home in Florida. The New York Botanical Society records show that 17,000 plant specimens were gathered from across the southern US, the best a hybridized goldenrod that yielded 12 percent rubber.

I am rubber. Chris is glue. He wants to keep the Tonopah family. He wants to raise them, shelter them, rub the balm of caretaking all over his grief. I'm not surprised by grief, with your illness gone so severe, and now, suddenly, Del. I carry my own share of it around, but I recognize that the weight of Chris's grief is somehow mine multiplied, grief to the power of near unbearable.

Our oldest half-brother, Colton, is fifteen, twenty-six years younger than me. Michael is fourteen. When they saw our note from Del, Colton embraced us both.

You have his eyes, Colton said, looking at me.

When we returned to the mine, Colton invited us in for coffee without asking Brandy's permission.

You enter the--it's not a house really, more of a dwelling--through a wooden lean-to, graying boards that shift, entirely, to the left, then open into a cave cut into the side of the mountain itself. It seems like it might have been a staging room for the old-timey miners, a company office. There are two sets of bunk beds that seem to have been hand built from pallet wood, a wood stove next to a propane camp stove. A large gun safe sits next to a ceramic utility sink. There's no running water, but they've plumbed the drains with PVC pipe out a crack in the lean-to and into a ditch outside. In the middle of the room is a solid wood table with four chairs, dusty maps, and quitclaim deeds and notices covering its surface.

Michael struck a match, lit the propane stove, made the coffee. WhenI opened the envelope of powdered creamer, it spilled all over Colton's hand drawn map of the mine. Brandy sucked her teeth at me.

There is one thing about planting sod. Not all soil amendments are created equal. To water strength down into the root system, to build drought tolerance and to break up any hard-pan earthen layers under the soil crust, add phosphorus. For general good health, joy, and transmission capacity, the savvy gardener will emphasize potassium over nitrogen.I enjoy bananas; the deep majestic purple dinnerplate 'Thomas Edison' dahlia enjoys Miracle-Gro. Del's Tonopah family is just like Del, all three of them. They seek the flash and sparkle of a nitrogen infusion--something that makes them showier, more obviously golden, more present in the world.

Colton and Michael have promised to take Chris and me into the mine tomorrow. We will have to be careful about what we promise in return.

To: Mom

From: Charley

Subject: Project Gold Rush

August 22, 2016

I didn't follow them past the timber framed entrance to the mine. I've seen more welcoming caves in my life, Mom. This mine breathes the barometric wind, seeks to balance pressure. During storms, this mine whispers mythic quest stories--something about desire, about fallibility--or maybe the mine is its own Frank's Box, and it's Del whispering, but it's either nonsense, or Esperanto, or Lingit, or another language in which I can't communicate fluently.

When you pass on, maybe I'll lease a mining claim, wait for the cave to start whispering.

Chris came out of the mine leaking whispered secrets. Two years ago, he spent $10,000 on court fees for a half-sister we have in Reno, Del's daughter by his second wife, who got picked up on an identity theft charge. She lost her appeal and is currently in a minimum-security prison in Colorado. Chris writes her letters, sends Louis Lamour paperbacks. Last year, two other half-brothers, from Del's third wife in Detroit, contacted Chris. They asked for tuition money to complete their automotive training certificates, and when he sent it, they cut contact. He paid a private investigator $5000 to discover that they had embezzled money from a charter school, skipped bail, and taken jobs on a fishing tender outside Haines, Alaska, under assumed names.

Chris has an impeccable instinct for business people, but a blind spot, or maybe a soft spot, for half-family. He didn't tell me, he said, because the price of the new family was insignificant, but he couldn't accurately calculate the costs of my disapproval.

Chris came out of the mine convicted about ownership of circuses and monkeys, apples and trees. He calculated the relative strength of wind from the south and from the west, the breathy through-line of generations. He will not return to L.A. without the boys, and they won't leave the mine without Brandy.

Did you find Del down there? I asked.

It's just a big pile of rocks, he said. Obstructing everything.

Colton is right. My eyes are unmistakably from Del, brown, unremarkable, focused best on the periphery.I don't want to believe my heart is from Del, too, suspicious, wandering, beating so much for the search that it forgets to love what it has already found.I want a heart that loves easily and well, a heart so welcoming and resilient and good that it doesn't have to fear breaking. A heart like Chris's. A heart like yours.

To: Mom

From: Charley

Subject: Project Gold Rush

August 23, 2016

Dear Mom,

We promised to retrieve the gun safe and the guns in the near future. We promised to stop in Las Vegas so Brandy could visit her sister. We took rooms at Circus Circus, more amusement park than casino. Our new brothers are children, after all, and Chris loves trapeze artists and tumblers.I felt we were gambling enough.

When Thomas Edison was fifteen, he traveled around the country filling in as a telegraph operator for men gone to fight the Civil War. Those were electric years for young Edison, years of transmission, of formation, of meaning making. Our half-brothers spent hundreds of Chris's dollars on the midway at Circus Circus, throwing basketballs at a tilted hoop until they won a life-sized stuffed bear for their mother.

The plan was to meet at the Prius at seven a.m., get an early start. The sun was firmly up when Chris andI walked out, blinding where it reflected off the metal and glass of the strip. Later, we watched security footage of Brandy and the boys, with a stolen set of keys, driving away at three a.m. Colton was behind the wheel, Brandy in the front seat, Michael in the back with the giant bear.

Its nothing we can't afford, Chris said, shrugging.

We had taken the boys to watch the free circus acts, watched a woman in a polar bear leotard lie down on her back and juggle clear plastic ice cubes with all four limbs. Chris tried to explain that hydraulic engineering sought to amplify the power of human muscle, that someday he would find a way to make the jerky, stop-and-go hydraulic affect as elegant as the motion of the polar bear woman, of the tumblers. The world could use more grace, he said.

Later, Michael did flips into the outdoor pool. Colton teased him. Graceful amplification! Elegant hydraulics!

Chris cheered, refused to correct their Science.

Upon discovery of the empty parking space, Chris's face revealed something close to recognition. I wanted to call the police, but he smiled and pulled Del's will from his pocket: The feds don't need to know nothing about this.

We tabled our disagreement for discussion at a less emotional time and rented a car for the drive back to L.A. The desert glowed pink, the soil reflecting the fading burn of a sky. Chris and Chris's phone were both silent, and then Chris said, We did what we could. I wish them well.

I don't know exactly what to wish, Mom, but I thought about the way the wind sometimes blows the clouds lenticular over the mountains. Those clouds are the shape of lenses, named for lenses, but those clouds, like so many other things, are always opaque.
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Title Annotation:fiction
Author:Boyles, Claire
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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