During the tourist season in Breckenridge, it was my job to wade upstream and shake bags of pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, into the current. This was called seeding the creek. There were other attractions there, too—the abandoned mine shaft, slick underfoot and cold as a walk-in freezer, available for tours. A museum of glossy black-and-white photographs, a replica mining town complete with squeaky-hinged saloon doors. But the most popular activity was always found at the wide, shallow elbow of the creek, where tourists could pay ten dollars each for panning equipment and a glass vial.
Gold fever struck about once a day, like clockwork, normally within a few hours of me unloosing my pyrite. Someone was always the first to delve through the white froth and come up with something that looked just right, that took the shine from the sun.
Within minutes, every tourist in sight could be found knee-deep in the creek, sieving excess water from their pans. There was always at least one, of course, who came up with nothing, sourly sifting through pebbles and mud. It had to be that way—I could only seed the creek so much on any given day.
And it helped, too, that one unlucky tourist. Finding gold wasn’t supposed to be easy. Everyone else could wade in even more convinced of success, of paydirt that only they could unearth. You would always be a little lucky—even if you took a sip of water from that creek there’d be gold flakes in it, shimmering up from the cup of your palms.
In the six years I worked there, my mother only ever visited me once. When she did come, it was because she finally took off her wedding ring.
When she called me on the near-end of my lunch break, she said, “My finger is practically naked without it, Marie. I swear I can’t even look at it. I walk around feeling indecent.”
“Scandalous,” I agreed.
“I don’t think I can put up with myself out here alone anymore,” she said. “I think I’ll come for a visit.”
My mother was not normally spontaneous. She was a sensitive person who saved moths caught in webs and couldn’t stomach the nightly news. She never got a driver’s license because my father drove her everywhere. But she decided she would fly to see me in Colorado.
This was a tricky situation because in order for her to stay with me, I had to kick Kevin out. He and I were not doing well anyways, and I needed the extra space. It was a good excuse. When I told him, Kevin did not appreciate the short notice, either. He needed time to work up to real outrage.
“I can’t even look your mother in the eye and say hello,” he said. He was standing in the doorway with his bags but he hadn’t left yet. “Wow, Marie. That’s cold, Marie.”
“Maybe it’ll just be for a few days,” I said. I tried to at least make it seem like there was still a possibility for us. Kevin, like me, was not from Colorado, although he tried to be. He’d moved here from Arizona for college, dropped out a few months in, and burned through a series of odd jobs before he eventually made himself indispensable at a divey concert venue as a bouncer and bartender and janitor and anything else he was needed to be. By the time I met him, he was convinced he was more of a local than any of his regulars. He despised the tourists who made my job necessary—the pasty, sunscreen-lathered kids who expected to find gold on their first try, or the men on business retreats, always in tall socks and polos, who left self-satisfied, convinced they’d conquered something. To him, I was the dark truth of supply and demand, the man behind the curtain. When he first told me this, carding me at the bar, I was equally attracted by how confidently he spoke his opinion and how red he turned when I told him he was wrong.
To be fair, Kevin had good qualities. In the early days of dating, he would draw me a bath after an especially exhausting day on my feet, read aloud the articles from an outdated National Geographic while I soaked. He said he now hated my job because he knew I deserved so much better. He also had perfect teeth. But this was the Kevin I was dealing with when my mother came to town.
My mother’s home was snugged up as far east in Kansas as you could go. The drive topped ten hours, and I could only afford to fly back once every year or two, so I was used to noticing the changes in my mother, keeping snapshots of her in my mind that subtly refigured themselves every time we were together. After my dad died and I moved away, she morphed from wearing almost all black to wearing some black and then to wearing mascara. Her calves became as firm and ripe as an athlete’s, since she walked rather than learning to drive.
When she arrived I didn’t see her most recent change, at least not right away. She kept her gloves on all the way home from the airport, tucking her hands away between her thighs too. She even ate dinner with them on.
“I bet it’s not as bad as you think it is,” I told her.
“I just don’t like seeing it,” she said. But finally she pulled her gloves off and set them aside.
There was a slightly paler band of flesh around her ring finger, but that was it. Nothing that someone who wasn’t looking closely would notice. I rubbed my finger over it.
“Wow,” I told her. “You really oversold this whole situation. It looks completely normal.”
“He always said it was his grandmother’s,” she said, shaking her head. Now that the ring was gone, I was having a hard time remembering what it looked like. A simple gold band, maybe, with a modestly-sized diamond.
“Now it’s no one’s,” I said.
She frowned and slid her hand away.
Kevin took a psychology class once, so he was confident in his judgment that my dad was a rigid authoritarian. He said it explained why I had struck out on my own, moving miles away to get out of my dad’s shadow, why I couldn’t give up any control in our relationship. This was back when I didn’t want to fight with Kevin—I had still wanted someone who could puzzle out the mysteries that made up me. I thought, with Kevin, I could retrain myself into someone with less meanness—if I could just curb my tongue, restrain the urge to cut him down. He explained me to myself, and for a while I told myself that maybe sometimes I could let him be right. For someone like Kevin, getting that was almost the same as love. But the truth was that Kevin got just as much wrong: my father and I were best friends.
When he was alive and I was much younger, we’d watch TV together. He would patiently explain golf or football, and push his empty sodas across the coffee table towards me when he was finished. I would run to the fridge and bring him a cold new can, and for that he’d let me take the first fizzy sip. Sometimes at night I’d hear her arguing with him through the bedroom wall—my mother’s wet, cracked voice, and the silence he gave back to her, and I knew exactly what he was feeling. Annoyance growing like a heavy stone in his chest. Sudden hot rages at how pathetic she was. All those tears. All that fuss.
In the aftermath, he’d sometimes draw me aside and commiserate.
“Your mother,” he’d say, and heave a deep sigh. “She’s fragile. She thinks everything’s a personal attack against her.” I was old enough, now—I had noticed that too, hadn’t I?
It didn’t seem important to ask my mother why she finally took off the ring. All that mattered was that she had, so whatever her reason was, I didn’t ask.
Kevin asked once why I left Kansas. I told him to imagine the perfect line, like the one in math textbooks. No end points, unsegmented, perfectly immeasurable.
“What’s your point?” Kevin asked, in a wary, narrow-eyed way.
“Kansas contained the line,” I said. Since a line can go on forever, Kansas could, too.
When I left home I didn’t have a job waiting for me, or even a general sense of where I was going. But my Kansas, a small farm town in the middle of the state, was flat and endless, inevitable—you could always see what was coming for you, even if you couldn’t move out of the way. It was also very gold: perfectly squared fields of grain, gun barrel roads heading straight into the sun. All that gold and not a piece of it you could keep for yourself.
When I left, I had never seen a building higher than four stories. I knew there would be mountains in Breckenridge, purple-blue as a bruise against the sky, building on top of each other in elaborate origami folds. Clear cold streams and green wildernesses to get lost in. Breckenridge was the closest place that felt as far from Kansas as possible, and that was enough to point my car west. I had initially planned only to pass through, but it was easy to linger a day, and then a day more. By the time I met Kevin, all that lingering had necessitated finding a way to stay there.
My job was in the middle of that, tucked in the shadow of Bald Mountain. The morning after my mother flew in to see me, I brought her there. I still had to work. I showed her the rough-hewn logs of the replica town and the line of tourists in yellow slickers and hard hats that I’d be leading through the mine. It was a sunny day, busy, with buses unburdening themselves of people in the parking lot. I looked at my mother—who didn’t go to church on holidays because it was “too crowded,” who watched neighborhood block parties from behind her blinds—and knew it was not the kind of environment she would like.
“I can drop you off in town for a few hours,” I said.
“No… it’s fine,” she said. She looked around dubiously. There in the bright sun, with her gloves pulled primly past her wrists, she looked especially out of place. “I’ll find something to do.”
When I found her later she showed me the thumbnail-sized collection of gold flakes she’d found in the creek.
“It’s not much,” she said. “But it’s pretty, even if it is fake. Only took me an hour.”
“Did anyone show you how do it?” I said. “That’s really not a whole lot. You’re supposed to leave here feeling rich.”
“It was just something to do,” she said. When she thought I wasn’t looking she tipped out her handful of flakes and scuffed them into the dirt with the toe of her shoe.
Dad used to make fun of her—he said she was gullible. It was the kind of mocking that always seemed tinged with something else. Sometimes Mom would spend late nights in the blue wash of our old PC’s computer screen, clicking on ads that promised she was the millionth visitor. Or she bought scratch-off tickets. She hid them deep in the trash can when she didn’t win, but the tip of her thumbnail was always smeared silver-gray on those days.
Mom didn’t like being caught. She always claimed it was her way of helping out. If she just won the money somewhere, she said, it could go towards home repairs. The cracks in our drywall. The weed-choked driveway. Dad didn’t believe her, always thought she had some kind of problem. But about that, at least, I always thought she was telling the truth.
I gestured over to the car and pretended I didn’t see her grinding the gold into the dirt. Driving home, she fixed me with a look.
“So where have you been keeping Kevin?” she asked. “I’ve been wanting to meet him. Thought he would have been around by now.”
I sighed. Of course the two of them would be equally interested in each other. “Kevin’s not been around much anymore,” I told her. “I think it would be safe to say we’re on a break.”
“Oh, Marie,” she said, putting her hand on my arm. “I wish you would have told me. That’s terrible.”
“It’s really not that bad,” I said. “Not that bad for me, I mean. Kevin’s been having to sleep on a friend’s couch since I told him.”
Mom shook her head sympathetically.
“It’s probably for the best, though. He was always trying to psychoanalyze what my job says about me. And he said I talk about lines too much.”
“Lines?” she said.
“I was, well, I was trying to explain to him why I don’t want to go back to Kansas,” I said. I didn’t miss the way her gaze dropped, sliding away. “How it’s so open. You know. Empty. And no matter what direction you turn, the horizon is just this long, flat line and you could walk towards it forever and…” Mom was rummaging in her purse, so I trailed off. She fished out a Kleenex and glanced over.
“And still be in Kansas,” I said. “I guess you never felt that way?”
“Lines,” she repeated, mystified.
I turned up the radio volume, tried to swallow down the frustration. After Dad died, after I left, I had to remind myself that if Mom didn’t understand me, I didn’t understand her, either. As condescending and rude as Dad could be, she seemed to take it as a matter of course. Sometimes she even laughed with him, shaking her head at how absurd she was. Or she would make faces to me as soon as he turned away, as if this was a game they played for my benefit. As a teenager, I could drive her to tears by sitting in stone silence, refusing to look at her, just to see if I could.
“This is just a phase,” she would say, her hand clamped over my knee, her voice watery. “You’re just going through a phase.”
Maybe Mom didn’t understand me, but she still came with me the next day too, this time with a book to read while she waited. She smiled and waved me off when I said I had to start my shift. Halfway through, thinking she might be bored, I brought her along with me to the supply shed and showed her the burlap bags of pyrite stacked against the wall. I opened the mouth of one to show her—shaved down into flakes, vaguely crescent-shaped, like thousands of goldish hangnails.
“The smaller stuff floats down the creek better,” I told her. “And it looks more believable. Every once in a while, I find a big nugget and then it’s really obvious it’s not gold.”
“How can you tell?” After a moment she peeled off a glove, sunk her naked hand down to the wrist into the bag, feeling.
“They just look different, is all,” I said. “If you looked at ‘em side by side…”
“Side by side, what?” she asked.
“Pyrite’s harder. Shiny. Looks more like the color of brass. If you find a raw piece, it could have as many sides as a dice.” I shrugged. “It’s only gold here because people want it to be.”
“Right,” she said. She drew her hand out and looked it over carefully, like she hoped it might be scaled with the gold flakes.
“Now you’ve been behind the scenes,” I said.
“I’m in on the secret,” she said, and smiled at me conspiratorially. I suddenly felt a burst of affection for her.
“Wanna come with me?”
“Oh, I’m just gonna go back to reading,” she said. And then, “Come with you where?”
I found an extra pair of rubber boots. They were slightly too big for her and made a sucking noise like a plunger with each step she took. We went back out into the sunlight and walked around a group of newcomers lined up for panning equipment.
“No one ever catches you doing… this?” she asked.
“Seeding the creek?”
“Yeah.” She was still looking at the tourists as we took a path into the trees.
“What do you think?”
Walking awkwardly in her boots, she looked gangly, a newborn calf. I had to slow down for her, but I didn’t mind. Out here I didn’t have to deal with any tourists. We weren’t at the river yet, could only hear it through the trees, and it was cold in the shadows. Mom gasped when we stepped from the tree cover.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. The river was more muscular here, frothed with white. She seemed impressed when I stepped from the bank and right into it.
“You coming or not?”
She put a hand on my shoulder to steady herself and lowered herself down with a splash. She was close enough I could see every line that smiled around her eyes. The current knocked our knees together.
“You can do the honors,” I said, handing over the bag to her.
She took it and glanced around.
“So I just…”
“It’s around the bend,” I said, gesturing to where the river curved away. “Water’ll carry it there.”
She sloshed forward several unsteady steps into the center of the river. I laughed when she lined herself up like a bowler taking her stance, carefully calculating angles. We both fell silent when she emptied the bag upside down, watching as gold slivers danced and scattered like bright fish before twining away on an unseen current.
“Is that enough?” she asked.
“It’ll keep the out-of-towners happy for another day or two,” I said, holding my hand out for the empty bag.
Mom passed it over. We stood there for a moment more, feeling the pull of the current around our knees.
“I can’t believe you get to see this every day,” she said, soft, trailing her fingers through the water.
“Perks of the job,” I told her, and grabbed her elbow, helping to steer her to the shore.
Mom read the rest of my shift, while I rang up admission tickets, handed out matching yellow slickers and hardhats for the mine tours. When we got home that night, Kevin was waiting at the door of the apartment. He hardly even looked ashamed as I glared at him, my mother right behind me.
“I just came to get some things I forgot,” he said. He looked over my shoulder. “I hope this isn’t a nasty surprise, meeting me like this.”
“Not a surprise, no,” my mom said, faltering.
I stepped past him to unlock the door.
“I can grab whatever you left behind,” I told him. “It will only take a second. You don’t even need to come in.”
By the time I unearthed a tub of his winter wear from the hall closet, my mom had already invited him in to dinner.
“I’ll make it,” she said. “My treat, for giving me a place to stay this week.”
Kevin and I sat at the kitchen table while she rifled through my cupboards, pulling down jars and boxes, tsking when she found something out-of-date.
“You look nice today, Marie,” Kevin told me.
“I wasn’t sure if that was something I was doing wrong, not telling you enough.”
Annoyance like a small stone settling in my gut.
“No,” I said. “It’s not.”
My mother, pouring noodles into a pot, looked over her shoulder at me. I couldn’t tell what the look meant.
“I’m thinking about leaving Colorado,” Kevin said. “Thinking a lot about it. It just doesn’t seem like it’s a good fit for me anymore.”
“That’s too bad,” Mom said. “Where are you thinking of going?”
“Not sure yet. I’m actually from Tucson. Sometimes I miss that, the dry air. Maybe a place like that.” He glanced at me. “What do you think?”
“Yeah. Too many lines? Not enough?”
My mother tittered at the stove, putting a hand to her mouth. I glared at the two of them, at Kevin, who was smiling over at her, and felt a stab of anger in my stomach.
“I’m just wondering what you think is gonna happen if you move again,” I said. “You might take better to the weather, sure. There might be better opportunities. But Tucson is probably no better than anywhere else when it comes to employing people who dropped college after a semester.”
“Oh, Marie,” Mom said. Her voice was heavy. She came to the table and sat down between us. “He was just having a bit of fun.”
“It’s okay,” Kevin said. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.”
“Don’t start,” I said.
Mom turned to face him, her shoulders high, boxing me out. “Tell me more about your plans.”
I could feel a blush laddering up my neck, burning red. It took this, took Mom being in the same room with Kevin, to make me feel it. It was probably why I made Kevin leave in the first place, because I had some inkling this would happen. That Mom would look between us and see something familiar there—something of herself in Kevin, something of my father in me. I didn’t want it to be like that, but I couldn’t help it. Like an itch that was always beneath my skin. It was not something I could leave behind in Kansas.
“Well, if not Tucson, maybe New Mexico. I’ve heard about how you can live in these homes out in the desert—earthships, they call them. So remote that you can see every star in the sky.”
“That sounds lovely,” Mom said. I forced myself to listen, penitent, not interrupting.
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “You’re forced to become really self-reliant out there. There’s no one else for miles.”
“Lonely, too,” Mom said.
“It might not be very practical, money-wise,” Kevin said. “But it’s nice to think about.”
Mom stood to move the pasta from the burner. She went to the cupboard and lifted down a stack of plates. “Aren’t you sick of people telling you what’s practical?” She passed the stack over to me without another word.
Kevin turned to look at me. “If I go, I’ll send you something back,” he said. “Artwork, or something. Would you like that, Marie?”
I felt a tenderness for Kevin, then.
“Yes,” I said, gently placing his plate in front of him. “I think I would.”
After dinner, my mom announced she had a headache. She didn’t look at either of us when she said that, just said a bland goodnight and left the kitchen. Kevin and I eyed each other for a moment over our sauced plates.
“I’ll help you clean the dishes?”
We passed dishes back and forth at the sink, up to our wrists in suds. Kevin took in a breath, let it out.
“Your mom’s really nice,” he said. “I’m glad I met her.”
He wrung the dishcloth out between his fingers, rolled it out limp again. “I shouldn’t have come here tonight without telling you. I was being stupid.”
“You were,” I agreed. I still felt that swell of tenderness for him, left over from dinner, and it made me generous. “It’s okay, though. I’m glad you came.”
Kevin took in another breath. His hand found mine beneath the water, a slight enough touch that it could have been accidental. I could have let that pass—should have. But then we turned to each other, our hands coming wet and soap-wrinkled to each other’s faces. I thought there was something to this—his desperation something only I could salve away. He lifted me to the counter and fisted my shirt up, thumbed open the button of my jeans.
“God, I’ve missed you,” he said. He palmed over my zipper.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I’ve missed you so much.” I turned his face into my neck, bracketed his hips between my knees. We had always been able to give each other this.
“I’ll stay, Marie,” he said, breathing hard against my ear. “I won’t go to Arizona.”
It took a second. Then I leaned back, away from him.
“What? What now?”
“Kevin,” I said. “This is only happening because you’re going to Arizona.” That tenderness was souring in my stomach now. I pushed his hands away, tried to slide down from the counter without stepping on his toes.
Kevin’s face was turning pink. “You act like I’m some kind of joke.”
I wanted to tell him how ridiculous he was, this whole situation was. Soap suds from our hands were still on my stomach, daubed across his cheek. I wanted to laugh in his face. For a moment Dad loomed up before me, as he was years ago. He would have reduced Kevin to something mite-sized and insignificant, with just the wordless shrug of a shoulder, a conspiratorial grin. But he was gone, and the picture in my mind warped itself into the image of my mother, the one I still had left, who must have known something would happen when she left the room. Or maybe I didn’t even want to talk. I just wanted my mother.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, okay? But you have to leave.”
“You’re really telling me to leave? Again?”
“Kev, there’s not a whole lot else I can do,” I say. “I’m not a good person with you.”
“No one I know gets why you’re acting like this,” he said. “Not even your mom thinks—”
I wiped the bubbles from his cheek. Couldn’t help the tenderness, new-sprung in my chest, even as I said, “Get out.”
Locking the door behind him, I felt vaguely ashamed, my shirt still rucked up around my ribs. My skin felt rubbed raw, like I’d been ducked into bathwater and scalded clean. I smoothed my shirt down, paused outside my mom’s bedroom. I wondered if she’d been listening. But her room was quiet, the sliver underneath the door dark, so I walked on.
I didn’t have to work the next morning. But I did end up there, anyways, because when I woke up my mother was gone. I waited around for hours, calling her cell phone. When I thought about it, though, there was only one place she was familiar with.
When I found her, it was with some relief, recognizing the short woman walking shin-deep in the creek as my mother. She had found the place where the water bellied low in the shallows, a perfect place for debris to sink down and stick. Her shoes were waterlogged, her dress hitched around her thighs. Lined along the shore was a small audience of children, crouched low enough over the water to wet their backsides, watching her. They seemed to think she knew what she was doing, and I sat down with them.
For an hour I watched her kneeling in the rocks, her deliberate routine. Her fingers rasped through the pebbles and sand in her pan over and over, carefully combing through before dumping everything out and starting again. I couldn’t tell you how many times she did this. I watched with something approaching fascination, Mom swilling mud through her pan with slow, methodical patience, like it was something she had done for more years to count. And when she stood up, water slopped all down her front, there was something large and glittering held in her fist. When that happened, the children came tumbling forward with their pans and bare hands, scrabbling all around her feet, hoping to find the same.
Whatever she found, she wouldn’t let me see it. During the last two days my mother was there, I noticed she always kept a certain vial nearby. That, at least, was familiar; equipment we sold at work. I only ever saw it in brief glimpses. First it was sitting on top of her half-packed suitcase, then on her nightstand as she got ready for bed.
“What do you have there?” I asked, lingering in her bedroom doorway.
“A nice souvenir,” she said, nudging the door closed behind her. “I’m tired, Marie. It’s just something small to bring home.”
Next it was hanging by a chain around her neck, hidden by the collar of her shirt. I had seen enough to know it contained something large and yellowish, uncomfortably wedged about halfway down the glass tube.
I tried to confront her about it. I tried to take it away.
“It’s not even real,” I said. “Jesus, you know that. You know it’s part of my job.”
“Marie, you can’t just go grabbing at me like that.” Her fingers disappeared into the neck of her shirt as she patted the chain into place.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why did you even come? For that? For a replacement?” I pointed to her naked ring finger, and she balled up her fist in response, like a reflex, hiding it away. “It obviously wasn’t to see me.” I walked away and sat down in a kitchen chair. After a few minutes I heard the other chair scrape back.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “If I could afford to come more—if you could come back—I wish it would always be the two of us together.”
I didn’t say anything. She leaned forward over the table, her voice hesitant.
“If there was gold in the creek a hundred years ago, how can you be sure there isn’t any left? Just a little bit,” she said quickly. “Enough for me to find.”
I knew, then, I wouldn’t be able to get through to her. About the gold, about Kansas—about any of it. It was just her way—to go into it eyes open, to stand in a place so wide and empty that she could see exactly what was coming and still ask to be not hurt by it.
I held my hand out across the table. “Let me see it, then.”
Her hand lifted to the vial and formed a hard fist over it. She shook her head, not moving, and I realized she was waiting. My mother thought I knew everything about gold, which was untrue. I knew everything about what wasn’t gold. But she was looking at me, in this half-hopeful way, like I held the truth of it.
Something came unfolded in my chest. This, I could give to her.
“It would be heavy,” I said. “But still so soft you could bite into it. There’d be marks left from your teeth.”
“It is,” she said immediately. She still had her hand clasped over it. I blew out a breath.
“It would be the goldest gold you could imagine. It would be like the sun.”
“It is,” she breathed. “It is, it is.”