Before there was Breece or Jonah or Willie, before there were priests or merchants, there was this: a cave. Before this cave, there was rock. There were cracks and bogs and sinkholes that claimed continents without recourse. And before this earth, there was ocean, and from this ocean life sparked and shuttered, neutered and nurtured both by the original mother. Stratified debris—layer upon layer of organic filth—mollified into silt and then fossil.
Riverbeds yoked the mountains.
They carved the ocean into a chaos roaring and breathless.
Man came to, deaf and dumb and proceeded as thus, staggering like buffalo run over cliffs by mobs of indigenes toward destruction and death. Waste became gold became worth, and gold like fissures of volcanic rock re-shaped the surface of this earth.
Now there is a cave—a gold mine, sunk into the ground to retrieve auriferous quartz like so much sedentary gimcrack on the shelves of city consignment stores, each hung with paper tags and Sharpied prices, innumerable and lifeless.
Jonah and Willie are at the El Dorado parlor, piss drunk the two of them. Willie dances with his Señorita from Sonora. Jonah reckons Sonora must be a regular paradise. Reeking ale and pork tangled in his knotted beard, and drink sloshing—mug to ground—Willie swills his ale and it spills across Jonah’s boots. When he passes, Jonah sees two things: Willie’s veined hand on the woman’s rump and, over her shoulder where his head rests, those filthy wooden teeth.
Willie’s jaw disengages like a serpent’s. His splintered, yellowed teeth lunge out from under his cocked eyes and vanish again into his grinning mouth. His eyes are bloodshot and Jonah sees every wen and wart on his porous nose busted sideways six months ago and still crooked.
Jonah strikes a lucifer and extinguishes it on his boot. He drops the match to the floor where a dozen others lie discarded. Struck each and flamed-out. He gulps down his gin and steps outside, thinking of the babe he has back home in Mississippi. Must have grown giant since last Easter.
There is a cloth house across the street where he and Willie sleep. The street is laid with horse dung and gravel, and the cloth house glows faintly through the tarpaulin. They used to have a house with wood and nails, but the rainy season came early and the sluice they built dammed the river. Floodwaters rose and erased half the camp. For nights, Jonah listened to the oarsmen rowing by in canoes, rescuing what they could and leaving the rest.
As Jonah comes closer, he watches the rough cloth dissolve into pattern. Inside there are three people—an Injun, a doctor, and a gold digger. The Injun is giving birth and a tallow candle burns on the tableside.
“I wish you wouldn’t give birth in my storehouse,” says Jonah.
He passes into a back room with two pallet beds and finds a pistol buried in a trunk wrapped in an old length of sackcloth. He exits through the rear of the cloth house, carrying his bull’s-eye lantern. It narrows all its light to a single point.
He sees the ground, isolated in the light of the bull’s-eye, then rushing water—the river.
Jonah slides feet-first down the muddy slope. With his denim trousers rolled to his knees he watches the shadows of fish swim beneath the bull’s-eye. He cocks the pistol and fires. A report and a splash—but no fish. He cocks again and fires. A trout turns up belly-first, black stream of blood running out its wound. He watches it float downriver
A dim picture enters Jonah’s mind. Trembling with drink, he imagines all the world is an ocean. He can see shellfish the size of Willie’s swollen head. He sees their petty fossils gathering like a cyclone into rock.
The pistol is still warm against his leg as he waits outside the parlor, striking lucifers and extinguishing them against his boot. He has two empty matchbooks in his pocket and a third in his hand. “Wouldn’t I like to live in a real wood house,” says Jonah to someone passing by, “instead of a cloth house where the Injun is giving birth.” In the flinty brilliance of the lucifer, he sees his babe’s face, floating like the dark fish in the river.
An hour passes before Willie stumbles out of the banging doors. “Howdy, Willie,” says Jonah as he sidles up beside him.
“Ay,” says Willie. He sounds as though his mouth is full behind those wooden teeth.
“What do you think about me and you going up in the coyote-hole tonight. Find us some gold in those rocks?”
“Bet’n I can find more than you,” says Willie.
The two men follow the gravel-and-dung road to its end and tromp up the foothill. Willie looks foolish stumbling over rocks in the dark.
“That Señorita take you for a ride or what?” says Jonah.
“Oh sure,” Willie says, “she took me for a ride.” His voice cracks from the ale and stinks.
“I mean, she taken all your money, Willie?” He puts his arm around Willie to keep him from falling. The bull’s-eye bounces over the sparse soil.
“If that’s what you mean, she done take me for a ride but I made out alright. She took me right good but I keep plenty in the storehouse.”
“You’re a good one. Always looking out for yourself. I been meaning to ask—where you from again?”
“Why I’m from Tenn—Tenn—Tennessee,” says Willie.
“Funny thing,” says Jonah. “See where I’m from, we don’t let no brown-skins take our money, whores or no, right stupid or right drunk. I don’t reckon you’re one of those two things, are you? Not drunk nor stupid?”
“Oh no,” Willie says, “I’ve my wits about me like bunches of bananas in a banana tree.”
“I hope so,” says Jonah. “Boy, I hope so.”
Exposed quartz rocks glitter milky and pale when the bull’s-eye falls on the mouth of the cave.
“I don’t know if I want to go down in there,” Willie says. “It’s dark as death tonight.”
“What did you say? Speak up.” Jonah feels for the pistol with his free hand.
“I says—” but the hilt of the pistol quiets him and his teeth fly out into the dirt.
“My teef—” says Willie as he falls to his knees.
The pistol report carries down into the mine, echoing along the rock. Jonah hangs the lantern on his belt. He grabs handfuls of Willie’s flannel and drags him in the dark.
Next morning, the men arrive with their pickaxes to find the gold-mine sealed shut. None of them notice Willie’s lost teeth. In the night the fault line beneath California wakened and stirred. All the men at camp felt the earthquake. They started awake in their beds and listened to their labors collapse.
Morale declines after the quake. As the river recedes it reveals only the skeletal remains of the camp. The men are certain the gold has washed downstream. Some start off toward the next El Dorado. Others return east empty-handed. The babe born of the Injun in Jonah’s storehouse is christened “Hope,” but her father curses her with the name of “Despair.” Jonah’s old wood house becomes a nest for raccoons and prairie-wolves until the next rainy season washes it away in full.
Time moves, but not for Jonah. He lies in the dank darkness, breathing yet, in that cradle he carved for himself as far from the dead man as he could manage. Dark is eternal for him. Shapes alight on his vision like the fish of eons past and haunt the walls of his cave. At times he thinks he must only have lost his eyes and searches fiendishly among the brittle rocks.
That year, President Taylor died. Eighteen fifty became eighteen sixty and the boundaries of Jonah’s first home—Mississippi—erupted into Civil War. The slaves were freed but remained shackled. A thespian assassinated the Great Emancipator at the Ford Theater the year Jonah’s son proposed marriage to a milliner’s daughter. Young Jonah became a mortician and for fifteen years rescued the dead from the indignities of dying. Then his wife became ill with scarlet fever and passed. He embalmed her body and buried her. They had no children.
The first day a locomotive graced the new railroad abutting his property, young Jonah sawed off a shotgun and blew his brains onto the plaster ceiling of his sitting room. War ravaged the European continent twice. Millions died the deaths of vermin. Those who survived lived in empty shells of life, waiting for their automobiles to careen off a hillside or their toasters to catch fire or their pensions to run thin. Death visited them too. A moviegoer gunned the president down in the streets. The syringe stood poised in any alleyway as high as a skyscraper. The towers fell, and so did the cities. When the San Andreas Fault fractured it plunged a whole state into the Pacific Ocean. The coast buckled, rivers found paths of lower resistance and dried up once-affluent communities. Boston and New York became ghosts of what once they were, ceding more to the ocean each year until the Eastern Seaboard devoured them too.
Into the heartland they fled. Municipalities fractured and states negotiated new borders. Official glut yielded shock, then indifference. The federal government scoured California’s mountain ranges for untapped resources—standing above the water like pimples, the aberrant fissures of their ancestry—and detonated great swaths of land. Like a bog person gasping for breath or the Ice Man looking to warm his fetid feet, our own Forty-Niner emerged flesh, beard, and all. Wide hat, spidery eyes, skin gaunt but alive, almost alive. A look of fascination transfixed on his face, three empty matchbooks in his pant pocket.
Breece is seventeen, and when he wakes he sees the image of a Forty-Niner, filthy blond hair and thin cheeks, in the corner of his bathroom mirror. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and California flannel as men in Hazmat suits load the shriveled body into a military helicopter. A guard in fatigues stands with armor-piercing rounds at the ready and a courier from the Smithsonian Institute holds on to his briefcase beneath gyrating helicopter blades. An advertisement for California flannel appears—$169.99—as a commentator pipes his voice into Breece’s room. When he tilts his head in the right light and sucks his cheeks in a bit, he has the strange feeling of glimpsing his face in the Forty-Niner’s skin. Not possible, of course. Breece knows with a longing certainty that he is as un-special, as ultra-normal, as unflinchingly-regular as any anonymous, displaced teenager of the flood.
His family lives in a constellation of dull concrete prefabs which circles the city, and as he rides the tram inbound the image of the Forty-Niner saturates the air. From the tram window to the Capitol Building and its glass dome, the miner’s haggard face stares out at him.
“The Forty-Niner is innovation, courage, ambition, and national brilliance,” reads the ticker scrolling at the bottom of each image. A man glances at Breece on the tram, looks away for an instant, and stares back. He nudges a woman sitting next to him.
The screens hail the Forty-Niner as a national symbol, and at two o’clock the city holds a moment of silence. “Can you imagine the courage?” says the Smithsonian courier on the monitor, face reddened. “He had but three matchbooks in his pocket. We’re talking dark ages here, folks. Just think—lighting one after the other, after the other, trapped down in a mine surrounded by the thing you both love and hate. It speaks to us as a people. It brings us closer as a people.”
At school, Breece cannot help but feel his peers’ eyes upon him. His heart quickens, his throat tightens. A girl asks him for his name. When he tells her, she nods with a blank look on her face. He finds a new confidence. The Forty-Niner exhilarates Breece. At seven in the evening, the president speaks to the nation as Breece’s family eats dinner. Breece sees the president reflected in his blue-green glass of reconstituted milk.
“Shh,” his mother says to the family as the president comes on. “I want to listen to this, okay? It’s not every day they find someone down in a mine, two hundred years old and not a day over forty.” She drinks down her glass of milk and listens, propping her head on her hand. “I mean, can’t you imagine if they found one of us one day? It’s like being famous, but you wouldn’t even know it.”
Behind the president, who looks unchanged from the president Breece remembers when he was twelve and when he was eight, are historic photographs of California. Tents and Indians, Breece guesses, people with their hands dirty in a stream. Swinging pickaxes. Men with hands on their waists and young mothers with babes at their sides, all suckling the earth.
“Can you believe it?” his mother says. “He’s announced a new holiday.” But Breece has not heard the words. He watches the images, drifting about the screen. “It’s like Christmas or something. When’s the last time they made a new holiday for everybody?”
“When does it start?” he asks.
“Not till next year, honey. But you won’t want to miss school when you’ve taken entrance exams. Every minute counts, you know.”
Breece looks over his food, pushes it away. “What good are exams when you can strike gold in a hole somewhere?” his father says, eyes on the monitor. “There are a lot of us out there. How many do they remember in two hundred years?”
“Who’s they?” says Breece’s younger sister.
Forty-Niner Memorial Day is slated for the following year, on the very day gold was first struck in California. Next January twenty-four will be two hundred years to the date—the bicentennial. So observes every monitor city-wide, and a buzz crackles in the air. Where there is no replay of the president, or a shot of the helicopter flying over the veined bounds of the United States, there is the dead miner, name forgotten.
Breece takes less food each night, and now when he walks the hallways at school—wearing his California flannel and his Forty-Niner blue jeans, a million units shipped two weeks after the discovery—there are definite head-turns. A local news broadcast produces a feature on him. “Twenty Forty-Niner,” it reads. As it circulates monitors on the walls of the city, its homes, businesses, schools, it gains attention. Now when Breece rides the tram he cannot break strangers’ stares. They look at him until his breathing becomes rapid and uneven, stomach tight. Then he smiles, and they smile back.
He sees himself on the monitor at home, and when he calls up the Forty-Niner, he compares. His cheeks are recessing. Shoulders seem to swell and diminish at the same time and veins appear in sharp relief through his skin. The doctors say it’s a combination of atrophy and weight-loss. Then they take their pictures beside him as he rattles three model-matchboxes around his pocket.
When Breece lies in bed at night he thinks of lighting matches, over and over again, and every time he lights the match he sees a new face, each looking back at him. A woman, high cheeks and brilliant smile. Then the president or the mayor, arms outstretched with a medal to hang around his neck. He thinks of gold—so scarce nobody knows quite where it all went. He could melt down some old jewelry his mother has, turn it into nuggets to keep in his pocket or give to children on the street. He could get a gold filling in his teeth, like they did in the olden days. He could build an amusement park where patrons swing pickaxes for quartz and sift through pans for glimmers or glints. When he sleeps he dreams nothing, and when he wakes he thinks in absolute stasis. He wants California to stay exactly where it is, and he wants this city to be his own California—why bother traveling so far, thinks Breece, when you can have practically anything right where you live?
When he rises one morning in June, his last summer in secondary school, his mother is tangling a brush through his sister’s hair. “You’re lucky I don’t make you wear a corset,” she says. “They used to break little girls’ ribs to make them look pretty, don’t you know?” Then his mother tickles her and pats her on the back.
She runs off to a plastic model gold mine they bought last Easter.
After a moment, Breece’s mother says, “Someone called for you this morning. He said he wanted to meet you. I told him I’d call back when you’re up.”
When she looks at him, a shiver climbs Breece’s scalp. He wonders if he looks very much like her son anymore.
“Who knows what it could be, kiddo? Maybe it’s a movie director or a senator.” Breece says nothing. He practices composing his mouth into a locked grimace.
Around one in the afternoon, a bald man in a tailored suit enters their family room. He introduces himself as George Gratise—“George, for friends, but Mr. Gratise to you”—and shakes Breece’s hand. Breece has become bow-legged, almost, and he keeps one hand flicking around the matchboxes in his pocket as they shake.
“What a pleasure,” Mr. Gratise says. “What a pleasure to be meeting the Forty-Niner himself. May I take a seat?” Breece nods. Mr. Gratise sits down, long legs at hard angles. Then he leans forward on his thin arms. His head moves left and right, a tic—Breece wonders if he does it knowingly.
“Great, thanks kid, thanks a ton. Now you may not know who I am, but I’m someone very important to your image. Tremendously important.” Breece nods again. It’s all he can do. He imagines a match light, struck. On the floor, ground out.
Mr. Gratise stops speaking. “Whoa, kid, let’s not play with fire okay?” On the ground lies one of the matches he and his father found in an old antique shop, extinguished but still smoldering. They had to drive all the way to Kansas for the matches. Breece levels his gaze with Mr. Gratise’s chest. He can feel his eyes receding into his skull as he practices the locked grimace.
“Marvelous,” says Mr. Gratise. He touches Breece’s face. Pinches his flesh. “You’re one of a kind, kid.” He moves a lock of hair out of Breece’s eyes.
“I know we all know how popular the Forty-Niner brand denim trousers have been,” he says. “I can see, because you’re wearing a pair right now. And great job, by the way, authenticating them. Making them beat up like you’re sleeping in tents and sitting on your knees all day. But the denim market is about to take off next year, on the inaugural Forty-Niner Memorial Day. Congress has already authorized major funds for us—we’re talking low billions here—and our goal is to get the whole country involved. And here’s something nobody knows. If you don’t mind.”
Mr. Gratise beckons Breece closer.
Breece looks at the man’s nose. It is lined and scarred, like he’s been in a lot of fights. “There’s going to be a huge convention, I mean the whole deal—sponsors, the president will be there, a special fundraiser gala with hundred thousand dollar plates. And at the end of it all, they’re going to unveil it. The real Forty-Niner, I mean, public viewing for the first time. It’s going to be a kind of mausoleum for the gold digger, a place where we can keep the Forty-Niner spirit alive, and people can come from all over to see. And here it is, kid, we want you standing right up there in full Forty-Niner. Now don’t get short on us, all hunched over,” he arches his back, eyeing Breece, “because, see, we want you as a model. We want you to be a model and we want you to be known all around the world. Everyone will know your name. It’ll go down in history books as something really special—you, I mean, as someone really special.” Mr. Gratise leans back, loosening up. “And who can say? Maybe in two hundred years it’ll be you in the mausoleum and you can be the one keeping the whole thing alive.”
After they saw Mr. Gratise to the door that afternoon, Breece closed his eyes and tried to summon the man’s voice again. Summer passed, and in August, at the last of the unending boiling days, a series of storms rolled in night after night that electrified the air, lighting the sky in flashes that rattled the windows and sent static streaking across their screens. Breece watched the storms wondering whether lightning would strike somewhere near.
But as they moved on the excitement ebbed. In September, when he returned to school, the only bug in the air was entrance exams. He put his Forty-Niner blue jeans in the closet, hoping moths would eat them or there would be a leak upstairs, and he would have to throw them away. He was speaking again. October came, and he and all his classmates lined up for exams.
Interminable queues snaked along the hall of the convention center where just months from now Mr. Gratise would hold the official Forty-Niner Day proceedings. Display desks composed in hard rows seemed to rotate sidewise as Breece walked along their length. But exams passed. There was an election in November. They re-elected the president by a wide margin but people were already tired of him by Thanksgiving. Christmas came and went, and at the first of the year, Mr. Gratise paid Breece a visit. The same suspecting look in his eye, the same voice, still hung over Breece’s mind.
“So let’s see it,” says Mr. Gratise. He is standing with his hands on his hips, and as Breece enters the room, he continues standing there, not making a noise for a long while, almost unbelieving. “They don’t fit. The fucking jeans don’t fit.” His head moves from side to side. “Listen, kid, if the jeans don’t fit they don’t fit, but please get this through your fucking head. This isn’t play time. You’re not taking exams or swinging axes in your bedroom. This is the big leagues. Thousands of people will be watching in person and countless millions on their monitors. And, and—” Mr. Gratise shakes his head. “Let me show you something. Let’s go down there, and maybe you can break them in some more. Christ. Otherwise we’ll have to go out to Macy’s and find you a new pair.”
From center stage the convention hall looks like an enormous cavern. The ceiling is vaulted and row upon row of seats repeat into obscurity. They make Breece’s stomach turn and his legs tremble, his breathing shallow. Hammering wavers through the air and a sound like a dripping faucet emanates from backstage. There is blue tape on the ground with “Forty-Niner” and “Breece” and “Gratise” and the first family’s names all scratched in dark ink.
“Now, when you get here, they’re going to want you to say a few words. Don’t worry about that, we’ll have a speech prepared. You just read it off and keep your chin up. And don’t stutter or fuck it up kid, or I’ll have your bones.”
Breece’s anxious hands are clasped together, and he can’t imagine the convention hall as anything but empty. The two of them ride home in quiet, and when Breece sees his parents, he says nothing. They eye one another, and his father whispers to his mother, “He’s trying to stay in character,” as he trudges back into his room.
When the day comes it feels like every other day. The temperature is freezing but the air is dry, crisp, painful almost. Breece thinks he is so fragile he could break. He could fall into a hundred pieces, and all the people watching, they would have to put him together however they felt best.
When he arrives at the convention center, Mr. Gratise chaperones him into his dressing room, smiling for cameras but gripping his arm until it hurts. When they are alone, Mr. Gratise hands him a tablet. Breece tries to take it. Mr. Gratise won’t let go. “You’ll kill me,” he says. “You’ll kill me and my whole career if you don’t get out there and talk.” He lets go and the door shuts behind him. The lock clicks.
On the screen, Breece sees his speech. Something grandiloquent about the arc of time and coincidence and the perseverance of spirit, with cues about when he should walk the stage and mention Forty-Niner blue jeans. He reads it once, twice, a third time. He reads it aloud and silent, walking and still, standing or sitting. The old anxiety is back but it feels nothing like it did. Behind the clammy palms, only nerves. Behind the swift, nervous breathing, only the bite of bile and the fear of never doing what he wants to do.
At half past one, Mr. Gratise knocks on the door. “You’re up, kid,” he says, smiling for a camera operator over his shoulder. Breece follows him backstage. As they pass the dark of the curtain, the audience and all its many faces erupt into applause. The sound is deafening as it passes in a wave over Breece. He is shocked to see that anyone bothered to show up. That anyone remembered.
The president is waving him forward. Last year feels like ages ago. As Breece crosses the stage, he sees the monitor with the president’s speech outlined in bullet points. He feels as though he is looking at an actor. The president places a hand on his back and gives him a firm push toward a tall glass box at stage right. The klieg lights burn on his face as the applause resonates through the auditorium, echoes, fades and reappears still. He sees no faces, nothing except the wild flapping of hands, flesh on flesh. Then he looks down at the box.
Lying there is the Forty-Niner, anonymous as any person watching in the dark. His face looks mournful, frightened, fatigued even, waxy and fake. His skin has a yellow pallor and a layer of grease, and Breece imagines his shut eyes like pinballs from the broken-down machines at the midways. Then he thinks what it must be like to lie in a box for all the rest of eternity—to stare up and out, at the lights in the mausoleum like quartz and gold blinking in some cavern somewhere, untouched and unsoiled. Just shimmering off into blankness. And when the lights go out each night how he must wait in the dark again, forever in his cave. Nothing more than insurable dust.
Breece looks back up at the people. The clapping has stopped and he can sense Mr. Gratise’s eyes on the back of his head. But Mr. Gratise does not feel present to him. No one does, and Breece refuses to turn back. He accepts the stares of the onlookers and tries to imagine a single one of their faces, either ugly or beautiful or neither, anything, any real face looking like it feels real sadness.
All he sees is the blue electric glow on skin, quiet and forever reticent.
He opens his mouth to speak. A deep rumble begins to shudder at his feet. His breath escapes, soundless. The stage shakes and he can’t regain his balance. Two suits from offstage hurry the president away. The last thing Breece sees before the lights go out is their reflections on the dead man’s glass container. Shining above the dead man’s face, on him, unfeeling.
A terrific hush settles over the auditorium as it goes black. Breece sees a constellation of glowing exit signs emerge, swimming like gnats or spirits or fish before him. Auxiliary power. He forms lines between each of them, gives them shapes. Here, a broken tooth; there, a pickax in glowing green exit signs. Somebody on the ground says with alarming calm, “Earthquake,” as footfalls begin clambering toward the exit signs. Breece reaches into his worn and moth-eaten pocket and digs for a fresh match. But his hand only fumbles three empty matchbooks.
Daniel LoPilato is a fiction writer living in Athens, Georgia, where he works for a public garden and the literary quarterly VERSE.