One Night Below Climax

25 Jun

He reckoned the time. Sixteen hundred hours on Harrison Avenue, and it’s a Thursday. Two churches and seventeen bars make most of the main street in Leadville. Shakespeare sat on the steps of the larger of the two houses of worship, The Temple of Jesus in the Waxworks, intent on enjoying the final forty eight of seventy two hours of a season that passed for summer in the high country. A trio of recently brassed- out hard rock miners staggered in his direction.
“Shakespeare!” called one, as the group came close. All stopped and looked in his direction. Pole Cat was what the speaker was called. The two companions, Collin and that Honduran guy, worked dayshift. Shake felt glad.
“Come on ‘pard; it’s the Rio Tinto!” So he stood, nodded towards Mosquito Pass as if to say goodbye to Mt. Sherman, and joined the group headed to a bar with reputations. If the Colorado prairie can possess the sunset, than a backdrop of fourteeners can glorify a man’s soul.
“New barmaid.” said Collin as he lit a doobie of singular lightening and passed it to Shakespeare, no less awkward on their trip down the avenue. Collin was from California. Together they ducked into the darkness. Barely could they make out the painting above the bar in the feeble light. It mattered little. The girl behind the bar was a titan of bliss. Peaches- and -cream favored. Placed everybody on stand- by. She was the kind of girl that could brocade your destiny.
Shakespeare managed to tell her, “red beer.” The barmaid placed a draught in front of him. With her other hand she exquisitely tipped a tiny can of tomato juice into the beer.
“Vitamin C, huh?” She paused then. Shake had his eyes locked on the painting behind her lacy shoulders. He felt her eyes sizing him up. She said, “Who are those guys, and who painted it? Really.” She didn’t smile.
“Why, that’s Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman!” The painting depicted the two writers in a passionate and naked -assed embrace. He didn’t blush meeting her gaze. “I‘ll tell you, if you tell me your name.”
“Mittens.”
She reached beneath the bar for a huge scuttle. Shakespeare watched her as she mindfully went to the hulking cast iron stove, threw it open and shoveled in sharp oily stones. The melted stink of bitumen briefly touched his face. He saw the coal light on her hair, as straight as an Arapaho’s.
“Rock and rye!” Collin said, taking a seat next to Shakespeare with Pole Cat on the other side. Their friend the Honduran guy had gravitated to the table where sat Sphinx and Tosca, moon princesses in a man-made orbit.
“Did you ever feel an earthquake in California?” Mittens let her pale hands emerge like the holy ghost from soapy water, to oblige Collin’s dangerous request for sweet whiskey.
“Sure. Loads.”
“What’s it like?”
He concentrated. “Like a big truck coming up the street.”
“That’s it?’ She scoffed. Shakespeare felt a cloud pass over his heart.

They had all had exactly four shots of rock and rye, with the exception of Mittens, who’d had only two, or maybe three, even. She smoked brown cigarettes, “named after a mountain.” she said, winking. Her eyes were enormous, voluminous, dusted with gold. Hard working folks came in and went out again, and came back, making the big deal circuit. The door opened and Kingston came in out of the light.
“Graveyards, mon.” He sat next to Pole Cat. “You see me with you in the Storke dry?”
“Yeah.” replied Pole Cat, being the only one who could understand what had just been said. The thin, dry atmosphere here above ten thousand feet at times teased a person’s neurons into misfiring, like a black powder pistol loaded instead with cocaine.
“I saw this movie once about a gangster named Rhygin. I liked it but couldn’t understand a word of the dialogue.” Mittens said this in passing, as the sheriff was at the other end of the bar calling for Everclear.
“I saw that movie in Denver! The Harder They Come. It had subtitles! Only film in English I’ve ever seen what had those.” With difficulty Shake half rose from his barstool to make sure she’d heard him. He’d wanted to tell her it was one hundred and eleven miles to Denver from the front door of this bar.
“Hey Mittens, speaking of that, I hear you can cause earthquakes” Collin leered.
Shaking her tails feathers, she turned her eyes his way.
“ Not earthquakes. Avalanches.” She returned her gaze to Shakespeare. Her smile tickled his backbone from the inside out. They heard Collin mutter something which much later was established for certain to be “ Who owns God?” before he fell off his bar stool.
“I liked it because of the close -ups of the peoples faces.” She leaned in.
“Where you from?”, he asked her.
“Here and there. Underneath all these clothes, I’m a Yankee. Yourself?”
“Here.”
“Tell me about Climax.” Yet she once again hurried off. Collin lay face down on the floor.
“God-damned flatlander!”, yelled the sheriff, “Is that man working graveyards tonight?” Someone, probably named Steve, answered him in the negative.
“ Good!” The sheriff took a hit from one of the phantom Steves’ hash pipe. “All you graves guys keep your shirts on!”
“Graveyards, mon!” said Kingston, putting his shirt back on. From the deeper shadows a guy sometimes called Mad Dog, sometimes Maurice Chevalier, emerged with a loaded crossbow, and with dead aim killed the jukebox, his steel bolt sending sparks, neon and noise all over the room.
“All right, Mad Dog! Eighty -Six!” Mittens had her hands on her hips, a long -ashed cigarette in her lips. Reluctantly, Mad Dog pushed open the door and prepared to exit for the last time. It was still not yet dark outside. He looked up “Death to Disco.”
Jeers and a few scandalized hisses of “Eighty -Sixed!”, followed him down the street. Mittens caught the sheriff’s eye. He nodded his approval.
“Damn.”, she said to Shakespeare, “The band doesn’t get in ‘til nine. I’m glad the sheriff decided to pass out here tonight instead of the Golden Burro.” She walked away but returned quickly. “ Don’t go into the shitter anytime soon.”
“Why not?” Shakespeare was certain he’d need to drain the lizard before the band started. Electric bass lines tended to torment even the most tarnished beer bladders.
“Tosca and that Honduran guy. Can’t you hear them now that the juke box is off ?” Together they listened. Meeting each others eyes they laughed, their laughter as warm as cinnamon toast with butter. Shared laughter was the most tender and important thing that had happened that day.
“So tell me about Climax.”
“The town in the clouds that dared to straddle the great divide like a guilty but besotted lover?”
“ No, no. No!… about that moly mine in, under and around Bartlett mountain.” But she hurried off to polish the railing in front of a couple of bears dressed like men, or perhaps a couple of men disguised as bears in brown plaid corduroy with axle grease on their paws.
Pole Cat put his hand on Shakespeare’s shoulder. “Nice piece of tail.”
“Cat, don’t make me hit you.” Shake felt as drunk as his red head ,whiskers and thatch ever let him get. Pole Cat reached over the bar and caught Mittens by a wrist.
“What are you running from, darling?”, he asked her. She pressed the full moon of her palm of her free hand into his knuckles as hard as she could and pulled loose when she felt the slack. “The past, you fool, just like every body else!” She stomped her way through smoke, soft vermillion in the semi-light, and kept to her task.
Shakespeare hit him then, feeling the bone sharp in Pole Cat’s fine jaw. The cat stepped back and spit on the floor.
Out came a piece of lung. Or maybe some of his black heart; not just teeth and tobacco.
“Ok.” he said “Ok.” He swung at Shakespeare, whose Daddy had taught him to always keep his left up. Shake rounded him in the eye, so the fight would be over. The band had arrived and had to set up just where they were standing.
Kingston said. “They will have a good laugh now from you in that Storke level dry tonight, you and your eye of black. Ha!”
“Yeah.” said Pole Cat, sitting done next to Shakespeare once again. The band played.
“Reckon were still pards?” asked Shakespeare.
“Yeah.” said Pole Cat.

Mittens brewed a pot of gunpowder tea with its sharp flavor like blood, for there was never any coffee to be had in Leadville. Shakespeare saw something in her eyes he didn’t have a name for. He returned to his beer that still tasted like tears. For a while he watched a large jar on the bar that contained the only eggs in the county. Always in motion, the pale orbs floated half hidden in a rusty brine. As Mittens passed by they quivered, her dingo boots the propulsion fuel for their travels around and under each other, unclear rotations versus uncertain diameters, the pounding of her determined steps in time with the 4/4 beat of the garage- skilled rock band.
“That painting”
It’s Walt Whitman embracing Oscar Wilde.” Shakespeare himself was intrigued by this odd composition. No one in town would admit to painting it. The two men were locked in a naked ass embrace. It was clear they shared a passion for something. Shake liked to think they were in love.
“They’re weren’t really lovers, were they?” She asked.
“Maybe. I don’t really know.” He smiled and blushed.
Another Steve burst through the door. It was full dark out now. “Some anti- union turds dropped a CS canister on the dance floor of The Phelps Dodge! All kinds of folks are laying on the lawn of the courthouse puking on the grass!” He turned on his heel and left again to soak up the excitement. Few souls stirred from their stools at the Rio Tinto. No one with ears heard anything at a lower decibel than the one hundred and ten at which the earnest amateurs with cheap amplifiers cranked out the ersatz rock and roll. Collin waked himself. With sawdust on his face he, looked mightily slapped. He followed that Steve out the door.
Mittens touched Shakespeare’s elbow. “ Anti-union?”
“Not necessarily. It might be those Maranatha Warriors from Brokenridge again.”, he said, knowing it wasn’t so.
She looked at him without smiling. He noticed the freckles on her nose numbered between a dozen and eighteen. She looked back at him as normal as a blackbird. He wanted to tell her he had been in love once and who knew why it was the little things he remembered, a shrug ,a crooked -toothed grin, the way she’d moved her arms as she was walking away?
He said. “Draught.”
The salty beer, the volume, the hazy air in the bar made him weary. Tomorrow he could go to Poncha Springs and work his placer claim. From there he could look at the world and see it, as open and as soft as a box of crayolas with just as many colors and no gray, the opposite of a drift’s cold, close ribs and uncertain back.
“See you in church.” Pole Cat tugged Kingston by the sleeve so neither of them would miss the bus, now waiting in the street to take them both flying on it’s ganymede wings over Fremont pass to the landing strip where the graveyard shift would be spilled like fish from a frothy kelp sea into the friendless maw of the Storke level dry. Shakespeare said, “Goodbye.”

The band was on break and there was a lull as the survivors of another swing shift at the Climax molybdenum mine came in from the street like so many bathetic souls. God bless America! Another eight hours without getting slabbed.! Shakespeare sipped his melancholia. If it weren’t for plumbism he’d have gotten up and left by now. “Brass-in tomorrow, you saints and sinners, and hit me with a muck stick.” He wondered about all that science fiction. Can moonlight really cause romance?
Mittens in her pansy -colored dress, the ecru lace on the sleeves dangling like ghostly bells, strutted about her business behind the bar. How would she dance with him under the tin cup stars in a Texas milky way? He stood and stepped away from his perch, leaving without noticing if anyone noticed.
Outside the air revealed its perpetually thin oxygen. He felt less drunk than he figured. He leaned against the clapboard siding. Pablo the Honduran guy and Mittens’ two girl friends whose names he couldn’t remember headed into the Phelps Dodge across the avenue. How tiny they looked! He felt his pockets for his car keys. Oxygen be damned!, he thought, realizing he had walked into town. He knew he had more red corpuscles and a quart more blood than any transplanted flatlander. He was a natural born mountain man!
He started to cry then. He had his glasses in his hand wiping his eyes as the sheriff came out the bar holding hands with Steve.
“Go home Shakespeare,” he said, “She ain’t the girl for you.”
A thought that sour could curdle the milky way. He sat on the wooden sidewalk with his drunken palpitations, like a paralyzed cowboy at a decorticate ranch.
Although he thought he wasn’t thinking much, in actuality he’d levitated and spent an hour or two fifty feet above the open road over Independence Pass, his heels occasionally rattling a quaking aspen. All he remembered formulating was, “I want that girl like I want Christmas strawberries.”

It was 0400 and the light was reluctant to grace Harrison Avenue. Soon the churches would have open doors and ave maria candle light. Mittens had coated the white oak bar of the Rio Tinto with beeswax, scrubbed the shitter floor with Clorox, swept the sawdust into the snowdrift out back, emptied the ashtrays into the cast iron stove, carried coal up from the basement, stocked the cooler with beer, fed the canary, counted out the cash register, hid the money (no telling where), brushed her hair and pocketed her tips ($19.76). As she was applying the third padlock to the chain, a rude firestorm of illegal pyrotechnics illuminated Shakespeare’s cadaverous form as he lay on the sidewalk in Savasana.
“Come home with me!” She shouted. Her saucer eyes caught all the dread that spilled from her mind. “Dead from lead poisoning, or bicentennial fever.”
Shake stood, having not died from lead poisoning or bicentennial fever. He was fully prepared to brass- in on Saturday morning, twenty six hours from that moment.
“Where’s your tent?” he asked.
“Usually I pitch my tent in the Hebrew cemetery, but this week I got a room at the Vendome.”
The frayed tear at the bottom of the sky would soon let slip a sunrise. They walked toward the famed silver city hotel.
“Tell me about Climax.”
He did.

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2 Responses to “One Night Below Climax”

  1. lydia June 26, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    i know about gunpowder tea. my father used to drink it all the time when we were kids. lydia

  2. sfbaybreezes July 26, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    I really love this story, Tara. I read it months ago and need to reread.

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