At the Mine
Up at dawn, onto a bus; two and a half hours to Winnemucca; onto another bus which winds up a back road of sunbleached asphalt to the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where every year they burn the man. A catered lunch waits on every seat. I project the ambiguous aura of a man who doesn’t want to be sat next to, no one sits next to me, I eat the pasta salad out of my own bag and my absent neighbor’s, then take the ham out of my roll and make a pickle sandwich. Now I can read my copy of Lermontov, which is wonderful, sliced and diced Stendhal with a demonic Cary Grant playing the lead. The Nabokovs translate marvelously, that is to say invisibly, their stated intentions in the preface notwithstanding; only a few words jump out which Nabokov père must have been unable to resist”infolded,” “asperge,” a “bicephalous” mountain. The protagonist says he’s incapable of true friendship and only has “pals,” a weird word that recurs several times; I must know, if anyone in my circle of friends’ friends has read this in Russian, what word it’s standing in for....
Everyone around me is swapping war stories from the mining business; everyone’s history intersects everyone else’s. Nevada is a big state and its demography is starting to fill up, but measured by my parents’ generation it’s a small town. By my grandparents’ generation it’s a city block.
It’s pointless to labor over descriptions of mountains, says Lermontovexclamations that convey no meaning, word-pictures that convey no imageanyhow, deep in the desert we find the mine and get off the bus. I’m used to it as a spreadsheet of 2500 individual claims and a sheaf of survey maps; here it sits on a dozen square miles of hills crisscrossed by roads, with open pits layering their way downward. The earth’s bones come out in amazing colors: rust, ochre, powder white, a chalky sulfurous green. A faint brimstone smell hangs over everythingthat’s what they mined here in the seventies, before someone discovered the gold deposit by chance. My balance is still not good, in the middle of all this sunny space I want to hold on to something, the eye does not grasp distance in the pits. Down on the floor three trucks rove around like busy beetles, dumping dirt into each other, and only when they’re joined by a mite-like pickup do I see that they’re monstrous Titan-trucks just like the one in front of the equipment shop, mounted on wheels twice my height. In the foreground a drill rig goes about its own business, readying the next blast phase.
At the shop building they’ve readied for display a special gold bar that actually looks golden, not black with tarnished silver as most will be. Everyone takes turns lifting it and having their picture taken: it’s worth three hundred thousand dollars, says everyone to everyone else, this is three hundred thousand dollars I’m holding. They take my picture too, then I go walking past the aerial photos and crushed samples of auriferous rock.
The refinery building is set up like an outdoor garage, not as large as you’d think, with a cubical blast furnace partially curtained off at one end like the Ark of the Covenant. It roars. Orange light spurts out of its apertures like a cheap optical effect in a fifties film: indescribable, no one gets within ten yards of it. A man points some equipment in its direction and makes finger-signs to his colleague: two, four, two. Is that the Centigrade temperature? One-tenth the temperature? I don’t know anything. The cyanide solution used to leach out the ore rests outside in shallow Olympic-size pools. The wind throws up blue-green ripples, perversely inviting, I want to swim and drink.
Two men put on reflective silver suits and approach the ark. One of them starts working a lever and the whole thing tilts forward until light begins to flow out: a rivulet twisted like tapwater, glowing like neon, splashes onto a stair-step assembly and runs down into the waiting mold. Stray drops hit the concrete and turn to cinders. A scorch rises. Overflowin’ with gold! shouts one of the shareholders, ha ha! Everyone laughs and applauds. That’s new wealth, my stepfather tells me, real new wealth, none of that Bernie Madoff bullshit. They hand out commemorative medallions.
Late-period Highsmith also misused “pals”; perhaps a since-lost aspect of Anglo-inflected American English?