Even in his earliest dreams, Ray saw lines. White lines on roads. Clear lines overhead. Lines when he heard music. Lines connecting him to those he loved, leading him to those he should love. Ray thought about the traffic lights hanging from lines: the monotony of their existence, three colours in sequence, impatient drivers wanting the green. Always wanting to go. The lines from underfoot to overhead were constant and drew him in: hypnotic and beautiful.
Ray loved where he lived. He was born there, went to school there, got a job and lost a job there. All his high school friends had left for Denver, laughing at him for wanting to stay.
Unable to disguise their happiness at starting university or the prospects of a well-paid city job, they said it was a dead man’s town.
It was the horizontal lines that held him, not the vertical. Denver was nothing but vertical. You spent your time looking up, up, up and always away from where you’d started. He’d been there many times. Once, he’d sat cross-legged, beside the giant bear sculpture outside the Colorado Convention Center. As the executives rushed in and out of glass doors, clutching papers to their chests, mobile phones hanging from their necks, Ray waited for the entire morning to see what Denver would give him. He felt himself fading into the background with the bear, watching the talk, the turn of head, the 30 seconds gap to ascertain whether people were useful, the next-big-thing or just-about-big-thing.
In Starbucks, he’d looked straight into the eyes of a man who stared in the window at him. Ray stared at his dirty blond hair and scruffy jeans. He saw intelligence and disappointment, felt a connection. We are alike, this homeless man and I. The lines of Denver unite us, thought Ray. There was something cold in between the glint of the sun off the mile-high glass buildings and the snow-capped mountains hovering, neglected and forgotten. That same evening he walked for over an hour, past the Salvation Army queues for food, the bulldogs and Union Jack flags swinging above pubs long closed, and back around past the Coors Stadium before picking up his Mustang, which he’d parked near 15th Street. There was a moment when it chugged and wouldn’t start, just as a pair of blondes in heels and tight jeans walked past laughing. He asked the Good Lord to do him just this one favour and the Mustang sprang into action. With thanks, he drove west. West on the I-70 to Idaho Springs, the largest town in Clear Creek County.
Drinking Jack Whacker ale in the Tommyknocker Brewery at the end of Miner Street, four-tenths of a mile from the spot where George A. Jackson found the first Colorado gold, Ray considered his predicament. The predicament of creating some sort of movement out of the stasis that his life had become. It was just, he realized, that the lines had some sort of magnetic pull – they either sent him away or drew him in. He couldn’t go back to Denver. He would have to stay where he was.
He could try to make a change. He liked the idea of skiing but Pa said it was for tourists or for the rich and he was neither. Pa opened a garage with snow-peaked Rocky Mountains in a round-windowed logo. That was where Ray worked now, after failing to get a tour guide job in the Argo Gold Mines and an unsuccessful attempt at being a cashier in Safeway. You passed Pa’s garage on the way to the heart of Idaho Springs and if you took a wrong turn into the town you still had to pass it to get to the roundabout at the other side. That was the logic: that business would boom.
Pa even made enough to flutter dollar bills in the gambling halls of Black Hawk. Sometimes he’d bring Ray and they’d have a buffalo steak meal in The Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino. Pa hid his winnings in a drawer in the garage because Ma would go crazy if she knew he’d been gambling. Winnings or not, the next day he’d be up at five, at the garage for six waiting for the chance of early morning customers. Business wasn’t booming now. But then again, Pa hadn’t needed to close down like those shops Ray had seen in Denver.
Pa was proud of the confederate flag that hung from the trailer. It was one of those cloth ones that you could wash when it got dirty, especially when the snow turned to slush or the wind blew the dust headlong into the reds and blues, the lines intersecting. The yellow sun surrounded by the red “C” of the Colorado State Flag hung alongside a larger national flag over the doorway, which he saluted going in and out. It was part of him, this place. The visitors who stood in lines as they queued to see the mines, to feel his history, were part of him, too.
Ray took another drink and banged his bottle a little too hard on the countertop of the Tommyknocker Brewery.
“Easy now,” said Teddy, the barman.
“They won’t forget this place,” Ray said screwing his face up.
“The history writers.”
Teddy shrugged. “Forget Idaho Springs?”
“Yeah.” Ray took another drink. “We were the first.”
“Ray,” Teddy stopped cleaning and leaned his bulky frame on the counter. Ray noticed his hair was the same colour as the homeless man in Denver. “What are you talking about now?”
“The Good Lord was right,” said Ray sitting straight and smiling. “He shone down on Idaho Springs and shone the light on the gold.”
“The gold rush.” Teddy nodded. “We’re in the books for that, for sure.”
“I love this town,” Ray said.
Teddy looked at his watch.
Ray stood up.
“You’ll come good on what you owe, now?”
Ray wavered slightly as he walked out onto Miner Street. The strong brew ales had gone to his head. He looked up. The cloudless sky was an optimistic blue on this crisp April day. The street was empty and he wanted to wrap his arms around it, own it, be it. It was his, this place. This place where highways passed overhead, hippies and hicks lived side by side and bars had large signs indicating that disorderly conduct would be dealt with by the Law; the police station had six cop cars parked and on the ready.
The ski-tourists had all gone back to where they came from and the summer season wouldn’t begin for another month or so, at least not until more of the Rocky Mountain National Park opened. Every year they’d hear stories of tourists planning road trips with the crazy idea of driving through the Rockies to get to Grand Lake. They’d either start driving too late to turn back and end up somewhere like Idaho Springs. Or they’d go back right to where they’d started – Estes Park. Not that they’d be bored there. Three summers in a row Ma and Pa brought Ray to Estes Park to walk and hunt. When he was ten Ray got his photograph taken seated between them. The best time to do a portrait is on vacation the advert had said.
“Right,” Pa said, fingering notes from winnings in his breast pocket. “We’re on vacation. We’re getting ourselves a portrait.”
Ma moaned that she didn’t have her favourite dress on as she kept it for special occasions.
“And what’s a damned vacation?” Pa shouted. “Is that not special occasion enough for you?”
Ray looked at the roundness of the camera lens and the stern look of the photographer. When the flash came he blinked. The framed photograph on top of the Smeg showed a distant Ma, a smiling Pa and Ray with his eyes scrunched up. Almost every day on that trip they ate in a diner called The Egg and I. Ray liked to go back there to have his favourite meal, the Colorado Jack Scramble. But sometimes he would go for the regular Steak and Eggs to challenge himself. Ray, like Pa, preferred his eggs over easy and had lost count of the times when he had to send his eggs back because they were over medium. But not at The Egg and I. They always got it right.
After too many arguments with Ma over his wanderings, Ray had left home and now rented a room up past the Indian Hot Springs on Soda Creek Road. During the winter season he had to put chains on the wheels to get to the town. He liked being away from Ma and Pa. It gave him a strong inkling that anything could happen. He was important in this town.
Pa liked to watch baseball on the portable TV, which he’d hung in the corner of the garage workshop. He’d talk to the box of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson. Any hero to erase the boredom. Ray wondered if Pa secretly wished he’d never left New York City the way he sometimes talked. Ray had an impressive collection of baseball cards which he kept in a drawer in the office when he wasn’t showing them to Pa, asking him to name the players in quick succession. Pa was good; he always got them first time no matter how many shuffles Ray gave his pack.
The only pedestrian on Colorado Boulevard, Ray walked down towards the river, avoiding the other end of Miner Street. He knew Ma and Nancy Ann would be in Café Aimee, seated in line with Priscilla the gold mannequin outside the Café. Ma would be embarrassed if she saw him wandering yet again when he was supposed to be working with Pa. He knew they’d be talking about knitting techniques, pots of steaming coffee on the go and Key Lime Pie for their treat. Nancy Ann said it reminded her of New Orleans, where she grew up. The women wore their own creations: Alpaca wool for winter and light cotton for summer. Their latest challenge was to knit blue spruce using pearl cotton to be patriotic but also using Colorado colours for local pride.
Yesterday over dinner Ma told him about Nancy Ann’s simple joy in buying twelve balls of brown wool for $12 – a colour nobody wanted. Ma was proud of her spruce pines scattered on the brown sweater, pleased with how the red stripes down the sleeves and yellow on the ribbed waist and rounded neckline had turned out. She showed Ray how she did ones and twos and threes on some then fours on some; starting in the middle and following a drawing of the pattern leaving a tail long enough each side to double back. She held the sweater out for him to examine. They laid their hands flat on the wool.
“Everyone has to be darn good at what they do,” she said, looking him in the eye.
Ray thought about the way his hands seemed to merge with Ma’s hands on the sweater as his gaze now automatically roamed upwards. The wires were lower than the electricity ones and suspended on poles, brown with rust and from them hung yellow traffic lights, the red part larger than the orange and green. Ray closed his eyes momentarily; the red in his head was larger too, but it was a black-red of mood, senses that often stopped him moving.
The lights swung slightly, catching a wind Ray had yet to feel. He looked at the silver trees and wondered if their leafless branches could feel the breeze. Beyond them against a perfect blue sky, the pines, scattered on the hills, dry now as the snow had melted away. He continued walking and noticed an unfamiliar old pale yellow Nissan parked in front of the fire station. It too had patches of rust. Perhaps it was the same age as him; born in 1982. Ray looked into the car and saw a rake, a hoe, and several pairs of rubber boots stretched across the back seats. He wondered what idiot would park in front of a fire station.
Ray stared at the traffic lights and watched the wires, loving the way the sun hit off the metal. When he stared at the one spot too long, he had to look away and squeeze his eyes together to get rid of the black spots. In amongst the black spots he saw himself hanging, his body catching the light like a beacon of warning as it swung alongside the traffic lights. His heart beat wildly as adrenalin rushed through him. No fire engine would rescue him with that yellow Nissan blocking the exit. But if he were to hang himself? Would the drivers hoot in temper when the gawking spectators were slow to move on green? Who would be delayed getting onto the I-70, late getting into work and lose their job because his swinging body had mesmerized them?
He jumped as a green Chevrolet hooted. He’d been standing in the middle of the road. He waved his apologies and saw it was John Joe who was in the car.
“Hey,” he waved again.
John Joe nodded. Ray noticed he rolled his eyes. He’d be off telling his wife that Ray was a layabout. His wife would tell her cousin Nancy Ann who would tell Ma. Goddamn, John Joe, he thought, kicking the gravel. He turned right and looped back around stopping on the grey metal bridge. The bridge was formed with lines that hugged, crossed, supported, went on forever. He sighed. He wasn’t hooked into anyone like those bars. The overhead wires gleamed in the sun. It was simply beautiful, he thought. He stood a second and listened to the rush of the river and against the silver trees it looked like a mirage. Ray pictured himself floating, soundlessly in the river, a line amongst the curves of the water. Someday, his body would surprise somebody. Somebody rafting or kayaking. Or hunting. Pa told him he’d seen an advert in Estes for hunters because they needed to keep the elk in balance with the habitat. Crazy as it sounded, there were three times more elk in Estes than in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Ray felt he was in the wrong habitat. There were, he was sure, more men than women in Idaho Springs.
Ray noticed a girl with a purposeful stride walking towards him. He stopped and pretended to be interested in the rain jackets in the shop window. As she passed him, he turned and smiled. He wondered if she were hot in those black knee-high boots. Her legs were tanned. They looked as if they were hanging from the black dress she wore. It was made from material that swung with her body. She looked the type to go on long walks in the snow; a girl with good lungs. She smiled back.
“Hi there,” she said, flicking her long black hair over her shoulder.
Ray felt the colour rush to his cheeks as he winked at her.
“Hi,” he managed.
He looked back at Pa’s garage, the sign swinging in the wind that had picked up.
“See you around,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
Ray stared after her, the swing of her hips, and the exposed back in her dress showing a long tattoo down her spine in thick, fat, brown letters. It looked like Chinese. Or maybe Japanese. It sure wasn’t English.
Ray turned and decided to go back to his room. He started running, feeling the lines draw him in, hypnotic and beautiful, the wind whooshing past his ears. He felt he was moving past the Indian Hot Springs like an arrow. They said the Healing Waters of the Great Spirit bridged the Ute and Arapahoe Nations and that it was this sacred land which formed the neutral ground between the two tribes. Until Dr E.M. Cummins came along, that was, built a log cabin and changed everything, charging an entrance fee. Nobody had told Ray what had happened to the Ute and Arapahoe. He guessed they’d just moved along. Maybe they’d gone south to Mexico. Jessie James, Billy the Kid and Clint Eastwood all stayed at the Indian Hot Springs. Ray used to go when he was a teenager to pick up girls in the Sulphur Pools. They’d bring balls and pretend to play volleyball or lounge around in the mud room. They never bothered paying attention to the sign that read ‘Patrons have the right to solitude’. Ray wondered if the girl knew about the Indian Hot Springs. He would find her tonight, he thought, and tell her about the mineral content of the water and the heat of the caves. Ray knew the girl was right. She would see him around.
He showered, shaved and changed into neatly pressed Levi jeans. It was past six. A good time for dinner. He thought he might have a buffalo burger with extra fries. He walked down the hill, noticing a lump of polish on his shoes and rubbed it off with his forefinger. Licking the black stain he gagged and looked towards the river. He listened to its movement and wondered how hard it would be to drown. Would his instinct kick in, instantly, and all those swimming lessons Ma insisted he take pay off? He remembered someone saying that you needed to weigh your pockets with stones. That would stop the spluttering, the swimming. But the Good Lord made the survival instinct far stronger than any stones. Ray could feel that instinct just behind his eyes.
Ray hoped he wouldn’t meet Pa downtown. It was the second day this week he hadn’t showed for work. If he met Pa his plan to meet tattoo girl and take her to his room would be ruined. He looked up as the street lights with the striped lines down the iron pole and the bulbous illuminations sprung into action. It would be dark when he passed by here again. He hated that there were no lights on the road where he lived. He should have driven his Mustang, he thought. Girls liked cars. He kicked the sidewalk.
When he brought her to his room she would fall in love with him. She wouldn’t mind the walk back, he decided, in fact, she would be a runner like him, so together they would run to his room holding hands and she would declare her love. She would leave her dull job in the bank and move to Idaho Springs where the air was fresh. Ma would be proud. Ray tried to remember what she looked like. Her face. All that he could remember was the tattoo, mocking. But he’d see her soon. She’d told him.
But maybe she wasn’t even staying in town. And he would meet Pa, sneering, who would be with Ma who would shake her head and not look him in the eye. She would ask if he wanted to go walking and he would have to say yes. Ray got on his knees and prayed to the Good Lord that the girl would be in town. He prayed that she was lost and had to stay. But maybe, he thought, his heart quickening again, she was staying at the Indian Springs and he had, in fact, passed by her bedroom! Or maybe, even, she had watched him pass by her bedroom and was following him! He decided to skip dinner and go straight to Tommyknockers.
She sat at the bar. Same dress, black heels instead of boots. A turquoise choker with a teardrop stone hung around her neck. Ray could not contain his smile. It was clear Teddy had worked hard on the small talk to keep her there for him.
“So, lady,” Ray said, sliding into the stool beside one of them. “Good to see you again.”
She turned. She had an Indian face, he thought, a square jaw, chocolate brown eyes. She looked different, somehow.
“Again?” she frowned.
Ray could see fear in the frown which made her look ugly.
He remembered seeing lightning shoot across the bridge and wanting, desperately, to know what it would feel like if it struck him. Would it be quick and glorious?
“Ray,” Teddy was looking at him. “Ray,” he repeated and nodded at the girl. She was waiting on his answer.
“We met earlier,” Ray said slowly before taking a deep breath. His voice sounded high pitched. “We met downtown. You said you’d see me later.”
“Ah, yes. By the bridge.” She exhaled smoke.
“Yes, that’s it.” Ray felt pleased again. There was something sexy about women who smoked. He wondered if there was something wrong with her short-term memory.
“So,” he ventured, “what brings you to these parts?”
“I left my girlfriends in Denver and came here for some me-time.”
“That’s my friend Teddy,” he said, accepting a beer from Teddy and placing it carefully on the coaster.
She nodded. “We’ve met.”
“Have you been up to the Hot Springs?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “Did you know that the mineral content of the water is one of the best in the world?”
“That’s where I’m staying,” she answered, holding out her hand. “Alice,” she said.
“Alice in Wonderland,” Ray said, grinning, thinking that Alice was definitely the girl for him.
“Randy,” Ray said, taking Alice’s hand. “Randy from Nashville. Nashville, Tennessee.”
She smiled. “An outsider like me.”
A wave of nausea passed over him. He’d never even been to Tennessee. As she spoke Ray found it difficult to look at her mouth with those crooked teeth. The lines were just…wrong.
“Ha!” he said slipping on his stool, holding up his glass. “That’s what too many fine ales does to you.”
Alice laughed loudly. Maybe, he thought, she would be easy. He wouldn’t have to look at her face. He could take her from behind.
“So what brought you to Idaho Springs? It can’t be the gold,” Alice said, twirling her hair around her finger. It was that funny black, like a navy black, thick and strong. She could wrap it around her neck, like a scarf, or a necklace. When they embraced, he would wrap it around his neck.
“Nah,” Ray said, “broke up with my girlfriend and came to work in the Argo Gold Mines.”
Alice took a drink. She had a suspicious look on her face. “This Pick Axe is pretty good.”
“Damned good,” said Ray, “like Dorie and I used to be together.”
“Her name was Dorie?”
Ray nodded. “You fly, I buy, she used to say,” he said.
“What in the hell is that?” She laughed a little too loudly.
Teddy came over. “You okay, my man?”
“I’m doing just fine,” Ray winked.
Teddy nodded at Alice. “Fixed for drinks?”
She paused before answering. “I’m good.”
“Like I said, welcome to Colorado,” said Teddy, grinning.
“Like I said, thank you, Teddy.” Alice sipped her drink, staring Teddy right in the eye.
“Never touched a cigarette, me,” Ray said loudly, “only ever liked the real good stuff.” Ray closed a nostril and sniffed through the other.
Alice slipped off her stool. “Be back in five.”
Ray watched her dress move with her hips. He let out a silent whistle as she turned into the Restrooms.
“You fly, I buy, she had that much money she just got pleasure out of watching me fly,” he said. He threw his hands in the air, like his arms were the wings of a plane. “Fly,” he said, laughing. In his head the sound of the river came and he looked behind him to see John Joe raise his glass. He raised one back. He thought of the wires holding the traffic lights and a picture of his neck breaking as he swung flashed before him. He wondered if it would break at a right angle.
“Have you looked at the wires overhead here?” he asked when Alice returned. “They’re all straight but if you look carefully you see the tanks are rounded.”
Alice slid onto the stool. She took a drink.
Ray felt silly for mentioning the lines in the brewery.
“Dorie was crazy,” he said a little louder. “She had all this money from her Pa, just didn’t know what to do with it so I was like her bit of rough, you know, like Billy Joel, the poor boy…”
“Dorie? Your rich girlfriend?”
“Ex,” Ray said loudly. “Ex-girlfriend. The Good Lord ain’t given me a new one yet.”
Alice smiled. The lines on her face were rounded, though the crows’ feet around her eyes were dead straight. For a second her eyes seemed blue like the sapphires on Ma’s ring. A brilliant combination of lines and light.
“But you gotta ask,” Ray said, “you gotta ask the Good Lord for help when you need help.”
“Ray,” said Alice standing down from the stool, “the Good Lord’s telling me to get back to the Indian Springs. I’m up early to sample some of that water in the caves you were talking about.”
“Oh,” Ray looked towards Teddy.
“Leaving so soon?” Teddy asked slapping the wet cloth with the blue ribbed line around its edges against his palm.
“Want me for something?” Alice said.
“What does it say?” Ray asked nodding at her back.
“Aha, the mystery letters.” She laughed.
“Well. I’ll just catch you later.”
Alice walked towards the door.
She said it. She said she would catch him. Ray rocked on his stool and watched her leave. The Good Lord always provided. She was staying at the Indian Hot Springs. She’d had a drink too many. She wasn’t from here. She didn’t know that the lines overhead pointed to shortcuts and secret places. She didn’t know the lines of this town like he did. The door swung shut. John Joe laughed loudly. And Ray saw that Nancy Ann was right by him wearing a brown knitted short sleeved sweater, looking at him with a worried expression.
He looked towards the brewery pipes and visualised the letters of Alice’s tattoo moving in time with his hands, across her back. Then he would know the meaning. He imagined he was running with the sweat nearly killing him, running at the speed of light to….he took a deep breath…to – no! – to John Joe and punching him, scratching at him until he had no more laughter inside. Nancy Ann was right to be worried. John Joe had put himself in danger with that laughing of his. And now he was running with Alice and she was laughing. Hers was a beautiful laughter because it came from true happiness. Not this false laughter that he had to listen to every night in the bar. And Alice was loving every minute with him. Having the time of her life.
I buy. You fly.
A flash of silver came before him. He looked around, feeling he should go. Follow her. Find her. Feel the connecting lines between them, the sharpness of the wires, the softness of her body, the push of his body against hers. She’d want it; she’d told him she’d see him later. She told him. There was a connection.
“Ray.” Teddy stood in front of him, his face serious, yet again slapping the wet cloth against his palm. “Go home.”
About Shauna: Shauna, from Dublin, Ireland has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the UK. She currently lives in County Kildare, Ireland. Her writing has been published widely and she has given readings of her short and long fiction in Ireland, the UK, Spain and USA. Her debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere (Ward Wood, London) was published in 2012. Visit her website.