By Alexis B
If you were visiting the town for the annual gala you would be welcomed by the two friendly automata at the entrance. Their nameplates would say “Daven” and “Humphrey.” You might notice Humphrey is a little shorter, and Daven a little thinner, to make them both seem human-like, their arms interlocked, like they’ve known each other for years. They give you directions to the local inn, then turn around on their tracks and go to the table, where they sip imaginary tea. You almost want to stay and eat imaginary biscuits with them. It’s a shame you can’t ask them how it feels to be artificial or if they can feel the cogs turning in their heads. You have a gala to get to. So you leave. They say “Come again soon” in tinny voices.
But you don’t come back soon. And years later everything is dust.
It had been a golden town. Women in wide skirts and little hats would fan themselves in the dry heat and say, “Yes, he’s off in the mines now; it’s so lonely up here.” They would promenade to the center of town and sit with their friends by the clock tower. Eventually the clock would chime. The golden sun would fall below the horizon, and the men would come back home to sleep and dream about cold, dark caves.
Is this the same place? You think. Surely not. Daven and Humphrey stand tarnished and weathered, no one around to service them, because gold doesn’t last forever. Mining towns fade. The veins of the earth bleed out.
What about the ladies? Their promenades?
The miners? The dark caves are empty.
What about the gala? The ballroom is silent. Dancing shoes aren’t clicking on the marble floor. The gowns aren’t swishing around.
Everyone wearing their finest. Champagne glass after champagne glass being poured. Everything was vibrant, warmly lit by crystal chandeliers. It had seemed everlasting.
Yet here you stand, sand blowing around you, windows broken, roofs sagging. You can almost hear the murmurs of ladies talking about what their husbands would buy them if they struck gold.
At the clock tower, the ladies talked about rumors of a miner striking gold, getting rich, going off with his wife and children to a villa in Italy, where they were happy. There was no way to know if this was true, but that didn’t help the pits in their stomachs, which were growing dark and hollow – like the mines. It seemed like they had been waiting a lifetime for the caves to give up their treasures.
Didn’t they deserve it as much as anybody else?
Every few months it would seem a miner would find gold. A couple would move off to a mansion, and the pit would get bigger in the women’s stomachs. Had they given up everything to move here – for nothing? They spent their time embroidering beautiful landscapes they would never see. They wrote letters to their future selves about their hopes and dreams of prosperity.
But their future selves would never write back.
In the mines, the men were stuck in their heads, while their hands were occupied with pickaxes. They would look into the darkness, hoping to see a glint. Some looked so hard, their minds would create a sparkle for their eyes to see, and they’d run madly after it. The others would have to stop them, hold them down, and pour water over their faces until they came back to their senses.
Some men left after never finding any gold for a while.
Some kept picking at the cave walls until their hands were bloody.
Some never left the caves alive.
Frustration seeped out of them like sweat. There was a point when only a devoted few couples and families remained, trapped in the routine of disappointment.
Eventually, only one miner and his wife were left. They decided to go to the gala, desperate for something to lift their spirits.
Cooper and Mitzie walked into the ballroom preparing to have their senses overwhelmed with grandeur. But the room was more gray than gold. Some of the lights in the once warmly-lit chandeliers were out. The ornate wallpaper was peeling. There were cobwebs covering the tables with dusty champagne glasses. The parquet floor was scratched and empty. The air was stale and still, except for an automaton running on a track, stopping at vacant tables.
Its motions were choppy from lack of oil. Its voice was squeaky mechanical chirps: "Care for refreshments, Madame, Monsieur?"
Cooper and Mitzie had frozen. Mitzie wore an old dress that was loose in the bust. Cooper wore a threadbare suit that hung on his arms and legs. They moved to the nearest table, hoping for a glass of something expensive. Mitzie said "Yes," and the automaton poured lukewarm, flat champagne.
After they drank away some of the grief from their spoiled night, the couple walked home, talking about past galas and how the crème de la crème had caroused through the town.
As they lay in bed, Mitzie asked “I wonder what it’s like being born into wealth?”
“Must be nice.”
“I hope someday we won’t have to worry about money.”
“I know,” Cooper said.
He dreamed about a glimmer in the mine.
She dreamed about fine silks and a backyard in the French countryside.
On his walk to the mine the next morning, Cooper noticed his lunchbox was unusually light. He saw it contained only a slice of bread and a small piece of cheese.
After a fruitless day at work, he went home to talk to Mitzie. “We have to leave so I can get work somewhere else.”
“But I don’t want to give up. We could make so much money here,” she begged.
“We could also starve. We have no food. You’ve been wearing that same dress with a rip in it for weeks. If I get a job somewhere else, I could get you a new one.”
“But I could buy a dress made of pure silk if we stayed and found gold.”
“Can’t you tell that’s not going to happen?”
“You don’t know that!”
“Mitzie, the gold’s run dry! We’re the last ones here. Everyone else has already come to their senses and left.”
“I just don’t want to give up on our dreams.”
“Stop making me feel guilty. I’ve done the best I could.”
She started crying.
He smacked the kitchen table. A glass smashed to the ground. “I’m sorry,” he apologized “I’m sorry I got you so hopeful.”
At night their only illumination came from the overhead light in the kitchen. It cast a yellow tint that muddled into green, then black, as the home was overtaken by the night creeping in through the windows.
The rickety house was silent, other than the floorboards creaking under the shifting weight of their feet. Mitzie looked outside the window, and Cooper looked down the short hallway to the front door.
He stared, transfixed. The lighting was uneven, like the lamp he used in the mine. The dark hallway became the tunnel he spent so long in. He could never see ahead. He never knew what was in the blackness in front of him. He knew the front door was down the hallway; it was his house, after all, but something made him confused.
And then he saw a glint. It had to have been the light reflecting off of the doorknob, but he was too far into the tunnel in his head to realize that.
“Gold?” His heart beat fast. “Gold!”
“Honey?” Mitzie whispered.
He ran to the door and grabbed the doorknob. Confusion struck him. He opened the door, thinking the gold he saw must have been behind. A cold wind blew in.
“What are you doing, Coop?” Mitzie asked.
“I saw it.”
“Gold.” He rushed outside. “I saw gold!” He ran down the street. Mitzie ran after.
The wind blew harder. Mitzie shivered. “Where did it go? I saw it!” Cooper shouted. He strained his eyes looking down the dirt road leading to the clock tower. “I saw gold!” He fell to the ground, the dirt covered his worn pants. He clawed at the earth, desperate.
“Honey?” Mitzie reached him.
He started to sob and covered his eyes with his calloused hands.
“I saw it.”
She put her hand on his slumped shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
They left the next morning with the few belongings they had.
Daven said, “Farewell!” Humphrey said, “Safe travels!”
With the departure of the last couple from the town, the place emptied of movement and chatter. There were no people, only the automata waiting to greet travelers. They stood at their booth, metal smiles rusted on their faces.
But no one was coming. As Cooper had said, the gold had run dry.
You hear the clock chime, and you walk back down the road you came from.
There will always be other towns, with other galas to go to.