Synthia's Stew

The mine is a massive, red-dirt gash in the prairie where dwarfed trucks zip up and down the corkscrew roads inside the wound. They circle down into the crater; then they circle up and out onto the lip at speeds just under reckless, chased by billowing red dust clouds to meet the snaking coal train.  Time is moneythe more coal you move, the more likely the job will last all year.  

    All this dusty activity lives under the immense Wyoming sky.  On sunny days, its blue radiates and hurts the eyes.  Often, the infamous wind shreds the white clouds into filmy webs that blow across the mine's ceiling to collect as pillows, mounded against the mountains to the south.  Sitting just beyond the coal train is the three-stoplight town of Synthia, sometimes called “Little Sin City” by bored locals. Most of the activity in Synthia doesn’t qualify as true “sin” except for a lot of gossip and fantasy picked up at the barber and beauty shop, Dela’s Donuts, and the benches in front of the hardware store.   

In 1972 the fringe of town supports the builders and movers of Synthia with warehouse-looking structures and a thriving trucking and construction business.  The castle on this fringe is a circa-1940’s lemon-yellow motel with a broken lime-green sign.  The sign welcomes travelers with a faded, cartoon family of four—all smiling with large, garish white teeth, now pitted from windborne dirt and gravel.  This motel, LaFamilia, is the mecca for souls moving through Synthia.  An interchange off the interstate, three miles down a two-way paved highway, ensures a small but steady influx of these floating souls. And these floating souls are sometimes as stuck as the well-paid permanent residents because of the strip mine’s job availability, compounded by the miles of surrounding emptiness with no jobs.  Thus, a stew of unstable humanity forms, personalities mingling, then stirred in with the lumpy gravy of crises and survival—and whatever exists beyond survival. 

Chapter 1

I was a thin and nervous fellow. I looked like a skeleton with an empty cavern growing inside me.  My parents and their immigrant friends all force fed me their dreams. No wonder I threw up a lot. When I left Philadelphia at 21 years old, I looked pretty grim. My hands shook as I packed that duffel bag with warm clothing and one western novel I had hidden from my father’s policing: one by Louis L’Amour, Riders of the Purple Sage.  I cashed a scholarship check from the University of Pennsylvania for $3,500 and withdrew my own savings, money my father had earmarked to help me study at Oxford. 

Instead of Oxford, I boarded a bus to Denver, Colorado.  Why did I head west? My parents had escaped to the West back in the early 1950’s, away from the mental prison of Russia’s brand of communism, but they carried part of that prison with them. I’m outrunning their prison! They can’t imagine who I am now, and what I’m doing in southcentral Wyoming.

Once on the streets in Denver, I bought a 10-year-old Jeep from a used car lot a few blocks from the bus station.  The car salesman, Big Ralphy, an ex-high school English teacher, shared the most delicious beef and bean burrito I had ever eaten.  Actually, it was the first burrito I had ever eaten.  In fact the act of eating had never felt so exhilarating before. Ralphy didn’t pry into my business, but he picked up my vibes—a young guy in flight.  He told me about Synthia.  “An intelligent, young guy like you, with such a big frame, shouldn’t have trouble finding work in the mine.  The pay’s good.  The work is consuming enough you won’t be bored for too long.  You often work outside but usually in the comfort of some piece of machinery’s cab with a view of a wide-open and interesting landscape.  I took a break from college my senior year in that mine. I still know some of the people in management.  I’ll give them a call in a few days.  Man, I couldn’t wait to go back to school after about a year and a half though! Which was a good thing. I got my head together at that mine, I guess.” I still remember Ralphy’s big round belly hanging over his nicely pleated, twill pants.  The belly shook as he laughed. Santa Clause as a used car salesman is how I think of him.  He gave me a very important gift—free of charge—an idea for an identity—a new joy for food and working at the mine.

While Ralphy prepared my bill of sale on the Jeep, I looked around his haphazard office furnished with two small metal school desks.  That made me smile.  The metal joints supporting the writing tops were wrapped in duct tape. Ralphy wasn’t a craftsman.  Many dog-eared, yellow legal-pad pages, scratched with lines and lines of handwritten notes in blue ink were piled on these two shoe-box-sized surfaces.  Big Ralphy followed my gaze—“My novel—in between sales I work on it.  I’ve gotten quite a bit done lately.”  He grinned, a bit of bean bobbing on his chin as he spoke.  Then I started to chuckle. His eyes were twinkling at me, and his chin with bean on it stretched out because of the big grin above it.  And he had the greatest dimple in that chin! The few chuckles grew into gut-rolling laughter. I laughed hard—the kind of laugh that takes your breath away and makes you tear up. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed so hard! Laughter is contagious, so we both stood there, bending over, legs weakening, as wave after wave of laughter forced us to sit the floor and lean back, our arms propping us up. When the wave had quieted for a moment, he grinned, and I’d be off on another wave, wiping my eyes as I laughed. I made him choke on his last bite of burrito, which started the laughter again.  I had never enjoyed an eating companion as much as Big Ralphy. His last words to me were, “Good luck! I have a good feeling about you! You will be fine as long as you can laugh like this! Here, take the rest of these tortilla chips with you. I don’t need ‘um.”  He rubbed his own belly lovingly. “I’ll eat um if they’re here.”

I drove north, up into the dry, snow-encrusted plain of southeastern Wyoming and found The Ranger, a cheap motel, in LaMere. My room was compact, carpeted in bright orange shag with a narrow stove and tiny refrigerator crammed into one side of a closet.  The short blonde lady who showed me the room apologized for the carpet—a remnant of a color that didn’t sell from the local furniture store.  I didn’t care. The bar, which was attached to the motel lobby, used a thick, scratched and initialed chunk of hardwood, heavily varnished, as the serving bar with a wild collection of second-hand bar stools set down the eight-foot length.  At about 4:30 many LaMere locals showed up after work.  My first night was a Friday.  I shared beers and even smoked my first joint with some construction workers who were staying at the motel and remodeling the old A & W Drive-In down the street.  The next day the wind blew so hard on that interstate, my Jeep could barely maintain 50 miles per hour, creeping slowly towards the exit to Synthia.  I had the gas pedal floored most of the way.

I found Synthia and pulled into the LaFamilia Motel (Ralphy’s advice for a home).  Also per Ralphy’s observations, the wind stopped here, and the air was strangely still. The sun showed in rays through the rocky ridges around Synthia, and one ray lit up the air like a golden beacon aimed at the lobby’s big front glass window.  Per Ralphy, this was a common occurrence in Synthia.  I took that as a good omen.

My parents would be blown apart to know I am part of the “American blue-collar working class,” punching a time clock and working many odd and some long shifts.  As time passed, the mine and Synthia have become my own personal peep show into real human emotions and experiences. The work can be physically draining, but at the end of the day, I feel alive and satisfied.  My fellow miners are mostly Mexican or descended from Basque sheepherders from Spain, and Italian immigrants with great passions mixed with violence, love, hate, and a brand of courage I’ve never experienced before—to just live life moment-by-moment, day-by-day, expecting nothing more than what happens in those moments and days.  I want to stop analyzing everything and setting lofty goals while putting too much value on looking for hidden motivations. I want to accept what life throws at me—just accept and go on—doing what I must moment-by-moment.

I haven’t read an academic book in a year, but I’ve read my cookbooks and practice my cooking skills. I’ve created my own recipes, trying them out on my co-workers or others living at LaFamilia. I love doing—using my hands, shoulders, and back compared to thinking myself into my old “iron fist” that clenched away my days in Philly.  Now the open, lonely prairie and southern Snowy Range Mountains allow me to breathe deeply and fully. I move more slowly and concentrate on what is around me, step out long and use my legs and hips to really walk the ridges around The Rosebud Mine and Synthia.  I don’t concentrate on my inner self, or rush around like a neurotic squirrel—huffing and puffing, shallow and furious—afraid of the clock ticking away at the expectations of others. I’ve killed all expectations by others and myself, other than to work the dirt, feel the Wyoming sun and wind, watch the landscapes change, and cook what I want.

 

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Chapter 2

 

     Martín Rojas raised his hand and ducked his head to avoid his wife’s tirade.  She yelled at him from the door of their boxy, turquoise-plastered home.  His airborne hand clutched a grocery list on a torn piece of graph paper.  "Yeah, yeah . . . alright, I heard ya.  Jesus Christ,” he mumbled as he escaped into his immaculate 1963 Chevy Impala.  It smelled of Armour-All and loving care.  “Why in the hell can't Lena do all this errand stuff?"  Martín puffed air from his cheeks and answered himself with a growl.  "Because she's too busy running around on her Harley trying to be a macho woman." As he turned the ignition, he envisioned his daughter for a moment—her wide, searching chocolate eyes, black hair swinging playfully in a long, thick braid.  Oh, Lena, you were such a pretty benita - - when you were little.  What happened?  Those eyes . . . now you always walk away.  No one can talk to you. You think we're all full of bullshit.  Even as a kid, you always watched everyone.  Now those eyes make everyone nervous.  

He scowled and peeled out, spraying just a bit of gravel as he entered the street—just a bit.  A smirk grew on his face under his well-groomed mustache when his wife glowered at him from the open screen door.  Martín answered her with his thoughts: A man's got to have some fun, damnit.

     He drove the four blocks to downtown Synthia in a slow, relaxed manner, resting his arm out the window and waved with a cool aloofness by lifting of four fingers a few inches at the three Mondragon boys as they unloaded the grocery truck outside the pink plastered store. The building was newly painted, a radiating Pepto Bismol shade.  "Ummm, decent paint job," Martín spoke to his steering wheel.  He could feel Rodney Mondragon's envious stare as he pulled up in front of his barber shop.  "Nice wheels, I know, I know," he said as he patted the door.  Now Martín was in good spirits.  He left the rumpled grocery list face down on the floor of the Chevy.

     The barber shop already had three elderly men waiting in line, reading papers and listening to the Spanish station out of Denver.  Martín's part-time barber-in-training, Julio, was taking a phone call and signaled to Martín with a pencil that he dug into his ear and then stuck in his mouth.  Martín grimaced and watched his clients.  They were too busy reading to notice.  Martín became "Martín the Barber," motioning to the eldest man with the right amount of deference—not too eager, not too talkative.  The elderly man had a prosthesis and a cane.  Martín placed the stiff appendage on a stuffed stool he pulled out for Mr. Chavez's regular shaves.  Many of the first- and second-generation miners were disabled from earlier experiences in underground mines and stopped by at least three times a week for shaves before they wandered over to Dela's Doughnut Shop and then to the porch of the hardware and feed store.  Martín believed the shaves gave the ex-miners their dignity for the day, sometimes the only pride they would feel all week.  Pride was essential to the mining men of Synthia, even if it was externally obtained.  Martín had seen many women and men take pride in their appearance, homes, cars, and clothing only to have that confidence leak into their soul. That leaking process, however, sometimes took years and years. 

     "Mr. Chavez, you been to the new senior center yet?"

     "Nah, too many fat, bossy widows.  I go to the VFW or Blue's."  

    Martín nodded.  "Julio, who'd you just sign in?"

     "A weird-sounding lady."  Julio brought over the appointment book.

     "What?  A woman?  What?"  Martin grabbed the book.  C. Rub-i-nov?  "What is the C for?  You sure it’s a woman?"

     "I know a woman's voice when I hear one, especially with THAT kind of accent Russian.  Kinda like a sexy, James Bond-type—you know, low and husky."  Julio lowered his own voice to imitate, but the words ended in a strange adolescent squeak, a bear growl rising to a girlish soprano in one syllable.  He blushed and walked away.

Martín cocked his head and studied Mr. Chavez's lathered face in the mirror.  The old man’s charcoal eyes smoldered.  Two bits ol' Mr. Chavez will walk by here later to see this mystery lady.  It's good, gives these old fellas something to imagine for a change.  "Did you guys see that last play Ben Morales made Friday night?  Encampment will be an easy win next week."  Animated conversation in broken Spanish filled the rest of the morning as they argued the merits and demerits of the high-school football team, which led to a discussion about who they’d seen entering the shapely new female principal's office after 5 p.m.  There were too many delicious fantasies and possible partners to settle on one.

Martín sighed to himself.  He hadn't envisioned his wife as desirable in a long time.  All he could see was the disappointment in her eyes, the pouty mouth that expressed a resentfulness in dark whispers, aimed at herself more than anyone.  Martín couldn’t help anyone who wouldn’t openly divulge their troubles.  The new principal wasn't his type anyway, and he wasn't a man to stray, at least not yet.

     At 1:00 p.m. sharp, the shop doorbells jingled, announcing C. Rubinov.  She was a striking figure for a middle-aged woman:  lean, long-legged in new jeans and shiny black cowboy boots with exotic, high cheek bones, and a startling, direct stare full of intelligence and confidence.  Her posture was unusual, a straight back and a long neck that slightly arched backwards, not haughty, but as if her head and shoulders lifted her entire body off the ground.  She stepped lightly, as if on her own pocket of air.  Julio stared enraptured, open mouthed, his book bag in hand.  Then he fell over the doorjamb, leaving for his high-school classes.  Martín nodded politely, rolling his eyes at Julio's clumsy exit.  

     "Mrs. Rubinov?  Would you like to sit down?"  He motioned almost too stiffly to the middle chair.  She floated to the chair and folded herself into it like a cat.  In the mirror, Martin’s eyes followed her long neck up to her smooth forehead and a bright, paisley scarf, wrapped turban-style around her head.  "What can I do for you today?"

     She spoke in a throaty voice, almost masculine.  "You may call me Celeste, 

 Mr. . . ."

     "Rojas, please call me Martín."

     "Accent on the last syllable, pronounced Mar-t-e-e-n?  Interesting.  I'm meeting so many different people in this state of Wyoming, so many friendly people open to meeting strangers—refreshing and without suspicion--like your air and skies.  I've been living in Philadelphia for the last seven years, so cloudy and close most of the timesuffocationlike St. Petersburg, at home.  My lips are very dry, though."  She squeezed them together.  Her mouth was relaxed and the lines around it suggested she smiled often.  Martín studied her eyes in his shop mirror; they also registered a sadness and fatigue.

     "Not a friendly climate for bare skin.  Can I remove your scarf?  I'm surprised you came to me instead of the beauty shop down the street."

     She laughed, a hoarse chuckle.  Martín assumed it was fatigue.

     "I should prepare you before you remove my scarf, Mr. Rojas.  You see, I have very little hair, and I don't enjoy women's pity when I must have a trim.  They seem so alarmed that I feel uncomfortable.  Barbers are comfortable with placing their hands on a bare head without comment.  Also, if you wouldn't mind, I know barbers are trained to do scalp massages, and I would so enjoy one."

    Martín swallowed and took a deep breath.  He gave scalp massages to a few of his hairless clients, often under the guise of increasing the blood circulation to strengthen whatever hair they had left.  A massage was relaxing.  But a woman?  I could say no . . . but I’ve never turned down a client in my life, not even the drunk ones.  Celeste was staring at Martín in the mirror, expectantly.  She didn’t smile or look nervous; she challenged him with her striking gray eyes.  Those eyes were the color of boiling rain clouds, heavy with suppressiondamned up.  Martín gently unwrapped Celeste’s turban, trying too hard to keep from touching her head.  He paused to study her creamy scalp, not perfectly round by any means, but a pleasant, almost symmetrical oval shape with patches of tiny swirling red hairs.  There were also a few sections of longer wisps. Martín snipped the ends with small trim-scissors in quick staccato sounds. The wisps curved nicely around Celeste’s skull, which he lightly smoothed with his palm—a first touch. He was gaining confidence and noted in the mirror how some patches of red hair stood out and others laid down. He snipped the patches to give Celeste’s head symmetry and balance, which gave him another opportunity to use both palms to smooth the s patches of hair on each side of her head. With a careful pressure, he felt her cool scalp under his warm palms.  His eyes narrowed with effort, noticing her lean thighs and torso below him. He tried to imagine he was touching a newborn baby’s head to keep his own pulse under control.  Then he rotated his palms on her head, slowly, with imperceptible motions at first, his palms warming the bare skin.  He began to regain his focus, and he increased the rotation.  

    His confidence grew as he glanced at the mirror in front of them, noting her eyelids were half closed, her lips slightly upturned showing an inward smile that signaled to Martín she was lost in her own thoughts.  This also pleased Martín; he knew his skills were much more than flipping, clipping and shaving hair. After a few larger rotations, gently kneading the taut, pale and vulnerable skin, warming, touching, rubbing her scalp, he cupped his muscular hands and increased the pressure, letting each of his fingertips individually massage her individually. They spoke very little, but the silence was comfortable.  In fact, Martín found himself lost in concentration. The minutes went by too quickly.      

His peripheral vision was keen, and sure enough, his front window received an unusual amount of local foot traffic. He trimmed the longer swags of auburn hair that wrapped around her head.  Then he found himself irritated that others were entering the shop.  Celeste Rubinov never mentioned her business in town.  Martín held a strong belief that a barber, much like a bartender, was there to listen, not to ask questions.  

    The background murmur of two new clients interrupted Celeste’s relaxed state.  Her eyes opened slowly, and she surveyed the pair of older gentlemen entering the door.  “Mr. Rojas, I enjoyed that,” she whispered.  Martín allowed his hands to slide down her long neck, releasing his pressure as he went.  He nodded, unable to speak.  They shared a brief, knowing stare in the mirror.  Celeste rewrapped her head in her turban, checked the clasps on her gold hoop earrings, and lifted her slender figure up onto her walking cloud.  She parted the pair of coughing, mangled older men as she walked to the cash register. 

    Martín looked at Mr. Chavez and his partner-in-nosiness, the severely stooped Tito Boretta.  Both were gray and shrunken, and they smiled too brightly at Celeste and Martín.  

    “What do you need?” Martin snapped.  They both shrugged, their ludicrous grins widening.  Tito’s voice stammered as his eyes nervously shifted between Martin and Celeste, grazing Celeste’s body.  He’s out of practice, too obvious, Martin noted, sadly.

    “Oh, we jus’ wanted to check if you could shave us next Tuesday.”

    “Of course, I always shave you on Tuesday,” Martin snapped.  C’mon man. Respect for your elders.  “Of course.  I’ll make the appointment.”  His nod was steeped in cultural meaning.

    “Very good,” Tito clipped.  His Italian accent flowed heavily over the words.  Martín knew he had saved their dignity, and they appreciated it.  Both gentlemen always paid for their shaves in cash, on the spot; no tabs or credit clouded their interactions.  The two shuffled out the door.  They put their heads together once they were standing on the curb in deep conjecture. 

     Celeste paid her bill and asked directions to the Best Western Motel near the interstate.  Martín told her it was the nicest place in town.  The only other motel was the La Familia, owned by an ex-barmaid inclined to forget maid service.  Then Celeste asked a strange question.

     "Who stays at this La Family motel?"

     "LaFamilia? Well, usually miners that don't want to live in the company trailers, or some ranch and construction workers.  They rent by the month, I guess."  Martín frowned at the prospect of this fine woman staying with Belinda Martel, one of the local drunks.

     "Don't worry Mr. Rojas.  I'm not staying there."

     "Come back again, Mrs. Rubinov."

     She sighed warily.  “I might need another massage soon.  I'll call you.”

     As Martín watched Celeste rise and walk from the chair towards the cash register, a memory of his youth in Mexico City flashed in his mind. He had been struggling to learn a complicated Latin dance from a group of professional dancers at the University.  Martín could only afford one year of school.  When his father died, he and his mother left for the U.S.  Yes, Celeste moved like those dancers, walking on air with their chests, shoulders, and heads high, long necks stretching for the sky.  It had been years since he had thought of that time in his life.  

     "Mr. Rojas, are you here, here in this moment?"  Celeste laughed again, that deep hoarse laugh, as if she knew where he was.

     "I'm sorry, Mrs. Rubinov.  I . . . I guess I drifted off."

     "Very good!"  She paid her bill and left the shop.

     "What a weird thing to say, to drift off is very good."  Martín felt odd, out of touch for a while, as if visited by an uncomfortable spirit.  He slipped back into his half-trance for a moment, remembering a particular dance step he had perfected at the University.  Involuntarily, his heel raised and hit the floor with a snap, and his head jerked back in as his heels hit the floor.  He stiffened and let his heels drum the floor, like a drum roll.  Then he stopped when an astonished male face smirked at him from outside the window.  He quickly turned his back to the window.

    "Agh, you dumb shit, pendajo!"  Martín finished his cleaning and closing chores in irritation, locked the door with an angry twist and went homeonly to go back to the grocery store for his wife's errands. 

Chapter 3

    I had just finished the 12-hour shift known as the "sixer," 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and was walking from the timeclock shed to my jeep in the parking lot.  I watched my wavering shadow in the orange-tinged air, as the sun was setting behind the black slag heap’s multiple crests and dips on the west side of the parking lot.  Orange rays illuminated some of the miner’s parked vehicles, then jumped and danced away into the creeping purple ridges around the mine that also encompassed Synthia.  

 My dusty red lunch cooler looked like a giant blocky fist in my left hand, and my long legs resembled twisted pipe cleaners in the gravelly shadows. The open buckles of my mine-issue, black work boots clanged—a common sound at the end of shifts. After clocking out, most miners unbuckled those heavy boots first thing, letting the cool air vent our sweaty feet. As a result, I stirred up mini-dust clouds by dragging my heavy heels.  I was thinking about how cozy my new clean, thick socks would feel when I could pull off the steel-toed galoshes enclosing my sweaty socks. All miners brought clean socks and athletic shoes or comfy boots, leaving them in their vehicles during their shifts. I was vaguely aware of the green, dusty truck, two parking rows ahead of me—a familiar truck I’d seen often, when I heard the angry woman’s voice. 

“God damnit, NO—stop it!”  

I saw two silhouettes in the cab of the truck with jerky movements, one leaning toward the driver’s door with a mine-issue booted foot up in the air in an apparent kick toward the other silhouette. Then the gun went off, followed by a man’s yell, starting low in the throat, climbing in pitch to a high scream from unbearable pain.  

Hearing the pinnacle of the scream, I dropped my lunch cooler and ran so fast in those damn galoshes, I wasn’t even aware of the running.  As I came closer, the driver’s door flew open, and I saw the booted foot again briefly in the air gaining impetus for another kick.  I knew I had to be at that open cab door immediately—and I was. A woman’s thick, black braid swung below her head toward the ground as her upper torso leaned out of the truck.  Instinct took over: I knew I should catch her.  And I did with inches to go. She was still trying to kick the man who was sobbing, holding his bloody foot.  

    “Leee—nahh!  Oh Lena. My . . .  b-box . . . it was for you!” He sobbed like a little boy.  

    As I slid in to catch her, I saw the gun in her hand.  She twisted angrily, as if she would now shoot me. In fact, her braid whipped me in the cheek like a piece of rope. Of course I was afraid. But my upbringing came through as instinct and saved me. As I held her, I said very plainly, in a calm voice—maybe it was a bit shaky—“It’s okay now.  I’ve got you.  He won’t hurt you now . . . .” 

    “He sure as hell won’t! That son of a bitch!”

    I noticed one strap of her overalls was pulled off her shoulder—by force it looked like. The metal button was bent sideways with a tear in the denim from the shank.  Her thermal underwear top was torn a bit at the neck.  I guessed this man was trying to grab her breast since her overalls were pulled oddly down on one side.  

    I held her back and neck in my lower arms. Her hips and legs were airborne. Using a scooping motion, I supported her until her legs were under her, and she could stand up. Surprisingly I was crouched, almost on my knees to support her.  She stood up, the gun in her hand, and stared at me with the coldest brown eyes—orange sparks in their pupils—like a piece of expensive bronze with copper highlights.  Those eyes were not frightened, but disgusted. Her lips were full, but in the straight line of suppressed anger. She was younger than I, but so tough, so sure of herself. I could feel her assessing the situation in seconds and making some kind of decision. 

    “I’m okay,” she said.  She clicked the safety on the gun. Hearing that click, I realized I had been holding my breath the whole time, my throat closed tight and mouth open. I let go--breathed so deeply, I coughed on parking lot dust.  I felt a bit dizzy, which I would never admit to anyone! And here in front of me, a pair of brown eyes are almost burning me, and she had a gun in her hand!  

 She reached under the driver’s seat to pull out a piece of leather and holstered the gun. I was impressed with her lack of panic.  She was under control—and even in control of us all.  The coldness of those eyes was also familiar to me. In fact the last time my instincts took over, icy-cold, green eyes were in my face.  I was attracted to those eyes too.  

Those green eyes came into my life briefly during my college days, when I worked as a bouncer I at a prominent nightclub in Philadelphia, the Baronsky Club.  I had tried to block an impending physical encounter between a beautiful green-eyed woman with red hair and a drunk Russian diplomat.  I can still feel my shock when the woman, two-thirds my 6’ 4” height, even though I was a thin man at that time, rudely shoved me out of the way without a thank you or even an appreciative gaze.  Her eyes had also been hard and disgusted, not fearful.  In fact, as soon as the encounter cooled, the diplomat turned his back to her, rolling his own condescending eyes and whispered, “Whore.”  The woman picked up an expensive, half-empty wine bottle from a nearby table and broke it over the diplomat’s buffed, bald head.  He staggered into two nearby tables, upturning their sumptuous dishes into the silk and satin laps of the unfortunate customers.  I remember controlling a laugh when I saw a cluster snails, their shells bobbing in a puddle of sauce, dripping from the blue silk lap of a horrified diner.  Then the owner of those green eyes whirled around, flipped her flame-red hair over her bare shoulders, held up her gloved hand bearing a huge emerald ring, and raised her slender middle finger towards the diplomat.  Her words were clear, and the whole dining room was quiet. “The next time you call me for an appointment, you pay me in cash before you touch my thigh, whether we are in public or not!” The woman walked out with her head high.  The room remained quiet for a few uncomfortable minutes.  And then an elderly lady began banging her rhinestone-encrusted silver cane on the floor, chanting, “Brava . . . Brava.”  Other patrons caught on and clapped in rhythm, shouting, “Brava” also.  Goose bumps grew up my arms and legs under my cheap tuxedo.  The Russian revolution was still alive and well in parts of Philadelphia in 1968!  I still think about that gutsy woman and her eyes.

I rubbed the “braid burn” on my cheek and didn’t show this she-miner the smile I felt inside. True to form, the she-miner offered no words of thanks or acknowledgement, just like the woman in the Baronsky Club.

This Lena woman calmly instructed the man, “Here Burl, wrap these around your foot!” She threw a pair of clean socks onto the seat beside this sobbing Burl.  They had been stuffed in his wrinkled cowboy boots on the floor mat next to his working galoshes.  “You’re lucky you made your move barefooted.  You’ve got ready-made bandages.”

“Am I dreaming?” I mumbled.

“THIS—a fuckin’ dream world?” she snorted and started the ignition of the truck.  Then she paused as I was leaning on the open door.  Those eyes again! Her gaze shifted to me—and went right through me. I felt my stomach lurch in a strange way.  Not like the constant pain and iron fist I felt from my father’s voice. No, this was more like a form of excitement and fear—a rollercoaster ride. Now there was hot and steamy chocolate pouring into my body.

“You’re that smart Russian guy, aren’t cha?” She left the truck idling and jumped out.  She placed her palm against my shoulder and gently pushed me. “Here, jump into the truck next to Burl.  I don’t want him even rubbing shoulders with me on the way to the ER. I might shoot him somewhere else if he doesn’t watch it.” With that comment Burl winced and looked at her in amazement.  Then his eyes glazed over as he stared straight ahead, holding the socks around his right foot. Small pinpricks of blood appeared on the socks.

Before I moved under her pressure, I asked, “Should I run up to the time clock hut and call the police?” That felt like the right thing to do. “He obviously can be charged with assault.”

“No.” She also quickly assessed Burl again.  “Burl?” Burl just stared ahead as if in a trance, not hearing her voice. “Burl!! God Damn it. I told you no, at least three times, and damn you! Why don’t you men understand the word no? Your mom must have let you ignore her when she told you no. Damn you! Do you hear me? A strange look of concern came over her face.  I say “strange” because I still don’t understand why she insisted I come, and we drove that fool to LaMere and the hospital.

“You’re going to help him?” I said.

“Hurry, get in.  No time to lose,” was her answer.

So I stepped up into that cab and sat next to the bloody and now dreamy Burl. Once I was settled, she jumped up next to me.  I noted her rounded hips and full breasts, and again, didn’t let my inner smile show through. I had warm chocolate coating my stomach now. I learned at a very young age how to block and mask those emotions.

    “Watch that son-of-a-bitch. If he starts to pass out, put both his legs up on the dashboard higher than his head, and there’s a thermos of water rolling somewhere on the floor,” Lena said.

    A few miners were running toward us.  “I don’t want their input.  Let’s go!” She put the truck in gear.

    “Oh I left my lunch cooler . . . ”

    “Not important,” was her answer.  She peeled out with her door open, spraying gravel on the small group of men starting to gather. “Taking Burl to LaMere—the hospital.  Call Mama Bee!” she yelled to the group while yanking at the door to shut it.