By Craig van Rooyen
Featured Art: Pine Tree by Giovanni Segantini
The History Channel’s playing “The Gold Rush” again.
All those bearded men looking at reflections
of themselves on the surfaces of creeks and rivers and lakes.
They’re so beautiful coming out of ramshackle cabins,
thumbs tucked into suspenders, wading into streams
the color of cheap whiskey. That golden light
on their shoulders, in their beards, dripping
from the brims of their hats, high on
“howdy” and “rough and ready,”
around every bend in the river, expecting
life to begin. The flash of light in a silver pan
full and overflowing. All that hope. Out of
the river, there’s always more earth.
There’s always the scooping and sifting and
throwing away. Everything left behind—out of
frame: The women in their calico, waving goodbye.
The steaming cows in their barns. Now just
the sloshing desire of this moment and the next.
Sure, you have to be willing to kill a few Indians.
But as long as you’ve got a pan and a river
to dip it in, you can forget the rest.
At least that’s what I tell myself before the first
commercial break. Before those attractive
late-middle-aged people clutch each other
in honey light and the baritone voice-over tells me
to go to the emergency room if I experience
an erection that lasts more than four hours. I wonder
if anyone ever panned for gold in terrycloth—
my fabric of choice for watching “The Gold Rush”
in bed at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I wonder
if any of those bearded men had a bottle of
Prozac back in the cabin next to the straight-blade
razor underneath the cracked mirror—something
to take the edge off all that failure, something
to dull the regret of walking out on their women
and cows. Of course they’d have another name
for Prozac, like maybe “nerve pills,” as in:
“Durn near forgot to take my nerve pills this morning, Jake.
Christing Jesus, sure don’t want to start sawing
at my wrists again, now do I?” I love the way
there’s no word for shame in the language
of gold miners. All that hope is contagious.
In fact, I believe if I really tried, I could get up
and shuffle to the bathroom and brush my teeth
during the next commercial break. I love
the History Channel! It’s so inspirational.
Right now, the sad banjo music is playing—
the plinking of catgut string over doe-skin,
a sound so Californian it makes you weep for
the all-night diner in Auburn where it’s 6 a.m.
and the sun is lighting up the foothills and
the American River is still frothing to get wherever
it’s been trying to go all night long. All the gold’s dug out
of the hills but the waitress is calling you “love” as she
puts down a cup of awful coffee and sits in your booth—
night shift done. It’s as if she knows you. As if she’s
made the same mistakes and she’s telling you it’s okay.
Now she’s taking out a bobby pin.
Now she’s letting down all that golden hair.
Craig van Rooyen is the winner of the 2014 Rattle Poetry Prize. His work has appeared recently in Southern Poetry Review, Willow Springs, Rattle, New Ohio Review, PANK, and elsewhere. He is a student in the MFA program at Pacific University.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015