Staking Claims

by Chantal Corcoran

The third short story selection by our guest fiction editor, Ivy Pochoda

On a sunny weekend in April, after 30 years of searching, Randy finally found gold. He spotted a puffed robin on a neighbor's fence that morning, and the price of gas at the town's only pump had dropped 30 cents overnight. He was whistling while he filled the tanks of both vehicles: his pick-up, then his snowmobile. And a favorite song was playing on the country music station, while he followed an old lumber road north out of Chapleau. Twenty-five kilometers later, having made his own tracks in the snow for the last 15, the road weaved east through the thickest portions of Northern Ontario's boreal forest. Randy parked the truck, unloaded his snowmobile, secured a pack and his snowshoes to his back and consulted his GPS. He drove further north still on the snowmobile; ducking and weaving through the dense pine, the winter bare maples, birches, ashes and firs, the cedar, the spruce and the balsam; heaving up on the handle bars to climb rocky crags, then rolling down the land's sloping backside. He was cautious, that first warm weekend of the year, about the lakes, the ice that looked sound but weakened with each passing hour beneath the nearing sun.

Randy had planned to maintain a northern course, but he spotted a moose and her twin calves to his right and decided, since he'd only once before seen moose in multiples, that this was a good omen. A man who spends two days of seven alone in the purest Canadian wilderness will develop funny tendencies, a belief in things like omens and luck. Randy turned his snowmobile east, let up on the throttle and, through the tinted plastic of his goggles, he scanned for rock protrusions in the thick vegetation and the abundant snow, rock outcrops that might contain precious minerals — gold.

It was a 30-year hobby. While other men he knew spent their weekends playing hockey or curling, fishing and hunting, drinking beer and nursing hangovers, Randy sought gold. He left most Saturday mornings while Lynette was making pancakes for the kids when they were still young, then while they slept in as teenagers. He returned Sunday evenings for the family meal — that was the deal he'd struck with Lynette, early on.

When Sunday suppers passed without him, Lynette would know that deep in the brush, amidst black flies in July and frigid temperatures in January, in the company of bears and wolves and a variety of cats, with his small worn pick ax, Randy had discovered something important enough to warrant missing the family meal, something that could pay for the kids to go to college and decent weddings for the girls, or at least new winter boots that didn't pinch their fleshy little toes. Lynette would know that Randy was late because he was blazing trees with the sharp edge of his ax, stripping bark to record his name and prospector's license on the freshly exposed wood, marking a four-corner parcel of land. Randy only missed Sunday suppers when he was busy staking claims.

Lynette would always wait up for him these nights, meeting him in the driveway with a hot cup of tea and one of his sweaters draped across her shoulders, eager to see his rock samples. Then, together, they'd examine them at their wobbly kitchen table, while the children slept.

In the beginning, they'd consulted library books, holding Randy's rocks against photographs and illustrations, and calling the neighbors over for their opinions. Soon, they purchased their own books to study the characteristics of copper and silver, authentic gold versus fool's gold. They learned to keep their findings secret, to protect their claims. They dropped the kids off at Lynette's sister's twice a year and they made romantic weekends of mining conventions. In the mid-'90s they skimped on groceries and gas, they ate dinner by candlelight and laid extra blankets on the beds, to scrounge up enough money for a used computer. By the turn of the millennium, Randy was considered a local expert in the field. And Lynette, too, could proficiently quote the current price of gold, was always aware of which refiners were paying top dollar.

Twice in 30 years, Randy had come close. Twice he'd registered his claims with the Canadian government, sought financing and formed partnerships with local businessmen, pushed his explorations to the next level, renting diamond drill rigs and hiring contractors from Timmins to drill for core samples. When, the first time, three of five holes confirmed his find — a good gold grade, a tenth of an ounce per ton of rock — Randy expanded his claim from ten square miles to 30, but the remaining five drills came up empty, meaning the gold Randy had found was from a small deposit, not worth the expense or the effort of mining. The second time, it was copper Randy had discovered, and only one drill in five had come up lucky.

But on that weekend in April, Randy really struck gold, high-grade gold, and plenty of it.

"How many men can say that and actually mean it?" he joked with Lynette.

It was early on the Sunday morning when Randy knew for certain he would find it this time. He woke up late, not at all shivering in his sleeping bag in the back of his pick-up. The tarp that had covered him through the night had come loose, so that when he was awakened by the call of a crow and the steady dripping of the icicles melting from the branches, he was instantly blinded by April's sun gleaming off the wet snow. After rubbing his eyes, and scratching at his salt and pepper whiskers, Randy raised himself on an elbow, only to discover the same family of moose he'd seen yesterday, licking the salt from his tires. And he knew. When the 800-pound cow peered down her muzzle and past her big nostrils, when she locked her dark moose eyes on his, and he could smell the coming spring in her earthy, browning fur, he knew.

After a breakfast of canned beans and bacon, he put on his snowshoes and tracked the moose southeast. The cow's hooves had pressed heavy in the wet snow, marking a sure and steady path through the trees, alongside the gangly wanderings of her calves: each print a spliced heart where a pair of toes curled in on themselves. Randy caught up to them within the hour, where they knelt low on their elongated front legs, to drink from the icy water that gushed from the Arctic Watershed and would spill over falls less than a quarter of a mile away.

Across the river, Randy spotted the rock. To the naked eye, from a quarter-mile distance, there was nothing unique about this outcrop: it was gray and jagged, forming no memorable shape where it rose from the earth. However, like the snow that crowded it, it glinted in the morning sun, and Randy had a wild hunch that it was laced with gold.

He spent seven hours trying to find his way across the river, and around the river. He followed it east until it turned south; he followed it west, until it turned north, and the more difficult it became to get at, the more certain he grew of his fortune. Finally, Randy loaded the snowmobile into the truck and headed south again down the old lumber road. He would be home for dinner then head back the following morning with his maps.

"Come with me," he said to Lynette.

Lynette had been prospecting with him before, but always in warmer weather, and not for more than a decade.

"It's April," she said. "I'll freeze."

"It'll be fun," he said, stepping up behind her. He put his arms around her waist and she lifted hers from the sudsy dishwater. In the window's reflection, against the dark of night, Lynette sighed in surrender and Randy made love to his wife with a vigor he hadn't had for a long time. They slept spooned up against one another that night, his gray head and her brunette one, side by side on an old flattened pillow that smelled a combination of her lavender shampoo, his sweat, and sawdust.

Something happens to a man when his life doesn't merit the aspirations of his youth. When a boy's outdoor summer gig hauling logs from the lake leads to a lifetime sucking sawdust up his nostrils, meandering amongst the mill's deafening machinery and bales on bales of fresh lumber, sizing up planks for knots and warps, and timing cigarette breaks and lunch breaks to earn a check to buy his babies milk and school crayons. Something happens to a man when his children learn to disguise their Christmas morning disappointments, when they grow sensible early. These sorts of things can make a man desperate to believe in miracles. In gold.

The thought of a fortune and the freedom it would afford them was its own aphrodisiac. While Randy made love to Lynette on the flat pillow that smelled of them, he imagined draping a string of pearls around her neck, silk sheets beneath her pale skin, a larger bedroom and a king size bed.

Early the following morning Lynette tucked her hair into a toque and, wearing long underwear and snow pants, she climbed into the truck's passenger seat. On the snowmobile she rested her hooded head against Randy's back. Then, having relocated the outcrop from a southern route this time, side by side, in the silence of the dense winter forest, Randy and Lynette chipped away at rock, collecting samples of what would turn out to be a rather decent grade gold, half an ounce per ton of rock.

They took turns that day sipping coffee from a thermos and enjoying the small conversations of a husband and wife nearly 40 years married. Lynette reminded Randy of his dentist appointment the following week and informed him that the bathroom tap was dripping again. Randy said if Doc Bill found a cavity, he'd have him fill it with gold, and he held a rock up to his mouth, grinning Jack-o-lantern like.

Lynette half laughed.

"Let me see that," she said, and working skillfully with his pick ax she cracked it in two. Then she leaned forward on her elbows, to recall for Randy the prophetic mother moose, and removing her mittens to palm it in her bare hand, she examined the stone under a magnifying glass; she closed her eyes to assess its weight; and, for a lark, she took it between her teeth.

"This here is gold, I tell you," she said.

"I think so, too," Randy said.

In the melting forest, under a canopy of bright sky, Lynette and Randy whooped and hollered, their cries bouncing off rocky cliffs that stood, Randy felt, like ancient sentries of destiny to protect his claim.

Boot prints in the snow marked their celebratory waltz.

Lynette never claimed regrets but Randy was sure she had them. Tommy Fowler, her boyfriend before him, was the town doctor, and Vicky Doyle, her best friend from childhood, had married a banker who bought her a big house in Toronto and plane tickets to exotic places. Vicky still calls Lynette on Sundays. Decades ago they would share, via long-distance, the complaints of young mothers who weren't getting enough sleep; later, they bragged about their children: badges earned, goals scored, teeth lost; as the children grew, so did their boastings. Now that Randy and Lynette's family of five was spread across the province, and even into the United States, Randy had to leave the room when Vicky called, because he couldn't stand all the listening Lynnette did: The banker was retired, now, and Vicky's world was all cruises and golf tournaments, dinner parties and fancy restaurants.

"I like listening," Lynnette had said when Randy commented, once.

But Randy couldn't believe her.

Weeks later, when the snow had thoroughly melted at the claim site, and while they were still waiting for the results to come back from the assay lab to report the quality of their find, Randy and Lynette were sitting, side by side, on an old brown couch in their front room. They'd chanced upon it, curbside, only a year into their marriage. The sagger, they called it then. Years later, as it fell into further decrepitude and life grew harder and money remained short, the name morphed; the old couch became the saga, a term Lynette still used endearingly.

"Randy, what if this is it?" she said. With her baby finger, she poked at a fraying hole in one of the cushions.

"It is, Lynette. I just know it is."

"But, what if it is?"

"Well, we go to Sudbury first. To both the big mines."

"I know the drill," she said, "I'm just …. "

Beyond the front window, still covered in its winter plastic, dusk threw a red sky across the Northern Ontario lowlands. Before it, a rabbit-eared television droned with the evening news, until Lynette stood to turn it off.

"What'll we do with that kind of money?" she said.

"We could travel. You used to want to travel."

Inside the interior pocket of Randy's winter prospecting coat, in a Ziploc bag, with a book of matches, some old photos of the kids and a snapshot from his wedding day — he and Lynette posed behind a lopsided cake — Randy kept a tattered postcard from a vineyard in France that Vicky had mailed to Lynette, years ago. Shivering under the weight of his canvas tarp, Randy would sometimes hold his flashlight up to the vivid greens and the bright red blossoms that grew from the vines on the French hillside against a centuries-old, turreted, stone wall; and the image warmed him. Beyond this stone wall was the castle of Randy's imagination and he often wandered its rooms, until he eventually found sleep, on the hard bed of his flatbed. Then, he wandered them again in his dreams — where they were filled with gold. "Wouldn't it be nice," a young Lynette had said, reading to him of Vicky's adventures.

"I'll quit the mill and we'll travel," Randy said, when Lynette didn't respond. "And we'll hire an architect to build us a new house, a giant mansion on the lake, for us to come home to." Randy spoke of thermal windows, a six-car garage and a billiards room before pausing, waiting, for Lynette to chime in, as she often would, with granite counter tops, chandeliers and soaker tubs.

When she didn't, Randy reached a finger to her earlobe. "Diamond earrings for you," he said.

"I don't want diamonds." She pushed his hand away. "And, I'm not moving." She folded her arms across her chest.

In the dimming light of the small room, stale with the smell of years in the carpet, the ticking of the clock came up against the heavy hum of the ancient refrigerator.

"I'm not moving," Lynette said again, rising from the couch. "And I don't think you should quit your job." She leaned on one leg.

Outside, the sun dropped another inch in the sky, and it was dark.

"This house is our home," Lynette finally said. "This couch, this saga is our life."

"This saga is not our life."

"But it is, Randy." She kneeled in front of him to rest her hands on the faded knees of his jeans. "You and I have been sitting on this couch for almost 40 years. Look at these stains. These stains are ours. They're our memories."

"That stain is ketchup."

"You're not getting it, Randy."

"I get it."

"No. You don't." Lynette stood again. "Anyway, we've been down this road before. What are the chances, really?"

Dinner jackets required, reads a hand-painted sign inside the front entrance of the town's only tavern. It's the first thing Lynette noticed, once the bell rang overhead announcing their arrival. Beside the sign: a faded flannel lumberman's jacket hangs — has hung for years — from a rusty nail hammered into the dark stained wall. It's an old joke, but a favorite amongst the locals: fishermen, hunters, railroad crew and lumbermen who frequent this establishment.

Lynette's read the sign a hundred times; she'd even had a good chuckle over it, when it first went up. But on this day in August, it made her self-conscious for her navy skirt, her business blazer. Randy's clothes, too, embarrassed her; his white, cotton oxford could've been neon for the way it gleamed under the fluorescents, and stood out amidst the checkered flannel, camouflage and denim.

"Nice tie," said the waitress, pointing with her stubby pencil at the red silk, the loose and clumsy knot at Randy' neck.

"Thanks," Randy smiled. He ordered a coffee. Lynette ordered a tea.

"Nervous?" she asked him.

"Yeah." He cleared his throat.

"But, how much could it be, really?"

"Could be a lot," he said, biting down on his thumb nail. "Could be a lot."

Randy's tie, like his shirt, was new, purchased earlier that week for the occasion of this meeting. Lynette's clothes were not new. In fact, she'd had to stitch the hem of her skirt, where it had come loose at the seam, just that morning. It was the only skirt she owned — the one she packed a few times each year, alongside her satin nightshirt, when she and Randy travelled for mining conventions — the only one she needed.

Having spent the majority of the week in Sudbury, negotiating with the mine's executives on Randy's behalf, Saul Gordon, the lawyer Randy hired from Toronto, had news. He would drive the five hours to Chapleau, he'd told Randy over the phone. He wondered if there was somewhere they could have lunch. Randy had told him yes, the town had a tavern.

"You should have invited him here," Lynette had said, meaning their house, but Randy had only grunted. More than ever, he seemed ashamed of their home, their lives — and Lynette couldn't help feeling offended.

She kept a clean house, and despite a lifetime parked on the poverty line, they were always comfortable enough — cozy, even, for the Afghans she'd knitted by hand to drape over the couch, and for the family to curl under on cooler evenings. Perhaps the bookshelf leaned a little, but it always shone with a lemony polish. The plants too, hanging from the ceiling in slings of crochet — like the family she'd raised — thrived in Lynette's care. And she was a decent cook, could fix a satisfying casserole out of mere scraps, fill a cupboard with less than ten dollars. Lynette's friends marveled at her homemaking skills, pleaded for her bread recipes. Her mushroom omelet would've been just the thing to serve, Lynette thought, and she would have been pleased for the chance to pull out her wedding ware.

"Here he comes," said Randy, when a tall man in a grey suit and matching silver hair walked through the door.

"Friendly folks," said Saul Gordon, making light of the stares that followed him from the front door to his seat. Even a stuffed fish, scales covered in a greasy dust, peered down at him, suspiciously, from its perch on the wall.

"What's the verdict?" Randy asked when Saul's coffee had been served.

Saul cleared his throat. "Good news," he said, twisting a spoon in his cup and raising three fingers of his left hand.

Randy's mouth fell open. "You're kidding?"

"What?" Lynette said. "What?" She pressed a napkin, from the mirrored dispenser, to her forehead grown damp with nerves.

"I'm not kidding." Saul grinned. "Three percent."

Randy slapped the table. "Holy shit!" he said.

"What does that mean?" Lynette said to Saul. "Three percent of what?" she asked Randy, while she tore thin strips of the crumpled napkin.

"Three percent of the revenue generated by the mine is ours to keep," Randy said.

Lynette cocked her head.

"So," Saul continued, "if the mine generates a hundred million — and we anticipate it will, in the first year, alone — then, well … , you do the math."

"In the first year alone?"

"In the first year alone." Randy nodded, enthusiastically, and he slapped the table, again. This time toppling the salt pillar and sending the cutlery askew.

By the time a pair of fishermen, in high rubber boots, had swung around on their bar stools at the noise, Lynette had righted the table — replaced the salt aside the pepper, the knife aside the fork — and she sat erect, one hand at her mouth and the other — the one that clamped the dampened napkin shreds — held her stomach.

"I've always wanted a fancy letter opener," Randy said on his way in from the mailbox. "Something in a heavy brass."

Lynette rolled her eyes. "A butter knife works just fine," she said, and their conversation only grew worse from there.

The first check from the mine had been deposited into their account a month earlier, and despite a bank statement that showed more zeros than Randy had ever imagined — the bank statement that Randy had tossed down on the wobbly kitchen table, as evidence — Lynette still argued for Randy to keep his job at the lumber mill.

"You're being unreasonable," he told her.

"It's only for another year and a half," she said.

"But why, Lynette? I don't understand." He moved to their new granite sink with his morning dishes.

Outside, the sky was gray and a small red squirrel raced across the back fence, her mouth stretched wide around some sort of seed or nut, and the wind pushed the damp autumn air through the open window with a force that foretold of winter. Randy was anxious for the snow; he had his eye on a new snowmobile.

A 30-year routine was hard to abandon.

Initially, Randy had been enthusiastic about upgrading the house — that was the compromise: upgrades. He'd wake early Saturday mornings, anxious to rip out the old windows, the carpets, the cupboards and appliances, and eager to replace them with brand new pieces still smelling of the factories they were manufactured in. On weekdays, he'd tackle the simpler jobs like installing new light fixtures and modern faucets. Then, nursing a beer on the couch, he'd watch through the new picture window as cars slowed then stopped to collect the things he'd junked curbside. But after only a month, this became tiresome, anti-climactic. And the saga wasn't as comfortable as it used to be since Lynette had upholstered — the cushions were lumpy and uneven, and the pastel floral fabric wasn't them.

Randy meant to finish laying the hardwood floor then he hoped to trade up his prospecting gear and head north again. He was itching for winter, bare trees, bear tracks, rock outcrops, more gold.

"I don't understand." Randy said again, tenderly this time. He turned to face her, where she sat at the breakfast table spreading raspberry jam on toast.

For the first time in their lives they weren't living paycheck to paycheck. For the first time they had real financial means, and still Lynette insisted they live like they always had. Yesterday, he'd found her cutting coupons from the weekend newspaper.

"You don't need to do that anymore," he'd said.

"Just something to pass the time," she'd said, organizing the little paper squares across the table by expiration date.

Now she sighed. "It's not enough," she finally said, putting down her knife.

Randy winced.

It's not enough, she'd cried almost 40 years earlier, throwing an empty baby bottle at the wall when there'd been no milk to fill them. It's not enough, she'd said, chewing on a pencil while the children raced circles around them and he and Lynette studied the bills and how to pay them. It's not enough, she'd said, in response to their son who'd pointed to Randy's job when they were discussing college tuition. Recollections of hard times were stacked high in the small bungalow, and like the blankets that stretched their bed, layer upon layer, during the coldest years, they pressed on then despite all the zeros.

"Jesus Christ!" Randy said. "It's millions of dollars!"

"I know. I know. I get it, but Randy, what if it goes away? What if tomorrow they discover it was all some big mistake and they want it back? Or what if there isn't as much gold as they think. That kind of thing could happen, you know. If you quit your job …. " She started to cry. "How would we get by? Tell me that, Randy. How would we get by?"

"The gold is there, Lynette. You know it's there. They wouldn't pay for it if …. "

"I just don't think we should count on it." She brushed at the toast crumbs on the table top, gathering them with the feathery sweeps of her fingers into the palm of her hand.

"Lynette, we have more money than we'll ever be able to spend."

"You don't know that."

"I'm no mathematician, but I'm pretty sure," Randy said. "I'm pretty sure that if we aren't getting a new house, or buying a yacht, or even a small country. I'm pretty sure that unless we start spending like crazy …. "

"See," Lynette said, "it's too much." She held the crumbs carefully in her cupped hand.

"It's too much. It's not enough. Jesus Christ, make-up your mind."

"It's both," Lynette finally said, in a voice that was barely audible.

Late that night, when they were lying, side by side, in the dark on the old flat pillows, Randy weighed Lynette's words. And he envisioned long days melding into one another — too much television and too many beers — while his friends put in their time at the mill. "All right," he said, "I'll stick it out."

It was June again, when Lynette was kneeling in the dirt of a small garden at the back of the yard. With her trowel she turned the soil, digging shallow holes to plant petunias and marigolds and a variety of other flowers that she thought were pretty, but could not name.

Aware of Randy at the kitchen window, she raised a hand to wave to him. Then, tenderly, she placed each plant in the earth, patting at the dirt with her bare hands.

Every few minutes she stole another glance at the house where Randy still sipped his morning coffee, watching her. When, finally, he had moved away from the window, Lynette began to dig again, ferociously this time and deep, in the farthest corner of the garden where the dirt met the aluminum shed housing the kids' old bikes and Randy's snowmobile. Then she pushed an old coffee can containing a large sum of bills — five thousand dollars, rolled together and bound with a thick rubber band — before refilling the hole and returning to her flowers.

Resting his head against the icy shelf of the lake, Randy hyperventilates through his lips — pursed and blue. Already the water begins to freeze at his eyebrows and in his lashes, his salt and pepper beard. His arms, spread-eagle across the same icy ledge, prop his chest and heart above the water; the rest of his body remains immersed, shivering towards severe hypothermia.

His snowmobile, heavy with tools, his pack and his tarp, has dropped deep below the surface and will be settling amongst the weeds and rocks that line the lake's mucky floor.

Randy gasps again, a physical response to the frigid conditions. He's too weak to try to pull himself out any longer, so he works to keep his arms still where they lie, stretched across the ice; he means for them to freeze there. This way, when he loses consciousness — any minute now, he knows — his head will remain above water.

Closing his eyes, he calls to mind the French vineyard that sits at his breast pocket in a plastic bag with the photos of his family and his matches for a fire. He watches a red squirrel, like the one that's always racing around his yard, scurry across the top of the old, stone wall — her small mouth stretched wide around another seed for yet another cache she may never find.

There's a chance someone will find him. He's been lucky before.

"He's not home," Lynette tells Saul, speaking into the phone.

"I've got news," Saul says.

Lynette sits down on the couch, the saga she'd reupholstered three years earlier, and she braces herself; Randy was due home on Tuesday.

"Is this about Randy?" she says, pulling his old sweater closed across her torso.

"What? No," Saul says

Lynette exhales.

"It's the mine," he says. "They've been drilling deeper and Lynette, you won't believe it!"

Lynette closes her eyes and drops her chin to her chest.

"There is so much gold! So much, Lynette! More than anyone could have ever known …. "

He's still talking when she leans forward to set the phone on the coffee table, beside Randy's reading glasses. She doesn't hear Saul congratulating her. She doesn't learn how much money is being deposited into their account next month, or the month after that, or the month after that.

Eventually, Saul hangs up and a recorded message advises her to please try her call again. Then the siren sounds from the receiver to keep pace with the panic in her chest, and she watches out the front window, where another day is coming to a close.

She sits erect, palms flat and pressing at the floral fabric, the wads of cash that bulge and swell the cushions so unevenly, so uncomfortably. And she waits for Randy to come home.



Chantal Corcoran was born in the single-stoplight town of Chapleau, Ontario. She's lived many places since. Currently, she resides in Des Moines, Iowa and soon she'll be relocating to Las Vegas, Nevada. She's due to graduate this month, from the Bennington Writing Seminars, with an MFA in fiction. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This is her first published story.

Articles in this Issue

Introduction, by the Editors
The Bobcat, by George Getschow
Aileron, by Margaret Combs
Odd Birds, by Mark Kurlansky
Hollow Earth, by Chelsea Bauch
Snowbound, by Jonathan Shipley
Staking Claims, by Chantal Corcoran
The Seven Pound Lion, by David Helvarg
Yosemite's Twin, by Sam Kean
Diagnosis Alaska, by Charles Wohlforth