Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
Jewels of Mt. Stanley
Friday is Gail’s third day squatting the grounds at Congo Golf & Go-Cart, and I’m pretty sure Mr. Brice will have her arrested when he gets back on Monday. At first, I figured Gail was one of those high-end bag ladies—the broke-but-not-starving kind—but she never asks for money or food. She says she won’t leave until she finds the hidden jewels, and if we park employees have to have her arrested, go right ahead. Gail. One of those sturdy, older-person names.
Once the park closes for the night, Gail stops brooding and begins her penguin-walk up our sculpted Mt. Stanley. She wears a dark shawl and pink denim shorts. The soles of her Keds have split in the Florida heat, but her Jackie O sunglasses shine with factory polish. Then, there’s her camouflage fanny pack. No one knows what’s in that pack, and we love the mystery of it. Gail pauses at the top of Livingstone Falls, where the waters of the Upper Nile wet the mountainside. She surveys the interstate, one leg cocked against a boulder. Plenty of gaudy attractions along that interstate. Plenty of power in that leg.
I’m Congo Golf’s Head Landscaper. I spend mornings walking the park and making sure the obstacles and props aren’t broken or graffitied or pissed-on. On my good days, I manage to keep the self-loathing to a minimum. On my bad days, I run into high school chums who went to college and landed real jobs, and it’s a struggle not to drown myself in the faux river.
Once I’ve finished sweeping the grounds, I meet Gail at the gator pen, on the side where customers aren’t allowed. I make like I’m checking the gators for skin sores, but really, I’ve come for Gail, who calls to the gators until they crawl forward and part their jaws. She works a plump finger through the chicken wire and gives it a wiggle.
“Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m worth listening to,” she says. “Think about that before you go following me around. Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.”
Gail reminds me of my Granny, but she also reminds me of Mrs. Blalock, my high school history teacher. Size-wise, Gail is somewhere in vintage Bette Midler territory, but what happens is, there are only so many faces in circulation, and Gail and Mrs. Blalock share one. Same flimsy nose, same eyes planted far apart, like those of a savvy hunter. Two women, one face. Attraction must be the mind’s attempt to horrify itself. Last month, I crushed on a short blond girl with the face of former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.
Gail presents more fingers to the gators, and I grow antsy. Our gators are mostly little two-footers, but Christ, when they snap those jaws.
“Know what I’ve learned after sixty years?” Gail asks.
“I give up,” I say, though I know what’s coming: a grandmotherly sermon on the virtues of parenthood, the value of family, the merits of such-and-such.
“Performance is everything. Sort of like making your bed even when no one’s coming to visit. Finding the jewels won’t bring Marty back. Think I don’t know that?”
“I guess he would’ve appreciated—”
“Don’t,” she says, pointing at me as if I’m another undersized gator.
Gail jiggles her fingers. Gators hiss and snap. She chuckles, as if she has them outfoxed.
Gail only shares her story in blips and dashes. The parts I’ve heard affect me more than they should. Apparently, when she took her grandson Marty to Congo Golf last summer, he abandoned his putter and focused on the Scavenger Safari. The Safari is pointless—an afterthought of a game printed on the backs of the scorecards. The grand prize for completion is 10% off a large slush. Even so, it must’ve meant something to Marty, who still hadn’t located the jewels when the park closed for the night.
Marty never finished his quest, and he never will. The lack of closure gnaws at me. It’s like the legend of someone lost in the desert, where it feels like they’re still out there, still thirsty. One of those stories that feels too good to be true, but it has to be. I need Gail to find the jewels for Marty, so the story will be complete. I need to know how he died.
Saturday morning, Gail eats a hot dog with mayo while I sweep fallen leaves and clear the Lower Nile’s filters. While I scrape out bugs and drowned frogs, Gail washes her face, hands, and socks in the drinking fountain. She wrings the socks dry and drapes them over the snack bar. After that, she heads under the thatched roof of the women’s room. Once refreshed, Gail walks to the enclosure and admires the gators, who angle their snouts in her direction, like she’ll be the one to dispense their meal of raw chicken. Gail sits with crossed legs, as if meditating.
Business is slow—a glossy Coppertone family with a steamed dad who can’t putt, a couple whose careful sportsmanship makes it clear that their relationship is doomed, and a grandmother-granddaughter duo in matching orca T-shirts.
After her séance with the gators, Gail sidles over to Hole 7 and stands behind the grandmother. I follow her over and pretend to sweep the turf. Gail has never actually putted, but that doesn’t stop her from telling the grandmother which holes to aim for, and which are dupe holes. The grandmother cocks her head, like she can’t make sense of Gail. The granddaughter prods Gail’s knee with the rubbery end of her putter.
“Isn’t she precious?” Gail asks the grandmother.
“Squishy,” the little girl says, poking.
“How old is she?” Gail asks.
I can tell that Gail wants to bait the lady into a back-and-forth about grandchildren, but the little girl only seems interested in Gail insofar as her generous size, and the grandmother doesn’t seem interested at all. A moment later, the child and her grandmother smooth out their orca shirts and head for Hole 8.
Gail spends most of the evening bawling into the Upper Nile’s dyed waters while I round up stray golf balls. After closing, she lies on the wing of a tiger-striped bomber bolted to the side of Mt. Stanley. From the interstate, you get a view of what looks like a legit plane crash. Gail places each of her personal items—sunglasses, shoes, fanny pack—in its own distinct zone on the bomber’s wing, and only then, relieved of accessories, can Gail sleep, fingers woven into a basket over her heart, bare toes pointed at Andromeda.
Gail has never given much attention to the nearby caves, where the jewels are. Her eyes wander. Ronda, who hawks slushes at the snack bar, says Gail looks for the forest when she should be looking for trees. Ronda can find the jewels just fine, but because she’s colorblind, she can’t tell the difference between a Seismic Cherry slush and a Green Apple Meltdown.
We all suffer. I understand that.
Mrs. Blalock, my teacher, used to wear bright sundresses that gave only a faint rumor of what was beneath. I wanted to know the full story of every curve, but mostly, I wanted her to like me. I obsessed over every essay assignment, and though I often overshot the required word count by double, my papers never earned better than C-. Her recurring criticism: You’ve got no shortage of ideas, but where’s your focus?
Sunday’s hot as a blister, but it’s the love bugs that get to me. Like corn-fed mosquitoes with a dollop of orange near the head, as if their brains have outgrown their bodies, but no, these bugs are as stupid as the rest, especially during mating season. They’re so happy to flit around with their asses joined, not caring if they get ground to ash by Purelled hands or flattened by the grilles of out-of-state cars.
You can tell the heat wears on Gail. By day, she spends less time in the open, more time slumping through caves and faux jungle. After closing, I follow her up Mt. Stanley, where there’s a light breeze. Some of my coworkers have broken out the liquor and revved up the carts. Two-stroke engines cough and sputter along the raceway. Drivers collide with glee and malice in equal parts. Someone driving against traffic wins many cheers and curses.
“Why not join your friends?” Gail asks.
“Not interested,” I say. Mrs. Blalock would’ve asked the same question.
“Have you worked it out yet?” Gail asks.
“What you’re after, junior. You’re on me like bad weather. Who do I remind you of?”
“Teacher,” I say, pocketing my hands.
“She have big, pillowy lips?”
“I guess she did.”
I feel like I’ve been caught fondling myself. Gail winks, as if she just completed the killer hand of cards that’ll wipe out my fortune. She stops chuckling long enough to paste a sloppy kiss to my cheek, but her aim is off and she catches some lip.
From the darkened raceway, a punch of high-speed metal, sharper than the harmless nudges I’m used to hearing. A head-on collision, no doubt. Engines stall. Laughter gives way to shrieking. A female voice—Ronda’s, probably—calls out, Warfare, or maybe she’s saying, No fair.
“Did Marty like go-carts?” I ask.
“Too loud for his liking.”
“But didn’t you say he was into motorcycles?”
“Hush now, junior.”
Dour and sunburned, Mr. Brice returns on Monday. His safari hat wilts in the heat, and he keeps airing out the armpits of his Polo shirt. Apparently, his scouting efforts have not gone well in those other parts of Florida. Locals, he says, worry that his vision of Congo might offend.
“Worse than a bunch of graduate students,” Mr. Brice says.
Maybe the naysayers have a point. In addition to the jewels, customers who try the Safari have to find a hidden voodoo mask, a spear, and for reasons I’ve never understood, a swaddled mummy. Not what you’d call an enlightened vision of Central Africa. Our “Nile River” only adds to the confusion.
I ask my boss if he might be interested in trying out a new, less controversial theme for his next mini-golf attraction—outer space, maybe, or at least an American mountain, one that’s safe to get wrong.
He watches Gail waddle up Mt. Stanley. “Congo or bust,” he says. “People want mystique. They want the tropics.”
He doesn’t seem to notice that we practically are the tropics, or that our only customers are some teenagers who mope the humid course like a chain gang, pausing every now and then to swipe a path through the mist of bugs.
“What can you tell me about the old lady living on my mountain?” Mr. Brice asks.
I tell him what I know, emphasizing Marty’s tragic death, and leaving the length of Gail’s visit blurry at the edges.
“You going to kick her out?” I ask.
“Maybe,” he says, venting his pits. “Or maybe I’ll get her on the news. Win us some publicity.”
I’ve prepared myself to hate Mr. Brice for putting the boot to Gail, but the thought of him supporting her? The Gail situation has grown too many sides. I stand in contradiction to myself, torn by opposing loyalties: a dead kid I never met and a teacher I could never please.
I envy the gators, nothing but teeth, scales, and brain stem.
The news team shows up early Tuesday morning. I lurk just out of frame while they shoot footage of Gail going up the mountain, Gail posing by the falls, Gail purifying the putting greens of litter. Gail tries to tell Marty’s story to the reporter, but she breaks down before she can mention anything specific. Later, the reporter calls for Mr. Brice, who removes his safari hat for the camera. After some back-and-forth, Mr. Brice announces that in honor of Gail’s quest, all seniors will enjoy free mini-golf for the month of May. He’s also launching a Gail-inspired hot dog called “The Gail.” From what I can tell, The Gail is a regular dog with a stripe of mayo.
After closing, I wander to the bomber plane, but Gail isn’t there. I search the caves, but she’s not there, either. I walk along the Lower Nile until I reach the Queen Mary’s shark-mangled hull. Gail lies on deck, surrounded by her personal effects. Her arm covers her eyes, but I can tell she’s awake from the way her toes wiggle.
“You and the plane having marital troubles?” I ask.
“Your boss says I’m to sleep here from now on. Apparently I’m a legal hazard up on that wing.”
“Be careful,” I say. “He’ll exploit you.”
“Let him exploit, long as I get to finish what I started.”
“You didn’t say much about Marty. In the interview, I mean.”
Gail glares at me.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way. I can tell it hurts, that’s all.”
Gail covers her eyes with her forearm—my cue to exit.
When I reach the first bend in the Lower Nile, I look back. Gail’s bare feet pole through the wheelhouse door. She seems so comfortable among the props and gags. I wonder what kind of shark would attack a riverboat. I wonder what structural parlor tricks Mr. Brice has played to keep that damn boat from sinking.
On Wednesday, Mr. Brice limits Gail to one free hot dog. Beyond her freebie, he says, Gail will pay for what she eats.
Hard to say whether Mr. Brice’s promotion influences business for better or worse. The morning crowd is lousy, as usual. No wild surge of grayheads. By noon, Mt. Stanley is so hot that Gail summits halfway, then skulks back down. She stands at the water fountain, lips bound to the tap.
During springtime months, three o’clock marks shift change for weather patterns. Purple-bottomed clouds clutter the sky. Pink tassels of lightning whip the distant shapes of roller coasters and waterslides. Employees and customers huddle under the snack bar’s thatched roof. Gail hikes her shawl over her head and ducks into a cave.
I find her slouched against a stalagmite. Behind her, and less than two feet north of her head, there’s a cleft in the cave wall. If Gail were to investigate the cleft, she’d discover the chamber of jewels. Instead, she opens the palm of her hand to the rain and rubs the wetness between her fingers.
“I’ve missed something,” Gail says. Her eyes rove all the wrong spots.
“You’ve missed lunch,” I say.
I pass Gail a brown paper sack. Inside, she finds two Gail-style hot dogs. She’s got Ronda to thank for handing that stuff off to me. We’ll both be fired if bossman finds out.
“You’re a good kid,” she says. “Maybe you’ve been wanting to hear that. Hell, I don’t know. But you are.”
Even drinkless, Gail needs only two bites per dog. The meal steadies her.
“Don’t get in trouble with that boss of yours. My son wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“I mean grandson,” Gail says, rubbing her knuckles. “Heat’s getting to me.”
She tests a stalagmite with her knuckle, as if she’s just now skeptical of it. I’ve never seen her so nervous over a simple mistake.
Granny used to call me by my father’s name. Mrs. Blalock used to get confused and hand me tests with Danny Lang’s name on them. Or, she’d read sample lines from the stronger reports—never mine. My ideas swam in too many directions. When it came time for my report on the British Empire, I paid an Honor Society geek fifteen bucks to edit for clarity and focus. That was my only A. After class, Mrs. Blalock flagged me down to praise my work ethic and my ability to reach beyond my limitations. She hugged me, let me feel the curve of her hips, and I knew that was no accident. When she assigned the postcolonial Africa essay, the geek hiked his price to twenty-five bucks, which I couldn’t pay. I got a D for lack of focus, and no hug.
I stand over Gail and stare through a cave fault, the one that she should’ve investigated a thousand times. You’ve got to bring your face close to the fault. You’ve got to position your head at the right angle, and then, like an optical illusion: a souvenir chest filled with yellow aluminum coins and scallops of colored glass.
I clear my throat. Gail raises her eyebrows, but she won’t look.
Thursday morning, Gail exits the restroom to find a Christian family waiting for her. They’ve seen Gail on the news and stopped on their way to The Holy Land Experience, a kind of Christly theme park located a few exits north. The parents and their two children wear shirts that say HOPE at the top, with a longer message at the bottom. They offer Gail a loaf of Ezekiel Bread and little packets of strawberry jam. Gail says she only lacks peanut butter, and the mother reminds Gail that even without peanut butter, she is blessed, and so is her grandson, who rests in God’s capable, yet unknowable hands.
Mr. Brice stands beside them, smiling his shit-polished smile, as if he’s not dying to see them leave. He hasn’t authorized any donations to Gail, and these pious ones clearly aren’t here to putt.
“Praise Jesus,” Gail says, taking a big bite of sprouted bread, her smile every bit as store-bought as Mr. Brice’s. Her teeth sparkle in the punishing sunlight.
That smile collapses my remaining faith in Gail. For all her snarky remarks, she has never once smiled at me like that. She’s enjoying this. She’s certainly no Christian, and she’s probably no one’s grieving grandmother. Some part of me must’ve feared this all along, only now it’s impossible to pretend. She’s a phony. A tottering Hallmark card set to bleed Central Florida of its hot dogs, its fruit slushes, its biblical breads. What kind of person have I become, trusting a woman whose preferred bed is a phony plane crash?
Mr. Brice sends Gail to the parking lot to finish her meal. No outside food or drinks are permitted inside Congo Golf, he says, not even for the star attraction. Gail wanders to the lot and uses the hood of an old Plymouth for a banquet table. Hidden from view, I watch the queen feed. She’s got enough jelly to cover two slices. She pitches the remaining loaf underneath my rustbucket van.
Later, Mr. Brice calls me into the sandalwood funk of his office. He knows about Gail’s smuggled lunches. He says Ronda and I can keep our jobs, since training two newbies would amount to a pain in his ass that greatly outstrips the worth of a few hot dogs. He says we’ll both be Contingent Managers on Friday while he scouts Cocoa Beach for future locations, and we had better take good care of Gail while he’s away.
“I can’t be around her,” I say. “Not right now.”
“You stole company property for her.”
"That was Wednesday.”
Mr. Brice presses the back of his hand against my forehead, as if I might be malarial.
“Take the afternoon to cool thy fevered brow,” he says. “Drink some chamomile. Eat some pizza. Do an eightball, for all I care. But whatever she’s done to upset you, let it go. Business is about to pick up.”
He passes me his keyring—access to every door in the park. Each brass key is bound in its own jungle-themed fob.
I crank my apartment’s swamp cooler to Max and cue up my favorite episode of The Island, but the sweat keeps rolling, and the condenser’s racket makes it tough to hear dialogue. I can’t force myself to care about being Contingent Management, not while Gail is still at large, charming people and absorbing sympathy. Doesn’t matter that I should’ve doubted her all along. She needs to confess. She needs to know that I’m wise to her act.
I pull into the parking lot just after closing. The gates are locked, but the key with the lion fob gets me in. Motors chatter along the raceway, where my fellow employees have gathered for late-night thrills. I sneak over to the Queen Mary and kick loose mulch over Gail’s bare feet and legs until she bellows and sits up. She wipes her mouth, as if to clear the flavor of wholesome bread.
"You’re a sham,” I say.
“You’ve known that all along. Only reason you’re talking to me is you think you’re like Marty—lost in the woods. But you’re nothing like him.” She polishes the sleep from her eyes with force, as if she’s been waiting for this sort of argument.
“Does he even exist?”
“Does he exist?” she asks, climbing to her feet. “There’s a few pawn shop owners in Daytona who wish he didn’t.”
“Your grandson hung out at pawn shops?”
“Marty’s my son, junior. The grandkid spiel was a fib. And yes, Marty likes pawn shops. Mainly, he likes to rob them.”
“He’ll get released in December, if he holds his mouth right.”
Gail fetches her right shoe and pulls at the cuff. With exaggerated cruelty, she stuffs her foot inside. She does the same for the left, each foot’s journey a violent birth-in-reverse. With a thin snap of plastic, she clamps the fanny pack around her waist and disembarks the Queen Mary. She begins scaling Mt. Stanley, the moon casting its sickled light, so that Gail moves within a silvery veil. Never again will I buy into the myth of harmless women who spend their declining years warped over crochet patterns, or baking sugar cookies from
I charge for the summit, eager to force a full confession from Gail, who still hasn’t mentioned the jewels. By the time I crest the mountain, I’m long out of breath. Gail, who has apparently had enough of me, tries to step over the wooden guard rail that keeps golfers from the turbulent Upper Nile. Her joints aren’t limber enough, and she pauses mid-hike.
“How long?” I ask.
“Well, once I get my leg over—”
“I’m talking about the jewels.”
Gail’s leg drops. We both gather breath.
“Don’t mistake me,” she says. “It’s all true. I took Marty to one of these places—I’m talking decades ago.” She motions to the fake river, the molded rocks. “It was all knights and dragons, but it was the same idea. You had to find a box of jewels. The kid was obsessed.”
“Ronda and I stole food for you.”
“He wanted to find the jewels, I wanted to go on a gator tour. Wish to God I’d had more patience.”
“Is he dying, at least?” I wasn’t ready to think about the fact that Marty and I might be the same age, or that I might be the younger man.
“Well, he is pre-diabetic,” Gail says.
“You told Kenny it was leukemia.”
“Isn’t that a kind of diabetes?”
I shake my head, hating Marty, who ruined his own legend by being alive.
Gail steps away from the rail, which falls just below butt-level. The Upper Nile is railed off for good reason. Drunk university types like to cannonball into the Lower. Gail plays with the zipper of her camo fanny pack, then squeezes its flimsy buckle. Wouldn’t take much force to yank the pack free and shake out whatever’s inside.
“I think it’s a good story,” Gail says. “People want to believe in redemption and forgiveness. What difference does a little tweaking—”
I make a grab. The pack is mostly empty, and the flimsy buckle won’t give. Gail grips my wrists, and her knees splay into a wrestler’s sprawl. Gail pushes back. Hard. Maybe she competed in high school. I sure as hell didn’t. Her arms lock around my ribs and she squeezes a tide of static into my vision. I do have one cheap advantage: my legs are longer than Gail’s. I hook the heel of my lead foot behind her knee and sweep. Gail pitches backward, arms still locked, so that I follow. The railing doesn’t stand a chance.
I land atop Gail, and off we go. No yelling, no groaning as the current freights us toward the falls. Moonlight webs the river’s surface. Love bugs and chlorine fumes fill my sinuses. Gail swivels her head, trying to see what’s coming, but no one can see what’s coming, so pretty soon she gives up and studies my eyes.
Truer than hell, what Ronda said, or might’ve said, out there on the raceway. It’s not fair, not for any of us. No easier step than a misstep. Next thing you know, the lady you’re in love with hands you another D, or you get a form letter from a university dean who says your application materials aren’t up to code, or you fall for a con woman’s sob story.
Imitation rock hisses against Gail’s back as we clear the falls. The sky swings end over end, so that I hit the water spine-first, with Gail on top. The moon-ragged surface is so far above. Too far. I’m happy to stay under a while, rest my aching back.
Gail’s meaty fingers grip my hair by the roots. She hauls me to the surface one-handed and drapes me over the Lower’s cement bank. She takes a seat beside me and slicks back her hair while I sneeze tiny black wings. The clammy water has tightened the skin of her face, and she resembles Mrs. Blalock more than ever. Behind us, the Lower flows on toward the gator pen.
Gail rubs her back, shawl clinging like a drowned bat. “I finished the scavenger hunt on day one, junior. But it really did take me all afternoon.”
“Do I hear the ring of truth?” I ask, cupping a hand to my ear.
“I was going to take pictures of all the hidden stuff and make a scrapbook for Marty—something to class up his cell. But the jewels looked so crummy. Little goat turds of glass.”
“Mr. Brice blew most of his budget on the plane,” I say.
“Most disappointing moment of my life, hand to God.” Gail raises a dripping hand toward the interstate, where it runs north to The Holy Land Experience. “I only wanted to make things right.”
“Won’t make any difference,” I say. “You think your son knocks over pawn shops because of some scavenger hunt?”
For the second time since I’ve known her, Gail falters. She wipes at her brow. “He was different after that. Not mean. Just. Well, serious.”
I watch the falling water break into marbles. From love bugs to waterfalls, we’re all time’s speedbag. I feel sorry for Gail, but mostly, I feel a kind of murky despair over my failure to become somebody: a salary guy, a necktie with an office of his own and a placard on his desk. I’m slinging putters for little better than minimum wage, my life suspended, caught in a holding pattern. Forget the jewels. I haven’t even found the goddamn cave.
“People kept asking questions,” Gail says. “I could either explain that I was making up for mistakes I made thirty years ago, or I could pitch a slight exaggeration.” Gail unclasps her fanny pack. “And you and your friends became so damn interested. I couldn’t just leave.”
“Of course not,” I say. “You wanted the attention.”
“We want what we want, junior. You think you wanted Marty’s story, but all you really wanted was a story about yourself. Think you’re sweet and naïve? You’re not, and neither is he. Time for you both to grow the hell up.”
Gail unzips the pack and removes a Congo Golf scorecard and pencil stub. The cardstock’s front side is bright with wax, and still dry. Gail circles the jewel icon. She scribbles cave near hole 5 underneath, in blocky letters.
“But you’re probably right,” Gail says. “This won’t change anything.”
She brings a thumb to her nostril and blows a snot rope. She folds the card into the shape of a V and sets it in the Lower’s gentle current, waxy side down. The card tacks between guard rails and sails toward the dark of gator country.
As we march through recycled water, I promise myself that I’m finished trying to please people. I’ll quit this lousy job. I’ll stop chasing the Martys of the world, the Mrs. Blalocks, and the Gails, too. I’ll stop believing. Hell of a thing, belief. Like spraying yourself with OFF! before entering sharky waters. You’re either brave or stupid to think you won’t get bit, that the people you love will love you back, that after this waterfall, there’s not another, with a shallower pool, and sharper rocks.
You’d have to be crazy.
We sit beside the gator pen, where Gail’s little boat stalls against the chicken wire. She retrieves a baggie of smooshed hot dogs from her fanny pack. The buns are ruined, but she tears the franks into cork-sized bits. We eat some. She pushes the rest through the chicken wire. Gators vie for feeding position. With every pop of teeth, Gail chuckles.
Sometimes it’s tough to shake a belief, even after you know it’s all wrong. All these years, and Gail still seeks out the company of gators. Meanwhile, her son’s doing time over plundered treasure. I wish he was on the loose, searching hard for what can’t be found. Not Marty, but someone like him. Not jewels, but something like them.
Gail doesn’t notice when I bend down and lift the folded score card from the current.