It was Eli’s idea to go gold panning. Not hers. But while it usually bothered Ruby to go mindlessly along with someone else’s plans, for Eli she could make an exception; even if it meant sitting all day in the hot sun with her legs and ass falling asleep on the rocks.
When Eli pulled up in his bright red Wrangler, Ruby couldn’t help staring at him from her patio slab. His well-tanned arm was hanging out the window and he was tapping out a rhythm against the door. “Tomorrow” rattled the speakers in a sexy, swoony chorus of trombones. Normally she didn’t “get down” with hip-hop, but this particular song always got her in the mood. And Eli knew that.
“Well hi there, handsome,” she said, strutting down the stone path to the Jeep. As it happened, she’d taken the time that morning to doll herself up with a pair of red heart-shaped sunglasses, a floral skirt, a tight white blouse and a creamy headscarf that just screamed “Jackie Kennedy.” Something in the morning air had given her the notion that she ought to spend the day swishing her hips like a twenties pin-up—and what better costume for such an undertaking than this?
Eli turned to her and frowned; his hand still banging against the door.
“You know we’re going gold panning, right?” His left cheek bulged with the pressure of the abscess tooth he still hadn’t done anything about. He looked like a chipmunk with a kickass Jeep.
Ruby stopped swishing her hips and let her hands, which until then had been tossing her hair from side to side, fall dramatically to her waist.
“Uh yeah, duh, you texted me that and I said ‘cool,’ remember?”
“Yeah, I remember the text. What I’m just not so sure about, though, is why you’re wearing that when you’re gonna have to sit in the dirt for literally the entire day. Why didn’t you throw on some sweats or something?”
Ruby crossed her arms and jutted her lip. Could he really be this much of a Neanderthal?
Or was he just playing some retarded, unfunny character?
“Uh, because it’s our anniversary. Would you really want me showing up in shit-stain sweats on the day we’re choosing to remember two whole years of our lives together?”
“Well if we’re spending it in the mud, then yeah, I would rather you chose logic over theatre. Besides, we can go out afterwards. We’re not going to spend literally every second of this calendar day in the mud. We will be eating dinner at some point.”
Ruby sighed and bit down aggressively on her Bubblicious. “Should I go back in and change then?”
“Nah, never mind,” Eli said, waving his hand dismissively and tossing his head towards the passenger seat. “Just get in.”
Ruby stomped her foot and flung her arms in a mismanaged flail of exasperation. Then, resigning herself to the inevitable, she marched around to the passenger side where Eli was holding the door open for her.
“You do look really cute, by the way,” he said, flashing his best swollen Sears catalogue grin. She melted and smiled back, climbing in as elegantly as she could. She had to clear a space for her feet in all the Timmy’s wrappers covering the floor, but she tried not to mind.
“Yeah, sorry, it’s a little messy in here…just been really busy lately…” “Oh it’s fine,” she said, reaching around for her seatbelt.
“Hey. Come ‘ere a second,” he said, leaning over and pulling her face to his. Ruby sighed through her nose as he pressed his lips to hers, trying as hard as she could not to bump the swollen spot. Phrases like “true love” and “destiny” flashed through her mind like neon signs in
a down-and-out montage. If she could kiss him this passionately with his face all swollen and gross, they could survive anything together.
Eli pulled away with a theatrical sucking sound and started the engine. Now it was time for seatbelts.
An hour later, they pulled into what appeared to be a truck stop in the middle of fucking nowhere. In front of the single level, faux-log building was a sign painted onto an overturned high-back bath tub. In peeling gold paint it boasted “All Day Gold Panning–$20. Tools Included.”
“Weeeell, here we are,” Eli drawled as he threw the Jeep in park and hopped out. Ruby finished the text she was working on and hit send before following after him. By the time she climbed outside, Eli had disappeared inside the building. A moment later, though, as she was composing a witty response to the one she’d just received, Eli re-appeared in the doorway, brandishing two shovels in one hand and two large, steel pans in the other.
“You should have done something about that tooth. It looks awful.” she tsked at him. “You know it could travel up into your brain and kill you?”
“All hell it’s fine; quit worrying,” he stated, trying to cover up the impediment it was rapidly causing in his speech. “Now—you ready to get rich, baby girl?”
“Do those things really work?” She asked, staring doubtfully at the pans. From where she was standing they looked like frying pans without any handles.
“How in the hell are they supposed to keep the gold in? Doesn’t it fall out when you dump them out?”
“When you dump them out! I mean, don’t you shovel dirt in and then dump everything out in a—I don’t know—one of those wooden table things with the bars? Like a conveyor belt?”
“That’s a sluice. That’s one way of doing things. But it’s not what we’re doing.
We’re…I’ll just show you when we get down there, okay? It’s a little hard to explain without showing you…but obviously you don’t just shovel everything in and dump it back out…”
“Shut up, you know what I meant.”
“”Whatever, let’s just get going. Can you put your phone away long enough to follow me down to the creek?”
“Oh my god I’ve sent like two texts all day. Excuse me for having nothing to do sitting in the Jeep and then standing in the parking lot.”
Either Eli didn’t hear her or he pretended he didn’t. Swiveling on his heel, he headed into the trees down a skinny, winding path that was largely overgrown with shrubs that all looked like Poison Ivy. Ruby stumbled after him, tearing at the burrs that threatened to overtake the clinging fabric of her skirt. She wanted to complain but she knew there was nothing Eli could do about the burs. He was trying to do something nice for her, even if it was a bit weird. The burs were just a hazard of love. Love wasn’t easy. She knew that. She would just have to tough it out. Eli would be impressed with her in the end.
A million years later—the tips of Ruby’s fingers thoroughly overtaken by invisible bur barbs—they spilled out onto a rocky peninsula. Surrounding the peninsula was a babbling brook which trickled in and out of Ruby’s peripherals in a splashy, blinding ribbon of nature.
“It’s gorgeous,” she murmured, sneaking up behind Eli and placing her hands on his hips. “It is that,” he said with a charming hint of Southern Twang. “I think we should set up
just over yonder,” he said in a pubescent cowboy drawl that sounded like the ubiquitous teenage employee in The Simpsons. Ruby followed his gaze to the right where the peninsula and the shore made a little armpit of mud. “That’s where we’ll be makin’ our fortune. You see, the gold is heavier than the rest of the mud, so it falls out of the run-off as soon as it can. Spots like that little muddy section are primo hunting grounds for nuggets.”
“Do you really think we’ll catch anything?” “You don’t catch gold, sweetie. It’s not a fish.” “Uggh, you know what I mean.”
“Well, now, I just don’t know—only one way to find out!” Eli winked at her as he made his way over to their intended panning spot. Ruby stumbled after him; her flip flops snagging over and over on the crusty rocks.
“Okay, so what you wannna do,” Eli said, placing a pan on the rocks and thrusting a shovel into the creek bed, “is you wanna shovel a shit-ton of dirt into the pan; really pack it in there. Okay? Give it a shot.”
Ruby glanced around for a clean place to sit, and somewhere decent to drop her purse. Sadly, there was only mud and crusty rocks. She chose the latter. After placing her pan in the water and having it float away a few times on her, she finally planted it on the shore and started
loading it up with soft, rich looking creek soil. The smell invaded her nostrils, making her think of when she used to pull worms apart in her mother’s garden.
“I love this smell,” she gushed, smiling broadly.
“Nothing like it,” Eli said gruffly as he slipped ever farther into the mountain man role he always liked to adopt as soon as they were beyond the city limits. Ruby stared at his glistening biceps, imagining their future children dangling from them, giggling away. God, life was good.
“Okay. Soon as you’ve got your pan looking like mine, you’re gonna want to knock it around a little to get the heavier materials to settle to the bottom—just like this.” He knelt down and started swishing the pan around, banging it occasionally against a rounded rock. Ruby marvelled at his dark brown hair falling into his eyes, at the bright red eel of his tongue as he bit down on it in concentration.
“You get it?” Ruby nodded.
“Good. Then all you gotta do is swish some water over it until the dirt’s down below the rim of the pan. At that point, you can kinda jog it around just below the level of the water, and the creek will wash away all the useless shit for you.”
“It’s so elegant,” Ruby said, feeling profound.
“Yeah, well, ya know. The guys that used to do this needed it to work. They all had families starving to death back home.”
Ruby smiled at his mentioning of families. His mind was obviously in the same place hers was.
“You think you got it?” He asked again.
“Oh yeah, I can do it,” she said confidently, going so far as to pick her pan up and move a little ways down the peninsula as if she had some strategic reason for doing so.
“Don’t get too far away. The current’s a little strong over there. A soft current’s best.” “Oh I know. Just something I wanted to try out.”
“I…alright,” Eli said, turning to his pan and whistling a tune Ruby didn’t recognize.
Squatting down in the mud like an animal, Ruby banged and rinsed her pan the way Eli had told her to. At first it seemed like way more dirt was being washed away than was supposed to be. But soon the mud was flush with the edge of the pan and trickling away at what seemed to Ruby to be a perfectly adequate rate, and she felt certain she was doing it right. Images of the beach mansion in Sleeping with the Enemy flashed through her mind as she pondered the new, rich life that awaited them at the end of this arduous day. She wasn’t expecting to walk away a millionaire or anything; that would be ridiculous. But certainly they’d do pretty well for themselves after a whole day of panning. This was the twenty-first century, after all. Gold panners hadn’t been at it in like a hundred years. All the gold of the olden days would be gone, yeah, but surely new gold had trickled down in a hundred years’ time.
She liked the feel of mud and mountain water on her hands. There was honesty and freedom in manual labor. She’d heard that somewhere before, and for the first time in her life she could feel how true it was. Swaying to and fro with the motion of the pan, she couldn’t help humming a long, deep note that made her think of Weeping Willows and little kids in overalls fishing with saplings.
Maybe when they struck it rich, she would convince Eli to buy a plot of land out here instead of a southern mansion. Their future kids would thank her. Then they could—
Something tumbled in her pan, catching her eye—something that shone like a thousand tiny suns, blinding her with its magnificence. She almost called out to Eli but quickly decided against it. No point in embarrassing herself over a false alarm.
Plunging her hand into the pan Ruby fished about with two perfectly manicured fingers, like tongs, hoping to clamp onto the glimmering item. Could it have really been a million dollar nugget, or just some stray bolt? No telling what kind of refuse might be floating around in these hick parts.
One of her fingers slipped suddenly inside of something that felt suspiciously like a ring. Her mouth flooded with saliva. Could people die from such excitement? She pulled her hand out with a sucking sound like the one their lips had made in the Jeep. There on her finger was the unmistakable shape of a muddy engagement ring.
Now she really did throw up a little in her mouth. She wobbled on her haunches but managed to right herself by standing up. Eli looked over briefly but quickly went back to focussing on his pan without saying anything to her.
She stooped to splash some water over the ring, hoping Eli would simply think she was still panning away. Her mind was polluted with half-formed thoughts of what to do next. Why would a ring like this just be sitting in the very patch of gold-panning water that Eli decided to take her to? Could it really be the most innocent and fortuitous find of the year? Or was something bigger happening here?
She flicked her hand to dry the diamond and stared stupidly at its glimmering mass. It was easily a full karat—maybe more. Could Eli even have afforded something this big? Sure, he had a good job working for his dad at the roofing place, but this kind of good? He took her out a
lot, and his apartment was pretty nice, but this looked like something on the hand of someone with accounts in the Caymans….
Or was she just being a bumpkin? There were probably whole cities filled with people wearing rings like this—cutting onions with them on and fishing them out of toilets on a daily basis. No reason to get so excited…
Except there was! Eli could be proposing to her this very second! Only two possibilities existed, as far as she could see it. Number one—an unfortunate millionaire’s wife had been Heli- skiing in the mountains upriver from here and lost her ring going over a particularly turbulent slope. Or, number two—Eli had driven up the night before, planted the ring in the mud, then driven back home and gone to sleep with the knowledge that they’d be back the following day to retrieve it. If that were the case, though…then he might be kind of an idiot. What sane, clear- thinking adult would just leave a diamond ring sitting in a creek?
Ruby glanced at Eli squatting in the mud, swishing the pan enthusiastically around and around. His head was tilted back and he was singing the hell out of “Life is a Highway,” despite the fact that they were not currently on a highway. He’d removed his shirt and tied it around his head in some unfortunate white man’s version of a turban. Did he think it was actually protecting him from the sun? Did he honestly believe that this was the way that people dressed in the woods? What kind of a husband and father would he be if he was constantly driven to such ridiculous flights of fancy?? Turbans in the woods and diamond rings buried in the mud and abscessed teeth he couldn’t be bothered to deal with despite the fact they might kill him… Fuck—he was a total moron!
Ruby clasped her dirty hand to her mouth. She didn’t know what to believe. The creek seemed obscenely loud, echoing all around her like the future laughter of her extended family when they found out she’d married an imbecile.
“Whatcha got there?” Eli shouted over to her. She turned and caught him staring at her. Damn. She’d been staring so intently at her hand that she’d forgotten to keep pretending to pan.
“Oh…nothing…just a piece of trash.”
“Are you sure?” Eli said, getting to his feet. “Kinda looks like you found a ring or something.”
“Yeah, looks like it, hey?”
“Well, yeah. I mean I can see it right on your hand there.” “Yeah, guess you can.”
“Yeah, I can. I’m standing right here.” “Right.”
“Do you uh…maybe want to show it to me?”
“Oh I don’t know,” Ruby snapped, jumping to her feet, the pan still clenched in her other hand. “Do I? Do you really need to see it again so soon?”
“Again? What other time was I seeing it?”
“Right, you have no idea what I’m talking about.”
“Kay, whoa,” Eli said, raising his hands defensively in front of him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m not gonna do it. Not when you ask me like this.”
“Ask you what?”
“Oh my god, could you stop pretending to be so thick? I know exactly what this is!” “What what is?”
“WHAT WHAT IS? Uh, the ring on my finger! HOW do you think it got all the way out here—right in the spot we just happened to be panning for gold?”
“Whoa, hang on a second. Are you really saying you think I planted that here? A ring worth tens of thousands of dollars—you think I would just leave something like that out here for you to find—in a body of water with a current—at an actual gold panning business that rents out its shores to tourists—you think I’d do something like that?”
“Well…I don’t know. You do these ‘romantic’ things and I…”
“I like to do romantic things, so you think I’m an absolute fucking idiot?” “Well no—OBVIOUSLY not like that…”
“Uh huh. And yet here we are.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Let’s just forget about it. Maybe we can sell it when we get back to
“Uh—no, obviously not. We’ll give it to the people at the company. Somebody obviously lost it while they were up here panning for gold on what was supposed to be a fun family retreat. They’re probably worried sick about it.”
“You’re not keeping it.”
“Oh, no, sir! I will not be keeping the ring, sir!
“Kay, I’m done here,” Eli said as he turned and stomped back to his things. He was shaking his head and thrashing his hands through the air over and over again—both signs that he was irrevocably pissed off. Ruby stared after him.
“So, you’re not proposing, then?”
Eli turned and stared at her, at a loss for words. “Are you serious?”
“I would have said yes, if you’d just asked me.”
“Ruby—it wasn’t even on the table. We were just panning for gold.”
“Yeah, on our anniversary. And you said all that stuff about ‘ooo wonder what we’ll find,’ like you knew exactly what we were gonna find. And you told me to pan right there,” she pointed at the spot where she’d dug up the ring. “And you were playing ‘Tomorrow’ when you picked me up, like you were thinking about our future…”
Eli blinked a couple times; worried that Ruby might start crying. Sometimes she did that after making one of her speeches.
Sure enough, a couple seconds later a single tear popped out and trickled down her cheek, trailing a muddy streak as it went.
“Oh hell, I’m sorry. You weren’t insane to think I was proposing. It makes perfect sense after you put it that way,” he said, gathering her head against his shoulder. “Is that what you want? Do you wanna get married?”
Ruby sniffled wetly. “Uh huh.”
Eli swallowed hard.
“Well…I don’t know…I guess that would be okay, then.” Ruby pulled away and looked him in the eye.
“Oh fine, whatever, it’s definitely a good idea.”
Ruby leaned in and kissed him, her lips covered in dirt and snot. “Okay good,” she said, smiling. “And we already have the ring.”
“Well—no, we don’t. I told you, we’re giving it back to the lady at the company.”
“Oh fuck that lady. She’ll just keep it for herself. People aren’t good, Eli. They’re only ever looking out for themselves. Who’s to keep her honest the second we leave?”
“I don’t know. I can’t guarantee anything about other people. But I can decide how I act, and I’m going to do the right thing.”
He grabbed hold of Ruby’s hand and tried to wrench the ring off her finger. But her skin had swollen from the water and a loud crack sounded as her knuckle hyper-extended in his hand.
“Ow, goddammit!” Ruby shouted, jumping away from him. Eli leaned towards her and she swung the pan reflexively at his face. She’d meant to simply scare him off, but the crack of his jaw against the steel was unmistakable.
“Oh my god, ELI!” she shouted, dropping the pan into the mud. Eli teetered a few times in front of her like a drunken boxer. Then he fell hard on his back over the rocks.
“OH JESUS FUCK, ELI!” she shouted, throwing herself down on his body. “ELI! ELI!
CAN YOU HEAR ME?” She pulled at his eyelids, thinking desperately of what to do.
But then suddenly he burst out laughing. His face was streaked with blood on the one side where the abscess tooth had gone flying, but Ruby didn’t mind the gore at all. Eli was alive! And not just alive—he was happy!
“Oh my god, Eli! I thought that tooth had gone straight into your brain and killed you!”
“Nah, babydoll. Ain’t no tooth can kill me,” he said, back to his drawl. He yanked her down by her shirt and kissed her in the mud and blood and tears. Ruby snorted happily into his face and Eli chuckled as their teeth knocked together.
“We’re gonna make it, aren’t we?” Eli asked, staring deep into Ruby’s eyes as she pulled back to look at the wreck of his face, which was rapidly bruising like a dropped peach.
“Yeah, I reckon we are,” she smiled, prying the ring off behind her back and slipping it into the waistband of her skirt.