Pipe Dream Paste

SECOND RUNNER-UP IN THE 2021 GREAT AMERICAN FICTION CONTEST: What started as a quest for treasure turned into a search for something more precious.

Diamond ring

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Almost quitting time.

An old couple ambled over to Amanda and Dean. Swollen ankles squished and sucked with each step. They walked arm in arm. Despite smudges of dirt on their cheeks, they were regal. The purity of a partnership well-lived radiated from soft white hair streaked with silver.

Amanda was particularly taken with the woman: lavender eyes blinking behind wire- rimmed glasses, red lipstick around a small smile; friendly jumble of dainty, original teeth. Brisk February air dabbed each pale cheek with a rosy wash that Amanda wanted to touch. The old man was perfectly matched to this woman, his wife: same wire-rimmed spectacles; mien of implacable, embarrassed patience. He stood a foot taller, hunched over protectively, allowing her to lead the way.

You the ones lookin’ for a ring? said the woman.

Amanda’s father, Dean, looked up from the mud. Sun wedged into the horizon between black clouds of a retreating storm and Crater of Diamond’s picked-over berms.

Lemme see that, Dean said, squinting.

The skepticism didn’t go unnoticed by Amanda, his thirty-two-year-old daughter. They’d been out there every day for almost two years. Sure, they searched for raw diamonds like everyone else, but there was a whiff of penance in it for Dean. Several years back, he’d taken early retirement from the refrigeration manufacturing plant in Arkadelphia to follow his dream of finding the big one at Crater of Diamonds, or COD as it’s sometimes called. He’d already been spending every weekend at the state park for years on the idea of supplementing their income with greasy treasure harvested from the forty-acre plowed field.

Crater of Diamonds, perched atop a gem-bearing vein of volcanic pipe.

Amanda’s mother, Hildy, had been so resentful of the time Dean put in there that she drove out drunk one night and flung her wedding band blindly into the field. Dean started searching for it the very next day. Then Amanda quit her job to join in the recovery effort. So far the only things Dean had to show for two years’ work were occasional low-carat diamonds and tarnished coins.

Hildy’s rage blossomed into pancreatic cancer. She was at home now, near the end, heavily medicated. Dean refused to give up. In fact, since the diagnosis came back as terminal, he’d worked even harder to reclaim the ring. As if it might hold a miracle cure.

He’d posted signs: If found, turn in to the Diamond Discovery Center or call this number… They knew Dean well at the Discovery Center, which also served as entrance to the open-air mine.

Now this old couple had found the ring. Maybe. Dean took the gold band and spit on it to clean off the mud. He polished it on his red flannel shirt. After a minute, he handed it back.

Yeah, I don’t think that’s the one.

Amanda’s jaw hung open. The old couple seemed to shrink with disappointment. They were regulars and had been on the lookout for Hildy’s ring for a long, long time. You sure? said the old man.

Gimme that, said Amanda. Please.

Amanda took the wedding band, looked closely. There’s only one way to tell, Amanda said, giving Dean a sharp look. And that’s to try it on.

Okay, said the old woman. Go ahead.

No, see, said Dean. What we’re lookin’ for — it’s my wife’s. She chucked it one night…

The gravelly voice trailed off. He looked out across the field. Every thirty yards or so there were diamond hunters. Some were surface grazers, not likely to find anything. Others more serious, like Dean and Amanda, digging deep, sifting soil with a screen. This old man and his wife were deep diggers. The field was periodically plowed. Hildy’s wedding band could’ve wound up anywhere.

I’ll take it home to her. If it don’t fit, I kin give it back, Amanda promised.

I surely hope it does, said the woman.

Let’s go, Daddy.

 

On the drive back, Amanda stared straight ahead, not wanting to look at her father behind the wheel.

He smoked endlessly. Dean’s behavior with respect to the recovered ring — and to Amanda — left little doubt that it was in fact the missing band, which struck her as peculiar. It confirmed long-held suspicions she was being used. In the dark of the truck cab, she tried on the ring for just a second; the feel of it brought on a pang of unexpected melancholy. She was out of work, unmarried. Last of three sisters, still living at home. Work in the field each day and the hardship of caring for Mom had kept off the pounds, but Amanda sometimes binged on chocolate-chip cookie dough. She couldn’t help it. She just loved biting down on a mouthful and crunching those ice-cold chocolate chips.

 

When she’d quit her job at McDonald’s to help Dean look for the wedding band, it all seemed like the start of a cool, impulsive adventure. For a while, working outdoors in the fresh air had been fun, invigorating. When they found a raw diamond, it was a thrill. They even worked in winter.

She shared in her father’s obsession, and that didn’t sit well with Hildy. When Hildy got sick, Amanda felt guilty because she realized how she’d lost sight of the original goal, which was to find the goddamn ring. As if that would ever put things right. No health insurance, savings long gone. They’d all voted for the con man who’d told them foreigners were to blame. Dean was falling behind, not enough diamonds. The pipe had been picked clean. Bankruptcy loomed.

Amanda was lonely. Digging had long ago lost its novelty. She languished in a daily rut. It’d come to feel like convict labor. Sometimes she thought about running out onto the highway in front of their home, hitching a ride with an eighteen-wheeler. Or letting one flatten her.

How come you pretended like the ring wasn’t Momma’s?

Dean didn’t answer. Not even a shrug.

You know it’s the one.

He lit another cigarette. They passed fields of rotting vegetables. He didn’t sing that corny song about being an old chunk of coal and wanting to be a diamond someday. He didn’t say I’m goin’ diamond! so Amanda could fire back: Yeah Daddy, you and everybody in AMWAY. He said nothing. And that was that.

 

The male nurse reported that Hildy had had a rough time.

She’s sleeping now, but it’s sure to be a long night.

The nurse, his name was Carlo, took Amanda aside and whispered:

It won’t be long, I’m afraid. She’s improved a little, but I’ve seen that before. It’s like a little last hurrah before they go.

Hurrah?

That’s right, said Carlo.

Impulsively, he hugged Amanda then quickly apologized.

I’m sorry, he said.

It was the most wonderful thing she’d felt all year. She’d wondered, even now, if Carlo was gay. Should she tell him about the ring? No — too much to explain. He’d only been with them a few weeks and thought she and Dean were ditch-diggers.

After Carlo left, and as Dean showered off the day’s dirt, Amanda went to her sleeping mother. She wanted to slip the ring onto Hildy’s hand. Not yet. Amanda kissed her mother’s cheek. Bad cheese dying smell almost made her gag.

In the garage, Amanda fondly recalled the rosy cheeks of the old woman who’d found the ring. She removed her muddy clothes and threw them in the wash, donned the robe she kept on a peg.

Closed the door to her room and locked it.

In the special hiding place under her mattress, Amanda pulled out a tiny leather drawstring pouch and poured the contents onto her dresser. She smoked a bowl and caressed the raw diamonds; they were greasy and multicolored: white, amber, caramel. One in particular almost certainly worth a small fortune. Amanda was amused to find out high-quality fake diamonds were called paste. She thought paste diamonds should resemble actual paste — like these uncut specimens. Dean didn’t know about the stray bag full of oily translucent gems and never would.

Hildy’d soon wake up, and when she did, Amanda would sit by the bed and offer a toke — it helped. Her mother might wake to find the ring on her hand and Dean would then have to account for himself, bear witness to his wife’s last — what did Carlo call it? — hurrah. Hildy probably wouldn’t want the ring on her hand, probably say something like I threw it away for a reason. Amanda imagined Momma saying this to Dean. Then Amanda imagined herself someday, somehow, mounting her best rock on that golden band and making an honest woman out of herself.

That expression — just what did honesty have to do with it? There had to be something to it — right? Honest. Her mind played with the word the same way her fingers fondled the gems.

Part of Amanda had dreaded actually finding the ring.

Now that it was a fact, she knew why.

Tomorrow would be Amanda’s final day, she decided. The old couple would be thanked. No way would Amanda ever come back to that field ever again. That’d been the deal: Find the ring, move on. Trouble was — move on to what? Back to Mickey Ds? Never.

Hildy needed Amanda here. That was one priority, a good reason to call it quits. Someone to be with Momma when she passed — someone she knew, all due respect to Carlo. Long ago Amanda had given up on trying to figure out Dean’s true motivation and the hidden tunnels of her parents’ marriage. That was one field Amanda could never sift.

The recovery of the ring should’ve been a bigger event.

Dean should’ve rejoiced.

In fact, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. For years (years!) she’d imagined what finding the ring would be like. It was supposed to set in motion a logical sequence of events: a merry jig, hugs and high fives, cheap champagne. Maybe Amanda should’ve occasionally fantasized all this aloud in the car driving to and from Crater of Diamonds, conditioned Dean as to what she expected from him when the time came. She’d assumed, wrongly, that that wasn’t necessary.

It’d gotten away from her. Pipe dream.

 

Well, what did she say?

Dean tossed an unopened can of beans from one hand to the other.

Nothin’ — you the one gotta put it on her. Then, off his astonished look: Doncha think?

Dunno.

She tossed the ring to him, he caught it, surprising himself. He squinted at it again.

You sure this is it?

Don’t be an asshole.

What — it don’t seem the same.

Been in the ground.

She let that hang in the air. In the ground — like Hildy’ll soon be.

You goin’ back out tomorrow? he said.

You knew the deal.

She’d changed her mind about going back out just to thank that couple. Dean should do it himself.

He held the ring in his fist as if he wanted to throw it back in the field. As if that might keep Amanda on board. Cold blue eyes glinted with anger, jaw torqued under salt and pepper scruff. He still had on that gimme cap from the refrigeration plant. He wore it all the time, even indoors.

Sorry, she said.

This cooled him off a bit.

Naw, deal’s a deal.

Then he looked right at her: I’ll miss ya.

It was like he knew about her bag of gems. Could he? No — impossible. He just hated change, as do we all.

Always thought I’d be the one to find it, he said.

Amanda didn’t say she was glad he hadn’t. He’d’ve pawned it to pay bills and kept her out there with him forever. It was that couple who’d saved her. Saved her life, in fact.

You make sure you thank that old lady and her husband.

Yeah.

He picked up the can of beans then set it down again. He opened his fist and looked at the ring.

Well, he said. Here goes.

Featured image: melnyk mariya / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Congrats on the placement in the Fiction Contest. On my second read, I noticed the structure of the story because I already knew the outcome. The story begins with an old couple handing over the ring. We get a clear description of them as if they’ll play an ongoing role in the story. But, nope. They kick off the events and remain only a memory, even at the end when they might get thanked… but maybe not. Dean will decide this and the rest of his life. Fun writing. Thanks.

  2. I love the economy and simplicity of this story with its richly metaphoric setting — the initials COD will now forever stand for Crater of Diamonds for me. Beautiful job. One for the anthologies.

  3. “The Pipe Dream” was a fine read–good storyline, swift, well-drawn characters, plus adept use of metaphor that hinted at a deeper meaning, throughout. I also liked the open-ended, forward looking ending.

  4. This is an interesting, descriptive tale of intersecting lives on a particular day with a common goal, but at a crossroads as well. I myself can’t imagine searching for diamonds like that, but admire the determination of this father and daughter.

    Hopefully with the mother’s passing they will re-evaluate their purposes and priorities, one of which would be for Dean to quit smoking! I noticed the absence of quotation marks. and that they really weren’t necessary.

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