“City of Gold” by B. C. Nance

“The streets weren’t always paved with gold you know,” the old man said. “Why, I’m old enough to remember when they were as black as night with bright yellow lines down the middle.”

“They aren’t exactly paved,” said a young man dressed in shabby clothes and carrying a dusty backpack. “It’s a coating, and it’s on everything.” He kicked at the golden curb with his hard boot and broke off a thin layer of the shiny metal then picked up the fragment to examine it. “See,” he said while holding the sample out to the old man.

“Don’t tell me my business, sonny,” said the old man struggling to get to his feet. “I’ve lived in this town for sixty-two years.”

“What town?” asked the young man. “All I see is a collection of decaying buildings that look like they haven’t been lived in since the comet of O-Five. And everything is coated with this worthless gold.”

“This is my home, boy,” the old man said. He stepped closer to the young man and shook his index finger. His hands shook even when the old man didn’t want them to, and he was prone to severe bouts of coughing when he got excited. “I lived here when the comet struck,” he said, raising his voice, “and I lost my Nellie when the rain of molten gold came down.” He reached a crescendo and fell into a particularly violent episode of hacking and spitting. The young man stepped back in disgust as the old man fell to his hands and knees, coughing and wheezing. When the old man had regained control, he stood again. He stepped so close to the young man that the traveler could smell the old man’s rancid breath. “I lived,” the old man said, “but my Nellie died.”

“If you were here when the comet came down,” the young man said, “then how come you aren’t dead?” He stared at the empty shells of gold-plated skyscrapers on the horizon. “Everyone this close would have been killed.”

“I wasn’t here, sonny,” the old man said. “This was my home, but I wasn’t here. I lived and my Nellie died because I went off to a reunion a thousand miles away.” The old man looked to the horizon opposite the golden city then turned to the young man. “What’s your name, boy?” he asked.

The young man thought for a moment and decided there would be no harm in telling the old man. “I’m Ethan Silver.”

“Pink Brown,” the old man said, extending his grimy hand to Ethan. Ethan shook it reluctantly and decided not to ask about the man’s unusual name. “So where are you headed Ethan Silver?” asked Brown. “Silver seeking gold, eh?”

“Who needs gold?” said Ethan. “It’s everywhere.” He adjusted his backpack and smoothed back his black, greasy hair. “I want to see the crater.”

Brown turned and spat. “The crater,” he said in a gravely voice. “Everyone wants to see the crater. Step right up folks,” Brown yelled, holding his arms in the air and turning around to beckon the imaginary throngs. “Step right up and see the crater. The site of death and destruction where the giant golden comet struck the earth.” He turned back to Ethan and pointed his crooked finger again. “You know, Mr. Silver,” he said in a low tone, “that when the comet struck the atmosphere, it rained molten gold over most of the earth.” Brown nodded his head as he spoke. “Gold used to be worth something, Mr. Silver,” Brown continued, slightly louder. “Gold used to be valuable,” Brown yelled. “Gold used to be precious,” he screamed to the sky then collapsed, coughing and crying.

Ethan watched the old man but didn’t move to help. He looked toward the horizon. “How far is it?” he asked Brown.

Brown gathered himself up again and rocked backward until he sat on the ground amid countless beads of gold. “Two days walk past the horizon,” he said in a barely audible voice. “Two days of lifeless golden desert.” He looked at Ethan and shook his head. “You’ll never make it, boy,” Brown said. “Besides, it’s just a big hole in the ground.”

“I’ll make it,” said Ethan, and he started down the road. “Give my regards to Lily,” he called over his shoulder.

“Nellie,” Brown shouted. “Her name was Nellie, you insolent fool.”

Ethan paused then decided that this old man wasn’t worth his time. He walked on, but Brown rose and followed.

“Her name was Nellie and there will never be a better woman on the face of this miserable planet.” He hobbled as he hurried to catch Ethan. “You want to see gold?” Brown continued. “You should have seen my Nellie’s hair. Golden as the summer sun. And a heart of gold, too. A heart of gold when gold was worth something.”

Ethan walked a little faster in an attempt to lose the old man, but Brown shuffled along trying to keep pace.

“Do you know why I wasn’t here when she died?” Brown called after Ethan.
Ethan stopped and turned toward Brown, allowing the old man to catch up. “Yes,” said Ethan, “you said you went off to a family reunion and left her at home.” He started walking again but paused and said, “I guess you should have taken Millie with you.”

“First of all, it was a Navy reunion, boy,” Brown said as he gasped from the exertion of keeping up with the younger man. “And we were poor, so neither of us was going.” He spat again. “Then one day she comes home with a train ticket and some extra cash.” Brown paused to catch his breath. “She had sold her golden necklace so that I could go see my buddies. A necklace that had been in her family for over one hundred years and the only gold that Nellie had ever owned.”

Ethan rolled his eyes. He had walked hundreds of miles to get here, and he didn’t want to waste any more time on this sorry old man. He had a crater to explore. “Well, Pinky,” he said to the old man. “That was a sweet story, but I really need to go now.”

Brown ignored Ethan’s comment. “Do you want to know what I said to her, boy? Do you want to know what I said to my Nellie when she gave me this wonderful gift?”

Ethan didn’t want to know, but he knew he was going to hear it.

“I fell to my knees in front of that dear woman,” Brown said, “and I told her that one day I would shower her with gold.” Brown laughed as tears streamed down his face. “Shower her with gold.”

“Ironic,” Ethan said in a flat voice. He sighed then walked on toward the golden bones of a dead city. Brown did not follow, but when Ethan was almost out of sight the old man called out to him.

“Be careful what you seek, Mr. Silver,” Brown yelled. “If all you want to see is a giant hole, then all you’ll end up with is a hole.”

“Well, that makes a hell of a lot of sense,” Ethan said to himself. He walked on through the city and was startled when he turned a corner and found a woman on her knees holding her hands up in a silent plea. A statue. Someone caught out in the rain when the gold came down. He saw a golden man eating a golden burger. A golden child rode his golden bike, and a golden dog lifted his golden leg toward a golden fire hydrant.

“How was this stuff ever valuable?” he asked of no one in particular.

The setting sun cast long shadows across the city of gold, as Ethan headed away from its rigid citizens. He walked on toward a pale golden desert, away from a mad man and on his way to a giant hole.

B. C. Nance is a writer who hasn’t given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist and literally knows where the bodies are buried–most of them anyway. At night, after roaming his neighborhood, he writes fiction and poetry, then stays up too late reading. His stories and poems have been published in a diverse selection of publications.

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