It was hot and my throat was dry, parched. It was the kind of heat where your body doesn’t sweat; you can feel yourself slowly being microwaved, cooked from the inside, out. It was a little after six o’clock in the evening and the sun seemed stuck in place, reluctant to give up its dominion over daylight. It was going to be a long slog to night.
Main Street in the old section of Hot Springs was quiet. The kind of quiet that in a town or city of any size is annoying, makes your skin crawl. It was a quiet that felt mocking, contemptuous; daring me to break the silence by firing a cannon or some other absurd and cartoonish measure. I had been standing, leaning back against a wall of the closed Fresh Air Diner for forty-five minutes. Fresh air? It smelled like the dining room in a rundown nursing home; cooked cabbage and old age. After six cups of coffee, black, while sitting at the counter, I couldn’t take being inside the diner anymore. I had sat still for so long I thought I’d be mistaken for a cadaver and be carried away. Julie was late. She was always late. For everything! I tossed a few bills on the counter and walked outside, knowing she would show up eventually.
I didn’t have a lot to think about if I stopped thinking about how friggin’ hot I was. There’s the current dig, and maybe Julie. That’s about it. A couple miles outside of town a sink hole dating back to the Pleistocene era, some 140,000 years ago, had been discovered. The remarkable thing was that there was this unearthed treasure trove of mammoth skeletons only a few miles from the Mammoth Site, discovered in 1974, that had gone unexplored. It’s like everyone involved with the Mammoth Site just got bored and went home. I dig for a living. I’m supposed to be looking for bones, fossils, of dinosaurs, but lets face it, I spend most of my time shoveling dirt.
“Using a shovel I can teach you in five minutes,” my old man said when I told him what I wanted to study in college. “Paleontology, smamentology,” he said. “A fancy word won’t change what it is you’ll be doing for the rest of your life. Digging in the dirt.”
I hadn’t been able to convince him that what I wanted to do had importance. When he died right after I graduated from college and I had to stand in for my bereaved mother as the person to ceremoniously put the shovel into the dirt where my father was to be buried, I thought he had somehow managed to get the last word in.
It was while I was waiting on Julie and my crotch had begun to burn from heat rash, that a man flipping a dime like an anxious mobster stepped up beside me without me seeing where he had come from. He was chewing a large wad gum, not bothering to close his mouth, exhibiting the plasticy pink mass being rolled around on his tongue like a beach ball in a clothes dryer. His dime suddenly disappeared.
“Can you spare a dime?” he asked, leaning on the wall alongside me, using an elbow as a prop.
“Shouldn’t that be, brother, can you spare a dime?”
“What?” He stared at me blankly and spit out his gum. It lay on the cement, cooking like a glob of melting cotton candy.
“I’m not giving you a dime. You just had one.”
He reached over with his free hand and cupped my ear, then pulled his hand away, displaying the dime. Even as a kid I hated that type of trick. I was nine years old and went to a fair where a guy pretended to take a hard-boiled egg out of my ear. While everyone around us, laughed, I could feel my face turning bright red and burning. What kid wants to be known as the dork with eggs in his ears? My mother touched brain matter when she went after the wax and dirt in my ears with a Q-tip. How could she have possibly missed something the size of an egg?
“Here’s a dime, but I much prefer being given one, freely.”
The guy with the dime trick looked as undone by the heat as I was. His ragged beard was wet with the perspiration pouring down his sunburned face. His eyes were glazed over, and he appeared to be breathing through his open mouth. After a few moments in which neither of us said anything, and he returned to flipping the dime, he asked, “Who ya waitin’ on?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Just passin’ the time of day.” He then chuckled, sardonically. “She ain’t comin’”
I figured knowing it was a female was an easy guess. There was a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly. “And how would you know that?”
He flipped the dime high in the air where it disappeared. I reached for my ear. Neither he or anyone else was getting anything else outta my ears as long as I was alive.
“She’s ‘nother one of you bone hunters, right?”
“Yea,” how he even knew I was one caught me off guard. I was dressed in khakis and a white button-down shirt. I had even put on my clean boots. My dark tan was the only possible clue that I spent any time outside for a living. “So what of it?”
“You’re about to happen upon a monumental find and she knows it.” The dime dropped out of the sky and landed in his open palm. “While the cat’s away the mice will play.”
“You saying she’s digging at my spot?”
“That’s right bub.”
I didn’t bother to say goodbye. I turned, ran down the street, and jumped in my jeep.
The site for the dig had been divided into lots, with each paleontologist being given a lot based on the drawing of numbers from a hat. It was the only fair way to do it since every bone digger there wanted the same thing: to make a find that would make him or her famous – within academic circles that is. It could lead to well-financed university grants and a chance to break out from the pack of losers. For some unknown reason I was feeling lucky about the lot I had been given. I don’t even believe in luck.
It was just getting dark when I arrived at the dig site. I jumped out of the jeep and ran to the lot where I had been digging. Julie wasn’t there. The ground hadn’t been touched.
I awoke the next morning inside my nylon tent, having filled my sleeping bag with sweat-water. Being inside that tent in hot weather was like being wrapped in cellophane and then placed inside a sauna. Inside the tent smelled like a wet dirty old sock. I crawled to the tent door, unzipped it, stepped out, and spent the next few minutes gulping in fresh air. When my vision cleared, I saw sitting cross-legged a few yards away on top of a small boulder was the dime-flipper, which is what he was doing.
“What are you doing here?” I garbled. The inside of my mouth felt like it had turned to jello.
“I think I may have misled you about your lady-friend. She showed up a few minutes after you left. She’s a looker – that one. We had a pleasant conversation about looking for dinosaur bones.”
“What else did she have to say about me?”
He flipped the dime. It went up, paused in mid-air, and then flipped and dropped into his hand. “She said you have daddy issues which is why you don’t use more modern equipment for digging. She tells me few paleontologists use an actual shovel anymore.”
“I don’t have daddy issues,” I replied, defensively. “Maybe not as much as other paleontologists, but I do use modern equipment, like 3-D scanners, but I like digging with a shovel. It sustains the mystery.” My head was throbbing. “I hope you didn’t tell her I came out here last night because of what you said.”
“Of course, I did. We had a good laugh about it.”
I had the urge to throw up. If word got around that I was being suspiciously over-protective of my dig, everyone would wonder what it was that I was being so protective of, then every blasted bone digger would be poking their nose around my lot. Julie had a hard time keeping her mouth shut, about anything.
“So what is it that you’re guardin’ so carefully? It must be something phenomenal.” He tossed the dime high into the air and when it fell to face level he caught it with his teeth and then spit it into his hand.
“Who are you, anyway? Why would you want to know what’s in my dig?”
“It’s not what’s in the dig that interests me. It’s you.”
“Me? Why me?”
Just at that moment, Julie appeared on the ridge of my dig. “Yoohoo,” she called out, waving her hand as if her wrist no longer had bones; limp-like, flapping. And who said yoohoo like that anymore? The morning sun was at her back surrounding her in a golden halo. If I didn’t already suspect her persona as the innocent girl-next-door type was as fake as a plug nickle, I would have sworn the beautiful young woman I was staring at was actually an angel.
“I heard you’ve been talking about me,” I shouted back.
She cupped her hand behind her ear. “You hired a what?’
“No, I heard …”
“I’m coming down,” she said and began down the narrow path to where I had set up my tent.
I looked over to see that the dime-flipper had disappeared.
Hopping from the path to the patch of grass where I was, Julie kissed me on the cheek and then rubbed off the bright red lipstick imprint she had left on my unshavened face with her thumb. “Now, tell me again what forced me to come all the way down here to find out.”
I was gobsmacked. “Forced? I didn’t for …”
“For a paleontologist you’re so sensitive,” she said. “If you don’t want to tell me what you hired that’s up to you.” She took her bandanna from around her neck and dabbed her forehead with it. It was reassuring to my male ego to see a pretty girl perspire. “I met the funniest man in town yesterday when you stood me up. We got to talking about you …”
“He was just here.”
She looked around. “Where is he? I didn’t see him leave and the path is the only way out of here.”
“He disappeared. He does that. Disappears.” I suddenly felt really foolish. I could feel my face burning. I never believed in that sort of thing, the supernatural. Life is strange enough without bringing ghosts, magic and the like into it. My father said I lacked imagination.
“You’re being very naughty this morning trying to fool me like that.”
She continued. “He flipped a dime the entire time we talked. It was almost hypnotic.”
Hypnosis! That was it. Hypnosis is science-based. He hypnotized me yesterday into believing I would see him today. It made perfect sense. I felt relieved for about five seconds. That’s the stupidest thought I’ve ever had. If he was going to hypnotize me he’d already have found out what I suspect is buried in my lot.”
“He did that when we talked also,” I said. “I found it annoying. I found him annoying.”
“Isn’t there anybody you like?” she asked looking at me solicitously. I imagined seeing her eyelashes flutter.
I wanted to tell her I liked her but I liked looking at her. That was about it. We had gone out a few times and had a few laughs but I couldn’t see us going on digs together for the rest of our lives. From that first date she glommed on to me the moment I mentioned finding something that lay beneath the remaining dirt in my dig using the 3-D scanners. Her dig wasn’t going well and she knew it, and I knew it. A good paleontologist has a sense of where there are bones. Nothing about her dig indicated she was going to find anything of any significance.
Avoiding her question, I said, “Shouldn’t you be getting back to your dig. Isn’t your team showing up soon?” She had three interns – her team – who followed her and fawned over her every day. I had no one. I was my team.
She glanced at her watch. “You’re right.” She gave me a peck on the cheek. “Toodaloo” she chirped and then ran up the path and out of my dig.
Toodaloo? Who says that anymore?
“Do you have a name?”
He flipped his dime and eyed me like a cat eyes a mouse. “Everyone and almost everything has a name. I just prefer to not bandy mine around.”
He was sitting on a mound of dirt near the tail end of what I was about to unearth.
“You ready yet to tell me what’s under the dirt?” he asked.
“No, but if it’s what I think it is, it’ll make me famous.”
“Finding something buried in dirt can make someone famous?”
“In the case of paleontologists it does. It takes skill and knowledge to know where to dig and how to dig.”
He flipped the dime. “Your gal told me everyone got their lot assignment by drawing numbers from a hat. You’re here by luck, not skill.”
“She’s not my gal,” I replied hotly. He was right about why I had the dig site I was in, but I wasn’t going to let that dissuade me. “How can I be here by luck? I don’t even believe in luck. You can’t benefit from something you don’t believe.”
His lips curled upward at the ends, like a handlebar mouth mustache. “Luck isn’t a belief, it just is, and it may not always be beneficial. as you are soon to find out.”
“What do you mean? That sounds like a threat.”
He disappeared, vanished into thin air. I had gotten use to that. It was a magic trick, a sleight of hand, just like pulling a dime out my ear.
That night I had a date with Julie. I planned to tell her that whatever she thought was going on between us, wasn’t. It would be our last date.
She didn’t show up.
The next morning I had six 3-D scanners in place. I planned for the entire management of the dig to be able to circulate from one scanner to the next to see every major bone just as it laid there intact and undisturbed for so many thousands of years: an entirely intact mammoth, not a bone out of place, preserved just as the baby one found in the permafrost in Siberia, but here there was no permafrost, and from the scans and measurements, this was a fully grown adult. I only had to remove the final layer of dirt to unveil it, but I wanted the management to see the scans first. I wanted them to excitedly anticipate the completion of the dig as much as I did. I was finally going to prove my father wrong. Digging for a living could and would amount to something.
An hour before the management team was to show up, Julie arrived at my dig. “It’s over,” she announced dramatically.
“Us. I have no respect for you. The guy with the dime filled me in on what you’re all about. A paleontologist should be more interested in adding to the knowledge of prehistoric life, not looking for fame or fortune.”
“Yes, but …”
“Stop humiliating yourself and quit pursuing me.” She turned and went back up the path.
I instantly knew I would miss her.
When the five members of the management team showed up I started them at the head and stood back, grinning like the Cheshire cat, as they proceeded as a group down the line of scanners. At the rear end, they stopped for a lengthy time and although I couldn’t hear them, they were gesturing wildly and arguing, until that suddenly stopped, and Francis McDrake, a white-haired professorial type, walked over to me.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Didn’t you say that the bones of this mammoth had not been disturbed?”
“Yes, that’s correct. I …”
She put up her hand, cutting me off. “Then please explain how the scanner shows a dime lying under the mammoth’s butt end?”
“A dime?” I sputtered.
“Fearing that you are perpetrating a hoax, your dig is suspended. Go home.” She turned, waved to the others, and together they all climbed out of my dig.
That afternoon as I was taking down the tent and packing my things, the dime-flipper appeared, sitting on the same boulder as before.
“You’ve ruined me,” I shouted at him. “Why?”
He casually flipped a dime. “The next time someone asks you for a measly dime, give it to ’em. It shows a lack of generosity and a dearth of character to not do so.”
“Who are you? Why me?” I moaned.
“It was the luck of the draw. I popped up and the rest is history. That’s how luck works.”
“I told you, I don’t believe in luck.”
“Well, maybe you will finally believe your father. After this mornin’s fiasco, you’re going to spend the remainder of your career digging dirt.” He then disappeared.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.