An excerpt from Shann Ray’s American Copper (Unbridled Books).
Tonight the dignitaries of Montana gathered with their wives in the great room, wide-eyed. The men endured with slick hair, part lines clean and straight, faces shaven, black or brown full beaver felt hats in hand, derbies and straights, tapers and cowboy hats. The women wore gloves and fine dresses, beads like gemstones set in silk at shoulder or hip. People milled beneath the electric burn of a Bohemian crystal chandelier shipped from Prague, a many-armed work of art—high, wide, full of light, the room lit to every corner. Alder, pine, and maple at floor and ceiling. Great ponderosa logs stripped of their bark for walls. The tart smell of fresh wood. Throughout, deer and antelope antlers were set in European mounts, clean skull with darkened horns, the death’s-heads like silent touchstones of days he’d ridden out at dawn, returning with the animal lain across the rump of his horse. A comfort to him. A sense of solace. He watched the women, their flowing curls and well-shaped gowns a reminder of the wife he’d lost. His face started to crack, but he steeled himself before he called to his daughter in a loud voice.
“Evelynne, child of my heart.”
She smiled. Blushed.
Too meek, he thought. He went to her at the table and stood before her, holding her hand. He beamed at the people and they applauded even before she began. If only his father were here, he thought, a man he imagined dead of poverty or anguish. They hadn’t spoken since St. Louis. He’d hold his father’s head in his low convalescent bed, mine worker, railroad hand, track layer, fighter crushed by rock. In Josef’s waking dream the old man rose and stood tall, smiling like Josef had never seen. The Governor and his lieutenants, the head of the railway and his henchmen, they were all here now in the public dining room with their women to listen to Josef’s daughter because Josef wanted them to be here and because they knew he was richer and more powerful than the lot of them.
Dark wine in tall glasses. Prime cuts of Montana beefsteak. Tumblers of cognac. Thick cigars. The air perfumed by feminine skin, they dined like royalty as they held their women. The men guffawed and bragged as they tried to pump themselves up in the face of their host’s wealth, his mountain castle so unlike the paper shacks and hillside dugouts he’d known as a boy. Tonight, he thought, his princess was like a small queen, with her crushed-velvet dress and white lace collar, white silk gloves, and her mother’s pearl necklace, the gift of oysters of the Orient tripled around her delicate neck. His face wanted to break again. His wife should be here.
He set his voice like a rail before him.
“I present to you the Queen of Montana!”
He flourished his hand as everyone applauded, hooted, hollered.
Evelynne’s face flushed.
Josef made eye contact, nodded, the aftertaste of buttered steak in his mouth. She lifted her eyes, then proceeded to recite without error ten Shakespearean sonnets, each made with fourteen knotted lines filled with tongue twists and turns, three quatrains and a couplet, one hundred forty lines in all. She delivered with gusto and fire: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate, … And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.” She raised her hands in a V. “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, haply I think on thee, and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” The women and the men stood, their eyes alive to her performance. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” She punched a fist to her chest. They gasped. A few men chortled uncomfortably but were hushed by those near. “My love is as a fever, longing still for that which longer nurseth the disease, feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please. … For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”
Josef was seen mouthing the words. He thought of his father’s thick accent. The King’s English was the English his children knew. Shakespeare the pinnacle.
When she finished, the people roared their approval. Josef lifted Evelynne from the table and set her on the hardwood floor. She looked at the bodies flowing toward her. She turned to her father and tucked herself to his pant legs, but he bellowed with laughter. She pinched his leg before she ran wildly from the room, his voice booming behind her.
“Well done, Evelynne! Well done!” and quieter, “Come back, child.”
But she stayed away.
When the people left he watched from the door as they walked across the wood of the veranda before receding into the darkness. They made their way mostly to carriages and one or two automobiles. He looked up once and saw the encompassing sky, numberless with stars. But he turned his face down before the beauty could unravel him. Back inside, he found her trembling beneath her bed. He pulled her out by her heel. Holding her to his chest, he lay down with her on the small bed. Touched the palm of his hand, chill, to her warm face. “Kuráž,” he whispered over her. “Courage,” and soon she slept.
Josef’s father had been little respected. Josef and his brother, Leopold, the first generation born in this country, his father had raised them Czech while paying for some small English education. What he knew they’d need for this land. By trade a laborer, he was despised by many. In St. Louis, the last civilized place before the great expanse, he’d taught both sons to give no quarter.
Josef wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand, rose and went to his liquor cabinet and tipped back whiskey until his chest was hot.
He strode through the house, a hunger in him to break the world.
There had been a wildness to his coming west, but now he was numb. He missed his wife terribly. Her worry drove her, her fear of wilderness and wild things, bear, badger, wolf, even Indians. He’d taken her to powwows so she’d see how being subjugated had largely taken their will. The Blackfeet, big and fearsome during the Indian Wars, quiet now in the high northwest corner of Montana on the windswept steppe below the great mountains. The Crow in the far southeast, enemies of the Cheyenne whose lands abutted theirs but lay still farther east and whose society of leadership involved a council of forty-four chiefs Josef thought to be a modern miracle. Four above forty. He’d kept a Cheyenne hand once who’d spoken of the council. Paid the Indian even less than he paid the Chinese, though the hand was uncanny with horses.
Too many voices, Josef thought. Yet they abide, even thrive.
The hand had said the chiefs served not themselves but the people. As for himself, Josef couldn’t countenance subservience.
In America, there was resource and power, power underground and power over, the will to extract metal from rock, to separate flesh from bone. He would be positioned above other men. He would exhaust the storehouses of God. He’d be a king in this land, he thought. He felt sorry for himself. He didn’t want to drink, but he propped himself on his elbow, drinking bourbon from the bottle until he heard the glass butt of it thud on the floor below him. He fell asleep in a stupor, his head tilted over the side of the bed.
In the morning he approached the mirror in his bathroom. His eyes were red and blown out. He struck himself flat-handed in the face. He struck himself again, watching the pink of his skin bloom and spread. His look began to darken. His pupils turned to points of black lead among fields of water. He slapped himself in the face for near a quarter hour. By the end of it his hair was wrung out over his forehead, and his neck glistened with sweat. He needed more wealth, he thought.
He washed his face in the hand basin before he dressed and went out into the great room.
Shann Ray is a professor at Gonzaga University, and a former professional basketball player. His debut novel, American Copper, is set in early 20th century Montana featuring bar fights, forgiveness and love.
Shann will be reading Monday, November 23rd at Powell’s on Hawthorne (7:30pm).