We watch men in sweaters shoot guns. They’re in their sixties, lined up hip to hip, crotches of pleated slacks pressed firm to the firing table, arms outstretched in front like they’re reaching for something they can’t have. They shoot holes through the hearts of cardboard cutouts. They shoot through old Coke cans and the aluminum folds in on itself. Through the cold, open air, bullets cut sound faster than Mom could kick back a teener in the parking lot of Benny’s on Fourth of July weekend. They shoot and we watch liver-spotted wrists bounce inside the cuffs of knit sweaters. The sound is absolutely amazing, like the quiet of a Nebraskan field torn apart by firecrackers. Dead, burnt-black grass left behind in the wake.
My brother, Jules, is back in Thurston for the first time in years, and me, I haven’t left. We’re revisiting the places our grandma, Isabella, used to take us before she passed. She said she wanted her ashes scattered across the flat plains of Horsehead Creek, and since Mom gets in tomorrow, that’s when we’ll do it. Drive out to Horsehead and watch Isabella float away on starved-hungry winds.
Jules says, “Isabella used to love it here.”
“Right,” I say. “Coming here was like Christmas for her.”
This is one place she used to take us—Sandpoint Gun Club, an outdoor pistol range. We’d park where we are now, idled in the lot, peering out at these guys through binoculars. There was something about the way Isabella talked and carried herself that made her feel more like a friend than an authority, and maybe that’s why we always called her by her first name. She’d fold her arms over the wheel, chin resting on top, hitched forward in the brown leather seats, and say, “Damn, what a fine shot.” The only thing that’s different now is she died and they kept living, getting older than she ever was. I like watching them, thinking of what she might say. But it makes me sad wishing she were here in person. Barely sixty and a stroke catches her the wrong way—what an old way to die when you breathe so young.
Jules shimmies out of his quilted jacket, places it on the armrest between us. He says, “I’m glad Mom’s coming, I’m glad we can all be together for this.”
Mom’s been off coke for half a year now, called one day to tell us she wanted to abandon that life, chose to abandon that life, and did so, by herself. I’m still not sure how she’ll be when she gets here, if she’s good on her word or if she’ll be like she used to, when we were still kids. It can’t be easy throwing a habit like hers.
“But how can Mom come back into our lives?” I say.
He shifts in his seat, leans over the armrest to half-hug me, says, “We just need to remember it’s what Isabella asked for.”
Jules moved away from Thurston when he graduated high school, shot out east to Providence, got an office job at the state house moving stacks of paper all day. That’s a life I never want to live—a room with no windows, paper cuts, people in suits. I found work driving a mower, cutting neat lines in the outfield for the local high school baseball team. Jules calls it minor league work, and I don’t like this, but we try to get on. He’s three years older and I still can’t understand why he didn’t stay out here with Isabella and me.
Jules kills the engine, says, “Let’s relax for awhile,” and winter slowly finds its way back inside the car.
I brush lost hairs up over my forehead, look out at the empty dirt field in front of these men, littered with miles of yellow grass seed, as if by some brilliant chance sprouts of green will instantly appear out of the soil. It’s been this way for years. It never grows.
In front of us, a wire pulley system brings in old targets and sunlight leaks calmly through the holes. The men look at the damage—nodding, impressed—before switching them out for new ones. I pull on my baseball cap. “It’s freezing. Why’d you cut the heat?”
As if he’d been somewhere else completely, Jules says, “Of course, good one,” and turns the key in the ignition, brings life back to Isabella’s mustard-yellow Corolla.
Her car is the only thing she left for us. No long-listed will or money. The bank took her house when she passed, and she would’ve said, “If I had left you a million dollars, or a stack of gold bricks, now think about that, that’d be good on me.” But I don’t care that there’s nothing for us, it doesn’t matter since she—herself—is gone.
I like to think Jules knows how hard it’s been on me since she died, since he got into Thurston, but he doesn’t. We picked up a cardboard box from the crematory on the South End, inside, her ashes sealed in a heavy-duty plastic bag. Who knew this is what you get? Body, thoughts, everything reduced to the size of a freezer bag. But the hardest part is Jules being so casual, seeming not to care about Mom coming back, not knowing what life had been like with Isabella the last few years, watching her suddenly drop off into nothingness.
I say, “Is it easy for you? I’m not so sure about this. Once we empty her out in the world we won’t have anything left.”
“I’m good,” he says. “As much as I can be right now. These are speed bumps, to tell us, ‘Hey, slow the fuck down for a minute, look at where you are.’ I think that’s what we need to do, look at where we are.”
I look at Jules, the calm on his face. This amazes me. “She was a part of our life.”
He raises thick eyebrows, tilts his cleft chin downwards. “No one expects it to be easy for you. But when Mom gets here we need to do it, we need to go out to Horsehead like Isabella asked and spread her ashes. And then I need to get back to Providence. My life is waiting for me there.”
In front of us, the old guys empty their guns, reload, and empty them again. They’ll be here until they die, with nothing else to do. I roll down the window to hear the noise at its fullest, to feel the echo of each shot reverberate against my ribcage, to remind myself that the earth’s momentum hasn’t stopped carrying us forward.
There’s a moment, way back, when Jules and I were still in elementary school at Wakefield.
Isabella owned a TV from the eighties that looked like a microwave. Worn-out knobs and switches ran along the side panel, a cryptic machine that might’ve been on Apollo 13 and somehow ended up in her living room. We stayed with her one weekend while Mom worked double shifts at the soap factory off Route 9 for three days straight. Only someone as heady as her could pull that off, push her body farther than you’d even think possible.
Isabella lounged in her leather recliner, her brown shoulder-length hair framing her face in waves. We sat on the shag carpet that crunched when you walked across, years of spilt soda and wine, smashed-beneath-feet chips and popcorn soaked into the fabric. On TV, a boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Durán. We watched them hold each other’s bodies tight in the middle of the ring, too tired to bring gloved hands to each other’s faces, loose legs like an animal only born a minute. Listened to the crowd yell ringside, the ref dance eager around the fighters, the announcer’s voice rapid and urgent.
This was the day the TV gave out, the cathodes blasted to shit, the only time Isabella swore in front of us. “Jesus fuck me to hell, right?” It was summer and she told us we should be outside anyway, so we stepped through her screen door and out into dirty Thurston, where teenagers got bored and smashed rocks through unused storefront windows for fun. The heavy air made your skin feel dry and breathing labored.
Jules and I roamed around for a while looking for a new set, hoping we could bring something back to Isabella, repay her for taking care of us. We kicked cans of pop and talked shit with kids from school. We ran through empty fields, pretended a landslide was about to suck us under, make us fall into the earth. The sun stayed steady, high, and ruined us with its ninety-degree heat. We looked in dumpsters behind Wal-Mart and checked the metal yard. After three hours we came back. A deserted TV sat on the uneven sidewalk across the street from Isabella’s house. We carried it on our arms like two interlocked forklifts, proud. Isabella propped it up on her cherry console and had it running before we could get out of our sweat-soaked tees.
We did this for her was because she would’ve done the same for us, the way a cutman uses Krazy Glue to hold together broken skin on a boxer’s cheek. She was our mom’s mom, but our mom too. Does this not say what kind of person you should be?
It’s night and we’re at the abandoned public pool behind the General Motors assembly plant. Isabella brought Jules and me out here during summers, picked us up at home when Mom was too out of her head. Isabella and her best friend—everyone called him Swim—would come here to catch sun on plastic lawn chairs with neon strapping, lounging in the waterless deep end of the green-tiled pool. We sit where we used to sit, up on a ten-foot high dive made of cement, our legs bent over the edge at the knee, dangling loose in the cold, January air. From here we would look down at them in their bathing suits and matching cat-eye sunglasses, skin layered with sweat. I imagine she wanted to show us what her life was like, to show us how different she was from Mom, that we could feel safe. And we did. She made us feel like life hadn’t been made a mess of, like no one could ever tell us what to do.
Jules says, “This place isn’t much different.” And he’s right. The floor of the pool is cracked with veiny openings and littered with heavy, waterlogged magazines and phone books.
I blow warm air into my hands and say, “I wonder what happened to Swim.”
“Maybe he retired and moved down to Boca Raton like he always said he wanted to. I could see him there.”
“True,” I say. “Imagine if Isabella were still alive, I bet she’d take us to visit him. They were tight.”
Jules sighs heavy, tilts his head down to the empty pool, says, “We can’t keep thinking like Isabella is going to come back and everything will be how it used to be.”
I let out a huff of cold air. My breath lingers in front of me and disappears. “You left, not me. Can’t we at least remember?”
He hits the brim of my hat down over my eyes. Then, “You’re not remembering, you’re making shit up—dreaming—like we’re going to keep seeing her, like she isn’t in the backseat of our car in a fucking cardboard box.”
I readjust my hat and bring my knees up into my arms. “Why do you have to talk like that? Why can’t you be nicer? She let us in her house whenever we needed to get away from Mom.”
Jules says, “But we’re not with Mom anymore, she can’t do anything to us. What do you expect from me?”
“I expect more,” I say. “I stuck around while you ran away. And now you’re on Mom’s side. I don’t get it.”
Once, in middle school, we had our good friend, Micky, over for dinner. We lived on East Lincoln in a dull yellow, single story house. Everyone in Thurston parked their cars on lawns, tearing them to nothing but patches of loose dirt. No one had grass and when you ran across your neighbors yard dust would fly out from under the heels of your sneakers.
Jules made tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner while I set the oak tabletop with paper plates that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” in bright orange and purple letters. Mom was high and somewhere entirely different. We ate and she sat, palms flat against bare thighs, head hanging over her plate. Every minute or so she would sit straight up, say she needed to get going, needed to go to her room, but never left, and settled down again. Micky asked what was wrong with her, why isn’t she touching her food? But we didn’t know what to tell him. We said we didn’t see what he was talking about, denied what was going on. Then we said she was tired, she worked long days. We made excuses and hoped. It was hard having people over, embarrassing, sad even. None of our friends understood our lives and I’m not sure if we did either, but we knew it wasn’t normal.
We called Isabella from the landline, and she came by an hour later, picked Micky and us up and drove to her place. I imagine Mom stayed at the table for hours, no idea where she was, jerking in and out of life in this in-between space, like a salmon too weak to swim upstream.
Jules grabs my bicep and squeezes so tight I can feel his nails through my down jacket. “You’re right,” he says. “Isabella did a lot for us. But that doesn’t change where we are now.”
I say, “You’re so simple, man. You’re not thinking about this, you just want it to be done, to go back to your boring fucking life. I’ve been here the whole time, I saw Isabella when she had nothing left. Now I have to spread her ashes while you sit back.”
“I didn’t make you stay. You could’ve left. You chose not to.”
“I cared,” I say.
Jules lowers his head and looks below us. He swings his feet in the open space above the pool, clears his throat and spits down into the emptiness. “Are they even your ashes to spread?” he says. “Why are we doing this? Shouldn’t Mom be?”
I lift myself from sitting, the cold cement radiating into my palms, making by whole body shiver.
I say, “Isabella took care of us. And I took care of her when she needed help. Everyone else left.”
“I’m just making sure,” he says. “I don’t want Mom to get here and someone be disappointed, not have things go the way you want. We have to think about what we’re doing. It’s beyond who did what at this point, who took care of who.”
He never talked like this before he moved to Providence. I don’t understand how he can be so callous with me. How he brushes off Isabella’s death. It’s not like he wasn’t there too, growing up with her, getting into shit with Mom. He’s removed himself now, created a faraway life he refuses to interrupt. But how can he so easily not care?
I press my face into the shoulder of my flannel jacket and then come back up for air. We look out over the pool, past the GM plant, past the wheat fields, to where the sky meets ground, unable to see any further.
We wake to the backfire of a car outside our hotel, then the screech of wheels against asphalt. The sound fills the small room and fades as the car drives further away. Jules groans in half-sleep on the bed next to me before swinging his legs over the side of the mattress. He has gray, ribbed dress socks pulled up to mid-calf, a quilted blanket across his lap. I look at the digital clock on the nightstand between us, the red numbers illuminating the walls with a dim, constant glow.
Jules rubs fists into eyes, loosens the sleep. “Seven-fucking-thirty.”
“Mom’s driving in today,” I say. “Should be here in a couple hours. It’ll be weird seeing her.” And it will, not knowing who she is, how her life has changed, or if it has.
Jules yawns wide. “She’ll probably be late, though. You know her,” he says, and he’s right.
Mom used to tell us this story of how she got held up at gunpoint once. It was on Route 9, coming home from work, and she had stopped at the bank to cash her paycheck. Smoke poured from the radiator of her hatchback before it died out and she had to pull onto the shoulder. She said it was late, near midnight, and took half an hour for another car to show up—a lady and her five-year-old son in a station wagon.
The lady said she would push, told Mom to get in the driver’s seat, that they’d jump it in no time. Mom looked down, turned the key, and when she came back up the lady had a small handgun an inch from her face, ready to make a mess all over the front seat. Mom said she tried to drop some of the money at her feet, around the pedals, and save it from being stolen. But the lady got nervous, yelled at her to pick it up, to stop fucking around.
Years later we found out it wasn’t true, that Mom drove to Bellevue, an hour outside of Omaha, and spent the money playing Keno. Isabella told us. And even after Jules moved away, we agreed to never tell Mom we knew what actually happened. The story was one way she made us like her, made us think she was more stable, more remarkable, than she really was. Even with everything else that happened, I would feel bad letting her know. You can’t live your whole life without having a single thing your kids like about you. No one should feel that way.
I move to the window and open the first layer of thick curtain to a sheer, off-white one. Sunlight mixes with the red glow of the room, making everything orange. A mom and two small kids are loading their green Toyota wagon in the parking lot with hard-shell suitcases. She pulls her hair back into a tight ponytail then looks towards the window. She reminds me of our mom, ten years ago, but healthy, like she could run a marathon, or raft effortless through rapid, white waters. I imagine where they’re going, why they chose to stop in Thurston, the things they’ll do together during this trip.
Jules says, “What the hell are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Just thinking about Mom, what we’ll do when she gets here.”
“As long as she comes to Horsehead to spread Isabella’s ashes, then I can get home, that’s all I want.”
Still, I don’t understand why we have to go through with it, why we can’t buy a nice urn, keep Isabella with us, instead of throwing her away to Thurston when I’m the only one still here.
“Things are more complicated than that,” I say.
Jules gets off the bed, pulls a black thermal over his head. “You’re going to have to just go with it.”
I turn from the window to face him, say, “Is that what we’ll do? Go with it? Haven’t we always gone with it? Hasn’t Mom had us going with it since we were born? Probably gave birth to us just so we would have to go with it for her—with her—so she didn’t have to be alone.”
“You keep forgetting,” he says.
“What?” I say. “What the hell am I forgetting now?”
He comes over to the window and sits on the lip of the bed, making himself lower than me. “Isabella. It’s the one thing she asked for. It’s not about Mom or you or me.”
I lean my back against the window and feel the cold glass through my tee. “I get it,” I say. “But we can’t just let her go. How can it be so simple for you?”
“What do you want to do?” I think about the life we had with Isabella, the last few months I spent with her. “We should call Swim. I want to know more.”
“And that’ll make you happy?”
“It might help, it might make things easier.”
Jules grabs the corded-phone off the desk by the window, dials the operator and puts it on speaker. We wait and listen to the tone as if waiting for the bell at school to tell us we’re free, to go play. I only remember him by Swim, no name or address, but we know his age, the same as Isabella if she hadn’t passed. But of course the operator can’t help, and I don’t know what I thought would happen.
Then Jules and me stay facing each other, quiet for a minute. He closes his eyes for a long time before opening them again, as if to say you’re right, it isn’t easy, I’m sorry. I slap his shoulder and he stands up. I say, “We should get ready. We have to go see Mom soon.”
“Right,” he says. “Let’s do that, let’s get ready.”
We move around the room for an hour and a half, pick our jeans off the carpeted floor and pull them over legs, make instant coffee in the bathroom, spill it across the white-tiled floor, mop it up with a towel, make it again. Jules finds a pack of Bicycle playing cards in the Bible drawer, opens it up and finds half the cards missing and a half-smoked cigarette inside. He empties the contents on the wood paneled mini fridge. We play Go Fish because it seems like the easiest thing to do with half a deck. We decide it’s safe to smoke the cigarette. The A/C comes on and we can’t turn it off so we pull on jackets. We lie on the bed and flick on the TV. Above us a thin, orange ribbon flutters against the vent. I speed through fifteen channels of news and nature programs, discover how similar they are, until all we get is white and black static and are at the beginning again, nowhere else to go.
Mom meets us at Denny’s on Northside, a mile past the firing range. Flattened wheat fields spread out in every direction from the restaurant, streetlamps scattered along the narrow roads. The building is white with a slanted blue-green ceiling, semis lined up outside. Truck drivers with large beards and cloudy eyes lean against the side of their trailers. We left the hotel an hour late, and she was already here when we walked in, looking like she’d been waiting for days, staring at a large water stain in the stucco-white ceiling.
Jules and me join her by the window, at a booth that curves in a half circle, foam poking out of the ripped leather. She wears black jeans and a navy cable-knit sweater with a wide neck, collarbones halfway visible. Her wavy, dirty blond hair falls around her face the same way Isabella’s used to, skin full of color, eyes sleepy, yet aware of what kind of life she used to live. Her nose is wide and flat, lips stretched thin. She looks younger than she did when we last saw her, during high school, before Jules moved away. And now I imagine it’s possible she hasn’t gotten high in the past six months, told the truth the day she called. Maybe if I’d stayed on the phone longer, if I’d listened instead of saying, sure, right, good try, and hung up. Then maybe I would’ve known sooner. But how can you trust a person you thought would raise you and chose to get high with friends instead? We weren’t fish you forget to feed when you leave for vacation.
“Sorry we’re late,” Jules says, and I’m surprised by his calmness, still trying to recognize our mom. And at the same time it annoys me, how easy he seems to connect to her.
She folds her hands on the table, says, “Don’t worry, I get it. You thought I’d be late, or wouldn’t turn up at all, and that’s okay.”
I’m not sure what to say. The waitress interrupts, places three coffees in front of us, and for a second her company is relieving, but then she disappears again.
Jules leans an elbow on the table and itches the back of his head, says, “So we need to get out to Horsehead later—sooner than later.”
“Of course,” Mom says. “We should. For Isabella.”
“You too?” I say.
They both turn to me and Jules squints hard, like I’m the one who just showed up for the first time in years, like he can’t understand how we’re related. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead and I watch steam wander off the tops of our ceramic mugs.
Mom says, “What do you mean?”
I stare at her and imagine what would’ve happened if she showed up high, if that would’ve made it easier. I say, “Is it that easy for you too?”
“No,” she says. “But it’s what she asked for, and she was my mom.”
I look to Jules but he grabs his mug, lifts it to take a sip and focuses his eyes out the window. A green Toyota wagon comes into the parking lot. I can see through the windshield. A woman pulls her hair back into a ponytail, reaches towards the glove compartment, and reappears with a foldable map.
I come back to the conversation, say, “She was our mom.”
“Jesus,” Jules says. “Can’t we just fucking do this thing, can’t we just do this and I can go home?”
“We all want to,” I say. “But mine’s still here.”
The waitress comes over with more coffee, drops of condensation running down the inside of the glass pot, and refills our mugs.
Mom says, “I get that I left and I wasn’t around. Really, I get it” and I can see how similar her face is to Isabella’s, how her voice feels new—confident—and how being sober makes her look like she could finally be a parent. But ours?
I fold my arms across my chest and lean forward, sweating in my flannel button up, and say, “How can you think you understand? Tell me, please.”
All she says is sorry, keeps repeating it, and that she knows it wasn’t the way to raise kids, but we were all lucky Isabella was there, that we could still make our lives work in Thurston. Eventually we get quiet, listen to the hum of semis pass on the Interstate, the noise there for a second then gone, like a plane taking off at a hundred plus miles an hour before dissolving into open sky. Again, she says, “Sorry.” She says, “I know.” She says, “Look, we’re here now.”
What else are you supposed to say?
We’re driving east on 94 towards Horsehead Creek, warm air pouring from the vents. Mom holds the cardboard box full of Isabella’s ashes. I look at her in the rearview, how she stares down at it for minutes at a time. I imagine how she feels now—Isabella never seeing her sober as an adult—and how I can convince them we don’t need to spread the ashes. Still, it seems like they’re certain about how this’ll go.
Jules says, “I wonder why she wanted us to do it at Horsehead so bad.”
“Nice views?” I say, then immediately regret the playfulness.
Mom says, “She used to go there, before you two were born. I’d stay with a friend. But she took me once. She had a spot she always went to, where she would lay down and look up at space. She got ecstatic, like she’d just won the lottery. I think it was a place for her to get away from everything and everyone else.”
It only takes thirty minutes to drive there. We park on the side of the road and wrap ourselves tight in jackets before getting out of the car. There’s nothing but miles of flat, Nebraskan plains, the ground frozen and solid beneath our feet. The wind pulls our Mom’s hair away from her face, suspended permanently in the air above her head, and I wonder why they call this a creek.
“Here?” I say, and kick at dirt with the toe of my boots. “This is where we’re supposed to scatter her ashes? Really?”
Jules shrugs, says, “I guess so.”
I tuck hands into my underarms. “Are we fucking serious right now?”
Jules grabs the box from Mom, pulls apart the taped corners with shaky fingertips.
“Come on,” I say. “You know this isn’t how we should do things, we need to talk about this. Just because you two are fine with it means we do it?”
He ignores me, and is about to pull the plastic bag out when Mom says, “Hold on, wait a minute.”
Jules looks up from the box, says, “What is it?”
She says, “Even though me and Isabella never had a working relationship, she’s still my Mom, still part of the same body.”
“Right,” Jules says, and I’m not sure what it is about him that listens to her. “You’re right, but we still need to let her go.”
Mom pulls her loose hair down from the wind, tucks it into the neck of her coat, eyes lost and looking for a way out, someone else to tell her it’s okay. She says, “Isn’t there something else we can do?”
I think about the times before all of this, when it was still us and Isabella, and Mom would be at home falling halfway between living and who knows what on a kitchen chair, lost somewhere, hoping for a time like now, with us. It’s getting dark, colder, the wind picking up and whining in our ears, letting us know it’s ready.
I lean my shoulder into her. She smiles at me and it feels unfamiliar, yet calming, like a person you’ve only met a few minutes ago. I say, “He’s right. We need to. This is all she wanted,” and Mom nods, and Jules pulls the bag from the box.
On the drive back to Thurston it feels like we were somewhere else entirely, hundreds of miles away. We look out the windows as we pass windmills and oversized sprinkler systems, rolled hay bales sitting lonely in fields.
When we get on Route 9 again I ask Mom and Jules if they want to head over to the Sandpoint firing range.
“Why?” she says. “What’s there?”
“It’s where we used to go,” Jules says.
I say, “Isabella used to take us. For fun.”
“Really?” she says.
I turn around in the passenger seat to look at her, and say, “Sure. It’s something we liked to do.”
Her eyes dart between Jules and I, then back out the window, waiting for me to face forward again. It feels like one part of our lives is almost over. This part, at least