After the funeral, my mom decided to stay in North Dakota for 10 days. That meant I had to as well. We spent a few of them visiting friends and relatives, but mostly we imposed on my sister. Ten days is a long time to spend with anyone. It’s especially difficult for families.
On Monday night, a full week after we arrived in North Dakota, the Broncos played Atlanta. I couldn’t wait, not just for the game, but because I was going to drink. Before my grandma’s accident, I downed a small bottle of sake. A few days later, I couldn’t walk. Then prednisone and madness and my grandma’s death. It had been a month since the sake and weeks since the prednisone. I was definitely ready to imbibe.
“Can I have the keys to drive to the liquor store?” I asked my sister. I was wearing my Broncos jersey and had $20 that my mother had given me.
“You can just have a bottle of our wedding wine.” She pointed towards the rack where she kept fermented grape juice.
Years before, Little Ex had made and bottled two cases of wine. I designed the labels, and we gave them to my sister for her wedding gift. My sister rarely drank and still had most of those bottles sitting around.
“This stuff is pretty good!” I took a sip and raised the glass in her direction.
“Go Broncos,” my sister smiled.
“Go Broncos,” I sat down on the couch. “You want some?” I asked my cousin’s wife. She had spent the day hanging out, playing with The Baby Hannah and catching up with my sister.
“Sure.” She got up and poured a glass.
By halftime I’d finished the rest of the bottle and returned to the rack for another. I could tell my sister was annoyed. I could tell my cousin’s wife was aghast, but I didn’t care. It had been a rough summer and the Broncos were playing. No one said much after that. I clapped and cheered and punched the air at appropriate times, finishing off the second bottle in grand fashion. The wine did its job and soon I was obliterated, but it didn’t show. It never showed when I was drunk.
“Where’s Noelle?” I looked around the dark lower level. Where had everyone gone?
“She went to bed,” my mom was sitting at the table, watching me angrily.
“Manning threw three interceptions,” I stood and grabbed the empty bottle and wine glass. “The good guys lost by seven.”
“You’re drunk,” my mom informed me.
“Very drunk,” I corrected her.
“You’re an alcoholic,” the accusation rolled off me like beer on a duck’s back.
“What do you know?” I sauntered into the kitchen. I should have been stumbling. My speech should have slurred, but it didn’t. I was close to blacking out, but you’d never know it.
“You need help,” my mom attempted an intervention. She had never been much for alcohol and didn’t understand that this was the wrong time to have the conversation.
“What do you know?” I repeated.
“Seriously, Nathan,” she tried to stop me as I headed towards the basement, “this could lead to bad things.”
I looked at her, considering the simple face with its simple mind. “When have I ever listened to you?”
She glared at me. I went downstairs and passed out.
• • •
In the morning I woke up feeling like a million bucks. Sake sent me into a flare up, but I could drink all the wine I wanted. Crohn’s was strange like that. I skipped up the stairs whistling to myself. It was rare for me to get hung over, something about my body processed alcohol like a champ. My sister was in the kitchen making lunch. We chitted and chatted, and then she broached the subject.
“It was rude what you did last night.” She shut off the water to the sink.
My blood went cold. “What?” Had I done something terrible, something I no longer remembered?
“Chris and I never drink to get drunk,” she looked at me disapprovingly, “And you didn’t ask if you could have the second bottle of wedding wine.”
Relief washed over me. She was mad because of the amount of alcohol I’d consumed, not because I’d blacked out and turned into a madman. “I knew this was going to happen,” my shoulders sagged in defeat. “I should have gone to the store and bought a box for myself, but by the time I realized I wanted a second bottle, I was too drunk to drive. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“I didn’t know you could drink like that,” she’d gotten my apology, but she wanted more.
“I blew it,” I conceded her point. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. Now that I know it is, I won’t drink around you.”
“You’re not the brother I used to know.”
“No,” I agreed. “I’m not.”
All her life, my sister had looked up to me. I’d always been a good Christian, but that was changing. I drank and fucked and ate edible marijuana. I was turning into something sinful and obscene.
“What happened?” There was hurt in her eyes. All her life she’d tried to live up to my example and now I had abandoned the idealism of my youth. Noelle still wanted my approval, but we were heading down different paths.
“People change,” I didn’t know what to say. “We do what we have to to get by.”
“I miss the old Nathan.” She threw her dish towel into the sink and went upstairs.
“I don’t,” I said to the empty room.
• • •
Later that day my mom came into the living room. I was sitting at my laptop writing the story you’ve been reading. “You ready to go to the ranch?” She asked and began to fill a bottle with filtered water.
“Let me pack my computer.”
We drove down highways as straight as arrows, each side defined by hay fields cut short and bundled into cylindrical bales. The Diamond C was a pristine ranch near the speed bump town of Killdeer. It spanned 8,000 acres and was once home to Indians. More recently, my grandma and grandpa lived there, raising cattle and their six remarkable children. The road to the Diamond C was unpaved, but well maintained, with cattle grates and fences to keep the cows from escaping. My mom sped across the dirt road almost mechanically, each turn ingrained in her DNA.
“That must be one of grandpa’s wells,” she said as we passed a flare stack and its attendant tanks.
Recently, the oil companies had found gaseous gold on my grandpa’s property and the resulting oil boom had spread across the state and into Montana. Once quiet streets now howled with big rigs and the developers couldn’t build houses fast enough to meet demand. My sister’s husband was in construction and his company moved them to North Dakota so he could lead teams of men in the effort to build offices for the flood of workers pouring into the state.
“I started driving these roads when I was 6,” my mother said. She was sort of proud but also sad that she’d missed out on childhood. “I couldn’t reach the pedals, so grandpa put Cindy on the floor boards,” I’d heard the story a thousand times, but it was a good one, so I let her talk. “Cindy was in charge of the gas and the brake and it was my job to steer. Then he’d put the truck into first gear and we’d drive home with bales of hay in the bed. Once we reached the ranch, the other hands would turn off the truck, unload it, and send us back out to the field.”
The country was harsh but also beautiful. Clouds billowed up into a clear blue sky, gathering storms to bless the land with rain. My mom was quiet for a while, watching the countryside drift by, “Your drinking upset everybody last night,” she said at last.
“I know,” I didn’t want to have the conversation again. “If I’d known everyone would get mad I wouldn’t have done it.”
“The fact that you like to be drunk is concerning,” my mom slowed around a corner that rippled with rain wash, the tires rattled over each divot. “I don’t know anyone that likes to be drunk.”
“Everyone likes to be drunk,” I laughed.
“I don’t.” My mom came from a different world, a Christian place where people worked until they died. She rarely watched movies and nights spent drinking were out of the question.
“Killdeer doesn’t have a Walmart,” I tried to put it in terms she could understand, “but it has two bars and a church. I’ve been to towns in Alaska that were so small they didn’t have a grocery store, but they had a bar. It was in some guy’s living room. He served beer out of his fridge. That’s how people get through the day. The ones who aren’t at church are drunk.”
“One bottle would have had most anybody under the table,” my mom pressed. “You drank two and were fine. That tells me that you have an alcoholic’s tolerance.”
“I didn’t have my first sip of alcohol until I was 28,” I began the tired litany, “and when I did—”
“—You always say that,” my mom interrupted. “You’re so proud of your accomplishment, but the fact remains, you would be—”
“—Let me finish.” I cut her off, “the first time I tried to get drunk I was 28. I downed 7 vodka shots and barely felt a thing. I have an insane metabolism. My tolerance has nothing to do with how much I drink, I just have a weird liver.”
“That means your body has a predisposition towards alcoholism,” my mom posited one of her holistic theories.
Growing up, there were 5 cans of Old Milwaukee in the pantry in the basement. My mom had bought a six pack and used one of the cans to cook something, the rest remained in the cabinet for 18 years, until my family moved to Grand Junction.
“I understand that what I’m doing seems outlandish and horrible,” I tried to see things from my mother’s perspective. “So I won’t drink around you guys any more. I’ve apologized to Noelle and I apologize to you. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
But it wasn’t enough, “Talk to other people about how much two bottles of wine is,” my mom was always trying to get me to talk to other people. “What you did is not normal.”
“Everyone is weird when it comes to alcohol,” I began fiddling with the lock in the car door, moving it up and down and up and down, “When you meet someone who drinks more than you, they’re an alcoholic. When you meet someone who drinks less, they’re no fun. It’s as if you’ve found the perfect balance between vodka and sobriety, and everyone else is doing it wrong.”
“Two bottles of wine is always wrong,” my mom slowed down to let a coyote run across the road.
“What do you want from me?” I turned towards her.
“I want you to understand that you have a problem.”
“Noted,” I held my hands up in defeat. “I’ll keep my eyes open and if I see myself going down a scary path I’ll check myself.”
“You won’t be allowed to drink while living under my roof,” when my mother smelled an inch, she took a mile.
“Then I guess I’m not moving to Grand Junction.” I shrugged. I had offered my help. If it wasn’t good enough, she would have to make do without it. “You don’t get to control me because I’m living under your roof.”
“I just think about Brett and the road he went down and—”
“—Alcohol is not heroin!” I was getting angry. “I’m not going stop drinking,” I slammed the lock into the door. “If that means that I’m not welcome in Grand Junction that’s fine. I’m only moving there for you.”
“I just don’t understand why you have to get drunk.”
“Because I like being drunk.” Growing up, there were five cans of Old Milwaukee in the pantry. No one touched them for 18 years.
“We were created to bring glory to God,” my mother switched tactics. “How does getting drunk bring glory to God?”
“What was Jesus’ first miracle?” I answered her question with a question.
My mother thought about it for a beat, “He turned water into wine.”
“Did it bring glory to God?”
“That is an obscene comparison.” I had her, and she knew it. I was twice the scholar my mother had ever been, growing up in a home where every prom date and comic book had to be defended with scripture.
“Jesus liked to party,” I drove my point home. “He got a bunch of people drunk at a wedding.”
“There’s nothing in the Word about Him getting them drunk.” The car crested a ridge. In the distance we could see the ranch, tucked into a gully near a spring that burbled to the surface from deep within the earth.
“They’d already consumed all the wine for the entire wedding,” I unlocked the door again, “and Jesus made them more.”
“That doesn’t mean that they were drunk,” my mother held her ground.
“Drinking wine makes you drunk.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Yes it does.” The conversation descended into anarchy.
“No it doesn’t.”
“This is a stupid,” I gave up, exasperated. She was going to find out anyway. “It doesn’t bring glory to God and I don’t care.”
“What?” My mother looked at me, worry in her eyes.
I could feel her gaze on the side of my head. “I’m not a Christian any more.”
If I had pulled a gun and shot her, it would have hurt my mother less. Her entire existence was wrapped up in promises made by a Jewish carpenter 2,000 years before I was born. We drove in silence, my mother processing what I had said, “So,” her lips trembled. She was about to cry. “Are you agnostic? Atheist?” The car dipped into a ravine. On the left a fetid pond stank shallow, surrounded by rotten trees. “What are you?”
It was a good question. To my mother I had always been a Christian, and in mine as well. Now I didn’t know. “I think it’s likely that there is or was a God,” I looked out at the fields and cattle, at the diverse ecosystem that worked together to support life. “It seems absurd to believe that universes just happen, but the older I get the more I think humans are unimportant. If creation is a sandwich, then we’re the mold that’s eating that sandwich. The point of everything is probably stars and that’s why there’s so many of them. We’re probably just an unintended consequence of some initial idea, clinging to a speck of dust hurtling through the void.”
“That sounds like a miserable existence.” My mother’s world was grandiose. She believed her life was so precious that God Himself had numbered the hairs on her head.
“I find freedom in the thought,” I rolled down the window. I wanted to smell the land. “All my life I tried to meet the standards of a religion that claimed I would be rewarded or punished eternally based on the choices I made. Now I don’t worry about it. I enjoy each moment, drinking two bottles of wine whenever it makes me happy.”
My mom sat silent. Where had she gone wrong? What had compelled her son to throw himself into the flames? “When I was pregnant with you,” she spoke as if in a dream, “the doctors didn’t know if you would live or die.” She slowed to cross a cattle grate, the tires rumbling over metal bars sunk into the ground. “So I gave you to the LORD and He heard my prayer.” My mother, in her darkest hour, pleading with the unmoved mover for the life of her son. “He instilled a hunger in you,” she gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. “When you were a child, you used to read the Bible compulsively. You hid under your blankets and we had to take it away from you.”
I remembered those nights, huddled in the dark, desperate for knowledge, believing I had found the true shape of the universe.
“God promised that His word does not return void,” she said to herself. “If you plant seeds, they grow. Right now, you’ve gone off the deep end, but I know that He will bring you back into an understanding of His truth.” All her life, my mother had sought the promises of God, battered against the rocky shoals of reality’s shore, but believing that her trials were being counted as righteousness.
“I’ll probably never be a Christian again,” I said softly. “I know that’s hard for you,” I put one hand gently on her shoulder. The son she loved was throwing his life away. “You’ve never understood me, and I know this makes it worse, but it’s who I am. It’s what I believe.” We reached the Ranch, two houses with an attendant barn, chicken coop, quansit, root cellar and spring. “Do I need to open the gate?” I asked delicately.
“I suppose,” my mom sighed. She no longer cared about the ranch.
I climbed out of the car and walked towards the gate. It was a giant thing covered in deer antlers and skulls, emblazoned with a metal diamond and the letter C fashioned in the middle. It was my family’s brand. The grass in the yard was dead, long ago turned brown and given over to weeds. My grandma would never have allowed that. Her whole life she kept that yard perfectly manicured, acres of thick, lush sod, but no more. To my right, where an orchard once stood, only stumps remained. Craig had cut down the apple trees. Only a handful remained, and even these had gone wild, heavy laden with summer apples clinging to unruly branches. I flipped the latch and pushed the gate. A pack of dogs came running towards me, black spotted with savage teeth, as fierce as any wolf. Their wild, mismatched eyes watched with unsettling intelligence, sizing up the stranger who had opened their gate. “Hey you hounds,” I kicked at them, “git!” These weren’t friendly city mutts, they were working dogs who herded instinctively, nipping the heels of anything with legs. The dogs wheeled away, watching, waiting for an opening.
Just beyond the fallen orchard stood a garden. It was half the size of the one my grandma used to keep. Standing in the middle of the garden, munching greedily on crisp leaves, stood a cow, one of Craig’s herd, the Diamond C branded deep into one flank. “Moo!” I bayed at the beast.
“Moo.” She returned my call.
My mother drove through the gate and I closed it behind her, then walked backwards to the car, kicking at the dogs who kept darting forward, attempting to savage my heels.
Rhonda and Craig lived in the big house with its concrete porch and giant chow bell. To the left stood an old homestead, the one my grandpa grew up in. It was dilapidated and crumbling, its paint peeling and shingles askew. My grandma would never have stood for such a thing, but she was a hard woman with six children to do her bidding. Craig and Rhonda were different; they knew that a pristine yard, orchard, garden, and house came at a price. To maintain the vast estate you had to work yourself to the bone, never pausing to play with your children, never stopping to have fun. The crumbling ranch was a symbol of shifting priorities. That was probably a good thing.
My mom knocked on the door to the mud room.
“Hello!” Rhonda, Craig’s tall, red headed wife came up from the basement.
“There’s a cow in the garden,” my mom pointed outside.
“Oh,” Rhonda nodded. She went into the kitchen and washed her hands, looking out the window at the giant beast.
“Are you going to flush it out?” My mother asked a little worried. Cows in the garden were an Important Matter, and needed to be taken care of immediately.
Rhonda finished washing her hands, then dried them on a towel. “I suppose,” she turned to me, “want to help?”
We walked outside then down concrete steps cut into the stone foundation. “I’m going to open both gates,” Rhonda explained. “You go in and chase her out.”
I looked at the creature, 1,500 pounds of solid meat, uncertain as to what I should do. The beast mooed, then took another bite of garden. I didn’t know much about animals, but I was pretty sure the big ones could hurt you. “Is it going to kick me?” I called to Rhonda.
“Oh,” Rhonda turned, realizing her nephew knew nothing about cows, “I wouldn’t get too close.” She laughed, a glittering sound in the face of danger.
I took another step towards the animal, “Yah, mule! Yah!” I waved my arms, trying to seem big. The cow looked up with dull, bulbous eyes. Its nostrils flared, tasting the air. And then the dogs came running, swarming through the gate like ninjas. They surrounded the beast with deft movements, nipping at her legs. The cow turned and stamped, trying to face her enemy, but the fearless dogs were lightning quick, dodging in and out with relentless speed.
“G’wan, git!” I yelled and ran forward. The cow turned to face me. I stopped in my tracks, scared of the savagery in those eyes. The dogs used the distraction to strike, a coordinated assault from multiple angles. The cow spun towards Rhonda and fled through the gate.
“I’m a cowboy!” I ran towards my aunt, rejoicing as she secured the latch. I passed one of the remaining apple trees and plucked a golden globe from its lower branches.
“You sure are.” Rhonda laughed.
We headed back inside and into the living room. On a couch by the window sat my grandpa, hunch backed and reading, returned to the home he had built with his own two hands. How did it feel, I wondered, to witness the slow decay of his estate?
“How was your day?” I asked the old glacier.
“About like this,” he gestured at the book in his lap.
“That’s pretty good if you ask me.” I sat down on one of the vibrating chairs next to the couch. The ranch had always had vibrating chairs. Cowboys came home after a long day in the field and let the odd contraptions rub their muscles to sleep. I flicked a few switches and leaned back into the thrum of vibrating rollers. I hadn’t earned it, of course, but it still felt great. By the time the device had run its course, my grandpa was asleep. I went downstairs to see Craig’s artifacts.
The Diamond C hadn’t always belonged to Ukrainian immigrants. Before the white man arrived, Indians roamed the wild Dakotas, stalking buffalo and herds of bison. For thousands of years they called this land home, worshiping ancestral gods at a sacred place called the Medicine Hole. The Medicine Hole was a tear in the earth where divine vapors escaped as acrid smoke. When General Custer began his war against the Sioux, he quickly pushed the native tribes deep into Dakota territory. In desperation, the Indians made their final stand on my grandparent’s property. They reasoned that the ancient power of the Medicine Hole would give their braves enough power to defeat the blood thirsty general. But it didn’t.
Custer stormed forward, slaughtering thousands of Native American men, women and children. When it was obvious that the battle was lost, the Sioux retreated into the mountains, leaving behind everything they owned. Custer ordered their possessions burned, lest his enemies circle back and resupply. His men piled teepees, spears, tomahawks, hides and blankets into huge mounds, then set those mounds ablaze. A few short decades later, my family moved in.
As the years passed and my grandpa grew, he began to find Indian artifacts on the land his family called home. Arrow heads, bullet shells, cannon balls, peace pipes and jewelery made from bone. The artifacts seemed to be concentrated in certain areas, the places where Custer’s men had burned their plunder. When it rained, my grandpa would visit those sites and dig through the earth, uncovering coins, rusted guns, ammunition, and flutes. He saved these tokens of that bloody genocide and eventually set up a display in his basement. The years passed and the display grew until it contained thousands of pieces. Schools began sending their children on field trips to the ranch so that they could look at the collection. The horrors of war had become museum quality relics.
My grandpa did his best to mend the wounds between the red man and the white. He ran peace councils and allowed tribes to hold pow wows amidst the smoke of the Medicine Hole. When he left the ranch and moved to Colorado, the old man donated his collection to Dickinson State University, to hold in trust for the people of North Dakota. Millions of dollars worth of historical relics, and he gave them all away.
I descended the stairs into the basement and walked into the room with the display case. Craig’s collection was arrayed where my grandpa’s used to be. It was smaller than his father’s, but it was growing. Spear heads and tomahawks, ancestral beads and buttons from fallen infantry. I looked at the arrow heads and hide scrapers and thought about the hands that made them. Deft fingers knapping raw obsidian, shaping volcanic glass into deadly points. Did the Indians believe they had a chance against guns and cannons, or was the battle a symbolic suicide?
Glass clanked in an adjacent room. I wandered deeper into the recesses of the basement and found my mother gathering jars. “Take this load up to the car,” she pointed at a box full of mason jars.
I picked up the load and carried it upstairs. In the yard, the hounds herded me towards my mother’s car, acting as if it had been their idea all along. “Go!” I closed the trunk and chased after them. The mutts scattered, then regrouped and herded me back into the house. The process repeated until the trunk was full.
“Ready for dinner?” Rhonda asked as I came in for the final time.
“Sure,” I went to the sink and washed my hands. In North Dakota lunch is referred to as dinner and when you ate the evening meal they called it supper.
Rhonda headed out onto the deck and rang the massive bell that summoned her husband. Craig came in from the field and we gathered around the table and ate ranch dinner, which is similar to city lunch, but for some reason tastes better.
“What are you guys doing out here?” Craig asked as we passed plates around the table.
“Picking apples,” my mom replied. “Noelle wants to make applesauce for The Baby Hannah.”
Craig nodded, “Just so’s you don’t take ‘em all. Rhonda needs them apples to make pies.” Rhonda nodded.
It struck me that Craig and Rhonda didn’t have a grocery store. If they needed apples, they went out to their trees; if they needed beef they killed a cow and roasted it with onions from the garden. It was a life I didn’t understand. Once, I had helped a friend weed his garden, but it felt like Christmas, something you did because the season rolled around. Mostly I ate at restaurants.
After dinner, my mom and I headed into the yard with five gallon buckets, “I need to know by Friday if you want me in Junction,” I handed my mom a plastic grocery bag. “If you don’t, I need to hit the ground running.” I pulled at one of the apples, but had to break the stem before it snapped off.
“If they don’t come off easily, don’t pluck them,” my mom warned. Apparently apples came off easy once they were ripe. We checked the lower branches for easy pickings, but none of them gave. “You’ll have to climb the tree to get at the ripe ones,” my mom took my bucket. The sun was high and the heat was oppressive. I took my shirt off and climbed into the tree. Bugs buzzed all around and the smell of warm apples filled the air.
“Do you want to live with me?” My mom handed up one of the plastic bags and I began walking through the branches, filling it with apples.
“I love the poetry of you coming over the mountains and helping me when I was sick,” I climbed further up the tree, “and then me returning the favor after your surgery.” I took a bite of one of the apples. “I want that to be how my book ends,” I said through a mouth full of mush. “But if you don’t want me around I’d rather stay in Denver.”
I handed down the sack and my mother emptied it into the bucket, “I want you home,” she said as I switched to a different limb. It had been a terrible summer and she wanted me close.
“Even if I drink on Sundays during Broncos games?” I slapped a bug that had landed on my arm, and plucked another apple.
“Yes,” she nodded.
And my fate was sealed.
to be concluded