Outside Flagstaff

Outside Flagstaff

Issue 25 by Matthew Brown

Outside Flagstaff

There was a sigh on the other end of the phone, a long nasal sigh, the kind you hear only at the precise moment that someone has had as much of someone else’s shit as they can possibly stand. A woman’s voice spoke: “We buried your Goddamn father six months ago.”

“I know.”

“I’m not gonna bury you.”

Josh mashed a thumb into the phone and turned when he heard footsteps behind him in the gravel. He squinted at what was just a tall, bounding silhouette. A sign above the figure read: Windy City Storage, and beside him, row after row of units, all with roll-up doors painted the same unforgivable orange. The phone number for the taxi that had just dropped him off displayed under the call to Marissa. Josh eyed the number and thought for a moment about calling it back. He pocketed the phone and moved forward, holding a hand up to the sun until the figure before him came into view. He saw the grinning face of his older brother, Johny, out of what Josh always called his “loser’s uniform”: Old boots and a thrift store T-shirt for a 5k that he definitely didn’t run. Instead, his brother wore shiny, new leather boots, already a little dusty in the gravel, and a black T-shirt with jeans.

"What is that thing on your head?" asked Josh. There was a bandana, straight from some rack at a gas station, the fabric and the ties in the back were still stiff.

"Ask your boyfriend, he'll tell ya," replied Johny. He was chewing gum and making an obnoxious face. Even as they grew older, Johny never seemed to lose his slight Southern twang. He swung his arms out wide and swooped into Josh. They embraced for a few heartbeats and fell away.

Josh looked to his brother and squinted again. "I just didn’t know there were stores that sold kits to make you a walking biker cliche.”

“Fuck you.” Johny pointed a finger. “Follow me.”

The two approached a unit, the coat of awful orange on the door was fresh and it shimmered in the sun. Johny stopped at the lock and whipped around, pointing a finger upward. Josh stopped and rolled his eyes, knowing his brother was about to get annoying.

“Dig it.” Johny was pointing with both fingers now, he squatted into his words a bit, his eyes wide. “Fifty-three point nine cubic inches,” he said, “and fifty-three point eight foot-pounds of torque at an optimal revolutions-per-minute,” his fingers spun around each other now, “of three thousand, seven hundred and fifty.” He closed his eyes and held a hand up, now a preacher harnessing the holy spirit. “Little brother, I give you five hundred and sixty pounds of steel, chrome, and anger. Can I get an amen?”

Like a magician revealing a trick, Johny whipped up the rolling door and stood proudly. He certainly wasn’t overreacting, Josh thought. Two mint-condition Harley-Davidson Sportsters sat in the unit, at the ready, one red and one blue, beautiful in the light that cut through the doorway like a beam from heaven. They began to circle the machines; Josh was more in awe than he had expected. “They look just like—” he began.

“Just like the old man’s,” finished Johny. “What better tribute to a great man?”

“Amen.” Josh high-fived his brother, still staring at the bikes. Their father had been a Harley man and had spent most of his years riding, but in his final few years he’d become less obsessed with the open road and more obsessed with watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation and playing as a massive cow-warrior in an online RPG game. If there was one thing the old man was an expert in, it was having an obsession.

“That ain’t even the best part,” said Johny. He walked over to the red bike and turned a key, so the electrical system turned on. Josh noticed a modified stereo on both bikes. A familiar guitar riff began to echo in the storage unit. Life is so strange, when it’s changin’, yes indeed. Well, I seen the hard times, and the pressure’s been on me. The brothers smiled at each other. “I’ve spent the last few months loading all of Dad’s LP’s onto my computer.” He tapped the red bike. “They’re all loaded up on here and your stereo is connected to mine via Bluetooth. I’ve got a playlist that lasts weeks, man.”

Josh couldn’t help but be a little impressed. “You’re starting to make this sound pretty good after all,” he said.

“The way I see it, this is all the ultimate tribute. This is what he loved, we’re going to try and spend a week in his boots,” Johny said, slapping the side of his boot.

Josh nodded and looked into the gravel.

“I watched Easy Rider three times last week,” Johny said as he began to walk the bike out of the unit. “Did you bring the map that I asked you to get?”

Josh pulled a laminated map from his back pocket. It had a familiar symbol and the words, The Complete Road Guide to Route 66. “What time is it?” he asked as he handed over the map.

“Three in the P.M.,” Johny answered.

“Well, we sure as hell aren’t starting this thing sober, are we?”

“Fuck no we are not, little brother.”

Josh’s phone dinged in his pocket; he slid it out just far enough to read the text, “And for the love of God don’t drink on those things, Joshua. I mean it!”

The brothers transferred what belongings they held in backpacks into stiff new saddlebags on their respective bikes. They closed up the unit and took turns starting the engines. Josh recognized a feeling inside of him immediately, an animal awakening that his perfect life and his loving daughters and his regular job as a pharmacist could never give him. A feeling that had gotten him into more trouble as a young man than he could remember and had made him convince his wife, Marissa, that this trip wasn’t for him, that it was for his crazy brother when he knew there was no truth to that at all. He sat there turning his wrist, hearing the engine and feeling it shake underneath him, power and speed only harnessed by his pale left hand squeezing a clutch. Before he knew it, his eyes were closed and Johny’s were too. After several seconds, they looked at each other again, not the same men who had arrived. Energy burst inside Josh’s chest and he grinned, releasing the clutch and throwing gravel against the shiny orange door.

The brothers rode straight through to Springfield. They left the city and rode into nearly three hundred miles of green foliage and corn fields. The Allman Brothers echoed off of cornstalks, taller than a grown man. The sound chased them around each bend in the road. Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain. The week before they all seemed the same.

On the second day they made their way toward St Louis, its massive arch a beacon on the highway. In St. Louis, Josh spent what seemed like the whole night on the phone. He had insisted on booking all of the lodging for the trip, and this particular motel was clean but turned out to be old and had giant plate glass windows coupled with thick wool curtains the color of decades gone by. Great for keeping out the rising sun but terrible for insulating sound. Johny could hear him outside through the huge window, but he could only hear one side of the conversation. It sounded a little to him like pleading, like his little brother was doing anything he could to appease this woman with every sentence. There didn’t seem to be a conversation going on, more like a negotiation that he was losing with every breath.

We’re doing good.

We’re being very careful honey, I promise.

Listen, can you let me talk to Delilah?

Johny stared at his boots on the motel bed as he listened; the black toes were scuffed from shifting gears and trudging through remote truck-stop parking lots. They were the kind of boots that a wife would never allow on a bed, yet here they were. There were little dirt piles under both of his heels.

Baby, did you do your math?

Mommy helped you?

That’s great, honey.

Ok, I’m gonna test you when I get home.

I know you can, sweetie.

Johny whipped open the nightstand next to him to pretend like he wasn’t listening. He heard Josh end his conversation and then heard his footsteps trail off into the parking lot. Five minutes later, Josh shoved the door open with his foot and hoisted a fresh twelve-pack of beer onto the bed. They found Caddyshack on a cable channel and made quick work of the alcohol.

Morning came early and the brothers wrested themselves from the stiff motel covers, both grimacing and holding their heads, reviewing a lesson they could never seem to learn. Josh gathered up the bottles, placed them neatly back into the package, and left it all near a tiny trash can. Within ten minutes, they were fueled up and back on the road.

They rode through Tulsa and out of Oklahoma. Through old Apache and Comanche grounds and through areas once ravaged by the dust bowl of the thirties. Through the flat fields and dusty, empty highway miles, Grace Slick serenaded them: When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies. Don’t you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love?

The brothers entered Potter County and made their way into Amarillo, Texas. They made a point of visiting the Cadillac Ranch—an art installation of brightly painted Cadillacs that seemed to sprout out of the ground. Tucked several blocks back into town, Johny found what he deemed a suitable bar for the evening. They had passed some of the more well-known places on Sixty-Six, but Johny had dismissed them as inauthentic, frequented by too many old men that decided to take their wives on the road one day and spent the rest of their time watching sitcoms and drinking light beer.

The bar was downtown, had the name painted on the window, and what looked like a few locals inside. “Now this place has seen some death and maybe even a few inseminations in its time, Goddamn. You can always tell a good bar by its relationship,” he turned toward Josh and made a wide circle with his hands, “to the circle of life.” Both men smiled and got off the bikes. Inside, a group of four men sat in the back corner, one wearing a cowboy hat. Several empty pitchers littered the table behind theirs.

The bar and all of the tables and chairs were heavily lacquered oak, old and sturdy. At the bar itself, a man who looked about seventy with a brown suede jacket and deep creases in his face, sat and sipped whiskey. A bartender with a white halo of hair still clinging to his head sat with his legs up, watching baseball on a television up in a corner. A sign behind the bar read: Do you want to talk to the man in charge, or the woman that knows what’s going on? Without looking away from the game, the man said, “Tourists?” Johny made a face. “Lemme guess, ridin’ Sixty—?”

Josh broke in and moved toward the bar. “Yes, that’s right.”

“Well, sit down, which one of you’s Wyatt and which one’s Billy?” the bartender said.

They both began to sit. “Pretty funny,” Johny said, dryly.

“Listen I don’t mean to offend, what ya drink, son?” the bartender asked. A few stools down, the man in the brown jacket had looked toward the newcomers. He raised his glass toward the brothers as a greeting and both men nodded in return.

“Double anything Tennessee. Neat,” Josh said, eyeing the bottles behind the bar.

“Same,” Johny added.

The man in the brown jacket smiled; the creases in his face became canyons. “Name’s Walt,” he said. “Pleasure.”

Josh smiled and watched the drink being poured in front of him. “Texan, I detect?”

“Homegrown and here I’ll stay,” replied Walt.

“Asheville, here,” Josh said.

“Knoxville,” said Johny. “Line ‘em up for me.” He made a gesture on the bar in front of him. The bartender obliged and set up five shot glasses. He began to pour. Johny made quick work of the first three and toyed with the fourth glass in his hand. Josh sat sipping his drink and regarding their new friend.

“What brings you two out here?” The man smiled again, this time into his glass. “Ya ain’t Texans.”

Johny slapped the bar before speaking. “The adventure of a lifetime,” he said. One of the men at the corner table, a man in a ball cap, glanced over at the outburst. “Though, I think my brother Josh here is just happy to get away from wifezilla for a week or so.”

“That’s not true at all,” Josh said. “You barely know Marissa.”

“I know enough to know that she clipped your little nuts like an unbred runt, little brother.”

“It’s not like that,” Josh said. He focused his attention to Walt. “It’s not like that,” he repeated to the old man.

“Something to be said for a woman that can handle things,” Walt said and took another drink. “Lord knows what my kids woulda turned out like, hadn’t been for my Barbara.”

“I know what you mean,” said Josh.

The men sat and sipped for a minute. "So, you's just escaped, then?" said Walt.

Josh turned on his stool. “Well, the truth is, we lost our father six months ago,” Josh said. “He loved to ride. I suppose Johny and I are paying some kind of tribute to the old man, but truth be told we’ve always loved doing risky stuff, ever since we could climb a tree, we’ve been using up lives.”

Walt looked down. “I'm sorry to hear that, boys. About your pop. What happened?”

“Motorcycle accident,” Johny said into his glass.

All three of them were silent for a moment.

"Well, that is something else," said the old man. “Don’t be in no hurry to join ‘em.”

Johny kicked Josh’s stool and it growled on the waxed floor. “He doesn’t want to hear our life story, Joshua.” A different man at the corner table turned this time at the noise. A man in a clean, black cowboy hat.

"I tell ya,” Walt said. “I spend quite a bit of my time thinking about my own end. Won't be as dramatic as your father, I imagine. But at my age it's definitely...on the mind." He finished his drink and motioned for more.

"What good does that do you?" Johnny said. "When it comes, it comes."

"Maybe so,” Walt said quietly.

“I think about it plenty,” said Josh. “Once a day at least.”

“Do you have to be fuckin’ weird right now?” Johny said.

All four men at the table in the corner roared at something funny. Josh glanced their way and back to Walt.

“I got a nephew,” Walt said. “He’s uh, a EMP. Something like that. Anyways, he says that they teach them in their school that if a fella tells you he's about to die, and you can tell in his eyes that he believes it, they teach you to believe that man. They say that’s the time that you act and maybe you can save somebody. People know when they time's up.” He shrugged a tiny shrug. “Maybe your father knew.”

Johny sighed.

“How about for once, you shut the fuck up?” said Josh. “Carry on, sir.”

“Listen, boys,” the man started.

“Seriously, carry on. We could both use some perspective right now, I think,” said Josh.

“Maybe you,” Johny said. He downed his last shot and found himself staring off into the direction of the four other men. The man in the ball cap pointed a finger their way.

“It gets me thinkin’ what that’d be like, you know?” said Walt.

“What’s that?” asked Josh.

“What your father experienced them six months ago,” Walt said.

Johny’s gaze was unchanging. He just sat staring, trying to ignore the old man speaking. His brain pondered the random memorabilia on the wall. He didn’t even register that all four men were now turned his way.

“I believe there’s going to be a moment,” Walt said, “we’ll all have it.” He chopped the bar with one hand. “When we know our time is up. Maybe it will be an hour and maybe it will be a split second before something takes you out. I think that moment is going to be the moment where we decide if we did any of it right or not. If we’re happy with what we did.”

The man in the cowboy hat was up.

“You couldn’t go wrong thinking of that,” Walt finished.

Johny’s eyes stared past Cowboy Hat as he approached; his brain was distinctly a few moments slower than his vision. He shook his head a little and looked up slowly into the man’s face. It was weather-worn, tough, but about his age. He was just staring now, at the man a foot from his face.

Josh sat up sharply. “Oh, fuck,” he said. Before he could push his stool back, Johny threw a wild, looping left sucker punch into Cowboy Hat’s temple, sending him tumbling into a nearby table. Suddenly the small bar was a cacophony of shouts and chairs sliding across the wood floor. The other three men stood and began pointing and moving toward them, one man howled and rubbed his hands together. Johny was off his stool and wound up big again with his left. Cowboy Hat looked up, still leaned over a table, recovering. He saw the punch coming and easily moved out of the way. His big fist landed on Johny with a counter-right that made it seem like his nose exploded off of his face. Blood splattered both men and began to pour onto the floor from the crushed nose. The three other men stopped moving forward and began to laugh, content to watch the contest. Cowboy Hat grabbed Johny by the shoulders and dug a knee deep into his abdomen. Johny went to the floor and was spitting up whiskey as Josh was rounding the bar. Cowboy Hat took his crooked hat into his hand and set it on the table before turning to square up to Josh. Josh had no choice but to square up also. The three behind Cowboy Hat chuckled at the sight; Josh was thin and still had his golf shirt tucked in, his two-hundred-dollar Asics were dusty from the road.

He began to bounce on his toes a little and slid his left foot back, entering a southpaw stance. He flicked out a quick jab with his right hand that missed the man by a few inches and kept bouncing up and down in time with some imaginary metronome. Cowboy Hat smiled broadly, chuckled a little and started to move forward. Josh bounced a little bit faster on his toes. He cracked his neck both ways and took a deep breath. His feet shuffled quickly into an orthodox stance and he flicked another jab, this time it caught the man’s lip and cut it, but he just wiped his face and drew back a massive right-hand. Josh continued to bounce. Head movement, he thought to himself. Walt and the bartender gave each other a look, and the bartender lifted a cordless phone off its receiver.

“They’re gonna kill these boys,” said Walt.

“I’ll call the cops, but it’ll be a little while,” said the bartender as he plugged three digits into the handset.

Josh swung his head out of the way of a huge punch and stuck the man with another jab. The man just growled and began to drive forward, now seeming to opt for a grappling strategy. Josh hopped back, threw another left jab followed by a right cross and finally an uppercut that brought the man to his knees. Josh quickly scrambled around and jumped on the man’s large back, sliding his forearm under his chin. He laid all of his weight forward onto the man’s shoulders, bringing them both crashing into the floor. He quickly rolled to his back, holding onto the man’s neck and carrying the stranger’s heft in front of him. He hooked his feet together at the man’s belly to hold him in place and tightened his grip on the man’s neck. The man’s thick hands tore at Josh’s arms, he bucked and struggled, but Josh held firm until he felt the body slowly go limp. When he was sure that the man was out, Josh scrambled to his feet and put his back to the wall. He looked out at everyone else in the bar, his chest was heaving. Blood had painted all three of them.

He moved over and grabbed his brother's shoulder and started to drag him toward the door. “We need to go,” he said. “Get your shit together.”

“What the fuck?” Johny said.

Josh had the foresight to yank two twenties from his front pocket and toss them on the bar as they stumbled out the door.

“I’ve been taking Muay Thai,” Josh said. He motioned through the window at the three other men helping Cowboy Hat off the floor. “And Jiu Jitsu.” He shoved Johny toward his bike and made for his own.

Two of the men were holding Cowboy Hat up. He couldn’t stand right, and his jeans were a little wet in the front where he had become incontinent. The man in the ball cap was now sprinting toward the door and reaching inside his jacket. Johny wiped a giant handful of blood from his face; drops of it tapped onto the gas tank of the bike. His nose was smashed crooked and running red. Both men brought the bikes to life and roared out of town.

They rode out the rest of the bleak landscape of Texas, enduring a dead stretch of flat plain, devoid of trees or even grass, that lasted well over a hundred miles. They stopped and took pictures in front of a famous leaning water tower in Groom, Texas, and marveled at a two-hundred-foot-tall cross built on the side of the road for no particular reason other than a message. They made their way into the similarly stark eastern edge of New Mexico. Through the wind and the desert dust, their radios told their own story. Nights in White Satin. Never reaching the end. Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send. Beauty I’d always missed, with these eyes before. Just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore.

As the brothers crossed into New Mexico and started their way toward Albuquerque, they crossed a narrow white bridge over a wide river. When they stopped for gas, Johny shouted over to his brother. “Let’s get some beers and head back to that bridge,” he said. “Watch the sunset and numb some of my pain.” His face was purple around his nose and his eyes had started to blacken.

Josh smiled. They had a similar bridge in their hometown that teenagers were known to frequent. It must have felt familiar to his brother, as well.

There was fresh white paint on the bridge, the clean appearance a stark contrast to the worn roadway. You could see where graffiti had been recently covered up, but already there were a few new pieces appearing, mostly on the underside. It was a fairly narrow bridge, narrow enough to give most drivers anxiety when crossing with oncoming traffic. The sides were white arches supported by vertical beams and a thick cross-beam, about the width of a man, spanned the two arches at the highest point, about fifteen feet in the air.

The two men moved their bikes off the road, and Josh produced a twelve-pack from his left saddlebag. Johny snatched the alcohol and broke towards the bridge, holding the package out like an awkward suitcase that might explode. He scrambled awkwardly up the arch of the bridge and eventually raised his arms triumphantly at the top. He pointed at Josh, “Too slow, fuckface.”

Josh was struggling to climb the slick metal arch but looked up to say, “Have you seen your face lately?”

Once at the top, both of them were blowing moisture into the cool night. They stood still long enough to gain their balance. Josh motioned toward the cross-beam and they moved out toward the center of it.

The sun made its way into the western landscape until its only remnant was a golden glow that projected out of the land. The two men sat and sipped and dangled their legs like children. They talked about the old man, wondered what he would have been like had he gotten older.

Every so often, a car would cross the bridge and the two men would just wave and sip. Mothers’ mouths could be seen cursing them. A few of the fathers returned the wave with a discreet thumbs up, and every single child waved back vigorously like they were seeing Santa Claus himself.

Johny talked about the time the old man made him sit and watch while he snapped every one of his GI Joes in half after he threw one and broke a window. The old man had told him that he was going to throw all of them away. Having to watch him break them all first was just extra punishment.

Josh recalled the time he was three and broke one of the buttons on the old man’s VCR by mashing them too hard with his grimy paws. It was Sunday and the old man still had his church clothes on, but already he had Old Forester on his breath. He had burst into Johny’s room where the boys were playing with Ewoks and snatched Josh up by his neck. Their father was broad and powerful; he had pressed him against the bedroom wall, demanding to know exactly who the fuck he thought he was. Josh’s legs flailed and his face turned red and got sopping wet with tears. He was trying, but he didn’t have the breath to tell his father what he wanted to hear. Just before he blacked out, their mother rushed in and snatched up Josh. She didn’t say anything to her husband, just cradled the boy and rushed off to another bedroom where she brought him back around. Josh didn’t leave the house for a week, until the ligature marks on his neck had faded.

Around the time the last of the bottles were emptying out, Josh stood up tall on the beam, his arms waved a little bit to maintain his balance and he grinned. “Yea, that asshole sure did know how to pitch a fit, didn’t he?” he said as he started to inch across towards the side of the bridge and the river below.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Johny said. “He was a hard-ass but he was just tryin’ to make us tough. I think we turned out alright.”

Josh motioned to the empty bottles at the center of the bridge. “Yeah. Passed on some great traditions.”

“You can’t make that his fault,” said Johny, “or act like you don’t enjoy it.”

“No, nothing can be his fault.”

“Come on, man. That was all so long ago. The guy that died six months ago wasn’t even the same guy that did all of that shit.”

They stood in silence, the lights from a passing car illuminating their red faces for a moment.

“So, that thing with the VCR, that’s just what I get? And, you deserved the sadistic shit he did to you, too?” Josh’s voice was agitated, his own Southern accent bled through a little when he was drunk. He stopped talking and stared into the river below.

Johny moved back across the beam and started to collect the bottles. He’d been drunk enough to know when a night was reaching its end. “I know he was rough sometimes, but Mom always kept him under control. She was good like that.”

He was clinking the last of the bottles into the box when he heard Josh say: “How deep do you think this is?”

“What? Jesus, kid.” Johny started to shuffle back across the beam toward his brother. “What are you talking about? That probably isn’t even five feet deep.”

Josh turned and snarled, “What are you, some kind of pussy?” His eyes went back to the water.

Goddamn, he’s drunk, thought Johny. “Ok, fine. You’re right,” he said. His hands were extended, pleading. “That shit wasn’t cool, what he did, just don’t do anything dumb.”

“I’m not gonna kill myself, you moron, I’m gonna jump in the water, I’m—” his eyes wandered around a little. “—I’m hot.” He wasn’t making any sense.

“We need to get to the hotel,” Johny said. He put a hand to Josh’s shoulder. “You’ll forget all about this in the morning,” he insisted. As soon as he said it, he knew he shouldn’t have. Josh spun around and his hands found Johny’s shirt, he balled it up and pulled him closer.

“Fuck you, I can’t forget shit.” Spit was spraying through clenched teeth. Josh saw the look in his brother’s eyes and looked down at how high they were and let go. He turned back toward the river. His voice was calm when he spoke again. “You don’t understand.”

“You just tell me, little brother. I’ll listen.”

“You can’t forget stuff like that,” he growled, “when you find yourself with your own kid’s neck in your hand.”

The air had begun to cool, and the night was a deep, black dark. Johny put his arm around his brother and brought his head to his shoulder. They both stared west while Josh cried himself sober.

By Flagstaff, the nights were colder, but the days were still hot and dry. Their shirts began to smell uniquely awful from sweats that had dried and been sweat on again, layer upon layer of filth, but no one was around to care. That night in Flagstaff, Josh was on the phone again, like he had been every night, but this time it sounded different. Johny heard a different urgency in his brother’s voice outside; he tiptoed over to the door and pressed his ear to it. It was the baby. They were talking about temperatures.

I don’t think you have to worry about it until it’s over a hundred and one.

Honey, I don’t know, why would she have a seizure all of a sudden?

Whose baby?

I see.

I don’t know. I’ll talk to him.

Just, call me if anything happens.

Josh’s footsteps wandered off again. When they made their way back and nudged open the door, this time he wasn’t carrying beer. He had his smartphone out and was flicking through something. Johny regarded him suspiciously, having heard half of the conversation. “What you looking for?” he asked.

“I’m looking at flights. There’s a local airport here, but Christ it’s expensive,” Josh replied without looking up.

“Flights?” Johny said. “We’re almost to California, little brother. We can’t stop this thing now.” Josh was still flicking through screens, pacing around the room. Every so often he would shake his head and curse. He ignored Johny’s words entirely. “You can’t fucking leave me alone out here, man,” Johny said forcefully.

“I can’t leave you alone? Josh snorted. “My nine-month-old is sick and Marissa is flipping her shit.”

“She’s been flipping her shit the whole trip. Tell her to mom-the-fuck-up and handle it. She shouldn’t need you to handle everything for her, anyway,” Johny said.

“That’s cute,” Josh said. “That just shows how little you actually know about my life. Marissa is the only reason anything happens in my house. She’s the reason my five-year-old is learning at a second-grade level. She’s the reason the house functions at all, and all she asks of me is to be around and be a part of it. But, you’ve never so much as had a roommate, so why the hell would you understand any of that?”

Johny sat and stared at a cheap print of a desert painting on the wall. “You’re right, I don’t know her all that well. But we’re so close, man. We’ve got to finish this thing for the old man,” Johny pleaded.

“Yea, the old man,” Josh said. He was pacing faster back and forth across the room. “The old man is gone Johny, and I don’t know if you know this, but this fucked-up little seance you’ve concocted this week isn’t going to bring him back. He’s not sitting in California waiting for us. We buried him.”

Johny sat and stared back at Josh, his eyes were dropping, his jaw was tightening. He felt his fists tightening up. “Well, it’d be nice if you could stop acting like you’re happy about that, motherfucker.”

Josh was still flicking and pacing; he didn’t react.

Johny looked at his brother, his orange running shoes were filthy and caked with dirt. His jeans had taken on a brownish hue and his polyester polo was white around the chest and neck where the minerals from his sweat had gathered from all of the days of heat. Johny sat back down and felt his body relax, his hands opened up and he spoke to Josh calmly. “How about this? We’ll make a detour, end up in Vegas instead of Cali. It’s not far and you can fly out without having to risk dropping out of the sky in some yokel’s puddle-jumper.”

Josh stopped pacing, he looked up from his phone. “You’re right,” he said. “I can get a cheap flight out of Vegas.” He flopped into an unsightly brown motel chair. “We can probably get there in a day.” He rested for only a moment, his head reclined, and his eyes turned to the ceiling before he popped up suddenly, picked up his phone, and yanked open the door to the outside again.

The landscape was turning into a harsher desert. Any traces of green were quickly fading. What plants they did see seemed sickly and malnourished. A great expanse of desert stretched out at the limits of the city. They spotted what looked to be the last gas station for quite some time and pulled in. There was a single pump, set away from the building, with a small roof over it.

The brothers still hadn’t said much to each other that morning other than basic pleasantries, and they had actually spent the night mostly sober. Johny watched Josh go into the building to pay. He took a deep breath and felt a strange calm wash over him. He didn’t know why, but he felt an intense love. Maybe it was all of the alcohol, maybe they were dehydrated, and it was getting to his head. Josh came back out to the bikes and stood next to the pump. Johny looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry I said that about your wife.”

Josh looked away.

“I want to get to know her better.”

“Thank you, Johny. I think you should.”

They both looked at the dirt.

Finally, Josh said, “This was a really good idea. Dad would have liked it.”

Johny nodded in response. Off in the distance, the wind was beginning to make a dust devil, but it was still wide and loose. Johny shoved the nozzle in his tank and set it running. It was only about four hours to Vegas from Flagstaff. They’d make it by mid-day, and Josh could be back home by that evening. He was avoiding the phone calls.

“That day,” Johny said, suddenly. “We never talked about it.”

They hadn’t seen each other much since that day, just at the funeral and one other time Johny was over for dinner with the family. “I know the one,” Josh answered.

“There’s two things I remember most about that day,” Johny said. He swiped the bandanna off of his head and shoved it in a back pocket. The way it left his hair made it obvious that it was getting thin, and that he usually covered it up. Both men leaned on their bikes. “I remember walking through that place, that hospital, and I remember seeing all of these other people that were in there. There was like, people with kidney stones and broken legs and belly- aches, I could see them all in their rooms as I was walking back to where Dad was.” The pump kicked off and Johny let the nozzle sit in the tank. “And, I just remember thinking that I wanted to trade whatever it was that they had, for what he had going on, for what I was about to see. I was wondering why this was happening to us, what we ever did, you know?”

Josh just nodded.

“The other thing I remember,” Johny said. He stopped for a moment and swallowed hard. The wind was blowing dust around their faces and Johny wiped something from his eye. “The other thing I remember was how weak he looked on that table. He’d always been so big. But, I just remember kind of pitying him, the way he was laid there all banged up everywhere, all bloody. Like, it was kind of pathetic.”

“It didn’t look like the same man,” Josh said. He grabbed the nozzle and jammed it into his Harley.

“And, I guess, if I’m being honest, I think it bothered me more seeing him like that, than it ever has knowing that I wasn’t going to see him again.” Johny snorted now and put an arm to his face. “And, I don’t even know if that makes sense.”

Josh just leaned on his bike and said nothing.

“What do you think about what that old man in Amarillo said? That people know it’s coming.” Johny’s arm was painted in blood and tears. “You think he knew?”

“I think that we make our own next day,” Josh said, standing up straight. “I don’t think any of this is written.”

“Listen, little brother.” Johny stood up. “How much does Marissa know, about you—following in Dad’s footsteps, so to speak.” The pump kicked off again and Josh carried the nozzle back to its hook.

“She doesn’t.”

Johny touched his face again. The snot and tears had made the blood around his nose run again. “You know, I spend all this time wanting to be like Dad, like the good parts that I saw.”

“There were good parts, Johny. There were. I saw them, too.”

“I guess I don’t think much about how those aren’t the only parts that made us.”

Josh looked down at his watch. “Time to go,” he said. He swung his leg over the seat and kicked up the kickstand. He stopped before he turned the key and looked at his brother. “If there was that moment for him, just before,” he said. “I think there’s probably a lot of things that didn’t feel so great after all. Even if, at the time, the things he did were things that he thought he had to do.”

“Probably, little brother.”

“I don’t know if there aren’t parts of us we can never unmake.”

The engine thundered to life underneath Josh, and Johny’s quickly replied. The dust behind their tailpipes swirled furiously when they both twisted their wrists, flying onto the blacktop, and beginning to eat up the road to Vegas.

About the Author

Matthew Brown

I am thirty-five years old. I’m a father, a full-time firefighter and a writer. I’m fortunate to have a lifestyle that is enriching and pursuits that are widely-varied. My love for writing dates back to my first story, written in crayon. Since then, I’ve been a voracious reader and a writer with a penchant for endless revision. Other work of mine has previously earned Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.