Lately, and despite the best of intentions, all I’ve been doing is delivering food to Mom. Putting around Bend in Jimmy’s old Ford Ranger like a wind-up Hot Wheels toy. And everywhere I look all I see is a thirsty town, a hungry little village. Eight years ago, when I left, it was the fattest calf in all the land, and now, July third in the second year of our recession, everything’s bleached and dying: yards slurp leftover shade snow from the clay, trailers split in the heat. Used to be a guy’d have to find a real good excuse not to find work here. Construction companies would hire a man to hold signs or carry buckets. They’d pay you to stand around. Nowadays, yours truly, a true blue vet with a Purple Heart, hell, I can’t find a job to save my life.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was that boy in KFC, pointing, gripping his mother’s arm, calling me fat in his tiny Spanish when all I was doing was trying to ask for an application at the counter. “Gordo, gordo, gordo,” like I didn’t know what he was saying. “Gordo,” like it was his secret word for what I am. So I shadowed him in the corner of the lobby and popped my knuckles real slow like old George used to do when all Afghanistan was open around us, freezing and dark, concrete dust in the air, everything silent but for pop pop pop. And the boy practically wet himself and started a rapid-fire whimper, his mother guarding him and apologizing and everybody in the store looking at us. Everything about to break. Then my order was called, and the kid’s mom bustled him out. I took a table to myself and tore through that bucket like I’d never eaten chicken in my whole life, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to ask for an application again. Not there, maybe not anywhere.
They call it Kabul Fried Chicken in Ghanners, one hundred percent original recipe, I shit you not. Growing up, I figured they’d have stored the secret in a vault somewhere, that only two guys in the whole world knew the combination. Jimmy said we could be those guys someday, and so we’d train for hours in the backyard. Because he was the older brother, he’d lead us through all manner of drills. That was us in the pictures, Jimmy and Timmy Vaux, buried up to our eyeballs in the dirt. We’d strip off our shirts and slide along the yard on our stomachs, bruised and filthy and grinning. Shoot BB-guns into an old t-shirt swinging from a limb. I thought we should go for parachutes and M-16s. Jimmy thought we should tunnel in.
But let’s be real goddamn frank, the Colonel sells to whoever wherever, his smug smiling face right tight next to black-gold mosques, mine fields, city centers, you name it, those stupid old-time hornrims a reminder that everywhere you go, everything’s the same, and ain’t nothing sacred. That’s what two tours’ll teach you: the whole world’s addicted to Fried Chicken, and when you come home, you can’t even get a job selling it.
Mom’s burning through our second bucket of thighs when she asks if any of my apps went through. “They’d be lucky to hire a veteran,” she says. “Tax breaks. You make sure to shake their hands, don’t you?”
“I’m shaking their hands. First thing,” I say.
“It needs to happen, Tim.” And she isn’t kidding around. I need a job because we have one foot in the street. Mom’s been out of work since Jimmy died, and she’s got no intention of looking, either. A few months after I returned, I moved half the furniture six inches in every direction to make her think she was losing weight, to make it easier for her to get around, but she keeps getting bigger. I thought it would help her get out of the house, but it only gave her more excuses to stick around. How two people can be stone cold broke and fat as a pair of prize hogs, that’s anyone’s guess.
Mom’s chewing her chicken to the bone. “You gotta do more than shake their hands,” she’s saying through a mouthful. “You gotta stare them down. Appear confident. Make them think you want the job.”
“I’m looking them right in the eye,” I say.
She swallows and picks up another thigh. Her fifth. “You doing anything tomorrow?” She asks, “Fireworks?”
“Don’t feel much like watching them burn down Pilot Butte again.”
“Hasn’t happened in years,” she says. “You should go.”
What a pair we are, both of us squeezed shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen, standing while we eat. Too scared to sit on the chairs around the dining room table. “You should go,” she says again. “After all, you’re what everybody’s supposed to be celebrating.
I can’t sleep because I can’t lie on my side anymore, so I spend my nights like I spend my days: driving. Jimmy’s truck is as nimble as it was when he taught me to shift, and I push down Third, hitting 60, 70 miles an hour, past the movie theatre, past the closed-down bowling alley, the Carl’s Jr., the old Wendy’s. Every joint a splash of red in the dark, signs bursting out bright and sudden in the empty desert sky. Red’s supposed to make a man hungry, and goddamn if it don’t work. So I stop at a 24-hour Dairy Queen, order a milkshake, and then I’m really flying high.
Skin bunches around a shrapnel scar on my waist, and the seatbelt pinches every time I move. An IED, same bomb that took George’s foot. In the one interview I got, the job at the call center, this pumped-up blonde manager asked me about my time in the service, and that’s the story I told. My destroyed waistline. George crawling on his belly. And for some reason I can’t explain, no matter how many damn times I replay it in my head, I lifted my shirt and I showed her. Ran my fingers over my stomach and touched the scar. She made a little note on her clipboard and said she’d let me know. I figured I’d never hear from her again and I was right.
But for now, off comes the seatbelt and I unbutton my pants, too, breathing easier as I sail toward the next town over.
In Redmond, everything leads to that Super Walmart me and Jimmy helped save from a wildfire the year I graduated high school. The night we lost him. All through the night, black smoke curled around the mountains and buttes, junipers popping like sticks of dynamite, one after another, and moving ever closer. Every guy strong enough to hold a hose formed a defensive line around the store, spraying and spraying while helicopters from California dumped truckfuls of water over our heads. Clouds of ash billowed up and spread across the plateau and that bitter taste of pine swam in my mouth, black and red pine, a tornado of pine ash, and Jimmy lost somewhere in the smoke, Jimmy lost and the Super Walmart still standing and me always somehow still standing, growing fat and fatter still.
Out of nowhere, out of the dark, a cop’s red lights swirl up behind me. I slow to a crawl and pull over. I’ve passed through Redmond without even realizing it. I slip the seatbelt across my waist and roll the window down, the officer shaking his head.
“Jesus,” he says, “I didn’t know Fords could go that fast.”
I look him right in the eyes, say, “How fast was I going, boss?”
“I clipped you at a hundred.”
He rests his elbows on the door and asks for license and registration. I tell him it’s my brother’s truck, and I know this cop’s gonna hit me with a ticket the size of Mt. Bachelor, drop it right in my lap, so heavy I might not be able to stand up again. The nightsmell of cottonwood sweeps in, dry heat radiating along the asphalt. The air pressure rises, and the humidity swells. Everything is so close to burning I can taste it. Cutting through all of it, there’s his alcoholic cologne, a young man’s for god’s sake, the kind a teenager might wear on a date. I unbuckle my seatbelt again, open the glove compartment, and slide my thumb down the handle of the Beretta M9 I keep hidden there.
“Your fly’s undone,” he says.
I hand him the papers and ask him the name of his scent.
In the morning I’m at MickeyDees: two Sausage Egg McMuffins, two orders of hash browns, a large Coke, and the same for Mom. “Happy Fourth of July,” the kid says. He’s a nice looking guy, acne on his chin, real clean cut. I nod and repeat it back. An idea I’ve been mulling all night catches and burns through my stomach. It aches like a sore tooth in the back of my mouth. This is going to be the kid who decides if I live or die.
“Are you hiring?” I give him my best smile.
He shakes his head.
“I’m a veteran,” I tell him.
“It’s not my call,” he says. “Nobody’s hiring.”
Mom and I eat breakfast together. She inquires where I was last night. “Do I know her?” she says, and she elbows me. The sun touching her blonde hair through the window, and it’s easy to remember what she looked like before Jimmy went. Thin and tall. She’d been a dancer. Jimmy only ever chased blondes that looked just like her—who can say why, and who’d want an answer? Daisy, his first girlfriend, used to sit in my lap while we cruised around town, her bare feet against the dash, her hair waving in the wind, strands catching on my lips. I found her telephone number when I returned from my first tour. I called and asked if she still used the same hairspray. She’d cut her hair, she said, married some guy named Dan Rodriguez, moved to Portland. All she wanted to talk about were her two sons. All I wanted to talk about was Jimmy. A kid was crying in the background, and I couldn’t tell if it was hers or the television.
Jimmy and I spent his last Fourth of July together. I’d just graduated, and we were skipping all the redneck stuff that plagued Bend every summer. He’d scouted out a vacant motel with a pool on the outskirts of town, boosted me up over the fence, and I went around and opened the gate. He saluted me, then dived into the water, floating up onto his back, lying still for a while before saying, “Come in, coward, what the hell?”
I jumped in. The water was warm, and above the evening sky was a red eye, unblinking, everything dead calm. My shirt clung to my stomach and trailed in the water. Jimmy noticed.
“Aren’t you gonna take it off?” he asked.
“No way, José. What if someone sees us and we have to book it?”
“I got you.”
He took off his shorts and for a second I thought I could see right through him, his body cut in halves by the concrete coping, invisible from the waist down, his long blonde hair wet against his forehead. I pulled my shirt over my shoulders.
“Shorts, too,” Jimmy said, and I flipped them onto the walkway, naked in public for the first time in a long time. Nobody showed up to bother us, and Jimmy started talking about Daisy, what her lips felt like, how she tasted when he went down on her. He was totally hard. And against all my will, so was I. I kept twirling my head around, waiting for someone to kick us out, us two perverts, to call the manager or the police. Waiting for punishment. Waiting for retribution. We floated on our backs until dark fell, and heard fireworks and saw the tips of their explosions in the distance, pop pop pop. A great red light rose over Pilot Butte, coloring the sky, sirens ringing in the distance, getting closer. “Beautiful,” Jimmy said. The first of the two big fires that swallowed up the desert that summer swirled up and up, smoke slithering away over Bend like a lost black snake. I wish I would’ve known Jimmy would be lost in the next. I would’ve said something.
At home, I take a long shower, wash the dust from my hair and hands, scrub my fingernails, wipe under all the folds of my skin. Make myself as clean as possible, and it takes some doing. It’s the 4th of July, and I have a plan for the top of that butte, for right when the fireworks reach their crescendo. I’ll have the Beretta ready. I’m gonna say fare thee well to the whole damn desert, ces’t la vie, good riddance.
Mom’s lounging on the couch, watching television. The sun cuts motes through our windows. Early bird pops and whistles of firecrackers smack along the streets of our neighborhood. Cars peel out in drag races down empty suburban lanes, and somewhere music plays dimly from a boombox in a yard.
She asks if I’m going somewhere. How can I tell her I’ve been everywhere there is to go? I’ve seen George cut a boy in half with an M16 while a jingle truck turned the corner behind us, shaking its bells and a crowd of people hung from its wooden beams, watching. I could smell the boy’s blood. Nobody claimed him. All the muscles in my collarbone are tightening.
“Thought I’d head down to Pilot Butte like you said. Haven’t seen the fireworks up close and personal in years.”
She tries to stand and I help her up. “Mind if I come along?”
And shit, there’s my Mom, excited and smiling, wearing her giant white shirt, the Stars and Stripes emblazoned across the front. This is the first time she’s wanted to leave the house in weeks. I’m nodding my head before I know what I’m doing.
“Let’s go together,” I say. “We’ll get some food, take a picnic.”
The foot of Pilot Butte is ringed by a path that swirls to a clearing where the local pyrotechnicians shoot off their explosives. Firemen water the brown sides, and families trek up with their folding chairs and blankets, coolers of food and drink, children in tow, the whole procession slow and perfect as the track of a tank. It’s over a hundred degrees now, everyone in shorts and skirts, tank tops, bathing suits. Music beams down from the top of the clearing, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. I turn the engine and Mom looks up, into that long walk and the sun. Squint, and you can see the heat roiling over the concrete and waving over the dirt.
She places her hand over mine. “Can’t we just sit here for a while?” she asks. “In the air conditioning? We don’t have to make that climb, do we?”
I pat her hand. “Not if you don’t want to.” She closes her eyes and leans back. “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” starts playing over the loudspeaker. It shakes the windows of the Ranger. There’s a crowd of people singing along as they walk up the hill. Mom’s running her hand through her hair and fanning herself. A line of sweat darkens the stomach of her shirt.
“You sure you don’t want to try it?” I ask.
“I won’t make it,” she says.
“They’re singing up there,” I say. “I’ve seen you make it through worse.”
She turns up the air conditioning. “You can go without me. I’ll understand.”
“If we leave now, we can make it before the fireworks start.”
“We can see them from here, can’t we?”
I nod and turn off the engine. Her perfume is all over the truck now. She smells like lavender. Always has. Every care package of Oreos and chips and Hostess cakes I ever got smelled like lavender. Everything tasted the same. She smelled like lavender in her dress at Jimmy’s funeral. We were each half our size then—you could fit our past selves inside our current selves with enough room for two more people. Now you can barely fit us both in the truck. I unbuckle my seatbelt and the world tilts a little bit as the pressure releases. The sun creeps downward, burning its hole through the earth’s head. The wind picks up.
“I’m not going to land a job,” I say. “Just don’t think it’s in the cards. And I’m not feeling any better.”
“It’ll happen,” she says.
“I think we’re dying, Mom.”
The sun’s half-buried and red lines shoot out over the desert. She doesn’t say anything. My words slip around the truck and can’t seem to take hold anywhere.
“I know you’re still missing him,” I say. “I miss him, too. But damn, they’re singing up there. Actually singing. When was the last time you heard a bunch of strangers singing like that together? Listen.”
She shakes her head, shivers. She looks like she’s going to throw up. Runs her hands down her thighs. We sit like that for a moment, adjusting to the heat, to the hole I’ve just acknowledged. Then her posture changes like she’s been shocked. She straightens, goes tight, looks me up and down, then opens the door to the truck.
“Well,” she says, “Come on then. Let’s go. Nobody’s dying today.”
And together we start the climb up the butte. Out goes my elbow and she grabs it, and her arm is warm and dripping with sweat, and I don’t care because we’re moving, goddamn it, we’re moving. And the scar along my beltline is pulsing and stiff and every time I bend my knees up the path it feels like my belly will tear open and all of me will spill out wild onto the butte here. But we’re fine, as fine as fine gets, and we’re moving. Mom’s got her eyes on her feet, hut two three four, and I never knew a better soldier, but me? My eyes are on the sky, where the first of the fireworks are already exploding. Huge red bursts pop overhead, spreading out and surrounding the butte. And I’ll be honest, half of me, the outer, harder half, gordo gordo gordo, hopes those sparks catch and take us all in one big final fire, the fast food joints and the swept-out movie theaters, the trailers and the half-built homes that’ll never fill up with families. I can’t tell whether the red’s been driving that half hungry or angry—that’s the problem I can’t seem to figure out. I don’t know if I ever will. But the other half, the part that’s always been there, the half that’s buried inside, swimming naked in the pool with his brother, hell, that half is just happy he’s made it to the top of the butte with his mother. And maybe it’s just my imagination, but it feels like everyone’s turned and is listening to us sing.