It was a little past five, and we were halfway home. For the last hour the most intense shade of gold had blued and blued itself down, and now outside our windows the land was metal. The sky had shrunk to a ribbon of warm color between the blackness of the horizon and outer space. Only a few stars were out as far as I could tell, the stubborn, brightest ones, but things were changing so fast on us. Soon they would all be up there, dashed across the firmament, sprays of glitter on velvet.
The Golden Hour was gone. The blissful pretty girls of my dreams had stopped dancing and pulled college sweatshirts over their breezy haute couture outfits, while the crew who photographed them gathered cameras and reflectors into the trunks of their inherited cars. Together, they sped away down country roads no one but they knew about, long capes of dust in their wake, and were gone. The daydream was over, the fields I watched go by as desolate as they always had been.
We were still trapped behind the Heating and AC repair van, eking along at ten miles below the speed limit. The van formed an almost perfect white square that filled up the lane and made it impossible to see around. Worse, there were no windows in the rear doors to look through. I looked on helplessly, teeth on edge. I had let myself get sucked in by this road drama, and now I was ancy. According to Mom, there was another company van in front of our van, and a utility truck in front of this other van. The vans wouldn’t pass each other because of some company rule, Mom explained, though I hadn’t asked, and didn’t think was true. It was all one big clusterfuck to me, and had long ago become maddening. Every now and then our car drifted across the yellow line, into the oncoming lane, and then back. Sometimes the Heating and AC repair van pulled away from us, opening up several car-lengths of space, but it never lasted long. Mom would accelerate until we were again almost rubbing bumpers, and then brake. Every time I felt the brakes, no matter how smoothly they had been applied, I felt my veins clamp down and my blood pressure rise a couple more points. The soft lurch in the car’s forward motion, like a hiccup. “Maybe the extra ten miles would’ve been worth it,” I said from the other side of the car, my voice a thinly-disguised sneer. It felt wrong to brake on the interstate. To see tail-lights suddenly flare while we were all humming along felt gross, a bald violation of some larger, grandiose rule of modern life. I told Mom this. She went into a lengthy analysis and explanation of why the extra ten miles would not have been worth it, citing the cost of gas, among other things. When she chided me for my immaculate back-seat driver skills, I told her she was crazy.
“All of you,” I added, a woozy feeling of superiority warming my gut. “You’re all crazy drivers.”
The extra ten miles I referred to were part of the I-29 route back into Omaha. It was my way of suggesting we had made a mistake back in Nebraska City, where the road out of Auburn suddenly ended at a traffic light. To our right was a small leg of Highway 75 that continued east and connected with I-29. To our left was also Highway 75, the rest of it, the route we usually always took home. But that was before a massive construction project outside of Plattsmouth was giving drivers everywhere heartburn. Unsurprisingly, we had followed tradition and turned left. The traffic light clicked over and we thumbed our noses at the open, breezy pastures of I-29, believing it to be slower, the extra miles lazier, and instead followed the green arrow to a two-lane paradise of construction zones and sluggish speeds. As the Heating and AC repair van wobbling ahead of us so clearly testified, it was only a matter of time before you rolled up on a clusterfuck situation and had to ride the brakes.
The ride to Auburn had been much smoother. We followed I-80 east into Council Bluffs, linked up with I-29 as it veered south along the state line. I contented myself with silent visions of the metro area passing by, desolate storage garages and the drab rear ends of warehouses, billboard advertisements for the casino waiting twenty miles ahead. It all seemed so pathetic when you were just passing through. Later, in Council Bluffs, as the casino drifted past the side of Mom’s face, a public art installation loomed ahead of us. We had seen it before, numerous times, and could only shake our heads in dismay.
“I still don’t know what that’s supposed to be,” Mom admitted.
I didn’t either. The sculptures were part of a bridge overpass. There were four of them in total, and sat like heaps of junk at the north and south ends. The artist’s intention eluded me. All I knew for certain was what the various shapes appeared to signify, the feelings they stirred in me. The muted, earthy colors, the stabs of metal against the sky. It all seemed nightmarish, and called to mind knives and torture devices and Freddy Krueger.
The thing with the trailer hadn’t been the only dispute involving property. During the drive down to Auburn, Mom shared some interesting facts she had learned about the house in Omaha. Over the twelve years she’d been living there, paying the rent for my brother Rob—who owned the property—she had paid somewhere in the neighborhood of 36,000 dollars in interest. “In interest,” she stressed.
All that money for basically nothing. Gone, poof. It was depressing to think about. so I tried to keep myself from dwelling on it too much and getting sucked in. I didn’t know why my brother wouldn’t sell the house to Mom like she had asked and pleaded and begged him to on numerous occasions, or what was going on with him in general. He had exiled himself to a dinky little Navy town outside of Corpus Christi, Texas, and started a family with his girlfriend. He was over-protective and weirdly paranoid. As far as I knew, he didn’t have a social media account and didn’t allow his kids to have one, either. I supposed that was understandable, even admirable, but it had been years since I’d received even an e-mail from him. Though, a month after I had recovered from my most serious flare I received a package in the mail from him. It was a cookbook—for people with Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis.
The last time I saw him in the flesh was when he carted the whole gang in a mini-van to Omaha for my sister’s wedding. We wore similar merlot-colored dress shirts, purchased in a last-minute frenzy at a department store. At the time, we were both EMS professionals. He was the dual threat, a firefighter and paramedic, while I was still getting used to the boots I was wearing, still sweating through my shirt whenever dispatched to a call. The majority of my experience as an EMT was spent loitering at the rear end of a wheelchair van, remote control in hand, as the lift crawled up and down, up and down—sometimes while another frail, miserable-looking warm body went along for the ride. I’d never done CPR on anything except the blank-eyed dummies in training class. Once, I gave an old guy a sternum rub because we thought he had died in the back of the ambulance, and I had also terrorized a grandmother by forcing a cannula into her nostrils the wrong way. But the only vaguely medical thing I could say I really excelled at was clamping the alligator clip on someone’s finger and reading their pulse oximetry. At the wedding, there had been a minor emergency involving one of my sister’s bridesmaids. Rob noticed she was swaying lightly on her feet, and had whisked her away to a side room before she collapsed. I was oblivious, and hadn’t noticed anything was wrong until their backs were turned and the crisis averted.
Mom was shaking her head, muttering to herself about interest rates. The one on the house Rob owned was seven percent, she explained. And the loan through Wells Fargo was rigged: Every month, the interest and fees got paid first. Only a small portion of the payment actually went toward the principal on the loan. “You can’t win,” she was saying, “when they frontload the loan like that. Daddy’s house isn’t set up that way. Metro doesn’t do that.”
I wasn’t sure why Mom sometimes called my father—her ex-husband—Daddy. They have managed to stay good friends over the years, but it’s mildly creepy and makes me feel about ten years old whenever I hear her call him that. Mom knew the intricate details of my father’s living arrangement because a couple years ago she had gone above and beyond the call of duty and orchestrated it for him. The lease on his apartment was ending soon, and it wasn’t clear where he was going to stay. The woman he lived with had gone through a spectacular transformation over the time they were together. First she had been the really good friend from his past, the one who got away. Then she was his girlfriend. I visited a couple times, when the rest of the family had twisted my arm enough. When it first struck me how completely she’d moved into his life, I was in their bathroom taking a leak while pictures of cowboys gazed over my shoulder. On the wall above the toilet hung a giant lasso, coiled around and around in the shape of the sun.
My father has always liked stuff related to fishing and sailing. Pictures of sailboats and harbors and marina sunsets were always on the walls in his old apartments. By the time they became boyfriend girlfriend, those pictures were mostly downstairs in the garage, in the same boxes he had packed them in. Their apartment had become an enduring tribute to the Wild Wild West.
By the end of their relationship, she was just the crazy bitch he shared space with. They were both eager for the terms of the lease to expire. The girlfriend had plans to flee back to Texas where the rest of her family lived. Dad’s plans weren’t as clear: He couldn’t afford to live in the apartment alone, and no one in the family was too eager to take him in. Mom financed a loan through a local credit union and for a few months the two of them went house hunting. I had once overheard him complaining about a house they had recently viewed. Everything was great except for the retaining wall in the back yard, which seemed to have crumbled under the stomping feet of some neighborhood kids. Suddenly the deal was off. He wasn’t going to live in a house with that kind of bullshit going on in his back yard. I could have killed him.
Eventually, they settled on a house in the same neighborhood as the one Mom was renting from my brother. It was cozy and secure, its own affordable, fixed monthly payment. Finally, he could pad around in his underwear and smoke himself to death in peace and solitude.
“It’s disgusting.” Mom was still grumbling about all the money frittered away on interest. She shook her head at the road. Rob could have refinanced, gotten a better rate. Even if it was only a point lower, that makes a difference, it would have been so much better. Could have saved so much money. Instead, he bought a Land Rover. She shook her head again.
“Maybe Platte is French for flat,” Mom said.
“Maybe it’s French for plate.”
She guffawed. “The Plate River!”
We were road-weary. The long miles through construction zones had made us stupid, eager to laugh at anything. The last of the daylight glinted off the river as we passed on the bridge above. Talk of French made me think suddenly of Elle, but I quickly put her out of my mind. I was trying my best not to care anymore. If she didn’t want to be friends then, okay, whatever, we weren’t friends. Lately I had begun to wonder if my friendship really meant anything anyway, if maybe I had overestimated my own importance. Maybe I didn’t have anything worthwhile to offer her. Mom glanced over and saw me smiling in the darkness, at the so-called Plate River, and laughed harder. I couldn’t hide it anymore either, and laughed alongside her, hard and unabashed and pure.
We’d been a couple of stooges. Earlier in the day, when we were messing with the trailer, there had been a moment when we were fumbling with the hitch. Mom had brought it out from the garage and was trying to work the pin out of the center of the block. The pin itself was a thick steel cylinder, about as fat as a cigar, straight on one end and angled slightly on the other. All down the middle there was a thick angry scourge of rust. She had the hitch in the crook of her left arm, in a headlock, and with her other hand kept trying to wrestle the pin out, but it wouldn’t budge. Just a couple inches of give in either direction. I offered to try, and she handed it over.
“It’s cos of all that rust,” she said. “Just keep working it back and forth.”
I did. I worked the pin up and down in the hole until there was a fine red mist on my mittens. “Fuck,” I muttered, handing the hitch back to her after a solid minute of wrangling. The pin was stuck. We were screwed. Then Mom cried out. She had worked the pin free. We’d been trying to pull the angled end down through the hole, a method which, after a million years of trying, might have one day been successful. Trying to explain away our stupidity, she said it just happens. If you’re not using these things all the time, after awhile you forget how to use them properly. I pulled off my mittens and walked around in circles, clapping them together until they were clean.
“We were a couple of geniuses today,” I said to her later in the car, after our fits of laughter had died down. The Platte River was a murky, still presence in our rear view, the trailer and the house in Auburn more than sixty miles away. Ahead, the lights of Omaha were twinkling into view. Mom’s body tensed suddenly, hands flattened and rigid. “Hurggh-durr,” she drooled in agreement. A couple of geniuses, indeed. We laughed and laughed and laughed.
“So fast,” she said after awhile. “You just forget so fast.”