Last Rites

There was nothing else out there, no one else around, so there was little doubt who these men were coming for. Sheldon didn’t think they looked like cops, though. He looked past them, out to the road, to see what they were driving. And there it was, pulled up nose to nose, bumper to bumper, with his wrong­way Firebird: the distinctive black and silver and shape of a hearse.

“Why’d you take it?” the spindlier of the two men asked when he was close enough for Sheldon to hear.

Sheldon could see that these men were indeed dressed as Wilford had said that Peter, running behind the stolen hearse back in Rock Bottom, had described them: like cowboys. Except, unlike what Sheldon had assumed, these two guys were dressed like actual cowboys, or at least the grimy ranch kids they obviously were. They wore their plaid shirts and denim jeans and pointed boots and straw hats for the purposes of herding and haying. Birthing and slaughtering, maybe. A wardrobe not about the fashion of wannabes, but worn for a particular kind of work executed on a particularly brutal landscape. Sheldon thought that he himself would have been smart to wear a wide­brimmed hat.

“I didn’t take anything,” Sheldon answered, kneeling there, digging a hole with the short­handled scoop shovel he kept in his trunk, a pile of dirt on one side of him, his dead mother on the other.

“That supposed to be funny?” The spindly man, again.

Sheldon noticed that this hearse­stealer also wore a pistol on his hip. A revolver with a polished bone handle. It was slung from his hip in a tooled­leather holster. A symbol of a time past to most people. But Sheldon understood the nature of the real work of the ranch and he knew that this was a gun for varmints, not for Old West outlaws. At least he hoped that’s what this kid used it for.

Sheldon considered his predicament, its parameters now changed. These delinquents had intruded on his final reckoning with his mother. He knew their immediate problems were more dire than his, however. All Sheldon was doing was burying his mother. He hadn’t stolen a hearse, nor had he had one stolen from him. In fact, he hadn’t bought or sold or stolen or traded or bet on anything lately that he could remember. As far as he knew he didn’t have any business whatsoever with these guys. Other than the fact that these were apparently the scofflaws who had stolen the hearse with his mother in it.

“Jesse, stop!” the man squatter and more cylindrical said, the oil barrel to the scarecrow.

He turned back to Sheldon. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“I don’t think that’s entirely up to me,” Sheldon said.

“I told you we didn’t need to come back. We shouldn’t have come back,” this man who wasn’t Jesse said.

“Thought you were pissed I dumped the body,” Jesse said.

“I was, but that didn’t mean we needed to come back.”

“Didn’t want you to be pissed, Frank. Came back for you.” Sheldon sat on the edge of the impromptu grave and listened to the two young cowhands argue about their bungled caper.

“You didn’t come back for me, though,” said the one Sheldon now understood to be Frank.

“Wouldn’t have come back for anybody else, little brother.”
And then Sheldon understood the dynamic between them. Brothers. That was all he needed to know.

“Seriously, why’d you take it?” Jesse asked.

Sheldon didn’t realize Jesse was now talking to him. A wildfire of pain had sparked in his back, flaring up to engulf his attention for the moment. He burned inside and outside at the same time. Sheldon hadn’t thought he’d ever be back in these badlands, on this scorched earth. This was the high desert of his upbringing, the brutal, arid desolation that he’d tried so desperately to escape those many years ago. He’d only made it to Rock Bottom, though. Montana’s purgatory, guarding the gates between east and west. These days the eastern part of the state had found some cachet with the frakking of the Bakken shale formation. But paradise had always been to the west. The mountains and streams of myth. The trout and the elk and the wolves and the bears. He’d never made it out the other side. To Missoula, maybe. Or Livingston, at least. And now he’d slipped back through, chasing his mother into the heat of his history. No thanks to these two.

“Why’d I take what?” Sheldon asked.

“The body. Why’d you stop and pick up the body?”

“Because the body is my mother.”

“No shit!” Jesse said.

“You’re kidding,” Frank said. “Oh my god. I am so sorry. We had no idea. Jesse made me do it. I never should have played along.”

“Shut up, Frank. Jesus. We were just having some fun.”

“You shut up, Jesse. It’s his mother for chrissakes. We took his mother. There’s probably going to be a funeral. The family coming. I am so sorry.” Frank’s face twisted with remorse. “There wasn’t going to be a funeral,” Sheldon said. “Nobody was coming.”

“There, see?” Jesse said. “Always worrying about stuff that don’t need to be worried about.”

Sheldon squinted up at the two men. The heat from the high sun had reduced everything to its most primal state, animals in the middle of nowhere. Sheldon wasn’t interested in­­or even capable of executing with his ruined back­­a reductionist fight or flight response. He knew he was going to have to talk his way out of this. Whatever this was. Which seemed like a good place to start.

“What do you guys want?” Sheldon asked.

Jesse and Frank looked at Sheldon as if they were noticing him for the first time.

“My little brother didn’t want to leave no evidence behind,” Jesse said. “He’s always looking out for me.”

“Jesse doesn’t always think things through,” Frank said.

“My little brother thinks I’m retarded.”

“I just didn’t think dumping a dead body on the side of the road was the best idea you’ve ever had.”

“That’s what you said. S’why I came back.”

“To do what, exactly?” Sheldon interrupted, continuing his interrogation.

“Get the body back, I guess,” Jesse said. “You’d have to ask the smart one.”

“I’m not smart. I just like to think about things,” Frank said.

Sheldon sat there, still on fire from the exertion of his grave digging, the pain in his back. And drenched in sweat. He realized he needed to drink something. He felt on the verge of losing consciousness. Through the gauze the heat had wrapped around his eyes, an unwanted image of his father appeared. His father who had abandoned him while stringing barb wire along the south edge of the family’s property this side of Terry when Sheldon was thirteen. The heat got him, that’s what the doctor had said. And Sheldon’s father had been nothing but a memory since. Sheldon and his brother, left to deal with their mother. Sheldon didn’t want to leave any impression that he might be honoring his father by dying like him, exerting himself under the same sun that had taken him.

“You guys have any water?” Sheldon asked. Frank’s eyes lit with recollection. “I saw some kind of sport drink or something in the hearse,” he said. “Must’ve been the guy’s who was driving it.” Sheldon fought for focus, his back conspiring with the climate to try to take him down.

He regained a sliver of clarity. “Peter,” he said. “What’s that?” Frank said.

“Peter was the guy driving the hearse. He was in the Town Pump when you stole it. That’s what the guy at the funeral home told me when he called this morning. Buying a sport drink or something, apparently.” The guy at the funeral home, Wilford, was also who had tipped off Sheldon as to the general direction the stolen hearse had headed out of town. Which is how Sheldon had found his mother crumpled on the shoulder of I­94 and decided that with her afterlife so directly at hand, his hands, he would just get her buried and be done with it. Better for everyone whose lives his mother had touched.

“So there’s something good, at least” Frank said. “If you want his drink, I mean.”

“Good? Good? Nothin’ good about this,” Jesse said. “I can’t believe you’re gonna help this guy”.

“We have to help him, Jesse. We took his mother,” Frank said. “Go get that drink for him.”

“Me? Are you kidding?” Frank shot Jesse a glance that he’d clearly shot a lifetime’s worth.
Jesse exhaled a long breath that sounded like “fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.” He gripped the handle of the revolver and hung his head. “You’re a real prick sometimes. Most of the time.”

“Thank you very much,” Frank said. The festering malaise of brotherly love. “Just go get it.”

Jesse, his body deflated in defeat, swaggered with the kind of slow, damaged­joints limp that only the ranch can inflict back out toward the road.

“I’m sorry about my brother,” Frank said, once Jesse was out of earshot.

“It’s okay. I’ve got a brother.” It occurred to Sheldon that he hadn’t called his brother to let him know their mother was dead.

“What’s his deal?” Sheldon asked, watching Jesse shuffle out toward the road. “He’s never been right,” Frank said.

“Mine’s in Deer Lodge.”

“Yeah? Like living there, or...”

“Fifteen with five suspended.”

“At least you have that,” Frank said.

“What do I have?” Sheldon flashed back on his life, a forty­nine year noose of time tethered all the way back to his bawling birth. He had a hard time discerning anything in the darkness back there where the knot was tied.

“You know what’s going on with your brother,” Frank said. “You know what’s going to happen to him. Because it already did. At least you know where he’s going to be for the next few years.”

“Is yours that bad?” Sheldon asked, watching Jesse kink himself into the door of the hearse in the distance.

“It’s only a matter of time. Something will come of this,” Frank said, motioning out toward the hearse, down toward the body bag. “But it won’t be enough. I even thought I might try to kill him once, but I couldn’t do it.”

“Must not have been time yet. It’s like putting down anything. You know when it’s time. If it had been the right time, you’d have been able to do it.”

“I just wish someone would put him away before he hurts somebody. Like your brother. I mean not that he would hurt your brother, I mean put my brother away like your brother is put away. Whatever. You’re lucky.”

Sheldon contemplated that word, the idea it represented. He considered the grave he was digging for his mother in the middle of some farmer’s dryland folly. Luck didn’t have anything to do with it. Luck was like alcohol, as far as Sheldon understood it, the bottled fantasy of a better future. You keep going back because it keeps promising things will get better. But the promise is only a promise and the future is unrelenting, the bottom of the bottle forever unreached. He hadn’t been able to quit drinking, but he’d finally quit buying lottery tickets. Sheldon posited a theory with regard to Jesse: “Meth?”

“Yeah, this is a mess.”

“No. His eyes. I thought I could see the meth in them?”

“No. No. I wish it was that easy. He’s just always been that way. Half a click off. Never quite synced up with the rest of us.”

“How about that. So maybe it’s not his fault.”

“I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

“Maybe you’re the lucky one.”

They watched Jesse approach with a plastic bottle half­full of blue liquid. Not blue like water, but blue like a chemistry project. Sheldon attempted to rise to his feet, but thought better of it. Frank offered his hand to help.

“I don’t know what you guys’ deal is,” Sheldon said, lurching up, “but I need to finish this thing. Actually we all need to finish this thing. Get rid of her and get out of here.”

Frank offered to work on digging the grave while Sheldon drank. “It’s the least we can do,” he said.

After twenty minutes, when Frank tired of digging, he looked up at Jesse.

“Are you kidding me?” Jesse replied to the unspoken intent. “What do we know about mothers, anyway?”

It hadn’t occurred to Sheldon that these two men, these two brothers, had a mother. Of course they did, he thought. Everybody has a mother. That’s how it works.

“Let’s just wrap this up, then,” Sheldon said. “It’s probably deep enough,” He looked at Frank standing knee deep in the grave.

“I don’t know. Supposed to be six feet isn’t it?” Frank asked.

Sheldon had already put a foot on the body bag, on his mother’s shoulder, ready to roll her into the hole. At this point he was more interested in the speed and efficiency with which they could get her in the ground than how far under it she needed to be. He didn’t want to be around when the cops finally did show up. His story was straight, he thought, but this situation would require some explaining, some untangling, in order to extract himself from it. It would be easier to just be gone. He looked to Jesse to see if he would at least lend another foot to his cause. Jesse was pointing the pistol at him.

“Jesus,” Sheldon said. “What are you doing?” “Don’t move,” Jesse said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Sheldon said.

“I said, don’t...move.” Jesse held a steady bead, the gun unwavering.

Sheldon looked over at Frank still standing in the grave. Fear paralyzed Frank’s face in an awkward mask. Sheldon looked back at Jesse, at the .22 caliber barrel pointed at him. His fear subsided a little when he reasoned he could probably survive a shot from a .22, as long as Jesse didn’t hit anything too important. And in too direct of a manner.

“Let’s be reasonable,” Sheldon said. He cowered back and turned his head.
And then Jesse shot him. Sheldon’s stomach convulsed, clenched around the bullet. He pissed his pants. He bent, dropped to his knees. Only he didn’t feel any pain. At least not any that he didn’t normally feel. Sheldon regained his senses, his balance, his bearing. The world around him came back into focus. He looked at the hand he pulled away from his stomach. Dirty, but clean. Without any blood on it. This cowpoke had missed, Sheldon realized, relieved.

Sheldon lurched back up to standing and braced himself again for the inevitable second shot. Sheldon could only assume that Jesse’s six shooter had five more in the cylinder. He’d be seeing his mother much sooner than expected, his escape from her thwarted by Chekhov’s gun. (Sheldon had taken up some reading since he’d gone on disability, some high­school paperbacks in a box in the basement.) But when Sheldon looked at Jesse, his would be executioner was just standing there. Gun down. Grinning. His yellow teeth reflecting the yellow sunlight. Jesse holstered his pistol with the twirl and flourish of a gunslinger in a Wild West show. Jesse laughed. “Oh shit, man. You should have seen your face.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Sheldon asked. His heart raced. His voice cracked.

“I just saved your ass,” Jesse said through a smug, shit­eating grin. Sheldon looked to Frank, seeking some form of reason.

“I think he’s right. I think he might’ve saved your ass,” Frank said. He nodded his head toward a point behind Sheldon’s ass. Sheldon turned around and saw sprawled on the ground a five foot long prairie rattlesnake, as thick as his wrist, with a .22 caliber hole in its head. “He had his sights on you, man,” Jesse said. “You shouldn’t have moved. I might have shot you instead of that rattler.” After the moment it took to fully comprehend what had just happened, Sheldon finally said, “Thanks for not shooting me, I guess.”

“That would not have been good if he’d bit you, I can tell you that. We might have needed that hearse,” Frank said from the grave. Sheldon regained whatever composure he had left and urged the assembled, such as they all were, to help him get his little project done before anything else untoward might happen. Frank climbed up to help Sheldon roll his mother into the grave. Sheldon pushed a little harder with his foot than Frank did, so his mother went in head first. She landed hard and they all heard the snap, crackle, and pop of her brittle bones. She hadn’t died of a broken neck, but she had one now. Then the rest of what Sheldon knew to be her emaciated body fell in after that and it was over. His mother’s last movement on earth. His mother who had not been a graceful woman, windblown and sunburned most of her life. Sheldon thought of hers as a life of irony, endeavoring as she did to feed and clothe and bathe the men in her life, while at the same time doing everything she could to make their lives miserable. Sheldon had never known her to enjoy herself, to drink or party or engage in any carnal pursuits. Of course, he tried not to think about such things in the context of his mother. And who knew what she had been hiding.

“Wait,” Sheldon said. He walked over and picked up the dead rattlesnake. He slid down into the grave. He unzipped the body bag for its entire length and split it open. He stood up to appraise his mother for the last time. She lay still, rigid, in a blue hospital gown. He knelt and wrapped the thick snake around her neck, the long rattle up against her cheek. He pried the snake’s mouth open to expose its fangs and stretched its head down onto her bosom. He clenched his teeth and climbed up and out of the grave.

Frank handed him the shovel.

Sheldon took a scoop from the pile of dirt. He looked down on his mother, the body bag left open. The snake. An end of life tableau. He tossed the shovelful of dirt directly onto his mother’s grey, lifeless face. Some of the dirt now in her mouth. He continued shoveling until his back would no longer allow. He handed the shovel back to Frank.

The dirt continued to move from one side of the equation to the other, from pile to hole, equalizing the natural order of things. Frank tamped the top of the grave with the back of the shovel blade. Neat and tidy.

“Should we say something?” Frank asked.

“What do you mean?” Sheldon said.

“You know...something? Like a prayer or something. A service.” “Like I said, there wasn’t going to be a service.”

“I know. That’s what you said. But still. She’s your mother. We’re all here. I’m just saying. She’s your mother.”

Sheldon looked down at the mound where his mother had become one with the earth. He looked up and around, establishing this, her last resting place, in his mind. Some rocky buttes farther to the south, the river on the other side of the interstate to the north. A long line of horizon to the east where the earth continued its fall into the flat plains of North Dakota. The Beartooth Mountains were out there to the West, Sheldon knew. You could see them from the right places in Rock Bottom. But not from here. Not that it mattered. The mountains didn’t have much to say to the plains, anyway. But Sheldon believed that this was where his mother would have wanted to be. “I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s good enough that she’s here.”

“Maybe I could say something, then,” Frank said. “Please.”

Sheldon couldn’t see what it could hurt, as long as he, himself, didn’t have to say anything about his mother. And as long as it didn’t take too long. “Have at it. Just keep it quick.”

“Get over here, Jesse,” Frank said.

The three men gathered around the grave. Frank took off his cowboy hat and held it over his heart. He motioned for Jesse to do the same. Sheldon looked off into the distance where earth and sky continued their attempt to reconcile. He looked over at Frank who was standing taller now. Sheldon thought he saw Frank’s eyes moisten, although he figured it only a physiological response to the wind and the dirt. Frank projected an air of intent, or maybe despair. Jesse assumed a crooked, closed lip smile. Sheldon closed his eyes.

After a moment of silence, Frank said, “I guess I don’t know what to say. Maybe we just need a moment of silence.” And so the men stood there in what silence there was, the timbre of the wind blowing past their ears, the muffled roar of the distant cars adrift on its terrestrial currents.

“Good enough,” Sheldon said, after it seemed like the moment had passed.

The men gathered their things and themselves. On the way back out to the road, Sheldon thanked Frank, trying to diminish any perception of sentimentality with a practiced masculine tic: “I appreciate that, man.”

“No problem, brother.”

Sheldon offered the men a ride back to Rock Bottom, suggesting to them that driving the hearse was probably no longer in their best interest.

“I know you were probably headed to the oil patch,” Sheldon said. “But I sure as hell ain’t going to North Dakota.”

“So you really ain’t gonna turn us in?” Jesse asked.

“I’ve done everything I needed to get done.”

When they reached the Firebird, Frank noticed it’s distinctive shape and markings for the first time. “This is a Trans­Am. Like the one in the movie.” Sheldon eyed the big eagle stenciled in gold on the black hood. “I guess so. I never saw it.”

“Me neither,” Frank said.

Jesse called shotgun and leaned the passenger seat forward so Frank could climb into the back. Jesse then slipped into the front seat, adjusting his holster to make the ride more comfortable.

The big V­8 rumbled to life and Sheldon muscled the car across the grassy median that split the interstate. He pressed the accelerator pedal hard and steered them toward the west, back toward home.

Red and blue lights twirled in the eastbound lane, coming toward them. Sheldon’s stomach clenched up hard. Not as much as if he’d been shot, his pants still damp from his own piss. He tapped the brake, slowed the car. But the cruiser rolled past without a glance from the officer inside. Sheldon watched it roll up on the hearse behind him in the side mirror, getting smaller and smaller in the distance he was creating with his increasing speed. And then the scene of his mother’s final reckoning faded away. Left to his memory now. He knew he wouldn’t be back.

When the lit up tanks and towers of Rock Bottom’s easternmost oil refinery could be seen in the twilight, Sheldon asked his passengers where they wanted to go.

Frank and Jesse’s co­dependent relationship was back in its easy, ongoing, everyday groove by then, so they weren’t quite ready to close down their day.

“How about Bucks?” Frank suggested. “We can a bum a ride after that. Or maybe that taxi program for drunks can get us back out to the ranch.

Sheldon exited the interstate and wound his way on side streets over to Buck’s Bar. He didn’t need to ask directions. In spite of its being Montana’s largest city, Rock Bottom was still small enough to know where all the bars are.

Sheldon pulled up to the neon­lit entrance like a hired car dropping off celebrities at a nightclub. He let the engine idle while Jesse and Frank crawled out.

Frank turned back and leaned in to address Sheldon for the last time. “We’re orphans.” And then Frank and Jesse disappeared into the bar. Gone forever.

When Sheldon got back home, the red light was blinking on his landline. The first message was from Wilford at the funeral home. He wanted Sheldon to know that they had found the hearse. But also that a new situation had developed that he didn’t want to disclose in a voicemail. The next message was from a deputy in the County Sheriff’s office over in Terry. Someone had called in a license plate number that matched Sheldon’s Firebird. Something about a hearse, and some guys in a field, and some questions that needed answering. Sheldon knew he’d need to fine tune those answers before he called anybody back. Or maybe he’d just wait to see if anybody was interested enough to visit him in person. He’d know what to say by then.

Sheldon’s couch beckoned him back to its disability­funded embrace. So tempting. So easy. His mother’s disappointment. But something else beckoned to Sheldon more. He popped a couple of pain pills and washed them down with what was left of the Pabst that still sat on the coffee table where he’d left it earlier. It was warm by now but still beer. And the dog­eared Steinbeck could wait.

Sheldon got back in the Firebird and drove over to the little house his mother had lived in for the last five years of her life. He pulled the key from the pot of dead flowers on the front stoop and unlocked the door.

The hospital bed that had confined his mother for the last six months dominated the living room. All the other furniture had been moved to accommodate it. The empty bed glowed in the apricot light of the setting sun. Sheldon could see that after his mother had been taken away, the hospice nurse had pulled up the sheet and baby­blue blanket and tucked them neatly around the mattress. A small table sat next to the bed with all kinds of bottles and tubes and boxes on it, pills and ointments and tissues. An oxygen bottle sat with its long plastic tube, coiled like a calf­roper’s lariat, hanging over the valve. The mask that had fed his mother her last breath dangled down almost to the floor.

Sheldon pulled the pillow from the bed. He tucked it under his arm and left the haunted room. He went to the back door and exited the house, his house now, it occurred to him. He dropped the pillow on the porch and walked back to the detached garage that faced the alley. The small garage’s clapboards were warped and rotten from a lifetime of neglect in the rain and snow.

Inside, he found the garage as it had been since he’d moved his mother from Terry, full to almost its greatest extent with the remaining artifacts of his family’s history on the high plains. Behind a box and a box and another box, he found two mattresses that he already knew were there, each wrapped in plastic, standing vertically at attention against the wall.

He gripped the edge of one of them, the one he knew to be from his own childhood bed, and wormed his way back out to the door, shuffling and dragging. He hauled the mattress to the middle of the backyard, where he unwrapped it from the plastic that had protected it from modern existence. He dropped it flat on the ground. He retrieved the pillow from the porch and returned to sit on the edge of the mattress, his weight crunching down into the brown, unmowed grass.

He removed his boots. He studied the dirt under his fingernails.

The day writhed and sighed and finally gave up, with the air cooling and the light leaving, with the sound of birds cross­fading into the sound of crickets, and with the first bold stars of night twinkling their entrance onto the darkening stage. He lay down under the weight, the amniotic universe pressing in, the infinite unknown beyond that. He lay down and curled into a fetal position. He pushed his head into the pillow that smelled of antiseptic and breathed in the dead skin.

His back hurt.

He tried to forget.

Eventually­­ was it hours or years or eons ­­he dreamed of something his father had told him: you shouldn’t drive anywhere in Montana without a shovel. There would always be weather, he had said. Snow and mud to dig out of. And there would likely be fires to put out. Montana was a place where you needed the right tools in order to live there. And someday, you might need to bury your mother.