The Exact Same Prize

Published at Longform

If Montana had known Evan’s grandmother was about to toss herself off the roof, she probably would’ve sent Evan a text. But Mina hadn’t mentioned any plans for any roof, had only said, “Have him call me if you can.” A gigantic if, Montana knew, what with Evan’s vendetta against the phone. He treated their phone like a person—like if he ignored it long enough, it would take the hint and stop talking to him altogether. But if Montana was any example for withstanding high-volume neglect, their phone would be doing its thing for at least another year. And who else to answer said phone, if not the live-in receptionist, the sympathizer to every unanswered call? So Montana added Mina’s latest message to her tally, all the calls Evan missed when he’d stayed late at work, which had pretty much been every day for the past year or so, meaning the list looked exactly like what it was: Montana’s attempt to get Evan’s attention by way of suggestive code.

The code didn’t suggest anything, really, except that she missed him, which Montana could’ve come right out and said, but she liked to believe he was still into the chase. Or he used to be anyway. So, message tacked to the fridge, she went to the living room to wait, and while she waited, she watched an episode of Homecoming. It was the one where the kids live in a car for a week before destroying it with rocks, like wreckage was a lesson that could teach them how to live, or how to lead the lives they really wanted, like the lives they really wanted waited just on the other side of mortal risk.

*

Mina left a message with Evan’s girl, then pushed Annette’s hope chest to the window. Annette had always said the yard was a real sight from the roof. Standing up there, Mina should’ve been able to trace her entire life: the cottonwoods her husband planted the year they bought the house; the picket fence he’d built to keep the girls in; the hammock they’d hung for their eldest when she’d asked for her own room; the patches of black grass where their youngest had practiced smoking; and Mina’s garden, the grandmotherly habit she took up when Evan was born. From the roof, she should’ve had a first-rate view. But that day—that month—snow hid the trees and the hammock. The blackened grass was white. Mina’s garden was dead. Everything she’d known had been buried. But Annette—Annette had been right about the fence. Even through the snow and wind, Mina could still see the fence just fine.

*

Evan saw Montana’s note on the fridge (blocking photos of Annette and his first computer and downtown Bozeman in the snow).

Mina: 5/27 – 6:10 … 7/21 – 7:28 … 8/15 – 5:45 … 9/3 – 6:24 … 10/30 – 6:53 … 11/12 – 6:30 … 1/11 – 6pm

He skimmed, then read, and re-read it. It was worse than broken code. Ugly. Cluttered. The variables barely registered. (Maybe he’d rewrite it later.)

“Hello?” he shouted toward the living room, where he knew Montana was entrenched, watching episode after episode of Homecoming, the reality show about Amish teens who spend a year in secular society before getting married, having kids, raising barns, and dying bored. Montana’s favorite segments were the drug scenes.

“It’s like they want to OD,” she’d say. “It’s like they know how bad we sort of want to see it.”

“I don’t want to see it,” Evan said.

“Yes, you do. It’s like a sex scene. Even when it’s grotesque, you still want to watch it.”

“Hello?” Evan said again. He stood in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, waving Mina’s messages to get Montana’s attention.

“Hey,” she took off her headphones. “I didn’t hear you get in.” She pointed to the messages. “Did you call her back?”

“Not yet. What’d she want?”

Montana cast a sideways glance at the screen. “She wanted you to call her back.” Evan got close enough to see her laptop. Amish kids were throwing themselves in front of moving cars.

“You didn’t write why she called. You never write why she called.”

“I do enough of that at work, thank you. And unlike some people, I don’t bring work home. It’s not going to kill you to call her back.” Montana lifted her headphones. Evan pinched the cord to stop them from reaching her ears.

“I wouldn’t need to call her back if the message was clear.”

Montana yanked her headphones from her laptop. The narrator’s voice filled the room. The Amish teens were having a run-in with the law. “That clear enough for you?”

Evan shoved her laptop shut and went back to the kitchen. Montana followed him, yelling about “a thing called personal space.” Evan made an overblown show of taking the phone from the wall and dialing his grandmother’s number, then holding an index finger between them, a gesture meant to shut her up and prove he wasn’t intractable.

Montana held her fist to her ear, pinky out to mimic a phone. Slowly, she began to fellate her smallest finger. By the time she was knuckle deep and making smothering noises, Meemaw’s phone had started ringing. Montana mumbled, “My name’s Evan and I’m SO mature,” before stopping short and mouthing, Grow up.

Evan angled the receiver away from his face and said, “I hope your Amish show gets cancelled.”

“Not a fucking chance.”

“Then I hope they all buy TVs and start watching reality shows about Glenview. I hope they convert to Catholicism. I hope they all become Mormon. I hope they do the least interesting thing conceivable.”

“Like writing HTML? Or how about CSS? Which would be duller: PHP or Javascript?” Montana jogged backwards into the living room, her middle fingers wagging all the way. Evan plugged his free ear and counted the remaining rings that stood between him and voicemail.

*

The last time Evan saw his grandmother was just before Annette had reached The End. That’s how Annette had phrased it when she’d still been well enough to write, when she’d still had the energy to send Evan letters, on real paper, in bona fide envelopes, delivered by the hands of actual mailmen, letters that often included photos of his favorite parts of town: the Ellen Theatre, the white stallion, and “the jail that used to be a jail but isn’t a jail because now it’s a museum.” Annette: the living embodiment of a postcard, now no longer living.

Evan hadn’t gotten a letter in over a year. Annette had been too tired to lift a pencil toward The End. But she’d dictated letters to her mother, whom Evan had called Meemaw ever since childhood, when he’d first tried his hand at saying her name. A mistake that had lasted into adulthood, but Meemaw had never corrected him. Just like she’d never mailed Annette’s letters, preferring to read them aloud to Evan during their then-weekly phone calls. That was “more personal,” she’d told him. Evan assumed she didn’t understand how he felt about the phone, that she’d either chosen to ignore or forgotten the fact that his father had called in order to tell Evan he wouldn’t be coming back, and his mother had phoned to break it to Evan that what she had was terminal, and his job offer had come via phone call (on the condition he would move to Illinois, which he’d thought had been an okay request back when the news was new). But it turned out Meemaw had more than one reason for not mailing Annette’s letters. Evan found them bundled when he was home for the funeral, and noticed all the sections she had skipped: Meemaw won’t want to write this, but I told her if she doesn’t, I’m drinking rat poison at dinner. I make her read the letters back, so I’ll know if it’s not in there. Take care of Meemaw, Evan. It gets awful lonely here. A lot of times, it feels like a ghost town. And on the days it doesn’t, I get to wondering if the ghost in town isn’t already me.

When he saw her at the viewing, Meemaw seemed her usual self: she cried and her face looked like a brick wall in a downpour. She accepted condolences like she was clearing plates after a meal. And as she saw Evan off, she told him she didn’t want to see him back in Bozeman: “You’ve got that fancy job in Illinois now.”

“Nothing fancy about coding, Meemaw.”

“Fancy enough to get you to leave.” Evan thought of his father. Annette had always called him The Deserter. She’d told Evan he could be anything he wanted so long as he never abandoned anybody.

“Not that I mind it,” Meemaw said, “but you already took your pick. I don’t want you using me as a reason to come back.”

“That’s not what I’m doing. I came to say goodbye to Mom.”

“Good. Now let’s get you on your way.”

Evan told Meemaw he’d see her at Christmas. She didn’t agree or disagree.

A month later, she swallowed a glass of bleach (thankfully, watered down). Her system rejected it, but the burns on her esophagus were nearly second-degree. Evan forced a promise out of her that she wouldn’t try it again, a promise that Meemaw technically kept, but only because her methods had changed. Once she was up and around again, she cracked herself across the head with a bottle of RoughStock Whiskey. She’d been trying to give herself a concussion, she’d explained when she finally called (a week and a half after she’d gotten home from the hospital).

The hospital.

Evan hung up. It was 9:14pm in Bozeman. He found the number for Deaconess Hospital and gave them Meemaw’s name. The operator said she’d transfer him to a nurse. They’d brought her in at 6pm. Meemaw had jumped from the third-story roof aiming to land on the fence, but had only made it as far as the roof that covered the back porch. She was awake, but she’d broken her left arm, and her left shoulder had a hairline fracture. She’d severed the nerves between her neck and right collarbone, and her right arm was a series of sprains. The damage in her left eye was definitely permanent. The rest could heal, given time. The doctors suggested an overnight stay for the purposes of observation, but Mina was insisting on going home. She was, the nurse said, mighty stubborn. Evan was relieved—by all accounts and measures, Meemaw was still Meemaw.

They planned to give her a packet of exercises to help reduce the stress of her injuries, as well as a pamphlet on how to maintain mental fitness going forward. The nurse offered to mail Evan the pamphlet written for family members, but he danced around saying no so long the nurse said they’d send both home. She’d made the decision for him: he’d fly to Bozeman that night.

*

Evan told Montana, “I’ve got to go home.”

Her laptop threw blue light across her face. She pulled out her left earbud. “What?”

“I’ve got to go home to Bozeman, I said. Meemaw’s in the hospital.”

Montana’s face weighed pity against disappointment. “Again? You think she’d catch a break.”

“Well, her arm’s broken. And her shoulder. Though I guess that’s not what you meant.”

“Obviously.”

“Not obviously. Sorry I interrupted your show.”

“Evan, be fair. I feel bad for her is all.”

“Forget it. We can fight when I get back.” Evan went to the bedroom and threw shirts in a backpack. Montana followed and watched him.

“Pack something warmer. It’s January.” He ignored her and packed some socks. “Fine. I’ll do myself.” She pulled a duffel bag from the closet and stuffed it with scarves and sweaters. Her own.

“What’re you doing?” he said.

“Going with you. And before you start, I don’t want to wait until you’re back, so I think we should go ahead and have the fight now. If you want, I can skip straight to the apology. I’m honestly sorry. I shouldn’t have said it. I’m an asshole and you can punch me if you want. But only in the arm.” Montana offered her bicep. “And only once. And don’t use your knuckles.”

“I don’t want to punch you.”

“Is that a yes?”

“I just said no. Ease off.”

“Not that. I meant the trip. Montana in Montana.”

Evan dropped his bag. He gripped her hands in his fists and tried to swallow his anger. It took effort but not much time. With all Meemaw’s stunts, he was used to it. And it made a sort of sense—Montana in Montana. Written in his head: x in x.

(Read the rest at Longform)