The sun’s batteries had grown dim when my husband and I reached the deserted center of old Bisbee.
Once the most fun little town in Arizona, it now resembled an empty Hollywood set. If someone pushed over Bisbee’s cardboard facade, all the buildings would crumble into dust and cobwebs.
A cowboy played piano on the deserted sidewalk. I extended a couple of bucks, but he refused to catch my eye. “Just toss it in that box,” he barked.
Nobody looked at anyone. We all had the plague. Each citizen a potential murderer.
Polly, my mother, drew her last breaths here. So did my brother Josh. Smoking killed Polly. At least it was a straightforward way to go. She had plotted her demise since I was a kid. Polly always swore she wouldn’t make it past seventy. I cried and said no, you gotta do better than that. She intoned, “Too late. Nothing I can do to stop it.”
Josh was my half-brother. I had no full-blooded siblings. My sister and two brothers were the spawn of a violent, alcoholic Baptist. Polly’s second husband killed himself when his kids were young, setting them up for failure.
Polly moved from Mexico to Arizona in 1992, after her older son was murdered by two men in Washington state. She found Bisbee on a map and bought a four-flat for $35,000. The property needed “a little work”, so she hurled herself into the task.
I loved that building. Best garden in town. A goldfish pond, even.
Polly lounged in her yard and drank endless cups of espresso. She hailed from a generation of women who lived on caffeine and nicotine. The best way to deal with her was to pretend she wasn’t my mother. People came from miles around to walk past her flowers. They were Polly’s proudest accomplishment, the novel she never wrote. “There’s another person,” she said with pride, pointing as somebody came downhill towards her yard.
A year after Polly’s death, Josh scored new employment as a prison guard in nearby Douglas. A well-paying gig for southern Arizona, though depressing. The prison was a free-for-all. Stress makes people do crazy things. Josh impregnated another guard and lived with her part-time. He always left home at the last minute and drove 20 miles over the speed limit. Less than a mile from the prison, one of his rear tires blew out. Josh never made it to work that day.
My sister Ericka erected Josh’s memorial at his death site, on Double Adobe Road. I’d never visited it. I shook the dust of Bisbee from my bones after my siblings and I unloaded Polly’s place. I never imagined myself moving there.
But plans are fickle, and the Pacific Northwest too expensive for a newly unemployed cancer patient and his wife. After Russ’ diagnosis, we scraped together enough cash to buy a house in Bisbee. It was a town I’d tried to leave many times, but kept coming back to, like an abusive boyfriend.
I couldn’t blame Bisbee for killing my family. Just like I couldn’t blame it for failing to remember me. During the 90s, downtown was my playground. I spent hours drinking beer at St Elmo’s bar and dancing to cover bands. Now the town stared with a blank expression, like it once met me but couldn’t quite recall where.
“I’ve got GPS coordinates to the memorial,” I told Russ. “Let’s see if we can find it.”
We climbed into our Toyota and drove into the desert. Scrub brush, cacti, yucca trees, more cacti. How would I ever get used to that landscape? On our left, a wooden sign read, “The Thirsty Lizard.” A hand-painted iguana smiled as he regarded his cocktail. The front door of an adjacent building stood ajar.
“That bar’s open already,” I said.
“Lockdown doesn’t end for a week,” Russ pointed out.
“Some places are secretly reopening.”
Josh’s memorial emerged from a cluster of weeds on the right-hand side of the road. I pulled over, turned on the flashers, and left the car.
I had seen photos of the structure, so I knew what to expect. A slender male body made from steel, arms reaching skyward. His posture askew. A heavy disc underneath read, “We love you, Josh. 11/24/69—6/16/01.” A metal angel figurine lay beside the memorial. Its body had eroded and fallen into the weeds. I dusted the angel’s tiny face and placed it in my pocket. No one would miss a broken angel. I wondered if I should tell Josh that Ericka was dead. She shot herself in the heart when her husband demanded a divorce. The monster remarried less than a year later.
I didn’t mention my husband’s illness, since the two of them had never met. Russ helped me scatter some of Josh’s ashes in the hills above Bisbee. Our relationship was still new then, but I knew it would last.
We did the same with Ericka’s ashes, fourteen years later. Russ and I wanted to spread them beside the memorial, but GPS kept glitching. Finally, the two of us gave up, drove back into town, and hiked into the hills. We scattered my sister’s ashes beside a cluster of crosses and sagebrush clumps.
I turned my back on the memorial and picked my way through the sagebrush. Russ stood beside the car, looking worried. “Let’s get a beer at the Thirsty Lizard,” I said.
“Yeah, he’d want us to do it.” I no longer had anything to fear. Death was a sick joke. Besides, Josh would have insisted that I break the law and have a beer in his honor. An odd demand for a prison guard, but typical for my brother.
We climbed back into the car, made a U-turn, and headed back down the dusty road. I doubted if the Thirsty Lizard was actually open. Still, at least we had a destination, and the possibility of quelling our thirst.
Cover image courtesy of Marcy Reiford via Flickr