Interactive Stories / Life in a Northern Town

The Open Road

Homicide, South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation, recording from Samsung Galaxy S3, transcription, #130456. Not routed for analysis.

I’m telling you all of this because of all of the things that weren’t told to me. Things I had to figure out for myself, one damn surprise after another.

I’m not saying that you two aren’t capable of finding out the truth on your own, or that you don’t have a clue already. But I want to give you the full story, all the details. If I had known all of the details earlier — or even some of them — we’d be sitting around the fire right now. We’d be back on the farm, you guys on break from school, your mom cooking chili, maybe your aunt joining us, maybe not. And I wouldn’t be driving around talking into my phone having to tell you all this.

The farm is where it all starts and ends. But you know that already. It’s the place where I grew up, where you grew up and where that Muslim woman lives now. But fuck her. Let’s talk about about your mom for a second.

After we got married, she came back with me to live on the farm. Picture that, a 21-year-old college girl, pretty, barely old enough to legally drink, moving in to a working farm where she’d be expected to help out every day. Hard work, too. People just didn’t do that in the 1990s. But your mom did. She saw it as an adventure. Shows what kind of a woman she was. Still is.

We didn’t live in the big house with your grandparents at first, being a married couple starting a family and all. We lived in the little house on the back fields. Maybe you remember from when you were very young. You played on the porch, shared that little bedroom. We walked back with the flashlights at night after dinner. Brianna, you were chasing fireflies.

Later on, your mom and I forbade you to go there. We started calling it the shed to get that point across. Because it was falling down and unsafe, we told you.

That was a lie.

That building had always been structurally sound, right up to the night Clayton and I burned the place down.

It was small, maybe 400 square feet max including the porch, but it was all your mom and I needed. We spent most of our time working or in the main house with your grandparents anyway. Your mom didn’t have much family, just that brother in New Mexico, so she became a part of ours.

Remember your aunt and uncle and your baby cousin around the fire, when we were packing up the farm for the last time? That was our family, but picture Tyler as the baby, and all of us much better looking of course.

Anyway. We always made a point of teaching you the financial side of the business growing up — the cost of the equipment, the terms of the leases, the prices per bushel, the wages of the hired help and the expenses right down to the last nail and bucket. Your mom insisted, and I thought it was important, too, so you wouldn’t turn out like your aunt. She would be living in a box right now if it wasn’t for your uncle and his oil money. Those artistic types are never good with practical details.

But there were some things we kept from you.

Things we didn’t think kids should be burdened with.

It was right after the recession hit, right after your grandmother and grandfather packed up and traded Minnesota in for Florida without one glance back. It was about time they enjoyed decent weather, as your mom put it. They had earned it.

You both missed them a lot at first, but after a while you got used to it. We had room to spread out. The big house was all ours.

I was going through the office with all the books, the ones they kept in the safe as well as the ones I already worked with. I rummaged around one Sunday afternoon with a beer in hand and the game in the background. A sunny day, I remember. A good day otherwise.

And then we dug deeper. Unpaid taxes. Unsettled bills. Leases in arrears. Red ink everywhere, and crop reports way lower than I had been led to believe. There were two sets of books, one for the outside world and another that was more accurate.

I never asked your grandparents about it all. I respected their pride. It’s hard to admit when things go wrong. And your grandparents had been proud people, as you know.

Your mom could have left then. She should have left.

But she stayed to help me figure it out.

We examined the books. Your mom knew quite a bit about horticulture and agribusiness by that point. The soil in the back fields, where the best production typically happened? Next to worthless. Years of every kind of pesticide, runoff, bad luck. The water supply? Contaminated.

I should have suspected during those last years with Dad taking care of those areas himself. “Don’t worry about this part, I’ve got it.” Yeah, he’d gotten it all right, gotten us into debts I had to calculate twice then have your mom double check, that’s how big they were.

All these bills, all these secrets, shoved in a goddamn box beneath the bed. I wanted to call them up in Florida. I wanted to say what the fuck, Dad. But you just don’t ask your parents these things, at least you didn’t back in those days. Besides, the farm was my responsibility now. “You’ve got this, son.” Or something like that.

In the office, after you both went to bed, we both just stared at those books and ledgers. Then we’d go out on the porch and smoke, not saying a word. Every night that ashtray your grandma had picked up in Mt. Rushmore overflowed, to the point where the ashes and butts nearly buried Teddy Roosevelt. Your mom knocked it off the bench so we had to throw it out. We were weeks away from losing the place.

There’s a solution to this. There always is.

That’s what your mom said.

I thought about equipment repair to make up the difference. It’s something I had done for years, and typically you can make a killing at it. But too many guys had gotten into it since the recession. So I started selling those tools. The equipment itself was leased so we couldn’t make money from that.

Christmas trees, was your mom’s next thought. We had that stand of pines out back, and she always liked the holidays, being festive. But it wasn’t the end of the year, and a few scraggly pines weren’t going to make a dent into debts that size. Neither were the tomatoes and cucumbers she lugged to the farmers market week after week. Yep, that was her, flogging vegetables out of the back of a truck like a goddamn peasant. We kept that from you both as well.

The next year you know, of course. The new truck, air conditioning throughout the house. Hockey season tickets, center ice. That’s when things got interesting.

It all happened because Clayton had an idea. He and I were out hunting. He knew I was having troubles, we were friends after all. I know a few guys, he said.

And that’s how we found a new use for the back fields.

The money was good. It saved the farm. Technically all of this was illegal, but when you really look at things, you have to wonder, what is law? What is the difference between legal and illegal anyway? Just what some overpaid fucks in Washington determine.

Your mom and I set our boundaries with these guys. We wouldn’t be making anything and we wouldn’t be selling anything. Our land was just a means to an end. Just a temporary waystation between source and customer, with the shed way out in the back fields the perfect place for sorting things out.

They started us out with pharmaceuticals, all the medicines people needed to take but couldn’t afford anymore, thank you Obama. We’re saving people a trip to Tijuana, where they could be mugged or raped or worse, as your mom put it. Or shopping online to get God knows what from Eastern Europe or frickin’ Asia, more likely.

During the day, we read up on the various pills and packets. During the night, we crept out to the fields to do our work.

Of course we had our questions. Where did they get all this stuff? Not our place to ask. Where did it end up? All over the region. Depended on the supply and the demand. What if we got caught? They’ll never suspect, Clayton assured us. These guys are pros. They know what they’re doing.

Your mom and I got to know some of the front-line guys, learned about their lives, their families. You have to talk about something when you’re standing around in a shed all night.

The whole operation was bigger than I ever imagined. Stretched from Canada to the equator. Ran like a real corporation.

Lots of guys from Mexico of course. Your mom translated for the ones who didn’t speak English. Sometimes she even cooked for them, made big pots of stew like she used to when we brought in the help for the harvest.

I taught them about hockey. I gave them tips about the area, where to find good deals on stuff like groceries and furniture, where to go drinking on the weekends. We talked politics. I’m not a racist, by the way; Obama just wasn’t a very good president. That is fact. Most of those guys agreed with me by the way.

And we talked shop. Like any business, this one had its hassles. Office politics. Corporate backstabbing. So-and-so’s badmouthing me to the boss. When am I going to get a day off? We started to trust them, and damn wasn’t that a mistake.

One summer, like your mom and I wouldn’t notice, they started switching it up in the products that crossed our land. We started to see fentanyl, which is 100 times as strong as heroin. We started to see oxy, which I’ve always told you kids to avoid, along with everything else stronger than whiskey or aspirin. Klonopin and carfentanil we of course recognized as animal tranquilizers. Then heroin, coke and meth.

If you were to look at the books today, the books I gave Amina, you’d see dozens of land rental arrangements – for corn, for soybeans, for Christmas trees, for grazing cattle and llamas, all sorts of weird shit. That would explain the money coming in and that would explain all the vehicles crossing our lands. We didn’t grow a thing during those years, of course. But you already knew that.

The money going out, of course, went to the usual things: equipment rentals, work crews, feed, supplies. The companies we paid were fake as well. But they let us keep hundreds of thousands of dollars for our own purposes each year, so there was that. You don’t question good fortune like that when it comes your way.

Oh we worked, your mom and I. We weren’t just sitting on our asses collecting checks. We were helping these guys out with the product. Because all of that passed over our land as well. Think about it – you’ve got pills and powders and whatnot coming in from Mexico, down from Canada – usually Winnipeg of all places. Like that stuff’s going directly to the dealer who’s selling it? Just like Walmart, these guys needed a warehouse, and this made us money, too. The new truck? The hockey season tickets at center ice? You can thank our new line of work for that.

No one in town or in the area ever asked. Your grandparents had a good reputation and your mom and I kept up a good front– so why would they? No one started wandering around until you got your aunt and that guy she dragged back, now your uncle, so yes, there’s a reason I don’t like the guy that much and it’s a much better reason than jealousy or spite or however your mom chooses to inaccurately call it.

Your mom had her concerns, and Sammy, one of our partners, was really good at addressing them. This wasn’t “The Wire” or “Scarface” or any of that other crap you kids watch on TV. Our customers weren’t spoiled club kids throwing up over their glowsticks or Wall Street jackasses snorting coke off a hooker’s ass. Although I’m sure a few of those types did partake. Most of the customers were hard-working people just like us, people who had to show up to work, get the kids to school, get the lawn mowed. People who couldn’t afford and who were getting a better deal thanks to our efforts.

That’s why we it took us so long to say fuck it, even after things got bad. Also, our business partners wouldn’t let us. Stop now and they’d turn us in to the authorities, they told us. Felony time for your mom and felony time for me. Besides, the money was amazing. If you see an opportunity in this country, God knows you take it and you ride it out for as long as possible.

We didn’t know how long it would last, or how it would all end. But we knew one thing for sure.

We knew had to get you kids the hell out of there.

So that’s why we moved you two into the city to live on your own. We told you it was about the good schools, about getting you into a good college, like that shit actually matters if you’re not born into it in the first place. You both were right to suspect otherwise. It wasn’t about the test scores.

It was about protecting you. So why such a shitty urban apartment? I know you were bitching about it. Well, first of all, you had school residency requirements, and the only rental units in a neighborhood that qualified were pretty sketchy. Where the maids live. And secondly, we had debts to pay off so the McMansion had to wait. Besides, what would people say if Brandon’s two farm kids were suddenly kicking back in Edina, living alone among retired football players and captains of industry? People would talk.

And in this business, keeping people from talking is a matter of life and death.

Why do you think they picked us in the first place, chose our land as the distribution point? Respected white farm family. No one would suspect. And we had to keep it that way.

I’m in South Dakota now, by the way. Just crossed the state line up by Clear Lake. Nice open prairie here out west. We’ll all have to go here hunting some time.

Out west— that’s where your aunt comes in.

Because I know you two have been wondering about that.

As you can imagine, North Dakota had become a booming market for our product thanks to all the oil money. Guys flush with cash and ready to party. Their employers needed them to work for days straight, and five-hour energy drinks just don’t cut it for that kind of labor. Well, one of the guys who was making these deliveries suddenly quit. Got caught up with a stripper or something like that. Which I want you to avoid, Tyler, because if a girl is taking off her clothing for money, that’s not the worst thing she’s up to.

Your mom and I wanted to be helpful. Because that’s just who we are, and because these people had us by the balls. Maybe we could suggest someone. Who did we know in North Dakota, or who was willing to go there?

How about Melissa?

Clayton suggested it. Your aunt had just gotten laid off from her job in the city and was hanging out around the farm all the time. Which meant that Clayton was hanging around the farm all the time. He had always wanted to get into her pants, ever since she came of age and even before that, I suspect.

Your mom and I just looked at each other. You’ve got to be fucking kidding. Miss art school, miss overpriced cocktails and downtown clubs, hanging out with hipsters like Tristan the Indian Guy and that chick from St. Louis Park and that film school boyfriend, remember him? But your aunt and I come from the same stock and were raised in the same way. Melissa had been tough before she had moved to the city. Maybe it could work.

Then, how much do we tell her? Your mom wanted complete honesty. What we know, she knows.

But l disagreed. Keeping things secret was the key to keeping our business partners happy. Because they asked us more than once: How much do your parents know, Brandon? Nothing. They’re retired and they’re in Florida. Duh. How much do your kids know? Nothing. They go to school in the city. Your sister? I could honestly reply nothing for her as well, and I needed to keep it that way.

Millions of dollars of merchandise passed over our property each year, through the back fields. No one could suspect.

So we presented Melissa with a job opportunity in food delivery, hoping that she’d be too busy working and freezing her ass off to be curious. Besides, what did she know about illegal pharmaceuticals beyond a little pot or artsy club drugs? And she was desperate. She needed the work.

Of course she bitched and complained, delivering food for a living, living out of a camper in the middle of the prairie like white trash. But she grew to like it, as you well know. Spending her days making a shit-ton of money. Spending her nights banging the man who became your uncle. But then she started looking where she shouldn’t have been looking. And that changed everything.

When she called me up all screaming and crying “holy fuck Brandon there are drugs in this van, what should I do, what should I do?” I knew we had been wrong to send her out there. I knew we had to get her out of there. And I knew we had to reassure our business partners that she wasn’t a threat.

If Melissa says a word, your children are dead.

I know that probably freaks you out and I’m sorry about that, but it’s the truth and you need to know. That’s what they told us, those guys we had befriended those nights out on the back fields, those guys who we thought were just like us.

So Melissa hid out for a time then came back, skulking around the farmhouse, bitching up a storm. Fuck you, Brandon. A goddamn drug ring. What the fuck did you get me into? Conveniently forgetting that she had been unemployed before she started and now she was a good six figures richer.

And every day we worried: Was she going to call the cops? Was she going to tell everything to this boyfriend back in North Dakota, now your uncle here in Minnesota? Who was this guy anyway?

Meanwhile, shit was going down in North Dakota. The DEA and FBI call an investigation. The head of the operations gets shot when he’s on vacation at his family farm, some lone gunman with a stripper obsession who thought he’d cracked the case. See, Tyler, strippers again. Nothing but trouble.

Your mom and I were freaking out. We’ll sell our business partners the farm, we thought. We’ll move to Florida ourselves and start fresh. Then, just when we thought the storm had blown over, the news broke in the North Dakota papers. Somebody in a snowsuit had been pictured on a security camera, making a delivery. Your mom and I recognized that parka and hat right away. That somebody was your aunt.

Sorry, Brandon, we have to take her out.

That was Sammy talking, the guy from the operations your mom and I got to know the best. He told us that they were seriously going to kill Melissa, the little girl your grandparents and I taught to skate and fish and hunt. The artist who moved to the city and got weird. The condescending bleeding heart liberal who visited the farm once a month dressed in black, full of snark. Yet still my family, my blood.

They had a guy staking out her studio in South Minneapolis, a scope aimed at her window from the building across the street. Because that’s your aunt — too lazy to hang drapes.

It was November, remember? Right after Tyler’s big hockey game with his new team. We called and called and called to check in. No answer. Your mother thought she was dead. I tried to reassure her but I thought she was dead, too. Jesus.

Well, your mom finally got through to her. Had her ringer off. Meanwhile, we found a way to appease our business partners. Sell them a dozen of the best acres out back. I’d get Melissa’s signature for it at Thanksgiving dinner. For as much as that girl diets, your aunt could never pass up your mom’s turkey and stuffing.

Well, you remember how that went. Your aunt never showed. We tried to keep up a good front. Longest goddamn football game of my life.

We really thought she was dead this time.

Well, not so much. Turns out she had blown off the holiday because she was —well, getting reacquainted with her North Dakota boyfriend. The sniper wouldn’t have been able to get a clean shot anyway with all of their rolling around. Like I needed to hear that.

I was happy to see your aunt alive, don’t get me wrong. And I had been able to forge her name for the sale of those acres, which kept everyone happy for a short time at least. But now I had two more problems to deal with, namely a pissed-off sister and that European douchebag otherwise known as your uncle Niko. Always glaring at me because Melissa had told him everything. Her side of the story, of course.

Just checking into the hotel right now. A bit of a shithole but it will work. Going to put the phone down for a second.

Where did I leave off? So the year went on. The trucks drove in and the trucks drove out. Your grandparents fell ill, moved back to the farm, then passed on. “You’re a good son for taking care of them,” my business partners told me. We kept our eyes on your aunt and uncle. We did our best to keep everyone happy.

We realized we had to sell the farm.

That was your mom talking at first. Then it was all me. We were selling it off bit by bit out of blackmail anyway, forging your aunt’s signature every time. You kids never guessed because we kept you in the city, busy with school activities.

This would be our chance. We’ll cash out, retire, get a sweet house far away, say goodbye to this whole goddamn venture and start fresh.

And wouldn’t you know, the only person who wanted to buy it was a weird rich Somali woman. As if this life couldn’t get any worse.

Your aunt and uncle came out to help us pack up and wasn’t that a delight.

Our nerves were raw. Things get tense when shit goes down. You need to know that about adult life. People get pissed. Like your mom when we were packing everything up. I was always out in the fields. Well somebody had to tear down the shed and hide the evidence. I was always driving around running errands, avoiding everything. Like I wanted to see all of this happen to our farm. Your mom never owned land or had a family home. She wouldn’t understand.

Well, the place sold but at a much lower price than expected. We never told you that.

You kids thought we’d made a killing, but when it came to cash in the bank account, we had nothing.

I was working my connections. I was scrambling for a new plan.

Then your mom left. She said she finally had enough.

We’re talking again, by the way. Don’t get too excited, but maybe, if things go well.

Hold on, someone’s knocking at the door…

Read on.  Go back to the map.

© 2016 People and Places. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Views of the characters do not necessarily reflect the views of the author.

Read on.  Go back to the map.

 

© 2015 People and Places. All rights reserved.

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