Folklore

Tribal police picked up my uncle
the day after he hit a dog. He had
placed a note with his name and
number near its muzzle.

The police used words like vehicular
manslaughter and hit and run, insisting
he had left an old man on the side
of the road.

They showed him pictures of a twisted
brown body and, though the angles were
contorted, there were two arms and
two legs.

My uncle had moved the dog to a lawn,
feeling its fur and the soft-bodied ticks
that dotted its skin. It left his hands
smelling of urine.

It was dark, an officer said, the man was
naked, probably darted in front of you,
probably dementia. My uncle nodded,
thought his mind had cushioned the blow

of taking a human life. The officers
stepped out of the room, the dead man’s
daughter, a woman my uncle knew vaguely
from town, stepping in.

She asked what had happened. He
answered with what was believable, 
his eyes on a crack in the wall, avoiding
her middle-aged face. 

You hit a dog, saw an old coon hound,
she said in that slow tone used on toddlers
and drunkards. Some of the elders are
more attuned to nature.

She told him her father, tired of old age, 
had been tempting the road. She said,
It’s easier to kill a dog than a man.

Write here...

In This Wilderness: Notes from the U.S-Mexico Border

At the time of his death in 2009, Macho B had stalked the southwestern borderlands for sixteen years. He was the only known remaining jaguar in the United States, and also believed to be the oldest of his species living in the wild. Although sightings were rare, motion-sensing cameras set up to monitor wildlife activity captured some of his sleek ramblings. In one of the photographs, Macho B’s face looms in the foreground as he approaches the camera. His eyes glow radioactive in the flash and his coat is a constellation of spots scattered over an impossible orange.

In 2008, anti-immigration initiatives were in full swing under the Bush administration. The Department of Homeland Security had secured a 5.5 million-dollar budget to, among other things, construct a border wall impassable to humans and animals alike. Militarization efforts on the U.S. side of the border were already encroaching on the desert wilderness, and conservationists became increasingly worried that the proposed border wall would further fragment the habitat of the endangered predator.

We know that Macho B ranged freely between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, but it is impossible to tell how frequently he crossed the border. In order to construct the wall through the jaguar’s known territory, the Department of Homeland Security would have to navigate the Endangered Species Act, which addresses actions that might affect the crucial habitat and survival of a listed species, and wildlife agencies stood to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding if they could monitor his migration routes. Still, trapping any jaguar can be dangerous to the animal’s health, and it was decided that capturing the aged Macho B would be too risky, too politically volatile.

 

+    +    +

 

Forty miles north of the Mexican border, the swath of desert is interrupted by Tucson’s southern subdivisions. Trailer parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods are cast like nets from the interstate. Retirement condominiums and suburban tract housing give way to dusty aluminum trailers, flanking streets with names like Wrangler Road and Welcome Way. The green of a golf course appears obscene against the dry earth surrounding it.  

Driving southwest from Tucson, I pass miles of open desert, speckled with yucca, barrel cacti and mesquite. The trees are so dry you can break green limbs with a tug. The barbed stems of an ocotillo spindle toward the sky, fan out around a single axis, with fleshy green fiber coursing like muscle between the spines. After rainfall, the limbs are covered in tiny green leaves, with bright orange flowers perched atop each limb. When moisture wanes, the leaves disappear, and the plant returns to its skeletal state. Sandy soil and the ocotillo’s shallow root system make for a delicate existence. A roaring ATV, stomping javelina, or tumbling rock easily uproots them. Fallen ocotillo lie like giant squid washed up on the beach. 

From the interstate, I turn onto Arivaca Road, passing through Amado. A long, ornately western steakhouse called the Cow Palace sprawls on the corner. A large statue of an angus bull stands atop the red and white pinstripe building, surveying the parking lot, where lanky cowboys in Wrangler jeans and pearl-snap shirts mix with tourists. Across the street, the old Longhorn Bar and Grill protrudes from the dirt in the shape of an enormous bovine skull. The plaster face glowers under two monumental horns. Its nose cavity gapes huge and black, housing the double-door entrance. At night, the eyes glow orange, lit from inside.

Two miles past Amado is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoint. Border Patrol agents mill around next to a large military tent. Traffic cones funnel northbound drivers into an area where vehicles are inspected. If everyone in the car appears to be of Caucasian origin, it’s often a simple interaction. 

“Everyone a U.S. citizen?” 

“Yes.” 

“Okay, move on.” 

If a vehicle’s occupants do not fit that description, they often endure a much lengthier confrontation. A recent study by People Helping People, a group of Arivaca residents, determined that Latino drivers are 26 times more likely than white drivers to be required to present proof of identification. Regardless of political leaning, many locals are opposed to the checkpoint. Brown-skinned ranch hands working on any of the large cattle operations south of the checkpoint face interrogation every time they drive home. Latino parents with teenage kids are stopped and frisked while returning from camping trips. 

In addition to the harassment, many locals resent feeling as if they live in a war zone. With the increase in border militarization, people who were once drawn to the desert for its solitude must now interact daily with armed law enforcement personnel. Helicopters and unmanned drones hum from horizon to horizon. Border Patrol trucks and ATV’s roar up dry streambeds, through backyards and gardens. Armed agents gallop on horses, scattering both migrants and cattle. Some environmentalists, however, support heightened anti-immigration efforts, arguing that migrants leave trash on the trails, polluting the desert.

+    +    +

 

In early February of 2009, two agency wildlife biologists set a snare with the stated intent to capture a bear or a mountain lion, but the snare was baited with scat from a female jaguar in heat. The lead biologist then jetted off to Spain to visit his girlfriend, leaving his partner to finish the project. On February 18th, 2009, Macho B was found in the snare. They shot him with a tranquilizer dart, took vitals, fitted him with a GPS tracking collar, and watched as he wobbled woozily away.

 

+    +    +

 

From the checkpoint, Arivaca Road winds through the desert, two dark lanes twisting southwest for twenty-five miles towards the small, eccentric community. Green and white Border Patrol vehicles cruise lazily in the open roadside flats. Large white buses park at the mouths of dry streambeds, dirt and dust flowing out onto the road in an invisible flood. The buses belong to Wackenhut, a private company contracted to transport arrested migrants from the desert to immigration detention facilities. There, they will serve up to sixty days in privately owned prisons, charged with felony illegal entry before being dumped back across the border in Mexico. This newly acquired criminal record will make it impossible for future naturalization. 

Arivaca Road turns sharply right and trickles into Arivaca proper, a town of roughly 700 people, eleven miles north of the Mexican border. Surrounded by cattle ranches and open desert, the area is the site of a now-defunct hippie commune that has made the area a destination for idiosyncratic outcasts. Arivaca’s population is a pluralist mix of old-time ranchers, hippies, primitive-skills gurus, and conspiracy theorists. People who thrive on scarcity. 

Rusty trucks slowly cruise the main drag: 300 dusty yards lined with stucco buildings and adobe storefronts. The Arivaca Mercantile, green trim startling against brown cinderblock walls, serves as the only grocery store and also the only gas station. The only bar, La Gitana Cantina, is across the street.

Inside La Gitana, locals sip sweaty beers and gossip with voices scratchy from Pall Malls and decades of dust blown past clenched teeth, collecting in vocal cords and chest cavities. Tanned skin like rawhide. Tough women with long, gray-flecked hair step rigidly around the pool table, cues in hand. Men in cutoff T-shirts sit at the bar, scowling under greasy baseball caps, thirty years of engine oil, calf dandruff and grime shoved under their fingernails. Desert people. 

One wall of the cantina is blanketed in photographs of Arivacans who have passed away. Another is adorned with hand shears, hay hooks, and fence pliers. The rusty artifacts of ranch life that still numb the pad between thumb and forefinger, daring blisters to rip open before turning to callous. Another wall displays a collection of felted cowboy hats with crown tips like two parallel peaks, or vaquero style with wide, flat brims. Little paper price tags hang delicately from each item. Next to the hats, a faded wooden sign hangs above the door, claiming the establishment is the oldest bar in Arizona. I choose to believe it.

In the empty lot next to La Gitana, a woman named Virginia serves Mexican-American street food from an outdoor kitchen. Hers is arguably the best restaurant in downtown Arivaca, and eaters huddle under picnic table umbrellas with sautéed onions, bell peppers, and carnitas, served on corn tortillas with salsa and lime. Every once in awhile, a Border Patrol vehicle cruises by. Some grumble into their food, others don’t seem to notice. Arivaca doesn’t have a police force, but a roving deputy passes through every couple weeks.

The complexities of the situation on the U.S./Mexico border have drawn in outsiders from various backgrounds and political leanings, and the only time I see the sheriff, I am sitting shotgun in a huge Dodge pickup belonging to a humanitarian aid group called No More Deaths that leaves gallons of water on migrant trails and provides medical attention to those who are injured while crossing the desert. One of the long-term volunteers, Celia, is driving.

“Nobody likes it when the sheriff is in town,” she says.

“What does he do while he’s here?”

“Oh, you know, pulls people over for no reason. That kind of thing.”

I look out the window, and catch a glimpse of the sheriff in his crisp navy suit and holstered gun. He is standing between two folding tables covered in garage sale items, holding up what appears to be a small portable stereo. He shakes it around a little bit, then brings it close to his face, as if trying to see inside. We drive on.

 

+    +    +

 

We turn off the main road heading out to the group’s base camp, a jumble of lopsided campers, industrial canvas tents, and towers of milk crates containing gallon jugs of water stacked under tattered tarp awnings. A solar unit hums next to a giant flagpole. At the top of the flagpole, a pillowcase hangs limp. Camping tents bleached from the sun are nestled in a manzanita grove. Some have little moats dug around them, the handiwork of industrious volunteers who were around during the monsoon season. 

    One of the larger tents is full of medical supplies, which are used to give emergency care to those who are lucky enough to stumble on the camp. The tent has seen years of patients. Patients who were carried into camp by others, their urine thick and brown, lips swollen, eyes yellow from dehydration. Patients who jump at the drop of a fork, who cannot speak about the night without breaking. 

    In December, temperatures drop dangerously low as soon as the sun sinks below the horizon. Before experiencing the desert in the winter, I had never fully understood the expression: like night and day. One patient, a man with shaggy black hair who was wearing a dusty hooded sweatshirt, said that two nights earlier he and another man had been sleeping sitting up, their backs propped against a rock ledge. The patient said that in the morning, he had opened his eyes and turned to the man next to him, had said his name and told him it was time to go. But the other man would not wake up.

In this remote wilderness, there are times when the desert is so deeply silent that whispers can be heard for miles.

 

+    +    +

 

In the days following his capture, Macho B’s health declined dramatically. One of the Fish and Game employees left steaks in the vicinity of the ailing cat, on one of his known paths. Twelve days after this initial capture, the agency attempted to take him back into custody due to his declining condition. Predator control specialists stood at a distance and shot a dart filled with Telazol, a hallucinogenic tranquilizer. It bounced off the spotted coat, discharging anesthesia as it flew through the air. The next day, they treed him with hounds. A helicopter hovered nearby, while a man with a tranquilizer rifle hung out the open door, aimed, fired. 

 

+    +    +

 

On a brisk morning in January, another volunteer and I load up one of the trucks, affectionately called the Ex-Pat. The engine is outlasting the body. Originally white, it now boasts a red hood, one blue door, and a red tailgate. The dashboard is disintegrating, leaving a trail of pens rattled down through the engine cavity and deposited on the dusty gravel. My GPS is attached to a long loop of parachute cord and hangs around my neck like a large necklace, lest I absentmindedly try to set it on the dash while we’re driving. Water, medical packs, blankets, hiking gear, and cases of granola bars are jumbled in the bed with a spare tire, a shovel, and a tow chain. 

Catherine and I are scouting an area in the Cerro Colorado Mountains where human remains have recently been found to discern if leaving gallons of water here could help to prevent more deaths. The remains have been recorded by Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based organization that has developed a mapping system called the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project. More commonly referred to as the Death Map, it is crowded with little black dots, each representing a place where somebody has died, and is accompanied by the Death List, which has the names and ages of the deceased. There were 2,771 remains recorded between the years 2000 and 2014, roughly 170 to 280 per year. It’s suggested that this represents only half of the actual number of dead. 

The Cerro Colorados are a small, rocky range northeast of Arivaca, and appear to be one of the less imposing features in the area. Like most of the region, the terrain can be deceiving. The land is covered in combative plants that do not want to be touched. Prickly pear speckles the hillsides and small, brightly colored rainbow cacti poke up between rocks. Acacia, a leafy bush with thorns like kitten claws, gives way at higher elevations to amaranth brambles that snag the skin and clothes. More cacti. Millions of cacti. Forests of cholla are covered in barbed and crosshatched iridescent yellow spines that draw against each other when you try to pull them from your skin. Removal is nearly impossible, unless each spine is cut and pulled separately. Even then, a cut spine will often cause the whole mess to roll downward, imbedding more barbs, until you’ve shaved the plant bald. The barrel cactus has barbs so thick they last well after the plant has died and the meat has rotted away. Mats of spines in the shape of the living plant lie on the ground, suggesting abduction. 

I round the corner of a large canyon and look down at my GPS. Every hundred yards the topographical lines marking elevation gain become increasingly close together, jutting and twisting into one another, indicating impassability. 

“This can’t be right,” I say.

Catherine looks down at her notes, “That’s where they’re marked.”

“This is crazy.”

“We can go back if you want.”

I don’t want to go back. But if you want . . .”

“Let’s just try it.”

“Okay.”

The trail winds up through the canyon, snaking through boulders and undergrowth. About half a mile up, we see a small outcropping of limestone, and behind that, the round curve of a backpack and the sleeve of a sweatshirt. Two cans of tuna are tossed to the side, along with a small water bottle. She and I have a similar grave thought.

    My father once told me that if you have to look at something horrible, you should try not to look at it straight on. If you focus a little bit off-center, the brain won’t attach itself to the image so firmly. It will be easier to forget, and you will be healthier for it. Catherine throws off her pack and runs toward the rock. I clench my jaw and move forward, slightly averting my gaze. She gets there before I do, calling back, “Just clothes.” 

“Just clothes” happens a lot in the desert. 

“Just clothes” can mean a lot of things.

We continue on, following the trail. For the last 400 yards, we use our hands to grab onto rocks, struggling upward. We reach the top, shirt collars soggy with sweat. An immense flat sprawls below us, and beyond that, the mine. The mineral rings around its giant geometric mesas and plateaus look like a life size, three-dimensional topographical map. The lights can be seen almost all the way to the Mexican border, acting as beacon for those heading north. The trail is starting to make sense.

Mountains punctuate the smooth landscape, jutting upward as if pushed with a giant finger from underneath. From the summit, I watch two Border Patrol helicopters bob in front of me, thousands of feet above the ground below us. The machines seem whaleish, with a wide tail and ovoid body. Black tinted windows cover the pointed nose, and the doors form three black spots along the gleaming white side panels.

 

+    +    +

 

Baboquivari, Atascosa, Huachuca, Santa Ana, Sierrita, Cerro Colorado, Warsaw, Roskruge, Table Top, Dead Man. I say the names out loud while I’m hiking, trying to memorize each area. Baboquivari Peak, a giant metamorphic thrust jutting from the jagged Baboquivari range, is the easiest to remember. The head of Baboquivari is eerily omnipresent, mischievously poking out from behind interior ranges. It is the center of the Tohono O’odham universe, and also serves as an important landmark for migrants. In Sasabe, a border town on the Mexican side, street vendors sell Baboquivari brand water bottles, specifically manufactured for the journey. Each jug has a blue, rectangular sticker with a picture of the peak on it. If you match the picture on the sticker up against the Baboquivari ridgeline, you will always be heading north. The gallon water jugs are made of sturdy, black plastic. Regular milk jugs are flimsy, and the opalescent white glows in the desert night.

 

+    +    +

 

Women are especially vulnerable in the desert, facing repeated assault by guides or other men in their groups. Rape is often considered part of the price, and many women take birth control pills before the journey, as a precaution. 

One warm, January day, I hike up a steep ridgeline, fractured with jagged rocks and loose earth. I try to imagine what it would be like to hike in the dark. My backpack is heavy with six gallons of water and cans of beans. The weight drags me down as I scramble over a small limestone escarpment. I glimpse something white at my feet. A woman’s bra. 

I reach the top of the ridgeline and begin removing jugs of water from my pack. A few yards away, the leg bone of a cow dangles from a tree. It’s strung up with a pair of bright orange women’s underwear, the bone looped through the leg holes. One some trails, there are entire trees draped with stained and ripped undergarments. Cruel bragging. I untie the underwear and push them into the side pocket of my backpack.

That night, after the campfire is a glittering bed of coals and everyone else has gone to bed, I take the bra and underwear out of my pack. I carry them balled tightly in my fists toward the boulder outside of camp that serves as an altar for those who’ve been lost. It’s ringed with items found out on the trails. Shoes, torn backpacks, baseball caps coated in dirt and sweat and cactus barbs. Animal bones, bleached by the sun. In the center, broken votive candles and a cluster of white wooden crosses.

I stand, staring at the altar, my hands against my chest. I don’t pray. Instead, I beg, please. I say it again. Please. I push them down into one of the shoes and turn toward my tent.

The next day, a group from Chiapas comes into camp, among them two women and a young girl. One of them couldn’t keep up with the group, and the guide told her he was going to leave her behind. The others chose to stay with her. They had tried to drink water from a contaminated cattle tank and vomited for two days. On the third day, they were able to hold a little food. On the fourth, they ate nearly three pounds of corn tortillas. None of them ever spoke above a whisper. For days, it sounded like we had ghosts in camp.

 

+    +    +

 

In the twelve days since his initial capture, Macho B had lost twenty pounds and developed an infection on his hind leg where the snare had dug into his skin. As the day progressed, he began to show signs of hypothermia. One of the biologists covered him with a sweatshirt and prepared for transport to the Phoenix Zoo. There, it was determined that he was suffering from kidney disease, and was euthanized immediately.

Later, the employee who had left the steaks sent an e-mail exposing the agency’s veiled intent to catch the jaguar, including the location of the trap and the bait used. Wracked with guilt, she described the scene after his initial capture. Macho B had clawed the bark from the mesquite that anchored the snare, had thrown his body against a nearby boulder, and fought until the snare closed impossibly tight against his hind leg. One of his teeth was broken off at the root, and the small tree was covered in hair and nails and blood. 

Before the capture, the lead biologist had said that a jaguar could nearly rip its legs off trying to escape a snare. 

 

+    +    +

 

It’s Christmas day, and we only have three volunteers and one patient in camp. Beatriz is a tiny El Salvadoran woman in her mid-thirties, less than five feet tall. She keeps her long, dark hair in a ponytail centered in the back of her head. She tucks her hands into the front pocket of her sweatshirt, and her gold-rimmed teeth sparkle when she speaks. 

She had been crossing in a large group, mostly Guatemalan men in their twenties and thirties. She was barely able to keep up, and as one of only two women, her odds of coming out of the desert unscathed were low. She had separated from the others and wandered into camp dehydrated and sore. She was crossing to return to a job in Los Angeles, which she had left the year before to see her children back in El Salvador. She had enrolled them in private schools, hoping they’d be able to pursue medical careers. As their sole benefactor, she had to return to work in the United States to pay their tuition. I ask her what it had been like crossing eight years before.

“Much easier,” she says, “We just went to a city and walked through it.” I ask her if it seems like fewer people are attempting to cross than before. “Still a lot,” she answers, “But now it’s just much more dangerous.”

I ask Beatriz if she’s still been having trouble eating. She says she’s feeling less sick, but sleep is difficult. In her dreams, she is walking through the desert when her group is spotted from above by Border Patrol. The huge machines fly low over her head, cyclonic wind from the rotors spinning out dust and rocks. She tries to run away, shielding her face with outstretched arms. When she looks up, the others have scattered, and the helicopters have all turned into orcas.

    That night we gather for dinner. The small, wooden table is crowded with plates full of black beans, onions, and a stack of cornmeal pancakes stuffed with cheese called pupusas, a traditional El Salvadoran dish. Our centerpiece is a little cluster of items scavenged from around camp, likely found at the Arivaca dump, a place of garbage and treasure, swarmed with bees year-round. An old trophy with a chipped gold figurine riding a motorcycle pops a wheelie over two votive candles, their glass casings black with soot. Except for Beatriz, there is not a religious person at the table. We sit, blinking at one another, each trying to conjure words that might resemble a Catholic prayer. Instead, silence. Well, then.

 

+    +    +

 

A few years ago, a black tomcat wandered in from the desert, padded around camp, and decided to stay. Volunteers named him Luther. His midnight fur is velvety and tight over powerful muscles. Luther comforts patients who are feeling the worst, winding his sleek body around their legs, jumping up to nuzzle a cheek or a throat. At night, he finds his way to where they’re sleeping, making sure that in the darkness, they won’t have to be alone.

    “Feel his biceps,” says Ayala, holding onto his paw and stretching out his arm. She’s sitting in a white, plastic lawn chair. Luther is perched on the lopsided patio table in front of her. The uneven metal legs are propped up with chunks of cinderblock, and you have to be careful not to set your coffee cup down too firmly.

    “You have to feel them.” 

I pinch the muscle above his cat elbow between my thumb and forefinger, give a good squeeze.

    “So strong,” I offer.

Ayala nods, satisfied.

    Nobody knows where Luther came from. My sister, Genevieve, who has volunteered regularly with the organization for five years, tells me that sometimes she thinks Luther is a man disguised as a cat. She’s tall and reserved, the sides of her head shaved, the back grown out long. She moves with certainty, stretching her arms languidly toward the sky. Cracking a smile, she squats down to pick up the little beast. 

Once, while driving from Arivaca to Tucson, Genevieve was passed on the highway by a sleek, black convertible. The man in the driver’s seat wore sunglasses, his dark hair slicked back, shiny with gel. The car’s custom license plate said LUTHER. As the convertible sped past, Genevieve picked up her cell phone and called the No More Deaths camp phone, panicked. “Is Luther gone?” she demanded. Hearing these community mythologies, I can’t help but imagine that Luther is Macho B in disguise, biding his time until he can return to his true form. 

It’s a hot day for December, and two Guatemalan women are in camp, fussing over him. They make cooing sounds and intentionally drop pieces of meat from the pan on the stove. Luther struts around, eating it up. He saunters over to a twisted mesquite, claws his way to the top and hangs from the top branch, arms wrapped around the gray limb. Back on the ground, he pounces after magenta songbirds perched in the low bushes. 

He pushes his empty water dish over to my feet and puts his paw inside the dry plastic container. Pointing. I reach down and take it over to one of the 50-gallon blue plastic drums marked Agua Potable. I hold the dish under the metal spigot and watch the water splash out. If Luther crossed the desert to get here, he has found his American dream.

 

+    +    +

 

There are some in Arivaca who clench their teeth when Macho B is mentioned. Lips curl around cigarettes and toothpicks. The government had no right. They spit the words on the ground like chewing tobacco. He was a wild animal.

 

+    +    +

 

I’m putting water near Table Top with Ayala and another volunteer named Lee. Today, Ayala is quiet and sharp, androgynous in a white undershirt and loose-fitting jeans. Lee is tall and slim, auburn hair tucked under a black baseball cap. None of us seem inclined to fill the silence with unnecessary chatter. We bounce along the dirt roads listening to the engine’s roar, the crunch of gravel, the yawn and creaking of suspension when we hit a rock or a hole. Early in the day, we check on our most southern water drop. 

Sometimes, we find a space where the jugs had been, or empty containers with blue, plastic caps littering the ground. We crush the bottles and put them in our backpacks, where they’ll find their way to a recycling plant. Sometimes, we find the jugs untouched, clustered together, an occasional rosary draped around a jug’s squat neck and with little handwritten notes of encouragement

agua pura

esperanza

buena suerta

    Often, we find that the jugs have been slashed. They lay scattered and empty with their caps still on, seals unbroken, the water slowly seeping through cuts made by ranchers or, more often, by Border Patrol. Three years ago, a No More Deaths volunteer found the body of a teenage girl who had recently expired of dehydration after passing two drop sites with slashed water containers. 

 

+    +    +

 

Ayala, Lee and I wander down into a clearing and along a small stream, looking for the cluster of white jugs. It’s surprisingly lush, lined with eastern cottonwood and Gambel oak. Our conversation meanders. Trees and rocks and running water. Cows. Fences. Ayala looks down at her GPS and starts laughing.

“What?” I ask.

“We’re in Mexico.”

I look around. The landscape is continuous. There is no way to know. We turn around and step back over the imaginary line.

Later that day, we overestimate the daylight and hike back to the truck in the dark. The moon casts light bright enough to see by. We walk single file along one of the migrant trails, past fields of ocotillo standing black against the cornflower sky. A little herd of javelinas stampede around some small oak trees about thirty feet ahead and then take off up a hillside. Canyon walls loom overhead, casting shadows that become lost in the dark of a wash. We pick carefully through rocky soil and beds of prickly pear sprawling into the trail, listening for footsteps that are not our own. The air is cool, and deceptively still.

Reservations

Driving. A form of worship. Nothing is ever close. Nothing can be reached in under fifty miles. The sage brush are people, silent, pale faced, lost. The radio does not play, the air-conditioning does not cool. The engine is the only speaker.

This place is not home. I am not returning. I will always be leaving. There are buildings. Wooden and melted. Bleached in wind and time. People died inside, starved, sick, old. The buildings are failures of life, abortions. Why build here? In the desert? Weren’t there enough bones?

***

I knew a Crow Indian. He was younger than I was at the time. He lived on the Agency, in a trailer house that had been cut in half. Blue tarp made a fourth wall, bailing twine, faded orange, criss-crossed everything, held it in place.

“You’re a ghost people,” he said. “White faced, empty, looking for something that wasn’t yours in the first place.”

He didn’t drink anymore, not after he was arrested for being Indian. When we got together we played cards and talked about Jesus.

“A black guy. No blond, blue eyed crap.” My friend said. “I don’t think you people have souls. Go Fish.”

***

“Let me clarify this. I’m a god-damned Indian, not a Native American. I am not going to sell you crystals or dream catchers, I don’t weave rugs, and if you ask me for some tribal wisdom, my advice would be to go home. All the way home. Back to England or Norway or wherever the hell you people came from.” Robert said it flat, like he was reciting items from the dollar menu. A pen dangled from the clipboard he was holding. The woman behind the counter stopped typing.

“Sir, you do not have to mark Native American if you don’t want to,” she said.

“You told me I had to fill this out completely…” Robert began. The woman behind the counter laid her finger on Robert’s clipboard.

“Other.”

“What?” Robert said.

“Mark yourself down as ‘Other.”

***

When I first drove to Robert’s house and I saw his tarp-trailer, I asked him why. He wasn’t broke, he never spent his Indian money. He didn’t drink, gamble, do meth, or have a leech for a girlfriend. He didn’t have to.

“It’s mine,” he said, getting into my car. “Nobody gave it to me.”

“This car is mine.” I said. “But if it was a piece of crap, I’d get rid of it.”

“It ain’t yours.” Robert said, he never wore his seat belt.

“The hell it ain’t.”

“Financed. You’ll be paying on it until you’re dead. It ain’t yours.”

***

“He’s real Indian Fight,” Left Hand told me. Robert and Left Hand were related the way everyone is on the Rez. “He’s gonna burn shit down until it’s all on his level.”

I was cutting Left Hand’s hair. He kept it close and tight, said it fit better under his hat.

“What’s his level?” I asked over my clippers.

“We’ll see when the smoke clears.”

***

Robert wouldn’t let me cut his hair. He came into the old red barbershop, Nikes covered in cow shit.

“You wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he said. My father, who sat in one of his barber chairs, grinned.

“Cut Indian hair all the time,” Dad said. 

“Not mine. I ain’t going near a white guy with a sharp instrument.”

“You afraid I might scalp you?” Dad said; he was missing a tooth by then, his walker tricked out with bead work and leather fringes.

“Shit, Barry, who haven’t you scalped?” Robert and Dad laughed, that butch laugh of old men who liked to swap. I’d kept cutting hair, listening. 

“How come you’re never on Dad’s case about his shit,” I said later, over cards.

“What shit?” Robert said, cards held up like an old lady missing her glasses.

“His dream catchers and those painted buffalo skulls.”

“It’s his. He made it. He beaded it, he painted it, his shit.”

“He’s not an Indian,” I would say, forgetting about the cards.

“So?” Robert would say, laying down a flush. “Neither are you.”

***

Guys get stabbed out here. Stabbed over beer and pocket change. A blowjob still costs ten bucks and the three pawn shops won’t take stolen stuff on the first try. Four blocks of Billings and you’d think you were somewhere else. Somewhere where the buildings are bigger, the people don’t live in trailers, and not everybody’s truck has a pair of plastic testicles hanging from the hitch.

The mission is always full, guys out back, mostly white. They’re hard here, Greyhound ghosts, looking for somewhere the gangs won’t get them. They don’t talk to each other, don’t talk to me, even when I do free cuts in the mission. I only cut one head of Indian hair and he’s a Sioux from North Dakota. He’s passing through, trying to hurry the hell up and get gone from Billings.

“Last time I was here, Crow put a knife in my thigh. I emptied out all over the sidewalk. Hospital bounced me fast. Asked me if there was someone they could call on Crow Agency. I told that nurse, I told her-“This ain’t my Rez. Ain’t my Rez.” 

***

Robert knew I wanted out. I told him as much. I was drunk and he wasn’t. We were in a bar outside the Heights. A cowboy was sitting on the bar, a shot of tequila tucked in his zipper. A college girl made a big show of going down on him, popping the shot in her mouth, working the crowd.

“Blowjob shots. That’s what white girls learn in college,” Robert said over the music. We wouldn’t stay too long, his long hair and his vest would get us in trouble, if not inside then outside in the parking lot.

“That’s what I mean,” I said, “I hate this place.”

“Then why are we here? You know I hate bars.”

“Not what I meant. This,” I gestured, “This whole God damned place.”

“Then why are you here?” Robert was staring at the row of girls taking off their bras and handing them to the bartender. “Damn expensive. I bought a bra for Kendra, God damn thing was thirty bucks. I’d dump her ass if she threw it at some bartender to hang on a friggin’ wall.”

“Why stay?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Seems like something to ask yourself.”

“No, why stay in the Agency? It’s like a third world in there,” I yelled.

“Screw you,” Robert said, his eyes still on the flashing girls.

“No, I’m serious.”

“Me too.”

***

 

My mother was working at a new and used place. A charity place really. Folks would come in and get free clothes and food, others could do a little bargain shopping. The place looked like it belonged in the desert, flat roof, muddy walls, no windows and people moving through the aisle like they were shell shocked.

“Those hooter-ites,” Mom said.

“What? Hutterites?”

“Yeah, those hooter-ites steal me blind. I didn’t think the Amish did that.”

“Hutterites aren’t Amish,” I said. We were eating dinner, she was in her rocking chair, Dad was three legs and a breast into his Kentucky Fry.

“Well whatever they are, they steal me all to hell.”

“They steal?”

“You bet they do. Them and the Indians come in and steal. Coats, clocks, we caught a hooter-ite stealing salt and pepper shakers. She was stuffing them down her dress. I thought they were religious.” Mom weighed a hundred and three pounds soaking wet in her winter coat. She had a look on her face that matched her voice, “I mean don’t they read their own book?”

“You shouldn’t say that,” I said, wishing for a beer.

“What? That they steal?”

“The Indians.” I wished she would turn down the TV; Country Music Channel barfed noise into the living room.

“So it’s okay to say the hooter-ites steal but not the Indians?” She lit a cigarette.

“Not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?” Dad said, brushing breading off his Hawaiian shirt.

“I don’t know.”

***

 

“Sure. I’ve done it,” Robert said. We were playing golf. He said he loved golfing because it pissed off the old guys on the course. “They see an Indian out here and their hemorrhoids get fired up.”

“Why?” I said. Robert was golfing in his jeans and his Def Leppard T-shirt.

“I was poor. I needed stuff so I stole it. You ever been poor?” We shared a set of clubs he’d bought off of eBay.

“Sure, but I never stole anything.”

Robert slid his club back into the powder-blue bag. “Then you weren’t poor enough.”

***

Mom was proud. I would be the only one in our family to have a master’s degree. Dad was proud. I would be leaving the barbershop.

“Won’t have to sweep up hair no more,” he said. He was missing more teeth and his walker had lost its cane.

“I like cutting hair,” I said.

Dad just nodded, the kind of nod old men use to cut things off, to make things simple. I was showing my parents the school brochure.

“Maine?” Mom took her glasses off to look at the picture of a group of students clustered around a professor beneath a massive oak. “Don’t they look happy. And smart.”

“God damn. Maine,” Dad said, grinning. “Always wanted to see Maine.”

“Really?” I said.

“Hell, I wanted to see everywhere.”

***

“Doctor - you going to make me call you that?” Robert said. We were playing War with three decks. The wind was flapping his tarp wall. I had to use the bathroom but there was no way I would do so at Robert’s. He used a bucket, said he was going to dig an outhouse soon enough.

“That’s a doctorate. No. But you can call me Master if you like.”

“You’re white. We already did that once.”

***

She was little over the phone, even smaller than she was in person. She’d called me late, late for her, around eight o’clock Montana time.

“He just fell. Right outside. I guess it was on some ice or something. I only saw because the door was open.” Her voice was used up, empty.

“It’s okay, Mom.” I whispered into the phone.

“I ran out there and people were looking at him bleeding all over the sidewalk. He was wearing a Navy vet cap, like your dad’s.” I could hear her smoking, quick exhalations and the squeak of her rocking chair.

“Somebody said he looked drunk. I don’t remember who it was. They just said he was walking like he was drunk and he slipped. Mindy told me not to do anything, said if I was out there doing something he could sue us.”

“Mindy’s a bitch,” I said.

“No argument. But I couldn’t just let him bleed to death. I used my sweater but he was bleeding so much. Split his scalp right open. Mindy was screaming at me that if I caught the Hep from some drunk Indian it was my own damn fault.” I tried to say something soft but Mom kept talking, her chair squeaking. “He looked at me, opened up his eyes and they were all bloody. He looked at me and said, “I’m a vet. I’m a vet.” I didn’t know what to say. I was yelling for someone to call 911. Then he started singing.”

“He started singing?” I asked.

“Yeah. He was singing in Crow. That’s when this lady came over. She’d been shopping inside. She bent down and listened real close. She was Indian so I asked her if she knew what he was singing.” Mom took a breath. Ice cubes in her drink clinking over the line.

“Did she know?” I asked.

“The lady said she was Sioux and that the guy was singing in Crow so she didn’t know. Not exactly.”

“What do you mean?” 

“She said she didn’t know what he was singing but she said she knew it was his death song.”

We were silent for a time; I listened to her rocking chair over the telephone.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

“It’s okay, Mom.”

“I didn’t know what to do so I just held him close, held his hand. I listened. I just listened.”

***

“Diabetes, the bad kind,” Robert said. We were eating sandwiches. The ocean smell leaked into every bite.

“Had to piss too much. Went to Deering Clinic, got some tests and a white guy got to tell me I was sicker than hell.”

“Hey, I’m sorry.” 

“Why are you sorry?” Robert asked. “And why does everything smell like jock itch out here?”

“Jock itch? Jesus, Robert, it’s the ocean.”

Robert set his sandwich down. “You know, somebody asked me if I was Chinese.”

“Here?”

“No. A professor at the community college in Billings.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No. I made a vow right there to learn as much Chinese as I could, well enough to say “I am a God-damned Indian.” Possibly add, “You white jackass.”

“What if he wasn’t white?” 

“Well, then I still have this.” Robert said and flipped me off.

***

“Here’s your mother.” Dad said and I heard him hand the phone to Mom.

As soon as she got on the line I asked, “Why does he always do that?”

“Hello to you too. Do what?” she said.

“Hand the phone to you. I never get a chance to talk to him.”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s just uncomfortable.” 

“With what?” I said, aware that my phone card was almost dead. “Talking to his son?”

“Yes,” she said.

***

It was the first time I cut a black person’s hair. My hands were sweating. The barber shop was Eddy’s Place, just off campus. Eddy didn’t exist and my job title was “Stylist.”

“Where you from?” I asked, keeping my scissors going.

“Here,” the guy said. He was younger than my dad, tall, and wore something with leather patches on the elbows.

“I’m from Montana,” I didn’t know why I said it, and I was aware of my nasal a’s.

“Never been,” he said. “Nice?”

I worked my comb, wondering about my answer. “Parts of it,” I said.

He watched me in the mirror, hands folded. 

“You mind if I ask how old you are?” he said. 

“Twenty-eight.”

“What brought you to Maine?” His voice was deep.

“College.”

“Why college?” 

“I don’t know. Get a better job. Maybe wanted to make a difference somehow.” 

“You had to come to Maine to make a difference?” It wasn’t an accusation. It was a question.

“I guess so,” I said.

***

Grandpa’s barbershop was whorehouse red. It had been a barn that somebody put a foundation under. The back end was sinking into the ground and the toilet was crooked enough to make balance a problem. Dirty magazines and ashtrays, peeling linoleum and a shoe shine stand. I was never good at shining shoes. I was in a hurry for my fifty cents and cowboy boots don’t like to shine.

It was out in the sticks, an empty place save for my grandparents’ trailer house, a failed gas-station, and a field full of horse crap and rusted cars. Grandpa smacked me in the head once, a reflex. Came easy to him. Dad cornered him in the bathroom, shutting the door. Grandpa never smacked me again. I stopped shining shoes.

Dad took over when his brother died. Grandpa left the barbershop to Bill but Bill died fast, leaving dad with a barbershop and a sister who was out to squeeze any money she could from him. Dad redecorated, put up his Indian stuff he’d made, gave the dirty magazines to Robert and me, and cut hair for thirty-three years.

“Glad it’s gone,” he said to me as we were driving home. “Glad you could come down for it.” Dad wasn’t walking much anymore, his knees were plastic now but less than perfect.

“Will you miss it?” I said.

“No.” Dad leaned back in his seat. “Hell no.”

“A tax place. Think it will last?” 

“If they’re lucky? No.”

***

Kendra loved Disney movies. It drove Robert insane.

“Even Pocahontas. An Indian chick that digs that movie. I friggin’ hate Uno.” Robert’s hand was full of green. I used that to my advantage.

“Draw two. What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“Why can’t Indian chicks like Indian chicks?”

“Lesbians?” 

“No, asshole. That might be hot but that’s not what I’m saying.” Robert played a wild card. “Why do Indian chicks not want to be Indian?”

“You lost me. Pocahontas was Indian.”

“Right. Disney chewed that one up. They want to appeal to little white girls. Why is it that the Indian chick is always falling in love with the white guy? Or the Asian chick or the black chick? There’s always a white guy. You’re all assholes.”

“I know. Draw five.”

“Prick. Look, you hit the Rez school and kids are dressed like gang bangers. You hit anywhere that actually hires Indians and they’re dressed like the white people who hired them.” Robert drew cards and cussed.

“What do you want, Robert? All Indians should be wearing leather and beads?”

“No. And although also hot, that isn’t what I meant. If you lay that yellow two down I will kick your ass.”

“I don’t get it. What do you mean then?”

“I told you I would kick your ass, God damn it. Alright, sounds confusing right? Why can’t they just dress like them? Like their own self. No gang banger, no Britney Spears, no nothing.” Robert set his cards down and rubbed at his face.

“I still don’t get it.”

“You wouldn’t,” he said.

“I got to head back tomorrow. You watch out for my folks?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Your mom’s been great about calling me every friggin’ five minutes to remind me about my insulin.”

“Good on her,” I said.

“Yeah,” Robert said, opening a Pepsi. “Good on her.”

***

The ocean out my window. Air so thick with salt that it tasted like sex on my lips. The woman with me will be my wife; she is not asleep but since it is my memory, I close her eyes. I can hear seagulls and ships. It’s cold enough to worry my skin into bumps but they feel good, clean. At the time of this memory my father is dying. He does it like his father, fast and decisive. A clot, a brief struggle, just enough to prove that he dies a man. My mother will call soon, I’ll close the window, and the woman beside me will hold me in her arms, her bare skin against my goose bumps. I won’t cry. It is too early for that and the drive home is too long.

***

“You can’t drive back,” my mother told me.

“Three days. Two if I push.”

“You fly. It’s safer. I’ll pay.” She has been emptied out but there was enough of her to worry.

“I’m driving, Mom. I need to.” I hear her rocking chair and I imagine my father’s chair next to hers, empty.

“But…” She swallows loudly over the phone. “Alright,” she says and I hear the tears in there. “Alright.”

“I’ll be there soon. I love you Momma.” I say it like a little kid and she responds like we’re in the back yard and I just ran through the sprinklers.

“Me too, times two.”

***

They show up for his service. They are dressed in buckskins and there are feathers in their hair. Somebody brought a drum.

“He would have liked this,” I say. Robert is there, wearing a suit I didn’t know he owned.

“Everybody knew Barry,” he says. He is swollen, his face flushed.

“He always wanted to be an Indian you know,” I say. “Always beading and reading and his teepees. I hated setting those up.”

Robert looks at me as I start to cry. His hands are in his pockets and he is sweating. “Yeah, me too,” he says and I can’t help but laugh.

***

“So is this like social work?” Robert and I are sitting on a bench the city installed up on the Rim Rock. Billings is laid out beneath us, refineries blowing steam, trees just starting to green up. Billings would be pretty without the people.

“I guess you could call it that,” I say.

“So it’s like a club for teens. YMCA?”

“Not really. Close enough.”

“I didn’t figure you for moving back here.” Robert leans forward to rub his leg. 

“Figured I’d make a difference,” I say.

“You come all the way back to Billings to make a difference?” Robert asks; he’s not looking at me, or anything else, he’s thinking about his leg.

“I guess so.”

***

She is a Crow, all of thirteen and she carries her book with her. It’s a picture album. There is a unicorn on the cover, carefully glued there, and a sticker of a fairy. 

“I don’t want to forget any of them,” she says to the class. Twenty kids are staring at her. Teenagers wishing they were anywhere else. It’s not show and tell, not really, and I am not really teaching. These are kids whose parents work, who have nowhere else to be during the summer. They’re trapped with me from seven to seven. Sometimes we hate each other.

“I have pictures of all of them,” she says. Her name is Winter Standing Bull. She is one of two Indians in my teen center. They speak Crow together when they eat lunch.

“This is my aunt, Sara. She died of diabetes when I was three. This one is my uncle Hunter, he died when I was eight. He got stabbed.”  I listen and look at her pictures. They are pictures of young people; some smile, some have that surprised look a flash gives.

“My sister was fifteen when she died. She got in a car crash.” Winter goes on and on and I feel myself burning. I don’t know how to stop her or if I should. Some of the teens are burning too, eyes clouding up. I look to the other Crow and I see him nodding. He is older, too old for my teen center but he comes every day. He notices me looking and he nods harder.

“A lot of us have these,” he says. “It’s a Rez kind of book.”

Winter turns the page.

***

Robert laughs when I tell him about the book. “Yeah, it was going around for a while. Memory book or some shit. Great way to count up the dead when you run out of fingers and toes.” He was outside, we were talking through the old blue tarp of his trailer.

“I tell you, it’s either I’m pissing like a racehorse or I’m dry as the Sahara.” I could hear the flow of his urine against the sage brush.

“That’s why I came back,” I said, shuffling cards.

“Why? To stand in a room full of pit-stinking teens and get paid crap? Excuse me, less than crap?” Robert punctuated this with the sound of his zipper.

“I want to help. Make things better.”

Robert flipped the tarp open and stared at me. His eyes were bloodshot. “I get it. The white man comes in, makes things better. Kids become great successes; somebody makes a movie about you…so on and so forth.” 

“No. That’s not it.” 

“You can’t fix what doesn’t want to be fixed, Chief,” he said, taking the cards from my hand.

“I want to help. Maybe I can’t fix it but I damn well feel like I should be helping somehow.”

“God, I love a guilty white guy,” Robert said. “Last year a tourist handed me a twenty on his way by. I shit you not, a twenty. I was waiting for Kendra, downtown. I didn’t think I was dressed that badly but hey, earned me twenty bucks.”

“I’m not guilty,” I said.

“The hell you aren’t. Your problem is you want me or somebody like me to give you permission to be, or to pat you on the ass and say all’s well and you’re off the hook.” Robert dealt the cards while he spoke.

“No.” 

“Bullshit. Not that I don’t appreciate the thought. Well, I don’t know, maybe the thought pisses me off a little, too, if I want to be honest.”

“It’s not like that Robert,” I said, trying hard to catch his eye.

“Yeah it is. You feel like you got to right the wrongs but you ain’t so sure what the wrongs are. Hell, when I kick off I’m going to leave you my Indian card, screw that, I’ll will you the whole reservation. Get it up and running right away, white guy at the helm, we’ll all be wearing cardigans and boat shoes in no time.”

“Fuck you, Robert.” I stood up. He kept dealing cards.

“Grow up. Go do something with yourself that doesn’t involve Indians. You can’t take it.”

Robert didn’t stand up when I left.

***

Maine hadn’t changed and Mom loved the ocean. I got married and bought a house with enough room for my mom, kids and my ego. Mom spent most of her time outside, beneath the old oak that had drawn me to the house. 

“I’m glad you talked me into it,” Mom said.

“Me too,” I replied and Mom talked about Dad and the places Dad went in the Navy. 

“He’d love it here. With that big old tree. Before you know it that thing would have been full of feathers and dream catchers and you would’ve had a teepee out back.”

“I wouldn’t have minded,” I said. 

Mom nodded and said, “Neither would I.” 

***

Robert sent the letter before he passed away, diabetes taking him at 35. It had a copy of his will and a piece of ditto paper with “I’m not giving it to you. It’s just yours.” printed in black Sharpie. 

***

This place is not home. I am not returning. I will always be leaving. There are buildings. Wooden and melted. Bleached in wind and time. People died inside, starved, sick, old. The buildings are failures of life, abortions. I know why they built out here, out in the sage. Nobody gave it to them, these crumbles. The desert doesn’t give anything. Out here, floating in the sage is half a trailer, one wall made of rotten blue tarp. An outhouse that never got dug, a kitchen table full of cards and a few pictures of an Indian woman who loved Disney films. Out here, out in this desert, the ghosts are quiet and the trailer with the blue tarp was never given to me but is mine all the same.

***