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