Authors: Sherman Alexie
Tags: #Adult, #Humour
“I’m sorry about that, officer,” I said. “But you know how it is. I was listening to the radio, tapping my foot. It’s those drums, you know?”
“Whatever,” the trooper said. “Now, I need your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.”
I handed him the stuff and he barely looked at it. He leaned down into the window of the car.
“Hey, chief,” he asked. “Have you been drinking?”
“I don’t drink,” I said.
“How about your woman there?”
“Ask her yourself,” I said.
The trooper looked at me, blinked a few seconds, paused for dramatic effect, and said, “Don’t you even think about telling me what I should do.”
“I don’t drink, either,” Norma said quickly, hoping to avoid any further confrontation. “And I wasn’t driving anyway.”
“That don’t make any difference,” the trooper said. “Washington State has a new law against riding as a passenger in an Indian car.”
“Officer,” I said. “That ain’t new. We’ve known about that one for a couple hundred years.”
The trooper smiled a little, but it was a hard smile. You know the kind.
“However,” he said. “I think we can make some kind of arrangement so none of this has to go on your record.”
“How much is it going to cost me?” I asked.
“How much do you have?”
“About a hundred bucks.”
“Well,” the trooper said. “I don’t want to leave you with nothing. Let’s say the fine is ninety-nine dollars.”
I gave him all the money, though, four twenties, a ten, eight dollar bills, and two hundred pennies in a sandwich bag.
“Hey,” I said. “Take it all. That extra dollar is a tip, you know? Your service has been excellent.”
Norma wanted to laugh then. She covered her mouth and pretended to cough. His face turned red. I mean redder than it already was.
“In fact,” I said as I looked at the trooper’s badge. “I might just send a letter to your commanding officer. I’ll just write that Washington State Patrolman D. Nolan, badge number 13746, was polite, courteous, and above all, legal as an eagle.”
Norma laughed out loud now.
“Listen,” the trooper said. “I can just take you both in right now. For reckless driving, resisting arrest, threatening an officer with physical violence.”
“If you do,” Norma said and jumped into the fun, “I’ll just tell everyone how respectful you were of our Native traditions, how much you understood about the social conditions that lead to the criminal acts of so many Indians. I’ll say you were sympathetic, concerned, and intelligent.”
“Fucking Indians,” the trooper said as he threw the sandwich bag of pennies back into our car, sending them flying all over the interior. “And keep your damn change.”
We watched him walk back to his cruiser, climb in, and drive off, breaking four or five laws as he flipped a U-turn, left rubber, crossed the center line, broke the speed limit, and ran through a stop sign without lights and siren.
We laughed as we picked up the scattered pennies from the floor of the car. It was a good thing that the trooper threw that change back at us because we found just enough gas money to get us home.
After Norma left me, I’d occasionally get postcards from powwows all over the country. She missed me in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and California. I just stayed on the Spokane Indian Reservation and missed her from the doorway of my HUD house, from the living room window, waiting for the day that she would come back.
But that’s how Norma operated. She told me once that she would leave me whenever the love started to go bad.
“I ain’t going to watch the whole thing collapse,” she said. “I’ll get out when the getting is good.”
“You wouldn’t even try to save us?” I asked.
“It wouldn’t be worth saving at that point.”
“That’s pretty cold.”
“That’s not cold,” she said. “It’s practical.”
But don’t get me wrong, either. Norma was a warrior in every sense of the word. She would drive a hundred miles round-trip to visit tribal elders in the nursing homes in Spokane. When one of those elders died, Norma would weep violently, throw books and furniture.
“Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away,” she said. “And that hurts more because I don’t know how much of a future we have.”
And once, when we drove up on a really horrible car wreck, she held a dying man’s head in her lap and sang to him until he passed away. He was a white guy, too. Remember that. She kept that memory so close to her that she had nightmares for a year.
“I always dream that it’s you who’s dying,” she told me and didn’t let me drive the car for almost a year.
Norma, she was always afraid; she wasn’t afraid.
One thing that I noticed in the hospital as I coughed myself up and down the bed: A clock, at least one of those old-style clocks with hands and a face, looks just like somebody laughing if you stare at it long enough.
The hospital released me because they decided that I would be much more comfortable at home. And there I was, at home, writing letters to my loved ones on special reservation stationery that read:
FROM THE DEATH BED OF JAMES MANY HORSES
But in reality, I sat at my kitchen table to write, and
just doesn’t have the necessary music. I’m also the only James Many Horses, but there is a certain dignity to any kind of artificial tradition.
Anyway, I sat there at the death table, writing letters from my death bed, when there was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” I yelled, knowing the door was locked, and smiled when it rattled against the frame.
“It’s locked,” a female voice said and it was a female voice I recognized.
“Norma?” I asked as I unlocked and opened the door.
She was beautiful. She had either gained or lost twenty pounds, one braid hung down a little longer than the other, and she had ironed her shirt until the creases were sharp.
“Honey,” she said. “I’m home.”
I was silent. That was a rare event.
“Honey,” she said. “I’ve been gone so long and I missed you so much. But now I’m back. Where I belong.”
I had to smile.
“Where are the kids?” she asked.
“They’re asleep,” I said, recovered just in time to continue the joke. “Poor little guys tried to stay awake, you know? They wanted to be up when you got home. But, one by one, they dropped off, fell asleep, and I had to carry them off into their little beds.”
“Well,” Norma said. “I’ll just go in and kiss them quietly. Tell them how much I love them. Fix the sheets and blankets so they’ll be warm all night.”
“Jimmy,” she said. “You look like shit.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I’m sorry I left.”
“Where’ve you been?” I asked, though I didn’t really want to know.
“In Arlee. Lived with a Flathead cousin of mine.”
“Cousin as in cousin? Or cousin as in I-was-fucking-him-but-don’t-want-to-tell-you-because-you’re-dying?”
She smiled even though she didn’t want to.
“Well,” she said. “I guess you’d call him more of that second kind of cousin.”
Believe me: nothing ever hurt more. Not even my tumors which are the approximate size of baseballs.
“Why’d you come back?” I asked her.
She looked at me, tried to suppress a giggle, then broke out into full-fledged laughter. I joined her.
“Well,” I asked her again after a while. “Why’d you come back?”
She turned stoic, gave me that beautiful Tonto face, and said, “Because he was so fucking serious about everything.”
We laughed a little more and then I asked her one more time, “Really, why’d you come back?”
“Because someone needs to help you die the right way,” she said. “And we both know that dying ain’t something you ever done before.”
I had to agree with that.
“And maybe,” she said, “because making fry bread and helping people die are the last two things Indians are good at.”
“Well,” I said. “At least you’re good at one of them.”
And we laughed.
Y HAIR WAS TOO
short and my U.S. Government glasses were horn-rimmed, ugly, and all that first winter in school, the other Indian boys chased me from one corner of the playground to the other. They pushed me down, buried me in the snow until I couldn’t breathe, thought I’d never breathe again.
They stole my glasses and threw them over my head, around my outstretched hands, just beyond my reach, until someone tripped me and sent me falling again, facedown in the snow.
I was always falling down; my Indian name was Junior Falls Down. Sometimes it was Bloody Nose or Steal-His-Lunch. Once, it was Cries-Like-a-White-Boy, even though none of us had seen a white boy cry.
Then it was a Friday morning recess and Frenchy SiJohn threw snowballs at me while the rest of the Indian boys tortured some other
kid, another weakling. But Frenchy was confident enough to torment me all by himself, and most days I would have let him.
But the little warrior in me roared to life that day and knocked Frenchy to the ground, held his head against the snow, and punched him so hard that my knuckles and the snow made symmetrical bruises on his face. He almost looked like he was wearing war paint.
But he wasn’t the warrior. I was. And I chanted
It’s a good day to die, it’s a good day to die
, all the way down to the principal’s office.
Betty Towle, missionary teacher, redheaded and so ugly that no one ever had a puppy crush on her, made me stay in for recess fourteen days straight.
“Tell me you’re sorry,” she said.
“Sorry for what?” I asked.
“Everything,” she said and made me stand straight for fifteen minutes, eagle-armed with books in each hand. One was a math book; the other was English. But all I learned was that gravity can be painful.
For Halloween I drew a picture of her riding a broom with a scrawny cat on the back. She said that her God would never forgive me for that.
Once, she gave the class a spelling test but set me aside and gave me a test designed for junior high students. When I spelled all the words right, she crumpled up the paper and made me eat it.
“You’ll learn respect,” she said.
She sent a letter home with me that told my parents to either cut my braids or keep me home from class. My parents came in the next day and dragged their braids across Betty Towle’s desk.
“Indians, indians, indians.” She said it without capitalization. She called me “indian, indian, indian.”
And I said,
Yes, I am. I am Indian. Indian, I am
My traditional Native American art career began and ended with my very first portrait:
Stick Indian Taking a Piss in My Backyard
As I circulated the original print around the classroom, Mrs. Schluter intercepted and confiscated my art.
, I might cry now.
Freedom of expression
, I would write in editorials to the tribal newspaper.
In third grade, though, I stood alone in the corner, faced the wall, and waited for the punishment to end.
I’m still waiting.
“You should be a doctor when you grow up,” Mr. Schluter told me, even though his wife, the third grade teacher, thought I was crazy beyond my years. My eyes always looked like I had just hit-and-run someone.
“Guilty,” she said. “You always look guilty.”
“Why should I be a doctor?” I asked Mr. Schluter.
“So you can come back and help the tribe. So you can heal people.”
That was the year my father drank a gallon of vodka a day and the same year that my mother started two hundred different quilts but never finished any. They sat in separate, dark places in our HUD house and wept savagely.
I ran home after school, heard their Indian tears, and looked in the mirror. Doctor Victor, I called myself, invented an education, talked to my reflection.
Doctor Victor to the emergency room
I picked up a basketball for the first time and made my first shot. No. I missed my first shot, missed the basket completely, and the ball landed in the dirt and sawdust, sat there just like I had sat there only minutes before.
But it felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics, geometry. It was beautiful.
At that same moment, my cousin Steven Ford sniffed rubber cement from a paper bag and leaned back on the merry-go-round. His ears rang, his mouth was dry, and everyone seemed so far away.
But it felt good, that buzz in his head, all those colors and noises. It was chemistry, biology. It was beautiful.
Oh, do you remember those sweet, almost innocent choices that the Indian boys were forced to make?
Randy, the new Indian kid from the white town of Springdale, got into a fight an hour after he first walked into the reservation school.
Stevie Flett called him out, called him a squawman, called him a pussy, and called him a punk.
Randy and Stevie, and the rest of the Indian boys, walked out into the playground.
“Throw the first punch,” Stevie said as they squared off.
“No,” Randy said.
“Throw the first punch,” Stevie said again.
“No,” Randy said again.
“Throw the first punch!” Stevie said for the third time, and Randy reared back and pitched a knuckle fastball that broke Stevie’s nose.
We all stood there in silence, in awe.
That was Randy, my soon-to-be first and best friend, who taught me the most valuable lesson about living in the white world:
Always throw the first punch
I leaned through the basement window of the HUD house and kissed the white girl who would later be raped by her foster-parent father, who was also white. They both lived on the reservation, though, and when the headlines and stories filled the papers later, not one word was made of their color.
Just Indians being Indians
, someone must have said somewhere and they were wrong.