Authors: Sherman Alexie
Tags: #Adult, #Humour
A terrified mouse did run up my aunt’s pant leg, but I wildly exaggerated the aftermath in “The Fun House.” My aunt didn’t go swimming in the creek, never felt a need to divorce her husband or leave her son, and she was mad at me for suggesting otherwise.
“Junior,” she said. “People are going to think that really happened.”
“But it did really happen, Auntie. At least the mouse part. It’s a true story.”
“Yeah, but it’s truer when it’s in a book.”
“Indian Education” is a true (and truer) account of my public school days. I still have nightmares about missing those two free throws to lose that basketball game against Ritzville. Twenty years later, I can tell you that Doug Wellsandt, Ritzville’s star, had just fouled out after he intentionally knocked me to the ground to prevent me from hitting an easy layup. While I stood at the line to shoot the free throws with six seconds on the clock, Ritzville had Keith Humphrey, John Powers, Doug Koch, Miles Curtis, and Jeff McBroom on the court while my teammates—Steve LeBret, Shaun Soliday, John Graham, and Brett Springer—were praying for me to win the game. We had come from sixteen points down in the fourth quarter! It would have been a miracle victory! But I missed those fucking free throws, clanging the ball off the rim twice. Until that point, I had been a 90 percent free-throw shooter. After that night, I was a 50 percent loser. I was a victim of a high school basketball form of Post-Traumatic Free-Throw Stress Syndrome. When I see any of my former teammates now, they still tease me about losing that game. A year after those misses, I hit two free throws and two jump shots in the last minute to win a bigger game against Ritzville, but I never dream about that. Hell, my joy in winning is always much smaller than my pain in losing.
I’m a poet who can whine in meter.
And just like the father-son team in “Witnesses, Secret and Not,” my father and I once traveled to Spokane because the police wanted to talk to him about a long-missing and presumed dead Indian man. And yes, my father knew who killed and buried that man, as do most of the people on my reservation. The police know, too, but they can’t make a case against the killer. I see that man now and again. He’s soft-spoken, funny, and always wears slacks and button-down dress shirts. He once ate dinner at my house while I worried what he might do with his knife and fork. But that’s a whole different story, isn’t it?
So why am I telling you that these stories are true? First of all, they’re not really true. They are the vision of one individual looking at the lives of his family and his entire tribe, so these stories are necessarily biased, incomplete, exaggerated, deluded, and often just plain wrong. But in trying to make them true and real, I am writing what might be called reservation realism.
What is the definition of reservation realism? Well, I’ll let you read the book and figure that out for yourself.
As for me, in rereading these stories, some of them written when I was only nineteen years old, I feel like I’m listening to a stranger’s dreams. The younger version of me is angrier, more impulsive, and deathly afraid of physical description. Every dang Indian in this book is described as being identically dark skinned, with the same long black hair. It’s the Stepford Tribe of Indians. There might be five or six pine trees and a couple of rivers and streams, one grizzly bear and a lot of dogs, but that’s about all the flora and fauna you’re going to get. It’s simple stuff but manages to feel more concentrated rather than sparse. It’s funny, too. I laughed a few times at the old jokes, new to me after ten years. But mostly it feels sad, often hopeless, and hot with loneliness. I kept trying to figure out the main topic, the big theme, the overarching idea, the epicenter. And it is this: the sons in this book really love and hate their fathers.
LTHOUGH IT WAS WINTER
, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weatherman asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.
It was January and Victor was nine years old. He was sleeping in his bedroom in the basement of the HUD house when it happened. His mother and father were upstairs, hosting the largest New Year’s Eve party in tribal history, when the winds increased and the first tree fell.
“Goddamn it,” one Indian yelled at another as the argument began. “You ain’t shit, you fucking apple.”
The two Indians raged across the room at each other. One was tall and heavy, the other was short, muscular. High-pressure and low-pressure fronts.
The music was so loud that Victor could barely hear the voices as the two Indians escalated the argument into a fistfight. Soon there were no voices to be heard, only guttural noises that could have been curses or wood breaking. Then the music stopped so suddenly that the silence frightened Victor.
“What the fuck’s going on?” Victor’s father yelled, his voice coming quickly and with force. It shook the walls of the house.
“Adolph and Arnold are fighting again,” Victor’s mother said. Adolph and Arnold were her brothers, Victor’s uncles. They always fought. Had been fighting since the very beginning.
“Well, tell them to get their goddamn asses out of my house,” Victor’s father yelled again, his decibel level rising to meet the tension in the house.
“They already left,” Victor’s mother said. “They’re fighting out in the yard.”
Victor heard this and ran to his window. He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly. But it was strangely quiet, like Victor was watching a television show with the volume turned all the way down. He could hear the party upstairs move to the windows, step onto the front porch to watch the battle.
During other hurricanes broadcast on the news, Victor had seen crazy people tie themselves to trees on the beach. Those people wanted to feel the force of the hurricane firsthand, wanted it to be like an amusement ride, but the thin ropes were broken and the people were broken. Sometimes the trees themselves were pulled from the ground and both the trees and the people tied to the trees were carried away.
Standing at his window, watching his uncles grow bloody and tired, Victor pulled the strings of his pajama bottoms tighter. He squeezed his hands into fists and pressed his face tightly against the glass.
“They’re going to kill each other,” somebody yelled from an upstairs window. Nobody disagreed and nobody moved to change the situation. Witnesses. They were all witnesses and nothing more. For hundreds of years, Indians were witnesses to crimes of an epic scale. Victor’s uncles were in the midst of a misdemeanor that would remain one even if somebody was to die. One Indian killing another did not create a special kind of storm. This little kind of hurricane was generic. It didn’t even deserve a name.
Adolph soon had the best of Arnold, though, and was trying to drown him in the snow. Victor watched as his uncle held his other uncle down, saw the look of hate and love on his uncle’s face and the terrified arms of his other uncle flailing uselessly.
Then it was over.
Adolph let Arnold loose, even pulled him to his feet, and they both stood, facing each other. They started to yell again, unintelligible and unintelligent. The volume grew as other voices from the party upstairs were added. Victor could almost smell the sweat and whiskey and blood.
Everybody was assessing the damage, considering options. Would the fight continue? Would it decrease in intensity until both uncles sat quietly in opposite corners, exhausted and ashamed? Could the Indian Health Service doctors fix the broken nose and sprained ankles?
But there was other pain. Victor knew that. He stood at his window and touched his own body. His legs and back hurt from a day of sledding, his head was a little sore from where he bumped into a door earlier in the week. One molar ached from cavity; his chest throbbed with absence.
Victor had seen the news footage of cities after hurricanes had passed by. Houses were flattened, their contents thrown in every direction. Memories not destroyed, but forever changed and damaged. Which is worse? Victor wanted to know if memories of his personal hurricanes would be better if he could change them. Or if he just forgot about all of it. Victor had once seen a photograph of a car that a hurricane had picked up and carried for five miles before it fell onto a house. Victor remembered everything exactly that way.
On Christmas Eve when he was five, Victor’s father wept because he didn’t have any money for gifts. Oh, there was a tree trimmed with ornaments, a few bulbs from the Trading Post, one string of lights, and photographs of the family with holes punched through the top, threaded with dental floss, and hung from tiny branches. But there were no gifts. Not one.
“But we’ve got each other,” Victor’s mother said, but she knew it was just dry recitation of the old Christmas movies they watched on television. It wasn’t real. Victor watched his father cry huge, gasping tears. Indian tears.
Victor imagined that his father’s tears could have frozen solid in the severe reservation winters and shattered when they hit the floor. Sent millions of icy knives through the air, each specific and beautiful. Each dangerous and random.
Victor imagined that he held an empty box beneath his father’s eyes and collected the tears, held that box until it was full. Victor would wrap it in Sunday comics and give it to his mother.
Just the week before, Victor had stood in the shadows of his father’s doorway and watched as the man opened his wallet and shook his head. Empty. Victor watched his father put the empty wallet back in his pocket for a moment, then pull it out and open it again. Still empty. Victor watched his father repeat this ceremony again and again, as if the repetition itself could guarantee change. But it was always empty.
During all these kinds of tiny storms, Victor’s mother would rise with her medicine and magic. She would pull air down from empty cupboards and make fry bread. She would shake thick blankets free from old bandanas. She would comb Victor’s braids into dreams.
In those dreams, Victor and his parents would be sitting in Mother’s Kitchen restaurant in Spokane, waiting out a storm. Rain and lightning. Unemployment and poverty. Commodity food. Flash floods.
“Soup,” Victor’s father would always say. “I want a bowl of soup.”
Mother’s Kitchen was always warm in those dreams. There was always a good song on the jukebox, a song that Victor didn’t really know but he knew it was good. And he knew it was a song from his parents’ youth. In those dreams, all was good.
Sometimes, though, the dream became a nightmare and Mother’s Kitchen was out of soup, the jukebox only played country music, and the roof leaked. Rain fell like drums into buckets and pots and pans set out to catch whatever they could. In those nightmares, Victor sat in his chair as rain fell, drop by drop, onto his head.
In those nightmares, Victor felt his stomach ache with hunger. In fact, he felt his whole interior sway, nearly buckle, then fall. Gravity. Nothing for dinner except sleep. Gale and unsteady barometer.
In other nightmares, in his everyday reality, Victor watched his father take a drink of vodka on a completely empty stomach. Victor could hear that near-poison fall, then hit, flesh and blood, nerve and vein. Maybe it was like lightning tearing an old tree into halves. Maybe it was like a wall of water, a reservation tsunami, crashing onto a small beach. Maybe it was like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Maybe it was like all that. Maybe. But after he drank, Victor’s father would breathe in deep and close his eyes, stretch, and straighten his neck and back. During those long drinks, Victor’s father wasn’t shaped like a question mark. He looked more like an exclamation point.
Some people liked the rain. But Victor hated it. Really hated it. The damp. Humidity. Low clouds and lies. Weathermen. When it was raining, Victor would apologize to everyone he talked to.
“Sorry about the weather,” he would say.
Once, Victor’s cousins made him climb a tall tree during a rainstorm. The bark was slick, nearly impossible to hold on to, but Victor kept climbing. The branches kept most of the rain off him, but there were always sudden funnels of water that broke through, startling enough to nearly make Victor lose his grip. Sudden rain like promises, like treaties. But Victor held on.
There was so much that Victor feared, so much his intense imagination created. For years, Victor feared that he was going to drown while it was raining, so that even when he thrashed through the lake and opened his mouth to scream, he would taste even more water falling from the sky. Sometimes he was sure that he would fall from the top of the slide or from a swing and a whirlpool would suddenly appear beneath him and carry him down into the earth, drown him at the core.
And of course, Victor dreamed of whiskey, vodka, tequila, those fluids swallowing him just as easily as he swallowed them. When he was five years old, an old Indian man drowned in a mud puddle at the powwow. Just passed out and fell facedown into the water collected in a tire track. Even at five, Victor understood what that meant, how it defined nearly everything. Fronts. Highs and lows. Thermals and undercurrents. Tragedy.
When the hurricane descended on the reservation in 1976, Victor was there to record it. If the video camera had been available then, Victor might have filmed it, but his memory was much more dependable.
His uncles, Arnold and Adolph, gave up the fight and walked back into the house, into the New Year’s Eve party, arms linked, forgiving each other. But the storm that had caused their momentary anger had not died. Instead, it moved from Indian to Indian at the party, giving each a specific, painful memory.
Victor’s father remembered the time his own father was spit on as they waited for a bus in Spokane.
Victor’s mother remembered how the Indian Health Service doctor sterilized her moments after Victor was born.
Adolph and Arnold were touched by memories of previous battles, storms that continually haunted their lives. When children grow up together in poverty, a bond is formed that is stronger than most anything. It’s this same bond that causes so much pain. Adolph and Arnold reminded each other of their childhood, how they hid crackers in their shared bedroom so they would have something to eat.