Authors: Sherman Alexie
Tags: #Adult, #Humour
“Junior,” I asked. “Where’d you learn to sing?”
“I don’t know how to sing,” he said.
We made our way down the road to Benjamin Lake and stood by the water. Thomas sat on the dock with his feet in the water and laughed softly. Junior sat on the hood of his car, and I danced around them both.
After a little bit, I tired out and sat on the hood of the car with Junior. The drug was beginning to wear off. All I could see in my vision of Junior was his guitar. Junior pulled out a can of warm Diet Pepsi and we passed it back and forth and watched Thomas talking to himself.
“He’s telling himself stories,” Junior said.
“Well,” I said. “Ain’t nobody else going to listen.”
“Why’s he like that?” Junior asked. “Why’s he always talking about strange shit? Hell, he don’t even need drugs.”
“Some people say he got dropped on his head when he was little. Some of the old people think he’s magic.”
“What do you think?”
“I think he got dropped on his head and I think he’s magic.”
We laughed, and Thomas looked up from the water, from his stories, and smiled at us.
“Hey,” he said. “You two want to hear a story?”
Junior and I looked at each other, looked back at Thomas, and decided that it would be all right. Thomas closed his eyes and told his story.
It is now
. Three Indian boys are drinking Diet Pepsi and talking out by Benjamin Lake. They are wearing only loincloths and braids. Although it is the twentieth century and planes are passing overhead, the Indian boys have decided to be real Indians tonight.
They all want to have their vision, to receive their true names, their adult names. That is the problem with Indians these days. They have the same names all their lives. Indians wear their names like a pair of bad shoes.
So they decided to build a fire and breathe in that sweet smoke. They have not eaten for days so they know their visions should arrive soon. Maybe they’ll see it in the flames or in the wood. Maybe the smoke will talk in Spokane or English. Maybe the cinders and ash will rise up.
The boys sit by the fire and breathe, their visions arrive. They are all carried away to the past, to the moment before any of them took their first drink of alcohol.
The boy Thomas throws the beer he is offered into the garbage. The boy Junior throws his whiskey through a window. The boy Victor spills his vodka down the drain.
Then the boys sing. They sing and dance and drum. They steal horses. I can see them.
They steal horses
“You don’t really believe that shit?” I asked Thomas.
“Don’t need to believe anything. It just is.”
Thomas stood up and walked away. He wouldn’t even try to tell us any stories again for a few years. We had never been very good to him, even as boys, but he had always been kind to us. When he stopped even looking at me, I was hurt. How do you explain that?
Before he left for good, though, he turned back to Junior and me and yelled at us. I couldn’t really understand what he was saying, but Junior swore he told us not to slow dance with our skeletons.
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Junior said.
There are things you should learn
. Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you. Maybe you don’t wear a watch, but your skeletons do, and they always know what time it is. Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices. And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But they’re not necessarily evil, unless you let them be.
What you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons. They ain’t ever going to leave you, so you don’t have to worry about that. Your past ain’t going to fall behind, and your future won’t get too far ahead. Sometimes, though, your skeletons will talk to you, tell you to sit down and take a rest, breathe a little. Maybe they’ll make you promises, tell you all the things you want to hear.
Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as beautiful Indian women and ask you to slow dance. Sometimes your skeletons will dress up as your best friend and offer you a drink, one more for the road. Sometimes your skeletons will look exactly like your parents and offer you gifts.
But, no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving. And don’t wear a watch. Hell, Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is.
We are trapped in the now
Junior and I sat out by Benjamin Lake until dawn. We heard voices now and again, saw lights in the trees. After I saw my grandmother walking across the water toward me, I threw away the rest of my new drug and hid in the backseat of Junior’s car.
Later that day we were parked in front of the Trading Post, gossiping and laughing, talking stories when Big Mom walked up to the car. Big Mom was the spiritual leader of the Spokane Tribe. She had so much good medicine I think she may have been the one who created the earth.
“I know what you saw,” Big Mom said.
“We didn’t see nothing,” I said, but we all knew that I was lying.
Big Mom smiled at me, shook her head a little, and handed me a little drum. It looked like it was about a hundred years old, maybe older. It was so small it could fit in the palm of my hand.
“You keep that,” she said. “Just in case.”
“Just in case of what?” I asked.
“That’s my pager. Just give it a tap and I’ll be right over,” she said and laughed as she walked away.
Now, I’ll tell you that I haven’t used the thing. In fact, Big Mom died a couple years back and I’m not sure she’d come even if the thing did work. But I keep it really close to me, like Big Mom said, just in case. I guess you could call it the only religion I have, one drum that can fit in my hand, but I think if I played it a little, it might fill up the whole world.
URING THE SIXTIES
father was the perfect hippie, since all the hippies were trying to be Indians. Because of that, how could anyone recognize that my father was trying to make a social statement?
But there is evidence, a photograph of my father demonstrating in Spokane, Washington, during the Vietnam War. The photograph made it onto the wire service and was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. In fact, it was on the cover of
In the photograph, my father is dressed in bell-bottoms and flowered shirt, his hair in braids, with red peace symbols splashed across his face like war paint. In his hands my father holds a rifle above his head, captured in that moment just before he proceeded to beat the shit out of the National Guard private lying prone on the ground. A fellow demonstrator holds a sign that is just barely visible over my father’s left shoulder. It read
MAKE LOVE NOT WAR
The photographer won a Pulitzer Prize, and editors across the country had a lot of fun creating captions and headlines. I’ve read many of them collected in my father’s scrapbook, and my favorite was run in the
. The caption under the photograph read
DEMONSTRATOR GOES TO WAR FOR PEACE
. The editors capitalized on my father’s Native American identity with other headlines like
ONE WARRIOR AGAINST WAR
PEACEFUL GATHERING TURNS INTO NATIVE UPRISING
Anyway, my father was arrested, charged with attempted murder, which was reduced to assault with a deadly weapon. It was a high-profile case so my father was used as an example. Convicted and sentenced quickly, he spent two years in Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Although his prison sentence effectively kept him out of the war, my father went through a different kind of war behind bars.
“There was Indian gangs and white gangs and black gangs and Mexican gangs,” he told me once. “And there was somebody new killed every day. We’d hear about somebody getting it in the shower or wherever and the word would go down the line. Just one word. Just the color of his skin. Red, white, black, or brown. Then we’d chalk it up on the mental scoreboard and wait for the next broadcast.”
My father made it through all that, never got into any serious trouble, somehow avoided rape, and got out of prison just in time to hitchhike to Woodstock to watch Jimi Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“After all the shit I’d been through,” my father said, “I figured Jimi must have known I was there in the crowd to play something like that. It was exactly how I felt.”
Twenty years later, my father played his Jimi Hendrix tape until it wore down. Over and over, the house filled with the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. He’d sit by the stereo with a cooler of beer beside him and cry, laugh, call me over and hold me tight in his arms, his bad breath and body odor covering me like a blanket.
Jimi Hendrix and my father became drinking buddies. Jimi Hendrix waited for my father to come home after a long night of drinking. Here’s how the ceremony worked:
1. I would lie awake all night and listen for the sounds of my father’s pickup.
2. When I heard my father’s pickup, I would run upstairs and throw Jimi’s tape into the stereo.
3. Jimi would bend his guitar into the first note of “The Star-Spangled Banner” just as my father walked inside.
4. My father would weep, attempt to hum along with Jimi, and then pass out with his head on the kitchen table.
5. I would fall asleep under the table with my head near my father’s feet.
6. We’d dream together until the sun came up.
The days after, my father would feel so guilty that he would tell me stories as a means of apology.
“I met your mother at a party in Spokane,” my father told me once. “We were the only two Indians at the party. Maybe the only two Indians in the whole town. I thought she was so beautiful. I figured she was the kind of woman who could make buffalo walk on up to her and give up their lives. She wouldn’t have needed to hunt. Every time we went walking, birds would follow us around. Hell, tumbleweeds would follow us around.”
Somehow my father’s memories of my mother grew more beautiful as their relationship became more hostile. By the time the divorce was final, my mother was quite possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived.
“Your father was always half crazy,” my mother told me more than once. “And the other half was on medication.”
But she loved him, too, with a ferocity that eventually forced her to leave him. They fought each other with the kind of graceful anger that only love can create. Still, their love was passionate, unpredictable, and selfish. My mother and father would get drunk and leave parties abruptly to go home and make love.
“Don’t tell your father I told you this,” my mother said. “But there must have been a hundred times he passed out on top of me. We’d be right in the middle of it, he’d say
I love you
, his eyes would roll backwards, and then out went his lights. It sounds strange, I know, but those were good times.”
I was conceived during one of those drunken nights, half of me formed by my father’s whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother’s vodka egg. I was born a goofy reservation mixed drink, and my father needed me just as much as he needed every other kind of drink.
One night my father and I were driving home in a near-blizzard after a basketball game, listening to the radio. We didn’t talk much. One, because my father didn’t talk much when he was sober, and two, because Indians don’t need to talk to communicate.
“Hello out there, folks, this is Big Bill Baggins, with the late-night classics show on KROC, 97.2 on your FM dial. We have a request from Betty in Tekoa. She wants to hear Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ recorded live at Woodstock.”
My father smiled, turned the volume up, and we rode down the highway while Jimi led the way like a snowplow. Until that night, I’d always been neutral about Jimi Hendrix. But, in that near-blizzard with my father at the wheel, with the nervous silence caused by the dangerous roads and Jimi’s guitar, there seemed to be more to all that music. The reverberation came to mean something, took form and function.
That song made me want to learn to play guitar, not because I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix and not because I thought I’d ever play for anyone. I just wanted to touch the strings, to hold the guitar tight against my body, invent a chord, and come closer to what Jimi knew, to what my father knew.
“You know,” I said to my father after the song was over, “my generation of Indian boys ain’t ever had no real war to fight. The first Indians had Custer to fight. My great-grandfather had World War I, my grandfather had World War II, you had Vietnam. All I have is video games.”
My father laughed for a long time, nearly drove off the road into the snowy fields.
“Shit,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you ain’t had to fight a war. You’re lucky. Shit, all you had was that damn Desert Storm. Should have called it Dessert Storm because it just made the fat cats get fatter. It was all sugar and whipped cream with a cherry on top. And besides that, you didn’t even have to fight it. All you lost during that war was sleep because you stayed up all night watching CNN.”
We kept driving through the snow, talked about war and peace.
“That’s all there is,” my father said. “War and peace with nothing in between. It’s always one or the other.”
“You sound like a book,” I said.
“Yeah, well, that’s how it is. Just because it’s in a book doesn’t make it not true. And besides, why the hell would you want to fight a war for this country? It’s been trying to kill Indians since the very beginning. Indians are pretty much born soldiers anyway. Don’t need a uniform to prove it.”
Those were the kinds of conversations that Jimi Hendrix forced us to have. I guess every song has a special meaning for someone somewhere. Elvis Presley is still showing up in 7-11 stores across the country, even though he’s been dead for years, so I figure music just might be the most important thing there is. Music turned my father into a reservation philosopher. Music had powerful medicine.