Authors: Sherman Alexie
Tags: #Adult, #Humour
“I remember the first time your mother and I danced,” my father told me once. “We were in this cowboy bar. We were the only real cowboys there despite the fact that we’re Indians. We danced to a Hank Williams song. Danced to that real sad one, you know. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ Except your mother and I weren’t lonesome or crying. We just shuffled along and fell right goddamn down into love.”
“Hank Williams and Jimi Hendrix don’t have much in common,” I said.
“Hell, yes, they do. They knew all about broken hearts,” my father said.
“You sound like a bad movie.”
“Yeah, well, that’s how it is. You kids today don’t know shit about romance. Don’t know shit about music either. Especially you Indian kids. You all have been spoiled by those drums. Been hearing them beat so long, you think that’s all you need. Hell, son, even an Indian needs a piano or guitar or saxophone now and again.”
My father played in a band in high school. He was the drummer. I guess he’d burned out on those. Now, he was like the universal defender of the guitar.
“I remember when your father would haul that old guitar out and play me songs,” my mother said. “He couldn’t play all that well but he tried. You could see him thinking about what chord he was going to play next. His eyes got all squeezed up and his face turned all red. He kind of looked that way when he kissed me, too. But don’t tell him I said that.”
Some nights I lay awake and listened to my parents’ lovemaking. I know white people keep it quiet, pretend they don’t ever make love. My white friends tell me they can’t even imagine their own parents getting it on. I know exactly what it sounds like when my parents are touching each other. It makes up for knowing exactly what they sound like when they’re fighting. Plus and minus. Add and subtract. It comes out just about even.
Some nights I would fall asleep to the sounds of my parents’ lovemaking. I would dream Jimi Hendrix. I could see my father standing in the front row in the dark at Woodstock as Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My mother was at home with me, both of us waiting for my father to find his way back home to the reservation. It’s amazing to realize I was alive, breathing and wetting my bed, when Jimi was alive and breaking guitars.
I dreamed my father dancing with all these skinny hippie women, smoking a few joints, dropping acid, laughing when the rain fell. And it did rain there. I’ve seen actual news footage. I’ve seen the documentaries. It rained. People had to share food. People got sick. People got married. People cried all kinds of tears.
But as much as I dream about it, I don’t have any clue about what it meant for my father to be the only Indian who saw Jimi Hendrix play at Woodstock. And maybe he wasn’t the only Indian there. Most likely there were hundreds but my father thought he was the only one. He told me that a million times when he was drunk and a couple hundred times when he was sober.
“I was there,” he said. “You got to remember this was near the end and there weren’t as many people as before. Not nearly as many. But I waited it out. I waited for Jimi.”
A few years back, my father packed up the family and the three of us drove to Seattle to visit Jimi Hendrix’s grave. We had our photograph taken lying down next to the grave. There isn’t a gravestone there. Just one of those flat markers.
Jimi was twenty-eight when he died. That’s younger than Jesus Christ when he died. Younger than my father as we stood over the grave.
“Only the good die young,” my father said.
“No,” my mother said. “Only the crazy people choke to death on their own vomit.”
“Why you talking about my hero that way?” my father asked.
“Shit,” my mother said. “Old Jesse WildShoe choked to death on his own vomit and he ain’t anybody’s hero.”
I stood back and watched my parents argue. I was used to these battles. When an Indian marriage starts to fall apart, it’s even more destructive and painful than usual. A hundred years ago, an Indian marriage was broken easily. The woman or man just packed up all their possessions and left the tipi. There were no arguments, no discussions. Now, Indians fight their way to the end, holding onto the last good thing, because our whole lives have to do with survival.
After a while, after too much fighting and too many angry words had been exchanged, my father went out and bought a motorcycle. A big bike. He left the house often to ride that thing for hours, sometimes for days. He even strapped an old cassette player to the gas tank so he could listen to music. With that bike, he learned something new about running away. He stopped talking as much, stopped drinking as much. He didn’t do much of anything except ride that bike and listen to music.
Then one night my father wrecked his bike on Devil’s Gap Road and ended up in the hospital for two months. He broke both his legs, cracked his ribs, and punctured a lung. He also lacerated his kidney. The doctors said he could have died easily. In fact, they were surprised he made it through surgery, let alone survived those first few hours when he lay on the road, bleeding. But I wasn’t surprised. That’s how my father was.
And even though my mother didn’t want to be married to him anymore and his wreck didn’t change her mind about that, she still came to see him every day. She sang Indian tunes under her breath, in time with the hum of the machines hooked into my father. Although my father could barely move, he tapped his finger in rhythm.
When he had the strength to finally sit up and talk, hold conversations, and tell stories, he called for me.
“Victor,” he said. “Stick with four wheels.”
After he began to recover, my mother stopped visiting as often. She helped him through the worst, though. When he didn’t need her anymore, she went back to the life she had created. She traveled to powwows, started to dance again. She was a champion traditional dancer when she was younger.
“I remember your mother when she was the best traditional dancer in the world,” my father said. “Everyone wanted to call her sweetheart. But she only danced for me. That’s how it was. She told me that every other step was just for me.”
“But that’s only half of the dance,” I said.
“Yeah,” my father said. “She was keeping the rest for herself. Nobody can give everything away. It ain’t healthy.”
“You know,” I said, “sometimes you sound like you ain’t even real.”
“What’s real? I ain’t interested in what’s real. I’m interested in how things should be.”
My father’s mind always worked that way. If you don’t like the things you remember, then all you have to do is change the memories. Instead of remembering the bad things, remember what happened immediately before. That’s what I learned from my father. For me, I remember how good the first drink of that Diet Pepsi tasted instead of how my mouth felt when I swallowed a wasp with the second drink.
Because of all that, my father always remembered the second before my mother left him for good and took me with her. No. I remembered the second before my father left my mother and me. No. My mother remembered the second before my father left her to finish raising me all by herself.
But however memory actually worked, it was my father who climbed on his motorcycle, waved to me as I stood in the window, and rode away. He lived in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, before he finally ended up in Phoenix. For a while, I got postcards nearly every week. Then it was once a month. Then it was on Christmas and my birthday.
On a reservation, Indian men who abandon their children are treated worse than white fathers who do the same thing. It’s because white men have been doing that forever and Indian men have just learned how. That’s how assimilation can work.
My mother did her best to explain it all to me, although I understood most of what happened.
“Was it because of Jimi Hendrix?” I asked her.
“Part of it, yeah,” she said. “This might be the only marriage broken up by a dead guitar player.”
“There’s a first time for everything, enit?”
“I guess. Your father just likes being alone more than he likes being with other people. Even me and you.”
Sometimes I caught my mother digging through old photo albums or staring at the wall or out the window. She’d get that look on her face that I knew meant she missed my father. Not enough to want him back. She missed him just enough for it to hurt.
On those nights I missed him most I listened to music. Not always Jimi Hendrix. Usually I listened to the blues. Robert Johnson mostly. The first time I heard Robert Johnson sing I knew he understood what it meant to be Indian on the edge of the twenty-first century, even if he was black at the beginning of the twentieth. That must have been how my father felt when he heard Jimi Hendrix. When he stood there in the rain at Woodstock.
Then on the night I missed my father most, when I lay in bed and cried, with that photograph of him beating that National Guard private in my hands, I imagined his motorcycle pulling up outside. I knew I was dreaming it all but I let it be real for a moment.
“Victor,” my father yelled. “Let’s go for a ride.”
“I’ll be right down. I need to get my coat on.”
I rushed around the house, pulled my shoes and socks on, struggled into my coat, and ran outside to find an empty driveway. It was so quiet, a reservation kind of quiet, where you can hear somebody drinking whiskey on the rocks three miles away. I stood on the porch and waited until my mother came outside.
“Come on back inside,” she said. “It’s cold.”
“No,” I said. “I know he’s coming back tonight.”
My mother didn’t say anything. She just wrapped me in her favorite quilt and went back to sleep. I stood on the porch all night long and imagined I heard motorcycles and guitars, until the sun rose so bright that I knew it was time to go back inside to my mother. She made breakfast for both of us and we ate until we were full.
HE TRIED TO STAND
close to Victor at the fry bread stand, but he moved from open space to open space, between the other Indians eating and drinking, while he hoped the Blackfoot waitress would finally take his order. When he grew tired of the chase, he turned to leave and she was standing there.
“They don’t pay you any mind because your hair is too short,” she said.
She’s too short to be this honest, he thought. Her braids reach down to her waist, but on a tall woman they would be simple, insignificant. She’s wearing a fifty-dollar ribbon shirt manufactured by a company in Spokane. He’d read about the Indian grandmother who designs them, each an original, before she sells them for a standard operating fee. He remembered the redheaded bank teller who cashed his check and asked him if he thought her shirt was authentic. Authentic. He stared at this small Indian woman standing in his way and walked past her.
“Hey, One-Braid,” she called after him. “Too good for me?”
“No,” he said. “Too big.”
He walked away, through the sawchips spread over the ground to keep the dust down, down to the stickgame pavilion. He was surprised to see Willie Boyd holding the bones, making gas money for the ride to the next powwow. He dug into his pockets, found a five-dollar bill, and threw it in with Willie. Willie shifted the bones from hand to hand, a Native magician working without mirrors, his hand an inch quicker than the eyes of the old woman sitting on the other side, trying to find the bone with the colored band. The old woman laughed when she guessed wrong, threw a few crumpled bills into the dirt in front of Willie.
“Let it ride all night, Willie,” Victor said. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
It was only the first night of the powwow, everyone had money in their pockets. A five-dollar bill couldn’t mean a thing until the end, when the last van heading out of Browning or Poplar had room for only one more. Willie Boyd drove an RV with a television and a refrigerator, with a sunroof that took in all the air. When it mattered, Victor thought, Willie Boyd would remember that five dollars. Willie Boyd always remembered.
She was standing behind him, again, when he turned to leave.
“You must be a rich man,” she said. “Not much of a warrior, though. You keep letting me sneak up on you.”
“You don’t surprise me,” he said. “The Plains Indians had women who rode their horses eighteen hours a day. They could shoot seven arrows consecutively, have them all in the air at the same time. They were the best light cavalry in the history of the world.”
“Just my luck,” she said. “An educated Indian.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Reservation University.”
They both laughed at the old joke. Every Indian is an alumnus.
“Where you from?” she asked.
“Wellpinit,” he said. “I’m a Spokane.”
“I should’ve known. You got those fisherman’s hands.”
“Ain’t no salmon left in our river. Just a school bus and a few hundred basketballs.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“Our basketball team drives into the river and drowns every year,” he said. “It’s tradition.”
She laughed. “You’re just a storyteller, ain’t you?”
“I’m just telling you things before they happen,” he said. “The same things sons and daughters will tell your mothers and fathers.”
“Do you ever answer a question straight?”
“Depends on the question,” he said.
“Do you want to be my powwow paradise?”
She took him back to her Winnebago. In the dark, on the plastic mattress, she touched his soft belly. His hands moved over her, fancydancers, each going farther away from his body. He was shaking.
“What are you scared of?” she asked.
“Elevators, escalators, revolving doors. Any kind of forced movement.”
“You don’t have to worry about those kind of things at a powwow.”
“That’s not true,” he said. “We had an Indian conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Spokane last winter. About twenty of us crowded into an elevator to go up to my room and we got stuck between the twelfth and fourteenth floors. Twenty Indians and a little old white elevator man having a heart attack.”
“You’re lying,” she said. “You stole that story.”
“What scares you?” he asked. She was quiet. She stared hard at him, trying to find his features among the shadows, formed a picture of him in her mind. But she was wrong. His hair was thinner, more brown than black. His hands were small. Somehow she was still waiting for Crazy Horse.