Authors: Sherman Alexie
Tags: #Adult, #Humour
“You think about things too much,” Victor said. “It’s just supposed to be fun. Maybe Junior will be there.”
“Which Junior? Everybody on this reservation is named Junior.”
And they both laughed.
The fireworks were small, hardly more than a few bottle rockets and a fountain. But it was enough for two Indian boys. Years later, they would need much more.
Afterwards, sitting in the dark, fighting off mosquitoes, Victor turned to Thomas Builds-the-Fire.
“Hey,” Victor said. “Tell me a story.”
Thomas closed his eyes and told this story: “There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. But it was too late to be warriors in the old way. All the horses were gone. So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city. They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and then hitchhiked back home to the reservation. When they got back, all their friends cheered and their parents’ eyes shone with pride.
, everybody said to the two Indian boys.
“Ya-hey,” Victor said. “That’s a good one. I wish I could be a warrior.”
“Me, too,” Thomas said.
They went home together in the dark, Thomas on the bike now, Victor on foot. They walked through shadows and light from streetlamps.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Thomas said. “We have outdoor lighting.”
“All I need is the stars,” Victor said. “And besides, you still think about things too much.”
They separated then, each headed for home, both laughing all the way.
Victor sat at his kitchen table. He counted his one hundred dollars again and again. He knew he needed more to make it to Phoenix and back. He knew he needed Thomas Builds-the-Fire. So he put his money in his wallet and opened the front door to find Thomas on the porch.
“Ya-hey, Victor,” Thomas said. “I knew you’d call me.”
Thomas walked into the living room and sat down on Victor’s favorite chair.
“I’ve got some money saved up,” Thomas said. “It’s enough to get us down there, but you have to get us back.”
“I’ve got this hundred dollars,” Victor said. “And my dad had a savings account I’m going to claim.”
“How much in your dad’s account?”
“Enough. A few hundred.”
“Sounds good. When we leaving?”
When they were fifteen and had long since stopped being friends, Victor and Thomas got into a fistfight. That is, Victor was really drunk and beat Thomas up for no reason at all. All the other Indian boys stood around and watched it happen. Junior was there and so were Lester, Seymour, and a lot of others. The beating might have gone on until Thomas was dead if Norma Many Horses hadn’t come along and stopped it.
“Hey, you boys,” Norma yelled and jumped out of her car. “Leave him alone.”
If it had been someone else, even another man, the Indian boys would’ve just ignored the warnings. But Norma was a warrior. She was powerful. She could have picked up any two of the boys and smashed their skulls together. But worse than that, she would have dragged them all over to some tipi and made them listen to some elder tell a dusty old story.
The Indian boys scattered, and Norma walked over to Thomas and picked him up.
“Hey, little man, are you okay?” she asked.
Thomas gave her a thumbs up.
“Why they always picking on you?”
Thomas shook his head, closed his eyes, but no stories came to him, no words or music. He just wanted to go home, to lie in his bed and let his dreams tell his stories for him.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor sat next to each other in the airplane, coach section. A tiny white woman had the window seat. She was busy twisting her body into pretzels. She was flexible.
“I have to ask,” Thomas said, and Victor closed his eyes in embarrassment.
“Don’t,” Victor said.
“Excuse me, miss,” Thomas asked. “Are you a gymnast or something?”
“There’s no something about it,” she said. “I was first alternate on the 1980 Olympic team.”
“Really?” Thomas asked.
“I mean, you used to be a world-class athlete?” Thomas asked.
“My husband still thinks I am.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire smiled. She was a mental gymnast, too. She pulled her leg straight up against her body so that she could’ve kissed her kneecap.
“I wish I could do that,” Thomas said.
Victor was ready to jump out of the plane. Thomas, that crazy Indian storyteller with ratty old braids and broken teeth, was flirting with a beautiful Olympic gymnast. Nobody back home on the reservation would ever believe it.
“Well,” the gymnast said. “It’s easy. Try it.”
Thomas grabbed at his leg and tried to pull it up into the same position as the gymnast. He couldn’t even come close, which made Victor and the gymnast laugh.
“Hey,” she asked. “You two are Indian, right?”
“Full-blood,” Victor said.
“Not me,” Thomas said. “I’m half magician on my mother’s side and half clown on my father’s.”
They all laughed.
“What are your names?” she asked.
“Victor and Thomas.”
“Mine is Cathy. Pleased to meet you all.”
The three of them talked for the duration of the flight. Cathy the gymnast complained about the government, how they screwed the 1980 Olympic team by boycotting.
“Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians,” Thomas said.
After the plane landed in Phoenix and they had all found their way to the terminal, Cathy the gymnast smiled and waved good-bye.
“She was really nice,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, but everybody talks to everybody on airplanes,” Victor said. “It’s too bad we can’t always be that way.”
“You always used to tell me I think too much,” Thomas said. “Now it sounds like you do.”
“Maybe I caught it from you.”
Thomas and Victor rode in a taxi to the trailer where Victor’s father died.
“Listen,” Victor said as they stopped in front of the trailer. “I never told you I was sorry for beating you up that time.”
“Oh, it was nothing. We were just kids and you were drunk.”
“Yeah, but I’m still sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
Victor paid for the taxi and the two of them stood in the hot Phoenix summer. They could smell the trailer.
“This ain’t going to be nice,” Victor said. “You don’t have to go in.”
“You’re going to need help.”
Victor walked to the front door and opened it. The stink rolled out and made them both gag. Victor’s father had lain in that trailer for a week in hundred-degree temperatures before anyone found him. And the only reason anyone found him was because of the smell. They needed dental records to identify him. That’s exactly what the coroner said. They needed dental records.
“Oh, man,” Victor said. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Well, then don’t.”
“But there might be something valuable in there.”
“I thought his money was in the bank.”
“It is. I was talking about pictures and letters and stuff like that.”
“Oh,” Thomas said as he held his breath and followed Victor into the trailer.
When Victor was twelve, he stepped into an underground wasp nest. His foot was caught in the hole, and no matter how hard he struggled, Victor couldn’t pull free. He might have died there, stung a thousand times, if Thomas Builds-the-Fire had not come by.
“Run,” Thomas yelled and pulled Victor’s foot from the hole. They ran then, hard as they ever had, faster than Billy Mills, faster than Jim Thorpe, faster than the wasps could fly.
Victor and Thomas ran until they couldn’t breathe, ran until it was cold and dark outside, ran until they were lost and it took hours to find their way home. All the way back, Victor counted his stings.
“Seven,” Victor said. “My lucky number.”
Victor didn’t find much to keep in the trailer. Only a photo album and a stereo. Everything else had that smell stuck in it or was useless anyway.
“I guess this is all,” Victor said. “It ain’t much.”
“Better than nothing,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, and I do have the pickup.”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “It’s in good shape.”
“Dad was good about that stuff.”
“Yeah, I remember your dad.”
“Really?” Victor asked. “What do you remember?”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire closed his eyes and told this story: “I remember when I had this dream that told me to go to Spokane, to stand by the Falls in the middle of the city and wait for a sign. I knew I had to go there but I didn’t have a car. Didn’t have a license. I was only thirteen. So I walked all the way, took me all day, and I finally made it to the Falls. I stood there for an hour waiting. Then your dad came walking up.
What the hell are you doing here?
he asked me. I said,
Waiting for a vision
. Then your father said,
All you’re going to get here is mugged
. So he drove me over to Denny’s, bought me dinner, and then drove me home to the reservation. For a long time I was mad because I thought my dreams had lied to me. But they didn’t. Your dad was my vision.
Take care of each other
is what my dreams were saying.
Take care of each other
Victor was quiet for a long time. He searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled.
“My father never told me about finding you in Spokane,” Victor said.
“He said he wouldn’t tell anybody. Didn’t want me to get in trouble. But he said I had to watch out for you as part of the deal.”
“Really. Your father said you would need the help. He was right.”
“That’s why you came down here with me, isn’t it?” Victor asked.
“I came because of your father.”
Victor and Thomas climbed into the pickup, drove over to the bank, and claimed the three hundred dollars in the savings account.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire could fly.
Once, he jumped off the roof of the tribal school and flapped his arms like a crazy eagle. And he flew. For a second, he hovered, suspended above all the other Indian boys who were too smart or too scared to jump.
“He’s flying,” Junior yelled, and Seymour was busy looking for the trick wires or mirrors. But it was real. As real as the dirt when Thomas lost altitude and crashed to the ground.
He broke his arm in two places.
“He broke his wing,” Victor chanted, and the other Indian boys joined in, made it a tribal song.
“He broke his wing, he broke his wing, he broke his wing,” all the Indian boys chanted as they ran off, flapping their wings, wishing they could fly, too. They hated Thomas for his courage, his brief moment as a bird. Everybody has dreams about flying. Thomas flew.
One of his dreams came true for just a second, just enough to make it real.
Victor’s father, his ashes, fit in one wooden box with enough left over to fill a cardboard box.
“He always was a big man,” Thomas said.
Victor carried part of his father and Thomas carried the rest out to the pickup. They set him down carefully behind the seats, put a cowboy hat on the wooden box and a Dodgers cap on the cardboard box. That’s the way it was supposed to be.
“Ready to head back home,” Victor asked.
“It’s going to be a long drive.”
“Yeah, take a couple days, maybe.”
“We can take turns,” Thomas said.
“Okay,” Victor said, but they didn’t take turns. Victor drove for sixteen hours straight north, made it halfway up Nevada toward home before he finally pulled over.
“Hey, Thomas,” Victor said. “You got to drive for a while.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire slid behind the wheel and started off down the road. All through Nevada, Thomas and Victor had been amazed at the lack of animal life, at the absence of water, of movement.
“Where is everything?” Victor had asked more than once.
Now when Thomas was finally driving they saw the first animal, maybe the only animal in Nevada. It was a long-eared jackrabbit.
“Look,” Victor yelled. “It’s alive.”
Thomas and Victor were busy congratulating themselves on their discovery when the jackrabbit darted out into the road and under the wheels of the pickup.
“Stop the goddamn car,” Victor yelled, and Thomas did stop, backed the pickup to the dead jackrabbit.
“Oh, man, he’s dead,” Victor said as he looked at the squashed animal.
“The only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it.”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “I think it was suicide.”
Victor looked around the desert, sniffed the air, felt the emptiness and loneliness, and nodded his head.
“Yeah,” Victor said. “It had to be suicide.”
“I can’t believe this,” Thomas said. “You drive for a thousand miles and there ain’t even any bugs smashed on the windshield. I drive for ten seconds and kill the only living thing in Nevada.”
“Yeah,” Victor said. “Maybe I should drive.”
“Maybe you should.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire walked through the corridors of the tribal school by himself. Nobody wanted to be anywhere near him because of all those stories. Story after story.
Thomas closed his eyes and this story came to him: “We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn’t matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories. My father, he died on Okinawa in World War II, died fighting for this country, which had tried to kill him for years. My mother, she died giving birth to me, died while I was still inside her. She pushed me out into the world with her last breath. I have no brothers or sisters. I have only my stories which came to me before I even had the words to speak. I learned a thousand stories before I took my first thousand steps. They are all I have. It’s all I can do.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire told his stories to all those who would stop and listen. He kept telling them long after people had stopped listening.
Victor and Thomas made it back to the reservation just as the sun was rising. It was the beginning of a new day on earth, but the same old shit on the reservation.