The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home. She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved. Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar. He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her. She had seen so many come and go. He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus. She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him. Even through the watery glass she could see that he wasn’t all that old and that his chest was thickly padded in dark red nylon and expensive down.
There were cartons of colored eggs on the bar, each glowing like a jewel in its wad of cellophane. He was peeling one, sky blue as a robin’s, palming it while he thumbed the peel aside, when she walked through the door. Although the day was overcast, the snow itself reflected such light that she was momentarily blinded. It was like going underwater. What she walked toward more than anything else was that blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air.
He ordered a beer for her, a Blue Ribbon, saying she deserved a prize for being the best thing he’d seen for days. He peeled an egg for her, a pink one, saying it matched her turtleneck. She told him it was no turtleneck. You called these things shells. He said he would peel that for her, too, if she wanted, then he grinned at the bartender and handed her the naked egg.
June’s hand was colder from the outdoors than the egg, and so she had to let it sit in her fingers for a minute before it stopped feeling rubbery warm. Eating it, she found out how hungry she was. The last of the money that the man before this one had given her was spent for the ticket. She didn’t know exactly when she’d eaten last. This man seemed impressed, when her egg was finished, and peeled her another one just like it. She ate the egg. Then another egg. The bartender looked at her. She shrugged and tapped out a long menthol cigarette from a white plastic case inscribed with her initials in golden letters. She took a breath of smoke then leaned toward her companion through the broken shells.
“What’s happening?” she said. “Where’s the party?”
Her hair was rolled carefully, sprayed for the bus trip, and her eyes were deeply watchful in their sea-blue flumes of shadow. She was deciding.
“I don’t got much time until my bus. . . .” she said.
“Forget the bus!” He stood up and grabbed her arm. “We’re gonna party. Hear? Who’s stopping us? We’re having a good time!”
She couldn’t help notice, when he paid up, that he had a good-sized wad of money in a red rubber band like the kind that holds bananas together in the supermarket. That roll helped. But what was more important, she had a feeling. The eggs were lucky. And he had a good-natured slowness about him that seemed different. He could be different, she thought. The bus ticket would stay good, maybe forever. They weren’t expecting her up home on the reservation. She didn’t even have a man there, except the one she’d divorced. Gordie. If she got desperate he would still send her money. So she went on to the next bar with this man in the dark red vest. They drove down the street in his Silverado pickup. He was a mud engineer. Andy. She didn’t tell him she’d known any mud engineers before or about that one she’d heard was killed by a pressurized hose. The hose had shot up into his stomach from underground.
The thought of that death, although she’d only been half acquainted with the man, always put a panicky, dry lump in her throat. It was the hose, she thought, snaking up suddenly from its unseen nest, the idea of that hose striking like a live thing, that was fearful. With one blast it had taken out his insides. And that too made her throat ache, although she’d heard of worse things. It was that moment, that one moment, of realizing you were totally empty. He must have felt that. Sometimes, alone in her room in the dark, she thought she knew what it might be like.
Later on, the noise falling around them at a crowded bar, she closed her eyes for a moment against the smoke and saw that hose pop suddenly through black earth with its killing breath.
“Ahhhhh,” she said, surprised, almost in pain, “you got to be.”
“I got to be what, honeysuckle?” He tightened his arm around her slim shoulders. They were sitting in a booth with a few others, drinking Angel Wings. Her mouth, the lipstick darkly blurred now, tipped unevenly toward his.
“You got to be different,” she breathed.
It was later still that she felt so fragile. Walking toward the Ladies’ she was afraid to bump against anything because her skin felt hard and brittle, and she knew it was possible, in this condition, to fall apart at the slightest touch. She locked herself in the bathroom stall and remembered his hand, thumbing back the transparent skin and crackling blue peel. Her clothing itched. The pink shell was sweaty and hitched up too far under her arms but she couldn’t take off her jacket, the white vinyl her son King had given her, because the pink top was ripped across the stomach. But as she sat there, something happened. All of a sudden she seemed to drift out of her clothes and skin with no help from anyone. Sitting, she leaned down and rested her forehead on the top of the metal toilet-roll dispenser. She felt that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old. Even if he was no different, she would get through this again.
Her purse dropped out of her hand, spilling. She sat up straight. The doorknob rolled out of her open purse and beneath the stall. She had to take that doorknob with her every time she left her room. There was no other way of locking the battered door. Now she picked up the knob and held it by the metal shank. The round grip was porcelain, smooth and white. Hard as stone. She put it in the deep pocket of her jacket and, holding it, walked back to the booth through the gathering crowd. Her room was locked. And she was ready for him now.
It was a relief when they finally stopped, far out of town on a county road. Even in the dark, when he turned his headlights off, the snow reflected enough light to see by. She let him wrestle with her clothing, but he worked so clumsily that she had to help him along. She rolled her top up carefully, still hiding the rip, and arched her back to let him undo her slacks. They were made of a stretch fabric that crackled with electricity and shed blue sparks when he pushed them down around her ankles. He knocked his hand against the heater’s controls. She felt it open at her shoulder like a pair of jaws, blasting heat, and had the momentary and voluptuous sensation that she was lying stretched out before a great wide mouth. The breath swept across her throat, tightening her nipples. Then his vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. She couldn’t get a handhold anywhere. And she felt herself slipping along the smooth plastic seat, slipping away, until she wedged the crown of her head against the driver’s door.
“Oh God,” he was moaning. “Oh God, Mary. Oh God, it’s good.”
He wasn’t doing anything, just moving his hips on top of her, and at last his head fell heavily.
“Say there,” she said, shaking him. “Andy?” She shook him harder. He didn’t move or miss a beat in his deep breathing. She knew there wasn’t any rousing him now, so she lay still, under the weight of him. She stayed quiet until she felt herself getting frail again. Her skin felt smooth and strange. And then she knew that if she lay there any longer she would crack wide open, not in one place but in many pieces that he would crush by moving in his sleep. She thought to pull herself back together. So she hooked an arm over her head and brought her elbow down slowly on the handle, releasing it. The door suddenly sprang wide.
June had wedged herself so tight against the door that when she sprang the latch she fell out. Into the cold. It was a shock like being born. But somehow she landed with her pants halfway up, as though she’d hoisted them in midair, and then she quickly did her bra, pulled her shell down, and reached back into the truck. Without groping she found her jacket and purse. By now it was unclear whether she was more drunk or more sober than she’d ever been in her life. She left the door open. The heater, set to an automatic temperature, yawned hoarsely behind her, and she heard it, or thought she did, for about a half mile down the road. Then she heard nothing but her own boots crunching ice. The snow was bright, giving back starlight. She concentrated on her feet, on steering them strictly down the packed wheel ruts.
She had walked far enough to see the dull orange glow, the canopy of low, lit clouds over Williston, when she decided to walk home instead of going back there. The wind was mild and wet. A Chinook wind, she told herself. She made a right turn off the road, walked up a drift frozen over a snow fence, and began to pick her way through the swirls of dead grass and icy crust of open ranchland. Her boots were thin. So she stepped on dry ground where she could and avoided the slush and rotten, gray banks. It was exactly as if she were walking back from a fiddle dance or a friend’s house to Uncle Eli’s warm, man-smelling kitchen. She crossed the wide fields swinging her purse, stepping carefully to keep her feet dry.
Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.
The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.
After that false spring, when the storm blew in covering the state, all the snow melted off and it was summer. It was almost hot by the week after Easter, when I found out, in Mama’s letter, that June was gone—not only dead but suddenly buried, vanished off the land like that sudden snow.
Far from home, living in a white woman’s basement, that letter made me feel buried, too. I opened the envelope and read the words. I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section on “Patient Abuse.” There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief.
“We knew you probably couldn’t get away from your studies for the funeral,” said the letter, “so we never bothered to call and disturb you.”
She always used the royal we, to multiply the censure of what she said by invisible others.
I put down the letter and just stared, the way you do when you are hit by a bad thing you can do nothing about. At first it made me so angry that Mama hadn’t called me for the funeral that I couldn’t even feel the proper way for Aunt June. Then after a while I saw where I was staring—through the window at the level of the earth—and I thought of her.
I thought of June sitting tense in Grandma’s kitchen, flicking an ash, jiggling a foot back and forth in a pointed shoe. Or smartly cracking her purse to buy each of us children a dairy cone. I thought of her brushing my hair past my waist, when it was that long, and saying that I had princess hair. Princess hair! I wore it unbraided after she said that, until it tangled so badly that Mama cut precious inches off.
June was raised by Great-uncle Eli, the old bachelor in the family. He’d taken her in when Grandma’s sister died and June’s no-good Morrissey father ran off to high-time it in the Cities. After she had grown up and looked around for a while, June decided on my uncle, Gordie Kashpaw, and married him even though they had to run away to do it. They were cousins, but almost like brother and sister. Grandma wouldn’t let them in the house for a year, she was so angry. As it turned out, it was an off-and-on marriage anyway. Being so much alike they both liked to have their fun. Then, too, June had no patience with children. She wasn’t much as a mother; everyone in the family said so, even Eli who was crazy about his little girl.
Whatever she lacked as a mother, June was a good aunt to have—the kind that spoiled you. She always kept an extra stick of Doublemint in her coat pocket. Her neck smelled fresh and sweet. She talked to me the way she talked to grown-up people and never told me to play outside when I wanted to sit at the edge of a conversation. She had been pretty. “Miss Indian America,” Grandpa called her. She had stayed pretty even when things got so bad with Gordie that she ran off alone, “like a no-good Morrissey,” people said, leaving her son King. She always planned that she would make it somewhere else first, then send for the boy. But everything she tried fell through.
When she was studying to be a beautician, I remember, word came that she had purposely burned an unruly customer’s hair stiff green with chemicals. Other secretaries did not like her. She reported drunk for work in dimestores and swaggered out of restaurants where she’d waitressed a week, at the first wisecrack. Sometimes she came back to Gordie and they made the marriage work for a while longer. Then she would leave again. As time went by she broke, little by little, into someone whose shoulders sagged when she thought no one was looking, a woman with long ragged nails and hair always growing from its beauty-parlor cut. Her clothes were full of safety pins and hidden tears. I thought now that her one last try had been Williston, a town full of rich, single cowboy-rigger oil trash.
One type I know is boom trash, the ones that bat around the state in big pickups that are loaded with options. I know, because I worked with them, that to these types an Indian woman’s nothing but an easy night. I saw it laid out clear, as I sat there at my table, how down to the limit that kind of life would have gotten June. But what did I know, in fact, about the thing that happened?
I saw her laughing, so sharp and determined, her purse clutched tight at the bar, her perfect legs crossed.
“Probably drank too much,” Mama wrote. She naturally hadn’t thought well of June. “Probably wandered off too intoxicated to realize about the storm.”
But June grew up on the plains. Even drunk she’d have known a storm was coming. She’d have known by the heaviness in the air, the smell in the clouds. She’d have gotten that animal sinking in her bones.
I sat there at my table, thinking about June. From time to time, overhead, I heard my landlady’s vacuum cleaner. Through my window there wasn’t much to see—dirt and dead snow and wheels rolling by in the street. It was warm but the grass was brown, except in lush patches over the underground steam pipes on the campus. I did something that day. I put on my coat and went walking down the street until I came to a big stretch of university lawn that was crossed by a steam-pipe line of grass—so bright your eyes ached—and even some dandelions. I walked out there and lay down on that patch of grass, above the ground, and I thought of Aunt June until I felt the right way for her.
I was so mad at my mother, Zelda, that I didn’t write or call for almost two months. She should have gone up the nun’s hill to the convent, like she wanted, instead of having me. But she had married Swede Johnson from off-reservation, and I’d arrived premature. He’d had the grace, at least, to go AWOL from army boot camp and never let his face be seen again. All I knew of him was pictures, blond, bleak, and doomed to wander, perhaps as much by Mama’s rage at her downfall as by the uniform. I’d been the one who’d really blocked my mother’s plans for being pure. I’d forced her to work for money, keeping books, instead of pursuing tasks that would bring divine glory on her head. I’d caused her to live in a trailer near Grandma so that there would be someone to care for me. Later on, I’d provided her with years of grinding grief. I had gone through a long phase of wickedness and run away. Yet now that I was on the straight and narrow, things were even worse between us.
After two months were gone and my classes were done, and although I still had not forgiven my mother, I decided to go home. I wasn’t crazy about the thought of seeing her, but our relationship was like a file we sharpened on, and necessary in that way. So I threw a few books and some clothes in the backseat of my Mustang. It was the first car I’d ever owned, a dull black hard-driven car with rusted wheel wells, a stick shift, and a windshield wiper only on the passenger side.
All along the highway that early summer the land was beautiful. The sky stretched bare. Tattered silver windbreaks bounded flat, plowed fields that the government had paid to lie fallow. Everything else was dull tan—the dry ditches, the dying crops, the buildings of farms and towns. Rain would come just in time that year. Driving north, I could see the earth lifting. The wind was hot and smelled of tar and the moving dust.
At the end of the big farms and the blowing fields was the reservation. I always knew it was coming a long way off. Even in the distance you sense hills from their opposites—pits, dried sloughs, ditches of cattails, potholes. And then the water. There would be water in the hills when there wasn’t any on the plains, because the hollows saved it, collected runoff from the low slopes, and the dense trees held it, too. I thought of water in the roots of trees, brown and bark smelling, cold.
The highway narrowed off and tangled, then turned to gravel with ruts, holes, and blue alfalfa bunching in the ditches. Small hills reared up. Dogs leaped from nowhere and ran themselves out fiercely. The dust hung thick.
My mother lives just on the very edge of the reservation with her new husband, Bjornson, who owns a solid wheat farm. She’s lived there about a year. I grew up with her in an aqua-and-silver trailer, set next to the old house on the land my great-grandparents were allotted when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers.
The policy of allotment was a joke. As I was driving toward the land, looking around, I saw as usual how much of the reservation was sold to whites and lost forever. Just three miles, and I was driving down the rutted dirt road, home.
The main house, where all of my aunts and uncles grew up, is one big square room with a cooking shack tacked onto it. The house is a light peeling lavender now, the color of a pale petunia, but it was never painted while I lived there. My mother had it painted for Grandma as an anniversary present last year. Soon after the paint job the two old ones moved into town where things were livelier and they didn’t have to drive so far to church. Luckily, as it happened, the color suited my Aunt Aurelia, because she moved into the house and has taken care of it since.
Driving up to the house I saw that her brown car and my mother’s creamy yellow one were parked in the yard. I got out. They were indoors, baking. I heard their voices from the steps and smelled the rich and browning piecrusts. But when I walked into the dim, warm kitchen they hardly acknowledged me, they were so involved in their talk.
“She sure was good-looking,” Aurelia argued, hands buried in a dishpan of potato salad.
“Some people use spoons to mix.” My mother held out a heavy tin one from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. She lit her eyes and widened them. “I was only saying she had seen a few hard times, and there was bruises. . . . ”
“Wasn’t either. You never saw her.” Aurelia was plump, a “looker.” She waved my mother’s spoon off with a caked hand. “In fact, did anybody see her? Nobody saw her. Nobody knows for sure what happened, so who’s to squawk about bruises and so on . . . nobody saw her.”
“Well I heard,” said Mama, “I heard she was with a man and he dumped her off.”
I sat down, dipped a slice of apple in the bowl of sugar-cinnamon topping, and ate it. They were talking about June.
“Heard nothing,” Aurelia snapped. “Don’t trust nothing you don’t see with your own eyes. June was all packed up and ready to come home. They found her bags when they busted in her room. She walked out there because”—Aurelia foundered, then her voice strengthened—“what did she have to come home to after all? Nothing!”
“Nothing?” said Mama piercingly. “Nothing to come home to?” She gave me a short glance full of meaning. I had, after all, come home, even if husbandless, childless, driving a fall-apart car. I looked away from her. She puffed her cheeks out in concentration, patting and crimping the edges of the pies. They were beautiful pies—rhubarb, wild Juneberry, apple, and gooseberry, all fruits preserved by Grandma Kashpaw or my mother or Aurelia.
“I suppose you washed your hands before you put them in that salad,” she said to Aurelia.
Aurelia squeezed her face into crescents of patient exasperation. “Now Zelda,” she said “your girl’s going to think you still treat me like your baby sister.”
“Well you are aren’t you? Can’t change that.”
“I’m back,” I said.
They looked at me as if I had, at that very moment, walked in the door.
“Albertine’s home,” observed Aurelia. “My hands are full or I’d hug you.”
“Here,” said Mama, setting down a jar of pickles near me. “Aren’t you dressed nice. Did you get your top in Fargo? Was the drive good?”
I said yes.
“Dice these pickles up.” She handed me a bowl and knife.
“June went after Gordie like he didn’t have no choice,” my mother decided now. “She could at least have kept him happy once she got him in her clutch! It’s just clear how Gordie loved her, only now he takes it out in liquor. He’s always over at Eli’s house trying to get Eli to join him for a toot. You know, after the way June treated him, I don’t know why Gordie didn’t just let her go to ruin.”
“Well, she couldn’t get much more ruined than dead,” Aurelia said.
The odd thing about the two—Mama with her flat blue-black ponytail and rough gray face, Aurelia with her careful permanent, high rounded cheeks, tight jeans, and frilled rodeo shirts—was the differenter they acted the more alike they showed themselves. They clung to their rock-bottom opinions. They were so strong in their beliefs that there came a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness.
Mama gave up discussing June after Aurelia’s observation and began on me.
“Have you met any marriageable boys in Fargo yet?” Her flat gray thumbs pursued each other around and around in circles, leaving perfect squeezed scallops. By marriageable I knew she meant Catholic. I shook my head no.
“At this rate I’ll be too old and stiff to take care of my own grandchildren,” Mama said. Then she smiled and shrugged her shoulders lightly. “My girl’s choosy like me,” she said. “Can’t be too choosy.”
Aurelia snorted, but contained her remark, which probably would have referred to Mama’s first husband.
“Albertine’s got time,” Aurelia answered for me. “What’s her rush? Believe me”—she addressed me now with mock serious vigor—“marriage is not the answer to it all. I tried it enough myself.”
“I’m not interested anyway,” I let them know. “I’ve got other things to do.”
“Oh my,” said Mama, “are you going to be a career girl?”
She froze with her hands in the air, seemingly paralyzed by the idea.
“You were a career girl,” I accused her. I handed her the pickles, all diced into little cubes. Mama had kept books for the priests and nuns up at Sacred Heart since I could remember. She ignored me, however, and began to poke wheels of fork marks in the tops of the pies. Aurelia mixed. I watched my mother’s hands precisely stabbing. After a while we heard the car from the main road as it slowed for the turn. It would be June’s son, King, his wife, Lynette, and King Junior. They drove up to the front steps in their brand-new sportscar. King Junior was bundled in the front seat and both Grandma and Grandpa Kashpaw were stuffed, incredibly, into the tiny backseat.
“There’s that white girl.” Mama peeked out the window.
“Oh, for gosh sakes.” Aurelia gave her heady snort again, and this time did not hold her tongue. “What about your Swedish boy?”
“Learnt my lesson.” Mama wiped firmly around the edges of Aurelia’s dishpan. “Never marry a Swedish is my rule.”
Grandma Kashpaw’s rolled-down nylons and brown support shoes appeared first, then her head in its iron-gray pageboy. Last of all the entire rest of her squeezed through the door, swathed in acres of tiny black-sprigged flowers. When I was very young, she always seemed the same size to me as the rock cairns commemorating Indian defeats around here. But every time I saw her now I realized that she wasn’t so large, it was just that her figure was weathered and massive as a statue roughed out in rock. She never changed much, at least not so much as Grandpa. Since I’d left home, gone to school, he’d turned into an old man. Age had come upon him suddenly, like a storm in fall, shaking yellow leaves down overnight, and now his winter, deep and quiet, was on him. As Grandma shook out her dress and pulled bundles through the back window, Grandpa sat quietly in the car. He hadn’t noticed that it had stopped. “Why don’t you tell him it stopped,” Grandma called to Lynette.
Lynette was changing King Junior’s diaper in the front seat. She generally used paper diapers with stick-’em tabs at her home in the Cities, but since she’d been here my mother had shamed her into using washable cloth diapers and sharp pins. The baby wiggled and fought her hands.
“You hear?” King, already out of the car and nervously examining his tires, stuck his head back in the driver’s side window and barked at Lynette. “She was calling you. My father’s mother. She just told you to do something.”
Lynette’s face, stained and swollen, bloomed over the wheel. She was a dirty blond, with little patches of hair that were bleached and torn. “Yes I heard,” she hissed through the safety pins in her teeth. “You tell him.”
Jerking the baby up, ankles pinned in the forks of her fingers, she repositioned the triangle of cloth under his bottom.
“Grandma told you to tell him.” King leaned farther in. He had his mother’s long slim legs, and I remembered all at once, seeing him bend all the way into the car, June bending that way, too. Me behind her. She had pushed a rowboat off the gravel beach of some lake we’d all gone to visit together. I had jumped into the rowboat with her. She had one son at the time and didn’t think that she would ever have another child. So she spoiled me and told me everything, believing I did not understand. She told me things you’d only tell another woman, full grown, and I had adored her wildly for these adult confidences, for her wreaths of blue smoke, for the figure she cut. I had adored her into telling me everything she needed to tell, and it was true, I hadn’t understood the words at the time. But she hadn’t counted on my memory. Those words stayed with me.
And even now, King was saying something to Lynette that had such an odd dreaming ring to it I almost heard it spoken out in June’s voice.
June had said, “He used the flat of his hand. He hit me good.” And now I heard her son say, “. . . flat of my hand . . . but good . . .”
Lynette rolled out the door, shedding cloth and pins, packing the bare-bottomed child on her hip, and I couldn’t tell what had happened.
Grandpa hadn’t noticed, whatever it was. He turned to the open door and stared at his house.
“This reminds me of something,” he said.
“Well, it should. It’s your house!” Mama barreled out the door, grabbed both of his hands, and pulled him out of the little backseat.
“You have your granddaughter here, Daddy!” Zelda shrieked carefully into Grandpa’s face. “Zelda’s daughter. She came all the way up here to visit from school.”
“Zelda . . . born September fourteenth, nineteen fortyone . . .”
“No, Daddy. This here is my daughter, Albertine. Your granddaughter.”
I took his hand.
Dates, numbers, figures stuck with Grandpa since he strayed, and not the tiring collection of his spawn, proliferating beyond those numbers into nowhere. He took my hand and went along, trusting me whoever I was.
Whenever he came out to the home place now, Grandpa had to get reacquainted with the yard of stunted oaks, marigold beds, the rusted car that had been his children’s playhouse and mine, the few hills of potatoes and stalks of rhubarb that Aurelia still grew. She worked nights, managing a bar, and couldn’t keep the place as nicely as Grandpa always had. Walking him slowly across the lawn, I sidestepped prickers. The hollyhocks were choked with pigweed, and the stones that lined the driveway, always painted white or blue, were flaking back to gray. So was the flat boulder under the clothesline—once my favorite cool place to sit doing nothing while the clothes dried, hiding me.
This land had been allotted to Grandpa’s mother, old Rushes Bear, who had married the original Kashpaw. When allotments were handed out all of her twelve children except the youngest—Nector and Eli—had been old enough to register for their own. But because there was no room for them in the North Dakota wheatlands, most were deeded parcels far off, in Montana, and had to move there or sell. The older children left, but the brothers still lived on opposite ends of Rushes Bear’s land.
She had let the government put Nector in school, but hidden Eli, the one she couldn’t part with, in the root cellar dug beneath her floor. In that way she gained a son on either side of the line. Nector came home from boarding school knowing white reading and writing, while Eli knew the woods. Now, these many years later, hard to tell why or how, my Great-uncle Eli was still sharp, while Grandpa’s mind had left us, gone wary and wild. When I walked with him I could feel how strange it was. His thoughts swam between us, hidden under rocks, disappearing in weeds, and I was fishing for them, dangling my own words like baits and lures.
I wanted him to tell me about things that happened before my time, things I’d been too young to understand. The politics for instance. What had gone on? He’d been an astute political dealer, people said, horse-trading with the government for bits and shreds. Somehow he’d gotten a school built, a factory too, and he’d kept the land from losing its special Indian status under that policy called termination. I wanted to know it all. I kept asking questions as we walked along, as if he’d take the hook by miracle and blurt the memory out right there.
“Remember how you testified . . . ? What was it like . . . the old schools . . . Washington . . . ?”
Elusive, pregnant with history, his thoughts finned off and vanished. The same color as water. Grandpa shook his head, remembering dates with no events to go with them, names without faces, things that happened out of place and time. Or at least it seemed that way to me. Grandma and the others were always hushing up the wild things he said or talking loudly over them. Maybe they were bored with his craziness, and then again maybe his mind blurted secrets from the past. If the last was true, sometimes I thought I understood.
Perhaps his loss of memory was a protection from the past, absolving him of whatever had happened. He had lived hard in his time. But he smiled into the air and lived calmly now, without guilt or desolation. When he thought of June, for instance, she was a young girl who fed him black plums. That was the way she would always be for him. His great-grandson, King Junior, was happy because he hadn’t yet acquired a memory, while perhaps Grandpa’s happiness was in losing his.
We walked back down the driveway, along the flaking rocks. “He likes that busted lawn chair,” Grandma hollered now, leaning out the door. “Set him there awhile.”
“Want me to get you a plate from the kitchen?” I asked Grandpa. “Some bread and butter?”
But he was looking at the collapsed heap anxiously and did not answer.
I pulled the frayed, woven plastic and aluminum into the shape of a chair, he settled into it, and I left him counting something under his breath. Clouds. Trees. All the blades of grass.
I went inside. Grandma was unlocking her expensive canned ham. She patted it before putting it in the oven and closed the door carefully.
“She’s not used to buying this much meat,” Zelda said. “Remember we used to trade for it?”
“Or slaughter our own.” Aurelia blew a round gray cloud of Winston smoke across the table.
“Pew,” said Zelda. “Put the top on the butter.” She flapped her hand in front of her nose. “You know, Mama, I bet this makes you wish it was like it used to be. All us kids in the kitchen again.”
“Oh, I never had no trouble with kids,” Grandma wiped each finger on a dishrag. “Except for once in a while.”
“Except for when?” asked Aurelia.
“Well now . . .” Grandma lowered herself onto a long-legged stool, waving Zelda’s more substantial chair away. Grandma liked to balance on that stool like an oracle on her tripod. “There was that time someone tried to hang their little cousin,” she declared, and then stopped short.
The two aunts gave her quick, unbelieving looks. Then they were both uneasily silent, neither of them willing to take up the slack and tell the story I knew was about June. I’d heard Aurelia and my mother laughing and accusing each other of the hanging in times past, when it had been only a family story and not the private trigger of special guilts. They looked at me, wondering if I knew about the hanging, but neither would open her lips to ask. So I said I’d heard June herself tell it.
“That’s right,” Aurelia jumped in. “June told it herself. If she minded being hung, well she never let on!”
“Ha,” Zelda said. “If she minded! You were playing cowboys. You and Gordie had her up on a box, the rope looped over a branch, tied on her neck, very accurate. If she minded! I had to rescue her myself!”
“Oh, I know,” Aurelia admitted. “But we saw it in the movies. Kids imitate them, you know. We got notorious after that, me and Gordie. Remember Zelda? How you came screaming in the house for Mama?”
“Mama! Mama!” Grandma yodeled an imitation of her daughter. “They’re hanging June!”
“You came running out there, Mama!” Zelda was swept into the story. “I didn’t know you could run so fast.”
“We had that rope around her neck and looped over the tree, and poor June was shaking, she was so scared. But we never would have done it.”
“Yes!” asserted Zelda. “You meant to!”
“Oh, I licked you two good,” Grandma remembered. “Aurelia, you and Gordie both.”
“And then you took little June in the house. . . .” Zelda broke down suddenly.
Aurelia put her hands to her face. Then, behind her fingers, she made a harsh sound in her throat. “Oh Mama, we could have killed her. . . .”
Zelda crushed her mouth behind a fist.
“But then she came in the house. You wiped her face off,” Aurelia remembered. “That June. She yelled at me. ‘I wasn’t scared! You damn chicken!’”
And then Aurelia started giggling behind her hands. Zelda put her fist down on the table with surprising force.
“Damn chicken!” said Zelda.
“You had to lick her too.” Aurelia laughed, wiping her eyes.
“For saying hell and damn . . .” Grandma nearly lost her balance.
“Then she got madder yet. . . .” I said.
“That’s right!” Now Grandma’s chin was pulled up to hold her laughter back. “She called me a damn old chicken. Right there! A damn old hen!”
Then they were laughing out loud in brays and whoops, sopping tears in their aprons and sleeves, waving their hands helplessly.
Outside, King’s engine revved grandly, and a trickle of music started up.
“He’s got a tape deck in that car,” Mama said, patting her heart, her hair, composing herself quickly. “I suppose that costed extra money.”
The sisters sniffed, fished Kleenex from their sleeves, glanced pensively at one another, and put the story to rest.
“King wants to go off after they eat and find Gordie,” Zelda thought out loud. “He at Eli’s place? It’s way out in the bush.”
“They expect to get Uncle Eli to ride in that new car,” said Grandma in strictly measured, knowing tones.
“Eli won’t ride in it.” Aurelia lighted a cigarette. Her head shook back and forth in scarves of smoke. And for once Zelda’s head shook, too, in agreement, and then Grandma’s as well. She rose, pushing her soft wide arms down on the table.
“Why not?” I had to know. “Why won’t Eli ride in that car?”
“Albertine don’t know about that insurance.” Aurelia pointed at me with her chin. So Zelda turned to me and spoke in her low, prim, explaining voice.
“It was natural causes, see. They had a ruling which decided that. So June’s insurance came through, and all of that money went to King because he’s oldest, legal. He took some insurance and first bought her a big pink gravestone that they put up on the hill.” She paused. “Mama, we going up there to visit? I didn’t see that gravestone yet.”
Grandma was at the stove, bending laboriously to check the roast ham, and she ignored us.
“Just recently he bought this new car,” Zelda went on, “with the rest of that money. It has a tape deck and all the furnishings. Eli doesn’t like it, or so I heard. That car reminds him of his girl. You know Eli raised June like his own daughter when her mother passed away and nobody else would take her.”
“King got that damn old money,” Grandma said loud and sudden, “not because he was oldest. June named him for the money because he took after her the most.”
So the insurance explained the car. More than that it explained why everyone treated the car with special care. Because it was new, I had thought. Still, I had noticed all along that nobody seemed proud of it except for King and Lynette. Nobody leaned against the shiny blue fenders, rested elbows on the hood, or set paper plates there while they ate. Aurelia didn’t even want to hear King’s tapes. It was as if the car was wired up to something. As if it might give off a shock when touched. Later, when Gordie came, he brushed the glazed chrome and gently tapped the tires with his toes. He would not go riding in it, either, even though King urged his father to experience how smooth it ran.
We heard the car move off, wheels crackling in the gravel and cinders. Then it was quiet for a long time again.
Grandma was dozing in the next room, and I had taken the last pie from the oven. Aurelia’s new green Sears dryer was still huffing away in the tacked-on addition that held toilet, laundry, kitchen sink. The plumbing, only two years old, was hooked up to one side of the house. The top of the washer and dryer were covered with clean towels, and all the pies had been set there to cool.
“Well, where are they?” wondered Zelda now. “Joyriding?”
I didn’t answer.
“That white girl,” Mama went on, “she’s built like a truck-driver. She won’t keep King long. Lucky you’re slim, Albertine.”
“Jeez, Zelda!” Aurelia came in from the next room. “Why can’t you just leave it be? So she’s white. What about the Swede? How do you think Albertine feels hearing you talk like this when her Dad was white?”
“I feel fine,” I said. “I never knew him.”
I understood what Aurelia meant though—I was light, clearly a breed.
“My girl’s an Indian,” Zelda emphasized. “I raised her an Indian, and that’s what she is.”
“Never said no different.” Aurelia grinned, not the least put out, hitting me with her elbow. “She’s lots better looking than most Kashpaws.”
By the time King and Lynette finally came home it was near dusk and we had already moved Grandpa into the house and laid his supper out.
Lynette sat down next to Grandpa, with King Junior in her lap. She began to feed her son ground liver from a little jar. The baby tried to slap his hands together on the spoon each time it was lowered to his mouth. Every time he managed to grasp the spoon, it jerked out of his hands and came down with more liver. Lynette was weary, eyes watery and red. Her tan hair, caught in a stiff club, looked as though it had been used to drag her here.
“You don’t got any children, do you, Albertine,” she said, holding the spoon away, licking it herself, making a disgusted face. “So you wouldn’t know how they just can’t leave anything alone!”
“She’s not married yet,” said Zelda, dangling a bright plastic bundle of keys down to the baby. “She thinks she’ll wait for her baby until after she’s married. Oochy koo,” she crooned when King Junior focused and, in an effort of intense delight, pulled the keys down to himself.
Lynette bolted up, shook the keys roughly from his grasp, and snatched him into the next room. He gave a short outraged wail, then fell silent, and after a while Lynette emerged, pulling down her blouse. The cloth was a dark violet bruised color.
“Thought you wanted to see the gravestone,” Aurelia quickly remembered, addressing Zelda. “You better get going before it’s dark out. Tell King you want him to take you up there.”
“I suppose,” said Mama, turning to me, “Aurelia didn’t see those two cases of stinking beer in their backseat. I’m not driving anywhere with a drunk.”
“He’s not a drunk!” Lynette wailed in sudden passion. “But I’d drink a few beers too if I had to be in this family.”
Then she whirled and ran outside.
King was slumped morosely in the front seat of the car, a beer clenched between his thighs. He drummed his knuckles to the Oak Ridge Boys.
“I don’t even let her drive it,” he said when I asked. He nodded toward Lynette, who was strolling down the driveway ditch, adding to a straggly bunch of prairie roses. I saw her bend over, tearing at a tough branch.
“She’s going to hurt her hands.”
“Oh, she don’t know nothing,” said King. “She never been to school. I seen a little of the world when. I was in the service. You get my picture?”
He’d sent a photo of himself in the uniform. I’d been surprised when I saw the picture because I’d realized then that my rough boy cousin had developed hard cheekbones and a movie-star gaze. Now, brooding under the bill of his blue hat, he turned that moody stare through the windshield and shook his head at his wife. “She don’t fit in,” he said.
“She’s fine,” I surprised myself by saying. “Just give her a chance.”
“Chance.” King tipped his beer up. “Chance. She took her chance when she married me. She knew which one I took after.”
Then as if on cue, the one whom King did not take after drove into the yard with a squealing flourish, laying hard on his horn.
Uncle Gordie Kashpaw was considered good-looking, although not in the same way as his son King. Gordie had a dark, round, eager face, creased and puckered from being stitched up after an accident. There was always a compelling pleasantness about him. In some curious way all the stitches and folds had contributed to, rather than detracted from, his looks. His face was like something valuable that was broken and put carefully back together. And all the more lovable for the care taken. In the throes of drunken inspiration now, he drove twice around the yard before his old Chevy chugged to a halt. Uncle Eli got out.
“Well it’s still standing up,” Eli said to the house. “And so am I. But you,” he addressed Gordie, “ain’t.”
It was true, Gordie’s feet were giving him trouble. They caught on things as he groped on the hood and pulled himself out. The rubber foot mat, the fenders, then the little ruts and stones as he clambered toward the front steps.
“Zelda’s in there,” King shouted a warning, “and Grandma too!”
Gordie sat down on the steps to collect his wits before tangling with them.
Inside, Uncle Eli sat down next to his brother. They didn’t look much alike anymore, for Eli had wizened and toughened while Grandpa was larger, softer, even paler. They happened to be dressed the same though, in work pants and jackets, except that Grandpa’s outfit was navy blue and Eli’s was olive green. Eli wore a stained, crumpled cap that seemed so much a part of his head not even Zelda thought of asking him to remove it. He nodded at Grandpa and grinned at the food; he had a huge smile that took up his entire face.
“Here’s my Uncle Eli,” Aurelia said, putting down the plate of food for him. “Here’s my favorite uncle. See, Daddy? Uncle Eli’s here. Your brother.”
“Oh Eli,” said Grandpa, extending his hand. Grandpa grinned and nodded at his brother, but said nothing more until Eli started to eat.
“I don’t eat very much anymore. I’m getting so old,” Eli was telling us.
“You’re eating a lot,” Grandpa pointed out. “Is there going to be anything left?”
“You ate already,” said Grandma. “Now sit still and visit with your brother.” She fussed a little over Eli. “Don’t mind him. Eat enough. You’re getting thin.”
“It’s too late,” said Grandpa. “He’s eating everything.”
He closely watched each bite his brother took. Eli wasn’t bothered in the least. Indeed, he openly enjoyed his food for Grandpa.
“Oh, for heavensake.” Zelda sighed. “Are we ever getting out of here? Aurelia. Why don’t you take separate cars and drive us in? It’s too late to see that gravestone now anyway, but I’m darned if I’m going to be here once they start on those cases in the back of June’s car.”
“Put the laundry out,” said Grandma. “I’m ready enough. And you, Albertine”—she nodded at me as they walked out the door—“they can eat all they want. Just as long as they save the pies. Them pies are made special for tomorrow.”
“Sure you don’t want to come along with us now?” asked Mama. “We’re bunking at Grandma’s place.”
“She’s young,” said Aurelia. “Besides, she’s got to keep those drunken men from eating on those pies.”
She bent close to me. Her breath was sweet with cake frosting, stale with cigarettes.
“I’ll be back later on,” she whispered. “I got to go see a friend.”
Then she winked at me exactly the way June had winked about her secret friends. One eye shut, the lips pushed into a small self-deprecating question mark.
Grandpa eased himself into the backseat and sat as instructed, arms spread to either side, holding down the piles of folded laundry.
“They can eat!” Grandma yelled once more. “But save them pies!”
She bucked forward when Aurelia’s car lurched over the hole in the drive, and then they shot over the hill.