I agreed to give birth to my daughter. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." * I was twenty-one and in a difficult relationship with someone I knew down to my bones. It was a difficult time in Indian country. We were at war, yet we were full of hope and ideas on how it could all work out, beautifully. Wounded Knee was the outcome of many skirmishes all over the country. In New Mexico there were many. One of our Kiva Club members, Larry Casuse was killed by the Gallup police. I had a small son. I was painting and poetry was starting to come forth out of these times. Then one night in the middle of the mess my daughter's spirit came to me. She looked as she does now, as I have seen her through all the ages I've known her from birth to now 33 and much older. Though logically this was the worst time to conceive: there was no money, I was in a precarious relationship, I was still in school and had plans to go to graduate school, and as nations within nations we were struggling, I said yes, when she asked me to give birth to her. There was no question. I have never regretted that decision.
Here is a short story/part memoir blend that is mostly fiction. The last paragraph is the closest to true of any of the story--
in honor of Rainy Dawn:
Everyone has their own version of the world I tell myself as I wait on
the Central Avenue sidewalk while Larry disappears behind the Starlight
Motel to take a piss. The vacancy sign flashes on and off. Closing hour
traffic jams the street. I imagine everyone taking off for the forty-nine,
squeezed into cars and pickups with cases of beer under their legs heading in
a caravan to the all night sing on West Mesa. Each direction is a world and
each world has its own set of rules, its own hierarchy of gods and demigods,
its own particular color. I am painting a series based on the four
directions but I am stalled. It has been months since I’ve painted.
When I was five my mother began standing me on a chair to wash dishes
after dinner because I couldn’t otherwise reach. The front of my dress was
usually soaked when I finished. "Don’t get your dress wet like that, it means
you’ll marry a drunk." Yet night after night after dinner she would drag a
chair to the sink and my dress would soak no matter my efforts otherwise.
Every morning I wake up with a hangover after trying to keep up with Larry I
remember the wet stomach of my dress. I then promise I will let him go. I
know I cannot save him, but to let him go feels unbearable.
This morning Larry mentioned that his cousin was coming into town from
California and wanted to have dinner before heading out to the pueblo. Would
I like to go to Alonzo’s for pizza with them? A wedge of tension cut the air
between us. I tried to ignore it. Last night he said he was going to quit
drinking again and Alonzo’s is one of his favorite bars. I watched as he fried
the bacon and stirred the eggs, as he placed them in a perfect arrangement on
our plates. He cooked as deftly as he honed out an argument or turned a piece
of silver into the wind. I poured Joe Junior a glass of milk and wrapped a
sandwich for his lunch. He fidgeted, running his Hot Wheels cars up and down
his chair, across the table, faster and faster in response to the tension.
"Stop it! I yelled, surprised at the vehemence in my voice. He put his head
down on the table and began slowly kicking the table leg. I told myself then
that I could use a break.
That night after cleaning the house and walking guiltily by my easel I
took Joe Junior to the babysitter. He liked going to Larry’s sister’s house
because she had twin boys his age so I didn’t mind leaving him for the night.
When I handed him over with his pack of clothes, toys and snacks I hugged
him close, savoring his freshly shampooed hair. I felt bad for yelling at
him this morning. He saw the twins peeking around the corner and wriggled
free. Larry’s sister was roasting chile and had just pulled out of the oven a
fresh batch of those little fruit pies her people make. She offered me some.
"And take some for Larry,too" she said. When she said her brother’s name
worry flickered across her forehead. I was worried, too but to entertain all
the reasons would cause an avalanche. I would prefer to stay here with Joe
Junior in Larry’s aunt’s warm house, to wash dishes and set the table and visit, but the zigzag of anxiety went way back, over tortuous territory. If I followed the source it would slam me back into childhood, to my father staggering in
drunk, beating my mother the shame and hate in him burning, burning. Then
he’d hit my brothers. And then me whom it was said he loved most. He’d save
me for last, when his anger was ashes, when the fire was hottest. And then
he’d hold me, "Sugar, sugar" he’d croon, the tears so thick they made a lake
on the linoleum floor.
There is a world of mist in which my father now lives. It is beyond the
Milky Way but it is also as close as my voice to your ear. I have often seen
my father in the middle of the night when I am painting. Or when I have
tucked his grandson in after he has fallen asleep. He is just the other side
of the spin, the same frequency as moonlight. He’s held here by
disappointment, by the need to speak. He tells me he loves me and asks if I
will forgive him. I do not say anything. "You’re a dreamer", my mother says when I tell her, "just like your father. And you won’t ever get it together until you decide to deal with the real world." She is an elected tribal official and
she teaches Sunday school every week. She has a mission in her small world.
She wants to make sure there are rules and that they are enforced.
The first time Larry hit me was on a Saturday night like this one. We
hadn’t been together long. We were still amazed we had found each other. We
were partying away not at Alonzo’s but at the Feathered Dancer on the other
side of town. He was talking politics with his buddies while I played pool
with my best friend Jolene and some other students in the backroom. I kept
feeding the jukebox with quarters, playing the Rolling Stones, "wild horses
couldn’t drag me away" over and over again. He was down about the
anniversary of the death of his best friend a few years ago. That should have
been a warning to me. This man had been his idol. He had been the only man
from his pueblo to finish law school and he fought the U.S. legal system by any means possible, including his fists. But he couldn’t fight alcohol. He was taken down by drink, his body found in a field weeks after his death. His grieving brothers were honoring him by drinking to oblivion and they were
getting rowdy. I tried to ignore them and kept shooting the solids into the
pockets, just as I had ignored my father when he and his friends partied,
argued and played. I knew the routine. There was a high and then there was a
Every small hair on my neck was on alert. "Fuck you", I heard Larry
yell. We ran in from the pool tables to see what was the matter. Larry aimed
a pitcher of beer at his cousin Leno’s head. It missed and smashed into the bar mirror. There was a terrible crash. We all scattered as the bartender called the police. Larry refused to go, instead, he decided to climb the fence to the roof of the bar. Leno and I tried to stop him. He punched me and I went down. He climbed to the roof and jumped, then stood up like a defiant child, without a scratch, and walked away, the sound of approaching sirens growing loud and shrill.
I should have left him then, instead I caught a ride back with Jolene who tried to convince me to stay at her place. "No, I want to get the sad good-bye over with", I told her. The next morning he apologized profusely. This will never happen again, he promised as he made us breakfast of his specialty: chorizo and eggs. He came back from the 7Eleven with a newspaper and a bouquet of wilted flowers. I told him to pack his bags, to get out. "No", he said. "How can we make a better world for the people if we cannot hold it together in our own house?" I convinced myself that we owed it to ourselves to keep trying. I found excuses. He was taken over by grief for his buddy, I told myself. And most of the time he wasn’t like that, I reasoned. I took him back.
The next few weeks were tender and raw. Carefully he planted a garden in
the small yard behind the apartment with my son. He worked obsessively. He held fire in his hands and he crafted a bracelet to bridge the hole in our universe. I believed he didn’t mean to lose control. I believed that he loved me.
"So did your father", Jolene reminded me. "You’ve gone and married your father."
I didn’t want to hear her and after that I talked to Jolene only when I had to, at rallies, at Indian center meetings. She was a distant reminder of prickly truth, a predictor of trouble. I watched her disappear on the horizon as I turned to tend to my shakey world. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes.
We were nervous the day we headed up to Santa Fe in a borrowed car to get
married. I had never planned to marry anyone and this would be my second.The first had been to Joe Junior’s father. Larry had gotten grief from his parents for shacking up with a girl who wasn’t from his tribe. Marriage would make me one step closer to acceptable.
It was a perfect spring day as we headed north. Joe Junior stayed at Larry’s sister’s place and was excited about getting to help make the wedding cake. A small reception was planned for the next day. We’d just passed the city limits when the Ranchero Bar came into view, poised on the reservation line. All the windows were painted and broken glass mixed with gravel in the parking lot. Larry pulled the car over and parked. "Let’s go in, just for a beer", he said. "To celebrate." It had been a few months since he had stopped drinking, after the punching incident. He already had enough jewelry for a show and had attracted a dealer who talked New York and Europe markets. We had been happy.
"No. You can’t drink."
"One drink will not hurt me, or you either", he said as he opened his door.
"We have a lot to celebrate."
"Okay, you promised", I reminded him.
"I promise", he said.
One beer turned into a pitcher because these were his brothers, he
announced eloquently to the bar. The pueblo farm workers sitting around him
smiled at me and nodded their heads. "It’s time to go" I urged him under my
breath, all the while smiling at his new friends.
"I can’t turn down a drink because I would offend them" he whispered to me, looking at me sharply because I should know better. Obviously he wasn’t afraid of offending me.
I sipped my beer and felt my heart sag in disbelief. This was my wedding
day. If I had another drink I wouldn’t hear the voice telling me to get out,
to get out now. I poured myself another beer from the pitcher, matching Larry
drink for drink to the delight of Larry’s new friends. The day stumbled into
oblivion. I have a faint memory of dancing a rancheria in front of the
jukebox with a cowboy, and of a hippie girl coming into the bar and sitting
on Larry’s lap. "It‚s part of my job" he told me once after I had yanked a
blonde girl off him and demanded he come home with me. He had pocketed the
girl’s phone number as he slid off the stool and followed me. He had a reason
We didn’t make it to Santa Fe to get married. I tore up the marriage
license and tossed it like confetti over him and his drinking partners, confirming that I wasn’t the kind of girl his pueblo parents wanted for his wife. His mother would never embarrass his father in that manner no matter what he did to her. I left him with the borrowed car and hitchhiked back. I called Larry’s sister and told her the wedding was off and I’d pick up Joe Junior tomorrow when I could pull myself together. I could not think; I could not paint, I looked up the women’s center in the student directory. What would I say to them? Do you have a crisis center for idiots? I missed Jolene and my friends, but I had too much pride to call them now. I dialed my mother’s number and hung up. She would just say, "I told you so."
It is now two-thirty in the morning and the avenue is quiet. Larry should have been back by now. The small desk light in the motel office makes me feel lonely. I feel far away from everything. There’s that ache under my ribs that’s like radar. It tells me that I am miles away from the world I intended to make for my son and me. I imagine my easel set up in the corner of the living room in our apartment, next to Joe Junior’s box of toys. I imagine my little boy asleep in my arms. I imagine having the money to walk up to the motel office to rent a room of my own. I know what I would do.
First I would sleep until I could sleep no more. Then I would dream. I fly to the first world of my mother and father, locate them as a young married couple just after the war, living with my father’s mother, in her small house in Sapulpa. I am a baby in my mother’s arms, cooing and kicking my legs. Then I am a girl on my father’s shoulders as he spins and dances me through the house drunk on beer stolen from the bootlegger. I hold on tight. I hear my mother tell him to be
careful, let me down. We are all laughing. He spins until I am in high school and I have won the art award. Then I am a teenage mother. "A new little Sugar", he says as he holds his grandson and sings to him. Then I am standing with my mother at my grandmother’s funeral, singing those sad Creek hymns that lead her spirit to the Milky Way. My father can’t be found in time for the funeral. Then he’s next. The centrifugal force of memory keeps moving through the sky, slowly sifting lies from the shining truth.
My mother told me that if you go to sleep laughing you will wake up to
tears. My father’s mother told me that to predict the shape of the end of
something take a hard look at the beginning.
"I’m not interested in marriage or finding yet another man to break my heart," I remember telling my friend Jolene as we stood in the heat in front of the student union the day I met Larry. The tech people were making racket while they set up the microphones and tables for the press conference. I had just gotten over Joe Junior’s father. He left me before the baby was born, even took the junk car, drove off dragging it behind his cousin’s truck to his mother’s house in Talihina.
"Well, there are always women" she said nodding towards a table that had
been set up by the women’s resource center. They were passing out
information on their services. I walked by the women’s center every day on
my way to work at the Indian center after classes. Once I stopped to visit on
my way to an organizational meeting. I had heard a speaker from their center address students on the mall about women’s rights and it occurred to me that our centers could link up in an action. But the day I walked in with my son in hand I got the distinct feeling that Indian women with children weren’t too welcome. I had never gone back.
"Women would certainly open up our options", I agreed with Jolene and
we laughed. We thought it was funny, but we agreed that as women we spent
most of our time with each other, took classes together and cried on each others
shoulders in the shifting dance of creation and destruction.
It was a fine looking contingent from the National Council on Indian
Rights who made their way to the makeshift stage. They were modern age
warriors dressed with the intent of justice in their sunglasses and long
black hair. "There is my future", I said lightly and nodded to the Pueblo
man whose hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail. I watched as he
balanced his coffee and unclasped his shoulder bag of papers. He felt
familiar at the level of blood cells and bones though I didn’t know him. I
had heard him holding forth before at meetings and had seen him in passing on
"Who is he?" Jolene knew everyone because her father was a name in
local Indian politics.
"His name is Larry. He’s an artist," she said, "A fine artist. He makes jewelry. Be careful. Women love him and are always chasing him." I could see why and I could not stop watching him as he read the press release demanding justice and detailing how it could occur. He was as beautifully drawn as he was smart.
As we stood in the hot sun listening to the prepared statements I was suddenly aware of the fragility of life, how immensely precious was each breath. We all mattered--even our small core fighting for justice despite all odds. And then the press conference was over. That day would become one of those memories that surfaced at major transitional points like giving birth and dying. I
would feel the sun on my shoulders, hear the scratch of the cheap sound system and feel emotional. I would recall a small Navajo girl in diapers learning how to walk, her arms outstretched to her father. I would remember picking up my son at the daycare across campus, his bright yellow lunchbox shaped like a school bus.
That night at the impromptu party after the strategy meeting I watched
from the doorway of the kitchen of Jolene’s cousin’s apartment as Larry
easily rolled a cigarette with his hands, then licked it. His hands were warm sienna and snapped with the energy of his quick mind, his ability to shape metal. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke in my direction with his perfect lips in my direction. The lazy lasso hung in the air between us. I passed him a beer as I was the end of a brigade passing out beer from the cooler in the kitchen.
"So who are you skinny girl?" I kept passing and throwing beer to the rest of the party as he talked, pretending to ignore him.
"You must be one of those Oklahoma Indians," he said. I had been warned that he was used to getting what he wanted when it came to women.
"Come on over here and sit next to me, next to an Indian who is still the real thing." I considered hitting him with a beer for that remark. These local Indians could be short-sighted in their world.
"Why would I want to? " I retorted. "Besides, you look Mexican to me." His
eyebrows flew up. His identity had never been challenged, especially by a
woman he was interested in.
"We’re full-bloods. We haven’t lost our ways."
"And what does that mean? That my people have?" I questioned. "Then why do you have a Spanish last name?" Of course I knew the history but he had pissed me off, still I couldn’t help but notice his long eyelashes that cast shadows on his cheeks. I caught the last beer and opened it, stood close enough for his smell to alert my heart.
"All tribes traveled, took captives and were taken captive." I emphasized
"captive" and leaned in to take a puff on the cigarette he offered me. Jolene waltzed over and grabbed my arm, dancing me to the living room in time
to the music in order to save me. I didn’t talk to him again until I headed out the door with my ride, two other first year students. We were buzzed on smoke and flying sweetly.
"Hey girl", he shouted from the corner as I reluctantly made my escape. "I’m going to get you yet."
It happened quickly. When I got home that night there was a message that my father had died. Joe Junior and I left for a week. When we returned Larry met us at the bus station with flowers and toys. He took us for breakfast at the Chuckwagon and then we went home together. It wasn’t long after my father’s death that I dreamed a daughter who wanted to be born. I had been painting all night when she appeared to me. She was a baby with fat cheeks and then she was a grown woman, with a presence as familiar as my father’s mother. She asked me to give birth to her. I was in the middle of finals and planning for a protest of the killing of Navajo street drunks by white high school students on weekends for fun. They had just been questioned and set free with no punishment.
"This is not a good time", I said. "And why come into this kind of world?" Funny, I don’t remember her answer but her intent was a fine unwavering line that connected my heart to hers.
I walk behind the motel to look for Larry. He isn’t anywhere but I find his shoes under a tree where he has taken them off. And ahead of them like two dark salamanders are his socks. A little farther beyond is his belt, and then a trail of pants, shirt and underwear until I am standing in the courtyard of the motel. My stomach turns and twists as I consider all the scenarios a naked and drunk Indian man might get into in a motel on the main street of the city.
I hear a splash in the pool. He’s a Pueblo; he can’t swim. I consider
leaving him there to his fate. It would be his own foolish fault, as well as
the fault of a society that builds its cities over our holy places. At this
moment his disappearance would be a sudden relief. Strange that it is now
that I first feel our daughter moving within me. She awakens me with a
flutter, a kick. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I never told Larry
about the night she showed up to announce her intention, or how I saw her
spirit when she was conceived wavering above us on a fine sheen of light.
Behind her my father was waving good-bye. The weave pulled tighter and
tighter, it opened and then he was gone.
c Joy Harjo 2001
*Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities