The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Finding a Wife for My Brother
Helen Walker Jones
[p.113]I’m dancing with a navigator, and when he invokes patriotism I don’t tell him about my distinguished American heritage. I keep my mouth shut but go on thinking of a bumper sticker I saw once: America was Built on the Blood of Indians. It was pasted to the rusted chrome of a ’69 Ford Galaxy, powder blue—the blue of wildflowers in March on the reservation and the color of half the houses. In the Galaxy were six men-three in front, three in back, each as big as a fullback—decked out in Stetsons with peahen feathers in the hatbands.
Thinking of that car, I press my mouth to this boy’s ear, he bends to me, and I whisper: “How come Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull only brought a few hundred war-[p.114]riors to fight Custer?” When he gives up, I tell him, “They could only get two cars.”
I grew up hearing these jokes. I laughed. My brother didn’t. He developed what is known as a social conscience. My sibling, James Madison Waxwing—named for the fourth president of the United States—lives on the reservation by choice and spends every weekend presiding over Tribal Alcoholism Encounters. This sounds like a booze party; it’s actually a bunch of guys lounging on metal folding chairs, nodding off while Jim tells them that only a higher power can save them from drink.
Jim’s nine-to-five job consists of sitting in front of the cracker barrel with the old gents, smoking and chewing, his chair tilted back on two legs. He’s the psychobabble king of eastern Montana, and for this he’s paid an enormous salary, drives a government Ford with black-wall tires, and sleeps in an absolutely free house, even if it is painted turquoise with red woodwork. His official title is Substance Abuse Counselor.
He’s the reason I’m down here now at the Co-Pilot Lounge. Jim is back at my apartment consummating his latest conquest. My roommate, Bonnie, is the lucky girl. Barefoot on the shellacked dance floor of the Co-Pilot is not where you would find me on a typical Monday night, but here I am. My shoes kicked off, I’m swaying in duplicate with this boy ten years my junior, running my palms over his buzz-cut while he tells me “America, the Beautiful” was written in Colorado Springs, home of his [p.115]alma mater, the Air Force Academy. One day this boy hopes to get shot down over Vladivostock in a super-secret ebony jet so that he can use his junior high Russian and get his name in the papers. Maybe even die for his country. “I was trained to be a hero,” he tells me. I don’t mention that my brother was a conscientious objector and that he still wears his hair in a waist-length braid.
For a while in the seventies, Jim even played at being a hero out of James Fenimore Cooper, wearing beaded shirts and a quiver of arrows, no less, while he wrote fan letters to Marlon Brando for his advocacy of Native American rights. That year, after Jim dumped one of my fellow nursing students, she told everyone that he had picketed the priest’s house, burned Bibles at the Custer Burial Grounds, and demanded that she indulge in perverse sex. I can personally verify the first two, so I was inclined to believe the third. Still, I’d never mention this to one of the boys at the airbase who thinks it’s quaint that I can do the hully-gully.
These fly-boys have a fervent belief in machismo. “Hands-on” is a favorite phrase in their training manuals and innate in their philosophies, too. My brother, on the other hand, favors the long-distance approach. While I’m at work, he romances my roommate over the phone, tenderizing her for his in-the-flesh visits. I’m talking about this like it’s soon to come, like he isn’t back there right now, dazzling her with his pecs and humbly confessing [p116]that he was the first Ph.D. ever to come out of Rosebud, Montana.
Every Sunday for the past eight weeks, he’s been on the phone, asking in his husky voice, “Bonnie, are you as cute as my sister says you are? I hear nurses give great backrubs. I can’t wait to find out.” His low-key occupation—interacting with the brothers on the rez—leaves him too much free time to chase women, like Bonnie Gardner.
The first time I ever saw Bonnie, she was pushing an I.V. pole down the hall of the labor-and-delivery unit, yelling, “Out of my way. This woman’s about to pop out her eighth kid.” Bonnie was wearing purple running shoes and, in place of surgical greens, a shiny white jumpsuit that appeared to be made of parachute material. She stared at me and said, with a grin, “I hope they let me throw the placenta into the garbage.”
Later that day, I saw her again in the nurses’ locker room. She squinted at my nametag as she tucked her bushy reddish hair into a bun. “Veronica Waxwing,” she said. “Is that your stage name, or what?” She said the basement rooms were the coolest and told me about the vacancy in hers. Ten minutes later she showed me a plastic card in her wallet that said: Believe it or not, Florence Nightingale is not dead. It had a picture of Bonnie on the left, just like a driver’s license.
I had known her two months before Jim started his Sunday phone crusade, catching her between shifts to [p.117]inquire about her health, her sex life, and her orange Thunderbird. He probably did a questionnaire on her drinking, too. Anyway, she was frantic to meet him and, this afternoon, just before his flight arrived, she stumbled through the basement door, dressed in her scrub suit, and slumped into the chair across the table from me. “Tip that granola this way,” she said, reaching into the box for a handful. We never cook.
“Was it hot in the delivery room?” I asked her.
“Slightly,” she said. “But we delivered a nine-pound boy and the mama didn’t hemorrhage a speck.” She walked to the fridge and peered in at our leftovers. I imagined them, furred with mold. Sir Alexander Fleming would be proud. “Eggs and milk,” she said. “That’s it. Are we going to cook for your brother?”
“Go ahead,” I said. She piled her hair over the left ear and let it fall.
“Men,” she said. “There was a new government doc there today. ‘What do I do next, nurse?’ he asks me. So I delivered the baby while he stood in the corner.” Bonnie wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist, reminding me of the way ladies try out perfume at the cosmetics counter. “I could use a glass of lemonade,” she said, “or your brother to blow cold air on my insteps.” She propped her feet on the kitchen table, next to the rattan fruit basket, her bare toe just brushing an apple. “I can’t wait to see him,” she said. “Maybe he’ll model his loin cloth for me.”
[p.118]“Don’t count on it,” I said, thinking of Burt Lancaster movies in the church hall on the rez, where the people cheered for the cavalry during the bloody skirmishes.
Jim took a taxi from the airport and settled his fake alligator suitcase inside the door of our apartment, announcing, “I’m here, ladies. Come and get me.” Bonnie demurely pulled up her knee socks and smiled with just the corners of her mouth.
He kissed her lightly on the cheek and stroked her hair. Leave ’em hungry is his motto. He wanted to go sight-seeing, on foot. The three of us strode down the wide sidewalk with Jim in the middle. Bonnie and I kept batting the mosquitos from our legs. I let them walk ahead, and watched her rusty-colored hair bouncing across her shoulder blades, his braid swinging from side to side. There is a legend about a warrior tying a beaver pelt to his head as he swam a river dusted with ice. In the cold, damp air, the beaver’s tail supposedly stuck to the warrior’s neck, like a wet tongue to metal. And that became his braid.
The bells were chiming at St. Andrew’s and a chubby old woman emerged from her front door, knotting a black scarf among the folds of her chin. I thought of the white clapboard church on the reservation, its wooden cross silhouetted against cirrus clouds, the outhouse off to the side like a whitewashed penitent rising to bear witness.
[p.119]“Pretty girls,” a drunk in an airman’s cap muttered, reaching out to stroke my butt as he passed us.
“Aha,” Jim said, shaking his head. “And you two claimed you’d been living like nuns.”
“The closest I’ve come to a penis was an article I read on catheter care,” Bonnie said. Jim laughed and slipped his arm around her shoulder. I wanted to tell him nurses talked like that, but it didn’t necessarily mean anything. “We could’ve had our pick of the cowboys,” Bonnie continued, “but they like their women natural.” She stabbed her armpit with her fmgertips. Jim grinned and ran his hand over the thick base of his braid.
While Bonnie and I made a salad, Jim sat on the couch, smoking and watching a cop movie with the volume turned off. That way he could hear the jets taking off. “Man, it must be great, living next to an airbase,” he said. “I might have gone in the service if they could have guaranteed me a jet.”
“At one time I wanted to marry a pilot,” Bonnie said.
Jim ignored this invitation to explore her past. “This place is as bad as a reservation house,” he said, reaching behind the couch to touch the yellow walls stained with fmgerprints.
“Hey,” Bonnie said, “I want to hear about the time you were arrested. What was it like in the slammer?”
“Veronica’s been spinning tall tales,” Jim said. “It was just a few hours in the county jail.”
“Don’t lie,” I said. “She knows all about you.”
[p.120]“Well, Bonnie,” Jim said, standing and fishing a matchbook from deep in his pocket, “if you want to hear some authentic Indian lore, come on over here.” She snuggled beside him on the couch and watched as he built a fire of scrap paper in a big glass ashtray on the coffee table. “This,” he said, “is an altar to Buffalo Woman. She controls the elements.”
“Great,” Bonnie said. “Let’s pray for snow.”
“Okay,” Jim said, stretching out on his back, lowering his head and shoulders to the linoleum, his arms rigid at his sides, his eyes closed. “Quiet now,” he said. “I’m invoking the old lady’s spirit.”
“This is fabulous,” Bonnie whispered, glancing over at me to see if he might be serious. “I feel like I’m in the Black Hills and here come some Apaches in warpaint.”
Jim corrected her without opening his eyes. “There were no Apache in the Black Hills,” he said.
“Then you’re a Shoshone warrior,” Bonnie said. She reached down and set her palm flat against his chest. “I would love to bear at least nine children before I pack it in and get buried in my buffalo-hide shroud,” she said.
The corners of Jim’s mouth turned up. I was feeling like a voyeur, so I escaped to the bathroom to wash my face. As I turned the doorknob, I heard Jim say to her, “You’re gorgeous, Grey Eyes.”
When I came out, they were both sitting on the floor, [p.121]Jim with his back to me, his dark braid brushing the top of his leather-tooled belt. “So answer me this,” she was saying. “Are you, or are you not, a real, honest-to-God Indian?”
“I’m three-quarters Indian,” Jim said. “But I tell people my father was a wild warrior. Actually, I never saw my father, except in his picture on the piano.”
“How sad,” Bonnie said. “Veronica never told me that. What did he look like?”
“He looked like Jim,” I said. “But without the braid.”
Bonnie scooted closer to him on the linoleum. “How come you never saw him?”
“He ran off,” Jim said. “Our mom was nineteen and pregnant.”
“With me,” I said. “Jim was a year old.”
“What did he do for a living?” she wondered.
“He fixed school buses,” Jim said. 1 couldn’t believe he was telling her this. Her father, after all, was a board-certified neurosurgeon. “From what 1 heard, he was sort of an incompetent mechanic,” Jim went on, unwrapping a candy bar. He took a bite, then held it in front of Bonnie’s face until she bit some off. Nuts and chocolate stuck to her front teeth. Jim sat on the arm of my chair. He shook one leg from the knee down, like a sprinter warming up. “I get these charley horses,” he said. “Must be sexual tension.’“
“All the guys in this town are twenty-three years old and just out of flight school.”
[p.122]“Too young to appreciate age and experience,” Jim said. “A woman’s not ready till she’s on the backside of thirty,” he said, opening his suitcase and holding up a rectangular white box. Bonnie took off the lid, spread tissue paper over the sides and said, “Is this authentic?”
It was a moldy-looking buckskin shirt with yellow beads forming chevrons across the chest. “You bet,” he said. “An old guy named Tom Meltingtallow gave it to me. A nice guy, really, once we got him on methadone.”
“You have interesting friends,” Bonnie said.
“See these?” Jim went on. “These are porcupine quills. The shirt’s nearly a hundred years old.”
That night at the hospital I had three quick deliveries in a row and showed one of the mothers how to press in just above her nipple so the baby could breathe as it nursed. The stretch marks slanting into her pubic hair reminded me of the chevron shirt and the stripes on her husband’s uniform. As I waited for the placenta, I thought of Jim’s hair fanned over Bonnie’s lavender eyelet pillowcase, the symbol of his unbound humility and submission. He had told Bonnie things he had never told any other woman, as far as I knew; and I wondered, right then, what Bonnie would do if she married him. After a society wedding in Walnut Creek, she could move back to the rez, sitting with her argyles resting on the cracker barrel, rousing herself occasionally to dispense a [p.123]dose of methadone. Or maybe she could work weekends at the tavern out on Highway 57 dressed in a buckskin G-string and pasties, billing herself as Minnehaha.
In the nurses’ locker room, I slipped into my jeans and red silk blouse. The three-to-eleven shift was just ending and a group of orderlies and nurses was heading to the Co-Pilot. “Come on, Veronica,” one of them shouted from the wash basin. “There are terrific men down there. Smooth-faced as nectarines.”
“Let’s practice our Kegels before we go, girls,” someone shouted from the other side of the lockers. “Tighten, relax, tighten, relax. I do them faithfully at every stoplight.”
I didn’t feel like going to the Co-Pilot. It was late and I was tired. Jim and Bonnie had already had two hours to themselves. I figured that was sufficient. But when I walked through the basement door into our dingy apartment, I heard the shower running through the bathroom wall. Jim was standing naked in the front room, a beer can in his hand, his thick black hair was spread loosely over his shoulders, just as I had pictured it on Bonnie’s pillowslip. “Hey, Sis,” he said, taking a swig of beer, making no attempt to cover himself, “she’s not bad. Red pubic hair. I like that.”
Looking at him, I thought of only one word: underbelly. “It’s about time you liked somebody,” I said. And I stood there, looking at the notch in his earlobe (the result of a human bite acquired in a bar brawl), embarrassed at [p.124]seeing him standing there, brazenly sweating, though the air in the room seemed suddenly cool. I stepped back through the door and shut it, stroking the worn metal knob, remembering Jim’s reservation house where the neighbors in their tar-paper shacks beat each other’s heads against the wall, between listening to Johnny Cash records.
I drove to the Co-Pilot Lounge, making all the stoplights, and slid into a big red booth. The burly blond guy in the Pike’s Peak sweatshirt asked me to dance and I ignored the age difference and interlocked my fingers at the base of his skull, pressing my breasts up against the insignia on his shirt.
He talked about Colorado Springs and his desire to become a hero and, when I asked him if he knew that America was built on the blood of Indians, he focused intently on my cheekbones and said, “I think they prefer to be called ‘Native Americans.’”
Then he laughed and spun me around on one foot, and for a while I forgot about Bonnie Gardner at home in the shower, trying to scrub herself clean enough to suit my brother’s taste.