I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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After six states, 1,300 miles, and almost twenty-four hours, the iron tang of blood and bleach still hadn’t blown out of my truck. And that’s saying something because since the fire I can’t hardly smell dog shit if I step in it. About 350 miles back, when I crossed into South Dakota from Minnesota, I thought maybe I wasn’t really smelling it, that it was just stuck in my head, caught behind the knife-slit nostrils in the nub that used to be my nose, like sometimes when you’re trying to get to sleep and you think you hear music real low, so low you can’t really make it out. I should have been halfway through Wyoming, but I’d lost a lot of time stopping to put water in my leaking radiator. I pulled off I-90 in Rapid City as the sun was going down and ended up at a Family Thrift grocery store across some railroad tracks.
I parked in the back of the almost empty lot, a couple of rows from an old shit-green International Harvester Travelall from the early seventies. There was an Indian guy in braids and a wifebeater sitting in the open passenger door and three or four kids bouncing around in the backseat. I could see him trying to check me out, but I put some tinted film on the windows a couple of years back. It was the best nine dollars I ever spent, once I figured how to work out the bubbles with a squeegee before the water dried up. It’s darker than what’s legal back home, and one time a deputy stopped me on it. I’d seen him around, and he had a flaming baseball inked high on his arm, peeking out from under the short sleeve of his uniform, just like all the old high-school ballplayers. After he got a good look at me, he put away his ticket book. He didn’t even give me a warning, just said it was darker than what was legal.
Before heading into the store, I used the rearview mirror to draw on some eyebrows with the eyeliner pencil I shoplifted back in Ohio. I didn’t need to shoplift it, because I had a good job at Discount Tire working with Chief until not even two days ago, but it’s hard enough looking like me without having to buy eyeliner from Mae, the big lesbian behind the counter at Dollar General, especially when your crazy mom is wandering the aisles yelling your name, and the way she calls “Paul” sounds like a black crow cawing up in a dead tree. But that’s not near as bad as Chief cussing me over and over again, like he’s probably doing whenever the Oxy wears off. I’ve worked with Chief for almost four years. Until just yesterday, when I backed off a bottle jack when he was setting a jack stand under a backhoe. He’s not a real Indian like the one in the Travelall, but he’s got that thick black hair like the Scots-Irish hill trash that have been knocking around Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia for a couple three hundred years. That, and he had a shingle hatchet under the seat of his truck from when he used to be a roofer, and whenever somebody pissed him off, he’d get it out and chop it in the air like a tomahawk. So I named him Chief, like how our boss Billy named me Grimace after that purple thing in the old McDonald’s commercials. I don’t have enough left in the way of ears or a nose to hold up a pair of sunglasses, and the skin on my face is an angry purplish pink. Or maybe he named me Grimace because the scar tissue pulls my lips back so tight I can’t keep them closed over my teeth unless I work at it, so I look like one of those screaming-skull tattoos. I don’t guess it matters either way.
I’d said, “Ready?” and I thought Chief said, “Go.” But when I let off the pressure, he screamed like I hadn’t heard anywhere except inside my own skull, when that big cook pot I was stirring blew up and covered my head in liquid fire. Maybe he said, “No.” By the time I got that bottle jack pumped back up under the axle, there wasn’t much left of that hand but stringy mash and some stuff you could still say was fingers.
He’d glared at me while he sucked air, and then he held that mess of hand up in front of my face and said, “Well, it ain’t going to tie itself off, motherfucker.” I tied off his arm with my bootlace so he didn’t bleed out and got him into my pickup. On the way to the emergency room at County, he cussed a lot at first, not at me but just because he was in some serious pain.
By the time we got to the entrance, his blood was dripping steady as a clock onto my floorboard. He looked at that mess of hand and laughed, but not like he thought it was funny. Then he got out and went through the automatic doors, looking for all the world like he was holding a wet red shop rag. Between OSHA and workmen’s comp, Billy’d have to shitcan me either way. And while I counted Chief as a friend, I’m not sure that covered cutting somebody’s hand off. He might come out in a day or two like nothing happened. Then again, he might come out and shove that stump up my ass. Hell if I wanted to stick around and find out.
I drove straight home, splashed some bleach and water around the passenger-side floorboard, got all my pills, my special soap, and my cash stash, threw all my camping crap in the truck bed, and latched the T-handle on the truck cap. It wasn’t really a camper, just an old corrugated-aluminum cap as tall as the cab of the pickup, covering the bed. Not one of those nice fiberglass ones with a ladder rack and matching paint, but it had little sliding windows on either side, and I was glad I’d been too lazy to take it off for the summer. I told my mom I was going up to Hocking Hills for a long weekend of camping, but she was hypnotized by a woman selling loose gemstones on the Home Shopping Network and just waved a goodbye. I didn’t call Billy, and I damn sure didn’t call Karl, my probation officer.
The eyebrows I drew made me look surprised. I still didn’t have the hang of drawing on my own eyebrows, because my mom always does it for me every morning before work. At least she did. They were her idea. Somehow she got it in her head that the problem wasn’t that my face was melted off, but that I didn’t have eyebrows. She thought eyebrows would make me look more normal, and it seemed like a small thing to let her try. I’m not saying they don’t look totally fake, because they do, but even fake, drawn-on eyebrows make you look more human than having none at all. And every morning when I got in to work, Chief would let me know how they turned out. He’d say, “You look angry,” or, “You look worried,” or, “You look sad.” And I don’t know how, but he was usually right, which meant my crazy mom must’ve known something when she drew them on, even though it wasn’t like she asked me how I was feeling on any particular day. But now I looked surprised, and I didn’t think I was.
I got my Flair Hair off the passenger-seat headrest. It was a joke present that Billy and Chief got me for my last birthday, a camouflage visor with spiky brown polyester hair sewn around the band, like something you’d buy your bald uncle for a laugh at Christmas. And Billy and Chief had a laugh when I put it on and wore it around the garage all day. But the thing was, the more I wore the hair, the more I didn’t think it looked fake, and even if it did, fake hair was better than no hair, and if I made the band wider and pulled it down low, it covered up a lot of territory.
So, looking surprised, with my country-ass camo visor and a full head of fake brown hair, I climbed out of my Ford. It was cool outside for early June, but I guess South Dakota isn’t southern Ohio. The Indian gave me a head nod. He had a long nose and a strong chin, and he was probably my age but he seemed older. I nodded back without tipping my face toward the parking-lot lights and headed to the store, my left boot flopping loose with every step. I wanted some tuna-fish pouches and white bread, some cheap, sweet cereal to eat dry, and some little cans of prune juice I didn’t have to keep cold. I have to say, there’s days those Vicodin ES tabs are the only thing between me and kissing a train, but they plug you up something terrible. I don’t take them like a pro football player or anything, but I wouldn’t be here without them.
The store was blindingly bright, like all of them, and even though it was damn near empty, there were more Indians than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. Most of them were working there, running the registers and stocking produce, but there were a couple shopping too. I’ve gotten really good at avoiding folks, and not just by steering clear of places with lots of people, like the county fair I’d gone to for twenty-three years straight — ever since I was born — but by keeping the most distance between them and me. What that means in a grocery store is taking the household-cleaning-products aisle straight to the back of the store. Or if someone’s in that one, the greeting-card aisle, because those two are the least likely to have anyone in them. You might think the greeting-card aisle would be better because people are usually busy looking at the cards, which is true, but they’re always in the mood to be extra polite, I guess because they’re spending a few seconds of their day doing something nice for someone. They look up from the card they’re reading to smile and say, “Pardon me!” and that’s when I scare the hell out of them without even meaning to. And there’s no card for that.
I was still hiking past all the laundry detergent when I thought I smelled cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven. I love cinnamon, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t used to care much about it one way or the other, but since the accident I love it just about any way. I’ll even stir it into a glass of cold milk with a little bit of sugar. Chief had a theory that since I can’t smell too good, I can’t taste too good either, and cinnamon is strong enough to get through. I made my way to the bakery at the end of the aisle. There was a pretty Indian girl behind the bakery case with dark eyes and a flat, oval face. The name tag on her white apron said, “Betty,” but “Betty” seemed like an old name for her. Her long black hair was tied back, with a hairnet on top, and she was sliding a tray of iced cinnamon rolls the size of dinner plates into the bakery case. There was another Indian girl in the back, working at a stainless table, snapping plastic lids onto disposable aluminum pans of something.
The key is to keep your head down but talk loud, so they don’t have to ask what you said. And that’s what I did. “Can I get me one of those cinnamon rolls?”
And she said, “Just one?”
I couldn’t tell if she was joking, but before I could answer, I heard a bunch of shoes squeaking on the waxed floor behind me, and she said, soft and sweet, “There’s my babies.” I looked up enough to see her looking past me with a small smile. Then she said, “Bert’s on tonight. Bert don’t like you hanging out in here.”
Behind me, a man said, “Bert likes me.”
She said, “Not you hanging around with the kids.”
The man said, “I come in to tell him his truck broke. Steam’s just pouring right out of it.”
She leaned down enough to look under my visor and said, “Mister? My old man says your truck’s broke.” Then she gave me a small smile too, and her black eyes weren’t scared at all. The other girl was watching from the back with her hand over her mouth.
I looked over my shoulder, and it was the Indian from the parking lot and three little kids. It was two boys with long black hair who looked just like the dad and a girl with her mom’s flat face, but with finer features. They wore jeans with the knees worn out and T-shirts with Saturday-morning-cartoon characters from before they were born. He said, “Your radiator probably blew.” Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maybe just a hose.”
The younger boy was five or six, and he looked at me and said, “You smell like medicine, Medicine Man.” He wasn’t being mean, just matter-of-fact.
But his mother, Betty behind the counter, was embarrassed enough to say, “Shhh.”
I said, “No, it’s OK. I do.” I’m usually not so understanding. The last time somebody said that was this red-haired girl up in Chillicothe who let me fuck her for forty bucks. But only if I was behind her, and she cried when I hitched up my jeans. She said I smelled like medicine, and I said she smelled like old cum and dirty ass and that was the end of that. And I’m not even sure she meant anything. Maybe it was all that crying.
But this kid was just speaking the truth. I looked down at him and made a gesture I seem to make a lot, even when I’m alone, and I don’t remember exactly when it started. I put an open palm up in front of my molten face and make a slow circle, which has come to mean, in my mind, all of it. “It’s special soap I have to use. It smells like medicine.”
And like we were talking our own sign language, he nodded and made another gesture, like he was splashing water on his face in slow motion. “You sound like smoke.”
I’d never thought of it that way, but I guess I did, scratchy and low and thin from the scorching all the way down into my lungs. If smoke sounded like anything, I guess I was it.
His dad said, “Come on, I got a big flashlight.”
I followed them down the greeting-card aisle with my left boot flopping cadence. The boys were holding each of his hands, and the little girl had two fingers hooked through a belt loop on his jeans.
His name was Edgar, and we were squatting in front of my truck. It was dark out now, but his flashlight was like staring into the sun. The water we’d just poured into the radiator was running out like an open faucet.
He said, “If it’s fixing to blow, that’s when it’ll do it, right when you shut it off and that fan stops cooling everything down.”
I nodded. “Yep, when that water pump ain’t moving shit around.”
He tilted the flashlight at me and said, “That’s right. The heat builds up.”
I shrugged. “I worked in a garage. Tires mostly.”
He said, “No kidding? I got a tire question for you when we get this sorted.”
I said, “That flashlight is like staring into the sun.”
Edgar waved it side to side across the grill of my truck and said, “Two and a half million candlepower.” He turned it on his old Travelall. The doors were open, and all three kids were sleeping in the back seat like a pile of puppies. They groaned at the light and turned away. He said, “Sometimes the headlights go out if I hit a chuckhole. I just hang this out the window, and it’s daytime.”
I said, “I bet.”
Edgar pointed the flashlight at the radiator. “That seam along the bottom pan is split. Not all the ways across. It needs resoldering. He rubbed his smooth chin and said, “There are two places that’ll repair it, Dakota Radiator three, four miles west, and Angel Brothers north of town. But I don’t know either one’ll get to it right off tomorrow, not on a Saturday.” He thought about it for a minute and said, “But maybe. We can pull it out right now. If you dropped it off tomorrow early, fixed by, maybe, Monday afternoon? I got nothing to do till my old lady and her sister get off. It’d pass the time.”
I said, “I got tools, but that’s three days.”
“Yep, that’s three days. You got somewhere to be?”
I didn’t, not really. I’d been thinking of heading to Portland, but I didn’t have a good reason to go to Portland or anyone to see there. Karl and leaving the state and probation violation was all running around the back of my head, but truth be told, Karl’s fat ass wouldn’t even know to be looking for me until I didn’t show up for check-in in three weeks, and I was five states past worrying about that anyway.
I said, “No, I got nowhere to be, but this is my camper. And I’ll need to get some sleep.”
Edgar walked around the side of my truck, and I followed him. He shined that flashlight through the sliding window on the side of the cap. All my crap was in there, looking shabby in that bright, unforgiving light — a sleeping bag and foam pad, a couple of stained pillows, a black trash bag full of clothes, an empty cooler, a single-burner propane stove and cooking stuff, my dented toolbox, and a little square camp toilet the color of old mustard.
“Nice setup,” Edgar said. “What’s the floor?”
“Strand board. I cut it out with a jigsaw to fit around the wheel wells.”
He nodded, then looked to the store and back again. “Get your tools. I’m gonna talk to Bert.” As he walked away, he said, “Make sure no one steals my kids. I like them.” Then he laughed and said, “Most of the time.”
I had the top hose loose and was lying in the puddle of engine-warmed water with the flashlight and a screwdriver, working on the bottom one, when I heard soft footsteps close by.
I said, “Is that you?”
And a girl said, “No, it’s me.”
I scooted out far enough to shine the flashlight up at her. It was the girl from the back of the bakery, and before she could get her hand up, I saw she had a bad harelip, and not like the ones you usually see these days that you can hardly tell, but like a piece of fishing line was pulling her lip up inside one nostril. But with her hand there covering it, I could tell right away it was Edgar’s sister-in-law, because she looked just like the pretty girl behind the bakery case, if somebody took the pretty girl behind the bakery case out between the dumpsters and shot her in the mouth.
Her name tag said, “Claire,” and she shook her head behind her hand and said, “Don’t.” I put the flashlight back under the truck so she couldn’t see me either, and she held up a white paper bag. “You forgot your cinnamon roll.”
I laughed and said, “Yeah. I forgot to pay for it too.”
She looked at her gym shoes. “It’s OK. I get something free for my break.” Then she jiggled one shoe and said, “I’m on break.”
We sat down on a concrete parking block in the darkness between my truck and the Travelall of sleeping children, and she held on tight to the rolled top of the bag. My T-shirt was wet, and I knew I probably smelled like whatever old antifreeze was still in there to leak out, even though I couldn’t smell it myself.
She pointed and said, “That’s my niece and nephews. The oldest one is Chaske, but we call him Charlie. He’s eight. Then Clayton, you met Clay. He’s six. And Winona. She’s four, but she’s small for four. I’m Claire.”
I said, “So Edgar’s your . . . ?”
“Brother-in-law. He’s good. He married my older sister, Betty. The pretty one.”
“Well,” I said, “you got the pretty name.” And in the dim light of that dark parking lot, I saw her smile down at the bakery bag. Coming from anyone else it might’ve sounded like a line, but I’m not really in any position to use a line. I tried a couple of times at first, when I was really drunk, but then I’d catch sight of myself in the bar mirror behind all the liquor bottles and know exactly why the women found their ice cubes so damn fascinating.
She said, “Claire Kills Crow Indian.”
And I said, “No lie? Claire Kill Crow Indian? That’s your name?”
She nodded, “Kills Crow Indian.”
I said, “Wow. That’s the coolest name I have ever heard. How do you rate a badass name like that?”
She giggled behind her hand. “I guess one of your ancestors has to kill a Crow Indian. What’s your name?”
I said, “Paul. But everybody calls me Grimace. Everybody back home. After that thing in the old McDonald’s commercials.”
She sat quiet for a minute. I thought she was going to ask after my last name, but then she said, “That’s not nice.”
“I don’t care.” But I did. I always did.
She said, “Paul, are you hungry?”
I slapped my knees and said, “Am I hungry? Two gas-station hot dogs in Iowa was a long way back.”
She unrolled the bag and took out that cinnamon roll, and when I reached for it, she held it off to one side. “Your hands are dirty.”
I held them up and said, “You can’t even see my hands. Leastways whether they’re dirty or not.”
She said, “You think I don’t know what they look like after working on a beater truck? Where you think I been my whole life?”
I thought about that before I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know where you’ve been my whole life.” But I wished I did.
Then she pulled off a piece of that cinnamon roll and fed it to me. And I let her. I don’t know why. I don’t eat in front of anybody except my mom, on account of how hard it is to keep my lips closed. It’s kind of a mess. And I can’t feel if I got food stuck on me or not. But I sat there and chewed, and when I opened my mouth like a baby bird, Claire Kills Crow Indian was there to feed me. I pretended my face wasn’t in the deep shade of that camo visor. And in those brief moments of forever, I forgot just who it was sitting on that concrete parking block.
I said, “Don’t you want some?”
She said, “No. Diabetes runs in the family.”
I didn’t know if that meant she had it already, or just that she didn’t want to get it. Either way, working the bakery seemed like a tough gig.
And, like she read my mind, she said, “I know . . . a bakery.” She shrugged. “Work’s work.”
I said, “You said a mouthful there.” And as soon as I did, I wished I hadn’t, because I didn’t mean anything and I didn’t want to make her feel bad about herself.
She sat upright and brushed at her apron and said, “Here comes Edgar.” She put the rest of the cinnamon roll in the bag and rolled the top down tight and handed it to me. “I got to get back anyway.”
Edgar was there before I could think of anything to say, and he said, “Betty says time’s up.” Then he made a sound like a cracking whip and laughed.
As Claire walked off, she pointed to the Travelall full of kids and said, “For sure somebody’s whipped.”
Edgar smiled, and when she was out of earshot, he said, “That’s my sister-in-law Claire, and she’s got a mouth on her. Not as bad as her sister, but they both do. You wouldn’t think so at first, ’cause she’s so quiet. But she’ll rip you a new one right quick if you cross her.”
I said, “Claire Kills Crow Indian.”
And Edgar said, “Yep. Sometimes I think that Crow might’ve killed himself just to get some peace.” Then he held both hands up in surrender. “But I never said that. Bert says you can leave your truck here until Monday. You can even sleep in it as long as you’re gone while the store’s open.”
I thought about that and said, “Where am I going with no radiator?”
Edgar said, “No, the truck can stay here, but you have to be gone during business hours. He don’t like folks just hanging around. He doesn’t even like me and the kids waiting for Betty and Claire, but I told him I can’t afford to be driving back and forth.”
Bert probably didn’t want me scaring away the paying customers, and I understood that. “What about the cops?”
Edgar said, “Well, I wouldn’t build a campfire, but they won’t bother you unless Bert tells them to.”
That was a lot of daylight hours to be out walking around a strange city. Tomorrow was Saturday, so maybe I could find an out-of-the-way table at a library. I didn’t know about Sunday. I said, “Thanks. There a public library around?”
He said, “You’d better ask somebody that can read.”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, then he smiled and said, “Claire’ll know. She’s always got a book in front of her face.”
Between the two of us, it didn’t take but twenty minutes to pull that radiator, and we put all the bolts and clamps in a plastic cup from a gas station in Illinois.
Edgar pointed to the radiator I was holding and said, “Just slide it under the truck, and we’ll run it over to Dakota in the morning.”
I said, “You don’t have to do that. I can walk it over there.”
He shook his head. “No. We got to come by this way in the morning anyway. We’re all going to see Crazy Horse.”
I didn’t know what he meant, but I was too tired to ask. We took turns pouring water from my milk jug over each other’s hands to wash off the worst of the grime.
I said, “Shit, we forgot your tire.”
He waved me off and said, “One’s been bleeding out for months. It’ll wait till tomorrow. Get some rest.”
After I climbed in over the tailgate and latched the cap window behind me, I opened the two sliders on the sides to get a breeze going through. I dry-swallowed a Vicodin because I’d poured out the warm pop for the parts cup and I wasn’t betting the water left in the milk jug was still potable. I’d meant to get some pop and ice for the cooler, but I forgot every time I stopped. With everything else pushed to one side, I rolled out the foam and my sleeping bag. The ointment I’m supposed to put on when I sleep was somewhere at the bottom of that trash bag of clothes, and finding it was more work than I had left in me. I stripped to my boxers and slid into the soft flannel lining of my sleeping bag. I eased down onto those pillows and set the bakery bag on my chest because I thought to have another bite or two, but I ended up just holding on to that rolled-up paper, falling asleep to the faint sweetness and sweat of Claire Kills Crow Indian, not knowing if that’s how she smelled or how I wanted her to.
I dreamt the dream I dream a lot. Nothing really happens in it, and it changes from one night to the next, but it still bothers the hell out of me because it’s the old me. I don’t see myself, in a mirror or anything, I just know it’s me, the me from before the fire, the way you know stuff in dreams. I’m not even sure it’s a dream. It might be shards of memories sharp as broken glass. Sometimes I’m at a dump Mexican restaurant back home where I used to go with my ex-girlfriend, and I’m eating cheese enchiladas and we’re laughing about some old joke that only meant something to the two of us. But it only meant something to us before the accident, before she saw me and moved down to Charlotte.
I woke up later, the white bag still clutched in my hands. Outside was dark and quiet, so quiet I could hear water running cold in a creek close by. But I wasn’t sure if I was awake, or just awake in a dream. Then I heard Claire whisper, “Good night, Paul.” And a car door creaked shut. Edgar’s old Travelall coughed to life and faded away down the road, towing me along into the cool mist of narcotic sleep.
The next morning I woke to the sound of scraping metal under the truck, and before I could wrestle my way out of my sleeping bag, Edgar peered in through the slider and tapped on the truck cap. It was cold enough to see his breath, but he only had on a canvas vest with burnt-orange fleece on the inside and no shirt.
He said, “You awake in there? I’m gonna run this radiator over to Dakota. You get dressed and take care of your business. We’ll be back in ten minutes to pick you up.”
I was struggling with my jeans. “Hold on. I’ll come with you.” But his shadow was already gone. I pressed my face to the screen and said, “Where we going?” I saw Claire in the backseat of the Travelall, squinting at me, with Winona dead asleep on her lap. Betty was up front filing her nails.
Edgar turned, holding my radiator in front of him like a shield, and said, “Volksmarch. We’re going to see Crazy Horse.”
I didn’t know what any of that meant, so I said, “That looks like a shield.”
He looked down at the slate-gray radiator. “No, it’s my breastplate.”
He did a shuffling Indian dance and a singsongy chant, and Betty stopped filing her nails long enough to lean out the window and yell, “Stop that, fool. You’ll get us fired.”
Claire cupped her hand over Winona’s ear so as not to wake her and said, “They’re usually prettier, with colored beads and bone hairpipe.” While Edgar shoved the radiator through the open tailgate window of the Travelall, Claire said, “Wear good socks and shoes. We’re hiking.”
Before he climbed in the driver’s seat, Edgar said, “And we got food. Lots and lots of food. We got fry bread out the ass.”
The boys laughed, and Betty said, “Edgar!”
And Claire said softly, “With butter and honey.”
After they drove away, I thought about begging off, because I didn’t know how I felt about Claire Kills Crow Indian seeing me up close in the harsh light of day. But I used the camp toilet, then gave myself a plain-water sponge bath crouched under the truck cap. I put on too much deodorant, clean clothes, and some thick socks, then slipped around into the cab to draw on my eyebrows and fix my Flair Hair. I was trying to find something to use for a lace on my left boot when the Travelall pulled in next to me.
When I climbed out, Edgar said, “Monday. Morning maybe. Early afternoon. C’mon.” Then he turned and said, “You boys climb in the back-back.”
Charlie and Clay scrambled over the backseat into the storage area behind it. Betty looked at them over her shoulder and said, “Stay out of the food. And leave that rifle alone, unless you want to end up like Uncle Larry.”
Claire opened the back door and, with little Winona still asleep on her lap, scooted across the wide bench seat. I thought she’d scoot all the way to the other side, but she didn’t. She stopped right in the middle, with one gym shoe on either side of the transmission hump. She had on jeans and a white button-up blouse with no sleeves. With my head tucked down under my visor, I looked at the smooth skin of her upper arm. It looked like a lump of amber I had back home in a shoe box from when I was a kid. Or maybe it looked like melting butter and warm honey.
We drove south out of town and followed Route 16 through the hills. Everything looked different out here, even the green and the sky. My part of Ohio is farmland butting into the foothills of the Appalachians, and when you get into the mountains proper, like over in West Virginia, they’re nothing but up and down, old as time and bundled tight as cedar shingles. Out here everything was bigger and spread out, a lot of pine trees and the grasslands were more of a sage green. We passed a sign for the Cosmos Mystery Area, and Charlie and Clay started bouncing in the back and begging to stop.
Edgar yelled, “We’re going to Crazy Horse.”
Winona woke up on Claire’s lap. She stared at me for so long I finally looked out the window. She said, “Is that a mask?”
Charlie hooted from the back and yelled, “Winnie, you are such a retard. He’s burnt up.”
I glanced at Winona and saw she was tearing up. I said, “It’s kind of a mask. Just scar tissue.”
Claire squeezed her tight and said, “Like Auntie’s lip.”
Winona hid her face in Claire’s neck, and Claire cooed gentle nonsense to her, like you’d calm a horse. When that didn’t work, she said, “Charlie, pass me that blue Tupperware.”
Charlie handed it over the seat and said, “Can we have one?”
Betty said, “You boys had enough already. Both of you. You wait for lunch. Claire brought those for her friend.”
When she peeled the cap back, I thought I almost smelled cooking oil, melted butter, and honey. And a little cinnamon. She tore off a piece of fry bread for Winona and passed me the bowl. “Try one.”
I did. It was a lot like a funnel cake you’d get at the fair back home, but not so sweet. Winona watched me while she nibbled on hers.
Clay had his chin resting on the back of the bench seat. He said, “You like it?”
And I said, “Fried dough and sweet stuff, what’s not to like?”
Clay closed one eye and said, “You like it with the cinnamon? She doesn’t usually make ’em with cinnamon.”
I pretended to think about it while Winona watched me. And then I said, “Yeah, I like it with cinnamon.”
Clay nodded. “Me too.”
Claire smiled and jiggled Winona on her lap.
Winona said, “I like your hair.”
Edgar pulled into a filling station and brought the Travelall to a rocking stop in front of the air compressor. I could hear Betty scrounging change in a quilted purse, and Charlie leaned over the seat and whispered, “Now’s when he says, ‘Twenty-five cents for air? Air ought to be free!’ ”
And he did.
We squatted on our heels looking at the tire. The boys stood behind us, still as small shadows.
Edgar said, “I already checked the valve stem and around the base.”
I rubbed my hands around the tread, gentle as the nurse at the burn unit that changed my dressings.
Edgar said, “And I can’t find a nail or nothing. I pulled it off and looked.”
I looked at that rusted steel wheel and said, “Hmmm.” Then I stood up and rooted through a trash can for an old coffee cup. I handed it to Charlie and said, “Go to the restroom and put a finger of hand soap in here and fill it up with hot water.”
Charlie took off at a run and waddled back with the cup spilling over. He handed it to me and hunkered down, watching me stir the thick pink syrup, more soap than water. I figured that a “finger” of something must mean something different in South Dakota than it does in Ohio. I knelt down and said, “Now watch.” I poured it slowly against the top of the wheel, where the steel meets the rubber, so it ran around both sides. Edgar and me and our shadows watched the tire, and after a long moment three different spots started foaming with fine bubbles thick as shave cream.
Charlie said, “Cool!”
And I said, “Bead leak.”
Edgar shook his head and said, “Damn. What’ll that cost me?”
I shrugged and said, “Elbow grease and a couple of bucks. We’ll peel off that tire, brush off all the rust, and paint the rim with this black shit. Comes in a little can with a brush in the cap.”
Edgar said, “Good deal.”
Clay put his open palms on my fake hair and whispered, “Medicine Man.”
We passed some other roadside attractions gone to seed, the usual go-carts and fudge stands, and when I saw the signs for Mount Rushmore, I said, “Mount Rushmore? Like the president heads?”
Edgar said over his shoulder, “Mount Rushmore ain’t shit.” I heard Betty slap his leg, but he said, “Ain’t shit. You know how big Crazy Horse is? All four of those old, dead white guys would fit in Crazy Horse’s face with room to spare.”
Charlie pounded on the back of the seat and yelled, “And Indians get in free!”
We did all get in free, because the Travelall was full of Indians, and I guess they couldn’t tell about me, or at least not enough to ask. We threaded our way through a gravel lot snowed over with people. Some were in their street clothes, like us, but most had on expensive hiking gear and weatherproof jackets and floppy hats, walking sticks that looked like ski poles and spun-aluminum water bottles. There were runners in shorts and women in stretch pants and seniors with their noses white with sunscreen. There were busloads of Japanese tour groups and two wannabe bikers on new Harleys, with their fat-assed, bottle-blond wives on the back, none of them dirty or tattooed enough to be real bikers. Besides us, I didn’t see many Indians.
Claire pointed to the Crazy Horse statue in the distance. She said, “I know it doesn’t look like much from here, but he’s still a couple of miles away.”
Edgar said, “Boys, grab those two bags.” He turned to me. “You’re supposed to bring canned goods to donate.”
Claire made a face and said, “For the poor Indians.”
And Betty said, “We always bring something we like, ’cause chances are better than not some doctor’s wife from Box Elder will drop them off at our trailer real soon.”
Edgar frowned at my left boot. “You won’t get far like that. It’s over six miles, and up the mountain is tough.” He rummaged around in a cardboard box in the back of the Travelall and came out with a rawhide lace.
Charlie threw his arms up like a football referee after a touchdown and said, “Dad’s magic box of junk!”
It was free to get in but three dollars to do the hike up to Crazy Horse, and after Edgar and I talked it out, I paid for everybody since they were nice enough to bring me along and feed me and cart my radiator around. Betty took Winona from Claire, and they disappeared up the trail ahead of us, trying to keep the boys in sight. The path wound through forest that was mostly pine, with a few trees that looked like birch but Claire said were quaking aspens.
She said, “I love that smell.”
And I said, “I don’t smell anything. But that doesn’t mean much, ’cause I can’t smell shit if I step in it.”
She said, “The pines, they’re ponderosas. You can tell from the split orange bark. They smell like . . .”
But she didn’t tell me what they smelled like. She asked if I couldn’t smell on account of the fire. I thought she was asking because she wanted to know what happened. Most people do. It’s the first thing they want to know. And the last. But I wanted to tell her, because I thought it was important she know the truth of it. I told her I wasn’t saving babies from a burning day care or old people from a nursing home. I told her I wasn’t a soldier in the war or a fireman and I didn’t get any medals. I told her the plain truth, that my uncle Arnett was cooking meth in my mom’s garage and he didn’t know what he was doing. When he asked me to stir a pot while he ran to the feed store, I did, because I liked him, because when I was a kid he’d sneak me sips of some cheap Cincinnati beer as bright as pop and stick his false teeth out to make me laugh even though he wasn’t near old enough to have false teeth. And whatever he’d poured in that pot right before he left wasn’t quite the right thing. I guess it was close, only the one blows up and the other doesn’t. The judge had a hard time looking at me, and he said, “Fate has dispensed some cruel justice. I do believe your punishment exceeds your crime.” He gave me six years’ probation, and the prosecutor didn’t even argue.
Claire thought about all that, then she said, “What happened to your uncle?”
“He must’ve seen the firetrucks when he got back from the feed store, ’cause they never caught up with him. He burnt down our house, and we had to rent a single-wide. My mom brought me a ‘Get Well’ balloon to the burn unit that she said was from him, but I don’t think it was.”
We walked along in silence on the quiet carpet of pine needles. Then she said, “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
But she knew the lie of it the same as me, because what she said was “The boys called me War Hatchet Mouth. In school. Claire War Hatchet Mouth.”
We’d caught up to the bikers, both in shiny black vests, loud and drunk and tugging at their crotches while their wives sat on a log smoking cigarettes.
I heard one of the bikers say, “Shit. Burnt up like that, you can’t tell they’re not white.”
I’d heard worse than that on my best day back home and didn’t see any point in starting something. But then the other one, with the American-flag bandanna covering his bald head, said, “Jesus, and look at the mouth on her.” I turned and closed the distance fast, pulling off my Flair Hair, and when I got close enough for him to smell my breath, I said, “Tomorrow I won’t remember a goddamn thing about you. But I can guaran-fucking-tee, you won’t forget me.”
And I don’t know how, but Edgar was there, and he was there with the biggest knife I ever saw. The blade wasn’t wide or silver, but blue-black and long and thin, like it’d been honed on a whetstone for a hundred years’ worth of gutting and skinning. He wasn’t pointing it at anybody or saying anything, but they all backed off down the path. I yelled, “Sweet dreams!”
Edgar turned me up the path toward Claire while I snugged my Flair Hair back down. He tucked the knife away somewhere back inside that vest and said, “Don’t you carry knives in O-hi-o?”
I was going to tell him we carry folding knives, like a Buck, and guns, like the .38 I always kept in the dash box until Karl said I couldn’t because it violated the terms of my probation. But I didn’t tell him any of that. I just shook my head.
Claire told me not to turn around and look yet. She walked me through the crowd along the length of Crazy Horse’s arm, all the way to the very end, to the tip of his pointing finger still hidden down there in the rock, waiting to come out.
Then she turned me around, and I rested against the chain-link fence, still puffing hard from the hike up. He was big, big as a mountain, strong and serious, staring off into the distance. And the hundreds of hikers, dressed in blues and reds and yellows, flowed from his neck like a beaded breastplate.
I said, “How big is he?”
And she said, “Just his face is almost ninety feet tall. When it’s all done, him and his horse, it’ll be over 550 feet high and almost 650 feet long.”
I stared at the C-shapes etched into his eyes and said, “What’s he looking at?”
“The Black Hills. He said, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried.’ Our land.”
I squinted at the sun. “In what direction?”
She checked her shadow and said, “Southeast.”
I shook my head. “Southeast? That’s back home to Ohio.”
She reached out her hand slowly, like I might be a strange dog, until her fingertips rested on my visor. She said, “Maybe. Or maybe that’s just where you came from.” Then she lifted off my Flair Hair and dropped it over the railing. We both watched it spiral away down the drill-scarred cliff.
She licked the pad of her thumb and started wiping away one of my eyebrows. “You know, nobody knows what Crazy Horse looked like. He never let anybody photograph him.”
I said, “Me neither, ’cept for my mug shot and my driver’s license.” Then I looked at that giant rock face again and said, “So that’s not even him?”
She rubbed away my brow and said, “That’s him on the inside.”
She rooted in her bag for an old baby-food jar filled with sage-green jelly. She worked a dab into her palms and pressed them to my cheeks.
I said, “Is that sunscreen? I’m supposed to wear sunscreen, but I forgot.”
“Yeah, it’s like sunscreen.” She sniffed the jar. “Indian sunscreen.”
She painted more on my face, gently as brushing away an eyelash.
I tried to breathe deep. “Does it smell good?”
She smiled and nodded.
I took out my wallet and said, “I got a picture. From before.”
She put her hand on that worn fold of leather in my palm. She said, “I never want to see it. Not ever.” She wet her thumb again and worked at my other eyebrow. “That’s not you.”
When she was finished, she took me by the sleeve, and we headed back down the easy slope of Crazy Horse’s arm, the crowd parting before us like magic.
She ignored the staring people and said, “You’re a strong man. You were strong to survive. You have to be strong to live.”
I’d never thought of it that way before.
On the hike back through the pine forests, I said, “It smells like butterscotch!”
Claire smiled. “Yes, like warm butterscotch cookies fresh from the oven. That’s the ponderosas.” And when she smiled, I only saw her smile. And that twisted lip didn’t mean a thing.
Back at the Travelall, we all drank cans of store-brand grape pop, and Claire and Betty fixed us Indian tacos, which were pretty much like regular tacos except with fry bread and hot beans from a thermos instead of tortillas and ground beef, with shredded lettuce and cheese and green chili sauce. I folded it like they did and turned away to take a bite.
When I turned back, Charlie shook his head in disgust and said, “You eat like my sister.”
On the way back to Rapid City, with all three kids exhausted in the back-back and Claire next to me on the bench seat, I fell asleep against the window. I dreamt that dream again, but this time it was different. I was at the dump Mexican restaurant back home, but I was sitting with Claire eating Indian tacos, and we were laughing at an inside joke about the rare Flair Hair flying squirrel at Crazy Horse.
When I woke up, the dirt and grease of me had made a mottled print of my cheek on the sun-warmed window. And, half asleep, I studied that small map of an unforgiving land before I noticed that Claire Kills Crow Indian was holding my hand.
She whispered, “Are you awake?” And after I nodded, she said, “Will you do something for me?”
I hung my head, “Anything. Just about anything.”
She said, “Will you throw it away? The picture? From before?”
I took out my wallet, and she turned her face away while I slipped it from behind my driver’s license. I shielded it in my palm to look at it. It was worn at the corners and webbed with fine lines, a high-school-graduation picture of a good-looking kid, smiling, with wild brown hair going in every direction. There was something familiar about the eyes, but not much else. I cracked the window, and before I fed it to the wind, Claire squeezed my hand. I let go, and the photograph fluttered away, a small thing caught in the slipstream of the old Travelall, carried higher and higher, to soar lost and alone above the burnt Black Hills.
Thomas M. Atkinson
Being in prison is plenty grim, but the true tales and short stories in The Sun give me a sense of perspective and dial the grimness back a few notches.
I just finished reading Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills” [July 2012], and I feel a strange but welcome sense of invigoration and peace. I want to know more about Paul, Chief, Edgar, and especially Claire. I want the novel of their lives in my hands, thick and satisfying. I want to start on page one and not stop until it is finished, chow calls be damned. Maybe Atkinson will write it someday. I’ve got time.
“Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills” reminds me of the Bob Dylan song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Dylan packed so much into “Hard Rain” that every line could be the first line to an entirely different song. “Grimace” is the same. There is a whole world contained in this emotionally devastating story, and a line like “Betty looked over her shoulder and said, ‘Stay out of the food. And leave that rifle alone, unless you want to end up like Uncle Larry’ ” could be the first line to a completely separate story.
There is nothing contrived, manipulative, or dishonest about Atkinson’s writing. This is the best story I’ve read in years and a reminder of the possibilities of great literature.
Thomas M. Atkinson’s “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills” struck a deep nerve in me. His portrayal of two profoundly vulnerable characters coming together and gathering strength from each other brought tears to my eyes.
In the same issue, Krista Bremer continues to win me over with her essay “Blues for Allah.” I admire how she writes about her bicultural marriage and faces the challenges of raising a child who is determined to maintain her father’s Muslim roots. Bremer’s writing is a priceless lesson in how we must approach our cultural differences as global citizens.
I just finished reading Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills” [July 2012], and I want to say thank you to the author for this gorgeous piece of writing. It’s raw, piercing, and an example of all that great fiction should be. I was so overwhelmed by it that I had to put the magazine down a time or two to gather myself — and to make it last longer. I write for a living (if legal writing counts), but at this moment, I am happy simply to be a reader.