Nonfiction | March 01, 2002
Kenny rides the horse, a sophomore in my tenth-grade Language Arts class, does not know how to write but loves to draw. When I assign an in-class writing exercise on the subject of Truth—What Is Truth?—he grins, waves his hand and asks for a large sheet of white drawing paper. I think I understand his tone of anxious urgency, as if, were he not to have drawing paper very soon, he would more than likely self-destruct.
“Mr. Pitts,” he says, clearing his throat and unzipping his pencil case, which causes the rest of the class to stop their gossiping and look up from their magazines or biology texts or sleep. He waves and points to the bookcase behind my desk. “I think I’ll be needing some of the big white paper.”
“Fine, Kenny,” I say. “You bet.”
Kenny and I have become good friends, in the way that a white teacher can be friends with an Indian student, whatever way that may be. Neither one of us is comfortable here, in the school, except, seemingly, when we’re together. Kenny and I are slow learners. Most days I have trouble believing I know anything; the cloud of unknowing billows out around me in proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. This is a good thing, l remind myself. Together, Kenny and I don’t feel stupid. We seem to share a purpose.
Some days our friendship feels deeper, so that after school, when the last locker has banged shut, I am relived to see Kenny standing before my desk, smiling. He usually brings a few plastic Star Wars figurines he has casually ripped off from the Wal-Mart in Billings and stuffed inside the huge cargo pockets of his bright orange Denver Broncos parka. I have fantasized about doing this myself, about how good it would feel to finally bring home the 658-piece Lego Millennium Falcon my son so patiently admires. With Kenny’s help, I could slit open the box and take the model out of the store piece by piece, all 658 of them, fancy-dancing past the cashiers in invisible hyperspeed.
“Today was a sad day,” Kenny says. “I felt myself getting angry at people. I felt myself angry at my mom. She partied with her friends all night. She asked me things, like if I wanted to get high too. This is Anakin Skywalker, Mr. Pitts,” he says as he carefully sets the little blond plastic boy on my desk. “He looks like Leonardo Di Caprio from Titanic, only smaller.”
“It’s good to know why you’re angry, Kenny,” I say. “Most of the time we don’t know, and that’s what can really mess us up. But it’s also important to know, or just to be aware of, when you’re angry. It forces us to keep cooler when we might just, you know, make some trouble for ourselves.”
“This is Qui-Gon Jinn,” Kenny says as he sets another figurine next to Anakin. “I heard someone stole your Star Wars video, Mr. Pitts,” he says.
I took my son’s video to class to kill time during semester exams. Someone walked away with it, I’m certain, during Crow Language class, which uses my room fifth period, while I sit in the library grading papers. This has been a major ethical dilemma for me because I think the thief is a Crow, a wild illiterate named Washington McCormick who dictates alcoholic sonnets to his teaching aides. I’m pissed at Washington not only because he ripped me off but because he’s talented. He couldn’t care less about poetry. I’ve been walking around alternately full of rage at Washington or ironically admiring him to the point of secretly cheering the robbery. How else could he get his hands on a Star Wars video? Then I imagine him and his friends getting stoned while watching the film and replacing the soundtrack with a Snoop Doggy Dogg CD. And I think of my son Jackson, who looks a bit like Anakin, howling down the universe for his heroes to come back. “They don’t feel guilt,” is what the assistant principal says. “It just ain’t there.”
“So, how’d it go today, man?” I ask Kenny.
“Not too good, Mr. Pitts. Some kids pushed me around. They said I was sticking up for a little kid, a freshman.”
Kenny is a big guy, about six foot two and heavily built. I would not want to get punched by him. Until recently he wore his black hair in a ponytail; then he showed up one day sporting a violent buzz cut.
Kenny seems to understand my puzzled look.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone, Mr. Pitts. But sometimes I want to kill people. And that makes me sad.”
“Well, yeah, killing is never a good thing.”
Kenny grins and grunts his grunting laugh. “Sometimes,” he says.
I glance out at the empty hall. Today a teacher found a homemade scalpel stuck in the top of her door frame. I opened my door at the final bell the other day to a small pile of bullets in front of the lockers. I make a mental note to talk to Kenny’s counselor tomorrow, but I note, too, that it will prove a waste of time.
“I’ve got to go, Kenny.”
“Uh, Mr. Pitts?”
“Oh, I forgot, Kenny. Here you go.” I give him a stack of big white drawing paper whenever he comes by after classes.
I put on my jacket and walk to the door. I see Kenny into the hall and walk with him out the front steel doors into the cold air.
But even though I have said good-bye to Kenny, he hasn’t returned the wave. In fact, he matches me stride for stride. We walk along in silence until we come to his street.
“Well, Kenny,” I say, “see you tomorrow.”
“Would you like to see my house, Mr. Pitts? You can meet my mom.”
“Well, I have dinner waiting … so I can’t stay long.”
He grins hugely.
The one-story clapboard house is nearly paintless, scoured clean by the sun and the wind. The yard is scarred by frozen tire ruts; the sagging front porch is supported by pieces of concrete block; a few windows are broken. Kenny opens the front door; we step into the front room, and there’s a woman lying on a car seat under an Indian blanket, holding a rag over her eyes. On the floor are a full ashtray and a few beer cans.
“Mom,” says Kenny, “this is Mr. Pitts.”
After a moment the woman moans, then rolls over toward the seatback.
We move to the kitchen, which is bare except for a cooler on the floor, a table, some chairs and clean plastic dishes in a dish drainer. My sense is that Kenny does the work. “Here is the kitchen,” he says.
I’ve seen enough, but Kenny continues to a small room at the back of the house. He opens the door. On the floor is a foam mattress covered with an Indian blanket. Arranged neatly around the edges of the room are Kenny’s Star Wars figurines, all caught midaction, oblivious to each other in their separate realms. The walls are covered with Kenny’s drawings on white paper. Drawings surround the edges of the window. “Keeps the wind out,” he says.
I walk to school (my house is five minutes away), arriving at 7:30, when just the secretary and a few teachers are there. I pass a run-down house on the corner every morning and witness an angry Crow father barrel into the driveway, lean on his horn and curse his two little daughters as they are pushed out of the house by their mother. Sometimes I run into Kenny on his way to school, and we walk together. Mostly we greet each other in my room.
After opening my classroom door, I usually turn on my computer, then go down the hall to the faculty lounge to get coffee. I leave my door open and on this morning when I return, Kenny is standing at attention in front of my desk, wearing his Denver Broncos parka even though the classroom is sauna temperature. He turns to me as I walk into the room, pushing his glasses up and squaring his shoulders. What does he want from me? I have nothing to teach.
He grins and nods. “Good morning, Mr. Pitts.”
“Good morning, Kenny. How are you today? You left your stuff here,” I say, gesturing toward the two Star Wars figurines.
“They’re for you, Mr. Pitts,” he says.
I have written three words in large block letters on three big pieces of white paper and taped them to the glass transom above my door: Truth, Beauty, Goodness.
The other day at a faculty meeting in which we were discussing changes to the high school’s mission statement, I suggested the addition of those three words, and the principal thought them “kind of weird.” I agreed with him. They seemed hackneyed and precious. But I also believe, desperately at times, in that humanist trinity. “So they’re weird,” I said. “And this place is normal?” The Title 1 family advocate, who might have been a good friend had he not gotten divorced and left, had asked me one day after I put the words up, “Hey, man, what are those words for?” He’d been swinging an oversized driver in my room after class. We had been talking about golf and divorce.
I’d looked up at them. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know why I had put them up—maybe out of anger, getting back at students for not making me look like a good teacher. “Reminders of what I’m supposed to be doing here, I guess.”
“That’s cool,” he’d said, as if I had just revealed a kinky personal hobby. “So, what the fuck are you supposed to be doing here?”
In response to my deep questions about concepts like Truth, which come fast and furious now, toward the end of the year, Kenny draws complicated coats-of-arms consisting of a trinity of figures entwined around what looks to be a Celtic cross—a World Wrestling Federation star and an Indian chief crossing his hatchet with a pistol held by Custer, whose long blond hair Kenny always colors orange. Sometimes he complements this intimate family with a background rendering of the Titanic steaming into oblivion.
I find Kenny’s drawings more eloquent than any of the student writing I’ve received this year. I give Kenny As on these drawings, even though my understanding of them is merely intuitive. In their laboriously articulated synthesis of American junk culture, science fiction and Christian and Crow symbolism, Kenny’s drawings are precise and incisive pieces of existential commentary. Try explaining that to the standardized testers.
It was clear to me soon after meeting Kenny at the start of the year that he would not need me to help draw out and channel his copious creative and intellectual energy. It was also clear that he was “learning disabled,” “FAE,” as they say, mildly retarded owing to his mother’s alcohol abuse. I added my own diagnosis—inconsolable hopelessness. Understandably, Kenny was also deeply superstitious; he represented his superstition, I sensed, in his drawings. As the year wore on I found myself a bit obsessed with being able to articulate, not just intuit, what Kenny was saying in his pictures since he could never explain to me what they meant. “It’s a picture of the Rock, Custer and Sitting Bull, with the Titanic behind ’em, Mr. Pitts,” he would say when I asked him to explain. “Nice, huh?” I woke up one night convinced that if I couldn’t understand what Kenny was saying in his drawings, then I’d never be any good to a student who, of all students, needed my help.
One day, when we were reading Lewis and Clark’s Journals, I raised the subject of the role of superstition—that of both the white explorers and the Indians they met on their way northwest. Lewis and Clark possessed an unflappable belief in the power of precise observation, so they were able to maintain their journals in the harshest of conditions, believing in the value of their work for the future. I also agreed with the Indian view that the Expedition was a grim event, as it marked the official beginning of the end of the Plains Indian—the ending being the nearby Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand, which is reenacted every summer.
On August 25, 1804, near the Whitestone River, the Expedition arrived at the base of a hill rising from the plains, called by local Indians the “Mountain of little people.” In his journal William Clark wrote that the Indians believed these “little people” to be of “human form with remarkable large heads, and about 18 Inches high, that they are very watchfull and are arm’d with Sharp arrows with which they can kill at a great distance; they are Said to kill all persons who are So hardy as to attempt to approach the hill.” With an American military man’s need for proof and an anthropologist’s curiosity about the natural basis of native superstition, Clark remarked, “One evidence which the Inds give for believeing this place to be the residence of Some unusial Sperits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of Birds about this Mound is in my opinion a Sufficent proof to produce in the Savage Mind a Confident belief of all the properties which they ascribe it.”
What struck me about this passage was the superstitious nature of Clark’s own “informed” opinion. I was puzzled about Clark’s need for proof and further, as to what would determine the “sufficiency” of it.
The topic of discussion in class that day was cross-cultural understanding.
“So what do you guys think?” I said to the class. “Some of us believe in the little people, right?”
Over half the class was Indian, and I knew that many Crows still believed deeply in a race of essentially benevolent little people living in the Pryor Mountains, southeast of town. The Indians in class were silent. Some of the white students tittered nervously. Kenny smiled at me, sweating. I let the silence settle, staring at the big silver piece of duct tape I had covered a gash in the carpet with.
An Indian girl finally spoke. “Yeah, there’s like a whole bunch of them little people, eh? You leave ’em cigarettes and candy bars and stuff.”
The class laughed, the Indian girls saying, “Ehhh” in unison.
“Or some weed,” said a white student, and the class—Indians and whites—broke up. I saw my opening.
“So come on, who believes in this stuff anyway? How are the little people different from Santa Claus or leprechauns?”
More silence, more drooling, more slack-jawed wonder. I thought, I’ll put ’em away with a zinger, but I knew it was lame even as I said it.
“Do you guys know that some hotels in Ireland have rounded corners, to make it easier for leprechauns to move around?”
“What the fuck is a leprechaun?”
And then, “Where the fuck is Ireland?”
Silence. Searching for life, my ears picked up a peeling sound. Then I saw that Delbert Walks, a six-foot-five Crow basketball player whose arms hung down to the floor when he leaned back to sleep, was peeling the plastic baseboard from the wall, all the while looking straight at me—more out of boredom than anything else. With his huge hands he flicked the little black pieces to various points around the room. That’s where they’re from!
I put down my book. “Hey, Delbert,” I said, “how’s it going, man?”
He continued to stare and peel, stare and peel. The class giggled.
“Well, that’s cool. ‘Cuz before I give you noon detention and the details of your new after-school job cleaning desks, I just wanted to know your thoughts on the little people.”
His stare seemed almost to say something, to take on a subtle change in tone, before I put an end to my wishful thinking. I turned around, ready to assign some in-class writing. I heard a rumbling, as of a human voice.
“What’s that?” I asked the class. They gestured toward Delbert. I cupped my hand to my ear. “What’s that, Delbert?”
He stared at me. I hated to think it, but he looked pretty close to the cigar-store Indian, if the Indian had ever worn size 18 Air Jordans. “They’re a lot smaller than me,” said Delbert.
Uproarious laughter. Kenny laughed the hardest, harder than me, anyway. So hard that he had to remove his glasses for safety. Delbert stared.
“That’s a fine answer, Delbert,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. He had taken care of all the baseboard within three feet of his desk. He had also spoken. Seemed like a fair trade.
Later, my sixth-period class, half white, half Indian, wouldn’t respond at all to anything I said, so I gave them in-class writing (topic: Do you have any superstitions?). One Crow girl who had been surly the entire year finally dropped all pretense and asked the class as she leaned back against the far wall, “Is anybody gonna do this assignment?” The rest of the class eyed me with grim pleasure, as they might follow a fight scene in Die Hard.
I had opened the class by pointing out how the students had segregated themselves, the Indians on the far side and the whites nearer the door. Lenny Gomez, who was twenty and a father of two and worked at the Pizza Hut over by the interstate, was half Crow, half Mexican and a brilliant writer when he had the time. He was the leader of the Indians. They were a formless mass on their side of the room until he sauntered in, when they drew their desks around him. Lenny had drawn me a wild picture of a godlike Indian brave wearing dreadlocks. The brave posed fiercely against a backdrop of marijuana leaves and a “Legalize it!” slogan. The caption of the picture read, “SKINDIAN.” I’d taped the picture to the wall behind my desk. I had no idea what it meant. Perhaps it didn’t mean anything. Why was I always looking for meaning?
Lenny had given me the picture after class one day when I had spent the period talking to him about staying in school. I had said that I liked reggae music—Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff—and we’d slapped hands in the new way. You held your hand up limply, as if it were a dead fish, and then joined yours with your partner’s in a kind of lazy, deadfish slap. I’d gotten the feeling that this bit of shared interest, plus the knowledge that I was a highschool dropout, was what Lenny heard, not the life’s philosophy stuff. Lenny worked fulltime at the Pizza Hut—what philosophy would he need? What philosophy wouldn’t he need? Eventually Lenny would bring his checkout paper to sign, and he would disappear. I would see him at the basketball courts one morning the following summer. We’d play HORSE, not saying much—his kids were okay, he loved his wife. Man, you got it all, I’d say.
When he came to class, Lenny directed things on the other side of the room. He told Pius Old Elk, a Navajo who lived on the Crow reservation, to get to work when I assigned in-class exercises. Lenny would lean over to touch Ronald Stewart on the shoulder and ask him if he needed help. Ronald would come into class, sit down and not raise his head until the bell rang. He had a nasty crank habit in addition to being an alcoholic, so I let Lenny see to him.
A teacher had told me that Ronald was a phenomenal point guard. I had initially thought this interesting, in the way that an educated white man would, if he was into sports. But finally, this bit of knowledge about Ronald seemed absurdly irrelevant, and, more to the point, destructive. Basketball wasn’t life, even if the Indians lived for it, and I didn’t like playing along. Lenny didn’t either, which is one of the reasons I admired him.
Lenny dispensed advice to his ganja braves as they hunkered down with their pencil stubs over their notebook paper ripped from Lenny’s pad. They would be talking in low tones about Vince Carter dunks, and Lenny would go along but then cap the topic with an astute warning. “Hoops is just a way to deal with rez boredom, man. It ain’t gonna get us anywhere, you hear, coz?” And they’d nod and snicker with a strangely even, uncynical tone. I’d learned to interpret that snicker as a sign of my male Indian students’ unabashed resignation to their lives.
The other side of the room, the white side, was centered around Dean, the wise-ass rancher’s son whom I’d had trouble with for a while, until I learned to let go of any responsibility for his failures in life. When Dean acted up I sent him out of the room as quickly as possible, usually with a pat on the back and a “Later, dude.” This pleased the whites and the Indians, especially the girls, who would actually look up from their nails. When confronted with an activity requiring some thought, Dean simply put his head down on his desk after a short gossip session and sighed, “Man, I’m tired of this class.” But if, while I was explaining an assignment or trying to get discussion going, Dean tried to throw me off, Lenny intervened, telling Dean to shut up and motioning for me to come over to the other side of the room, the Indian side, “to teach us.”
On that day in my sixth-period class with Lenny and Dean, I said, during a particularly annoying period of indifferent silence or fear, following yet another attempt to get a discussion going about racism, “You guys are just dumb and lazy, that’s all. Indians and whites, whatever damn color you are. You need to know that nobody’s gonna help you. You’re not going anywhere. I know ‘cuz I dropped out of high school myself. Go ahead and drop out. See where you end up. Hey, Dean, think about it, man, you could be lookin’ pretty cool hangin’ outside the Stockman Bar with your ten-gallon hat and your spurs, waitin’ for all the babes to get out of school.
“And Pius, just think, instead of wastin’ your time in here with this bullshit, you could be dunkin’ the ball in your driveway in Crow Agency, pretendin’ to be Vince Carter.”
Pius and Dean smirked and shook their heads; the girls put their hands to their mouths. Ronald slept.
“Hey, Mr. Pitts, that ain’t cool, man,” said Lenny from the comer.
“Hey, Lenny, it’s time to quit the cool bullshit,” I said. I looked at the clock. “Thirty more minutes with you turkeys. That’s depressing.
I tossed my notebook and pen on my desk and opened the book I was reading—Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. I figured if I was fired, it was okay; I wasn’t doing much good anyway. I also knew that I probably wouldn’t be fired, because the school would never find anybody to take my place. What the hell?
“One more thing, guys,” I said from my desk. “You seem to be able to separate yourselves by color, but when it comes to actually fighting, you just don’t seem to have the balls. So tell me, why should I care?” I knew their parents didn’t care what went on in class. I’d be more than willing to defend myself anyway, as I’d done many times.
“Hey, man, that’s not fair, Mr. Pitts,” Lenny said.
I grabbed a pen and began underlining sentences in my book. My students hated to see this. Even though they’d never read a book, for them, writing in one was like keying a new car.
The bell finally rang and they slunk out. I stood at the door and patted each student on the back as they left.
“Good work, guys,” I said as they disappeared into the hall traffic, enjoying their dumb confusion at my tone. “You have fun now.”
On the walk home I considered going back to work at my brothers’ construction company. I thought about how good a big framing hammer would feel in my hand.
Kenny attends the Hope Church, which is housed in a prefab building off Main Street, behind the supermarket-turned-bargain-clothingstore, just down the street from his house. I have never been to the Hope Church, but .1 imagine, probably wrongly, that it’s another haven of theologically confused, emotionally overwrought fundamentalism. Often Kenny seems puzzled by the contradictions between his experiences at the Hope Church and the circumstances of his life. Or he may just as well be trying to reconcile the violence and brutality of life everywhere, in the past and present, with the Christian message of love and peace.
On some mornings Kenny waits for me outside my door, his thumbs in his belt loops, leaning against the wall, his head framed by two passages I have copied onto big white pieces of paper. One of the quotations is Thoreau, saying that education is an expensive game, and the other, Chief Plenty Coups, saying that education is the best revenge. One hallway commentator has drawn a penis in the corner of Chief Plenty Coups, and someone—maybe Lenny—has drawn saw-toothed marijuana leaves over Thoreau. When I see Kenny outside my door as I walk down the dim hall, I know what’s bothering him, and I know we’re going to have the same conversation we have whenever he’s angry. But this repetition has become important to me; I am as angry and frustrated as Kenny. On this day, Kenny gives me a gift.
He grins and giggles, then says, “Good morning, Mr. Pitts. How is your day going?” He steps aside as I unlock the door.
“Fine so far, Kenny. Good to see you. How’s everything for you?”
“Not so good,” he says, following me into the classroom and taking up his position in front of the desk.
“My mother had a party last night. She was up all night partying, so I couldn’t sleep. Then her boyfriend started to hit her, and she was screaming and crying. Then after a while she was laughing. I’m so angry at my mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Pitts.”
“Anger isn’t good, Kenny. Sometimes I’m angry too.”
“What do you get angry at, Mr. Pitts?”
“Well, I get angry at not being able to do what I want to do, or that I don’t get done what I want to get done.”
“Hmmm,” he says, grinning and nodding. “Hmmm.”
“Sometimes I don’t think I’m a very good teacher.”
Kenny nods—a momentary bummer. “Hmmm,” he says, “you don’t think kids learn anything in your classes. Hmmm.”
“Well, I suppose that’s it. I was thinking more along the lines of not teaching them the right things. So I get angry at myself.”
“Hmmm. It’s not a good thing to get angry at yourself, Mr. Pitts.”
“Well, you’re right about that,” I say as I turn on my computer.
“Don’t be bummed, Mr. Pitts. This is for you, Mr. Pitts,” he says as he takes from his coat pocket a plastic Star Wars figurine and sets it on my desk. “It’s a free gift, for you.”
I pick up the little person, imagining Kenny gently lifting it from the racks of expensive plastic toys, knowing it’s for me.
“It’s Chewbacca,” I say. “That’s interesting. Thank you very much, Kenny. I’m curious. Why did you pick Chewbacca for me?”
Kenny clears his throat and pushes his glasses up on his nose.
“I was going to give it to the little people, Mr. Pitts. But then I wanted to give it to you.”
I wonder about the symbolism but decide there is none.
“My mom was gonna drop me off in Pryor on her way to Billings, so I was gonna walk up to the caves where the little people live and leave them Chewbacca. But she had a hangover and couldn’t go. It’s for you, Mr. Pitts.”
“Would the little people like this?”
Kenny pauses and looks down.
“Mr. Pitts,” he says, “it’s not right to talk about the little people. They don’t like to be talked about, so that’s why we should never talk about them. Okay?”
Like everyone else, I barely make it to June. On the last day, the one student I have most wanted to teach—Kenny—and have failed to, slaps hands with me outside the school. On Saturday I tell my wife I need to go into the Pryor Mountains to breathe a big sigh of relief and to look for the little people. If I cant talk about the little people, then maybe I can at least get a look at them. Okay, she says, just remember that you’re bigger than they are. I would hope so, I say. Maybe I am just “paranoid about everything,” as my wife put it when I told her earlier in the week that I had had two equally terrifying daytime nightmares. In the Indian nightmare, war-painted Crow braves creep through the streets in the darkness waving sharpened hatchets, led by a student I’ve failed. In the other nightmare I am revealed as a fraud; my family is vaguely embarrassed; I go on to a successful career as a Wal-Mart security manager.
I asked Father Francis, the priest at the Catholic mission in St. Xavier, about twenty miles away, how I would find the little people. Father Francis knows the area around the Pryor Gap—the pass over the Pryor Mountains leading into Wyoming—as well as anybody. Cool, said Father Francis. You come to some boulders, which are prehistoric markers. You’ll see all kinds of smaller rocks scattered around—these are the remains of offerings to the little people. Veer off to the right, go up into the mountains and you’ll hit the caves where they live.
One of my Crow students, unafraid to talk about the little people, told me about an abandoned railroad tunnel near the caves. Apparently the little people didn’t take to the Chinese workers blasting a hole in their mountain, so they simply caved in the tunnel.
When I get to Pryor I go to the Chief Plenty Coups museum and ask the Crow attendant where I might find the little people. She stands at the counter, lighting a bowl of incense. “Oh, they’ll be here soon,” she says, inhaling deeply. “‘They go south a little ways into Wyoming for the winter.”
“Hah,” I say. The smoke smells thrillingly of marijuana.
She fixes me with a stare above the rims of her glasses.
“Why do you laugh?”
“No, no,” I say, “I’m not laughing, I’m just. . . ”
“Here you go,” as she reaches under the counter. She pushes a videotape toward me. “You’ll probably want to see this. It’s kind of interesting.” She motions toward a video monitor next to a cabinet displaying Chief Plenty Coups’ war shirt. Many Crow traditionalists find Plenty Coups weak, an “apple”: red on the outside, white on the inside. That would make me a Vidalia onion—layers and layers of white, no discernible center.
I pop in the video and, inhaling deeply, watch an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, about a twelve-inch-high prehistoric mummy found in a cave in Wyoming in the 1950s. The mummy made the rounds of labs and weird private owners, all claiming it as a full-grown little person, until modern science showed them up, proving it to be a deformed baby. I hit rewind. As usual, the present is more mysterious than the past. And if I did see a little person, would I sit and listen to its sage advice? Would I capture it, cage it up and go on tour?
“Thank you very much,” I say to the attendant.
“Good luck, hey,” she says.
“Thanks, I’ll need it,” I say, but then wonder why I would be needing luck. If the little people have gone south, what chance is there at all of seeing them, with or without luck?
Briefly, I consider going home.
The two-lane blacktop gives way abruptly to gravel, and after some curves through brush and some ranches—a corral, a cottonwood grove, a rusty house trailer, clothes on a line, a pickup—I cross a creek and turn up into the mountains.
The road gets bumpier, the rocks more numerous. I bounce up along a gray cliff face full of small caves; an eagle soars high overhead. Come on. I’m in no mood for symbols. I can barely tolerate myself. I stop the truck at the turn toward the collapsed railroad tunnel, get out and in the windy silence of the canyon realize I’m no longer interested in seeing the little people. Perhaps I’ve only been interested in the site for such a belief, as Clark had been—how the mountains and the birds had spoken to the Indians. I was looking for the natural causes of supernatural belief, but beneath this curiosity was a desire, in the hypermodern world, for a faith in things unseen. I sit down on a boulder.
“What? What is this shit you’re sayin’? ‘Faith in things unseen,’ my ass. I got a boil that pains me less than listening to the inside of your white head.”
I turn. Nothing, just a high-pitched voice.
“Over here,” says the voice.
On top of a rock a few feet away is an Indian man, about, well, eighteen inches high. He looks off down the mountain, rubbing his pot belly.
“Why do you make me sound like Jackie Mason? I’m an Indian. Whazza mattah, you don’t know what an old Indian fart sounds like? Lemme show ya.”
He rips a long fart, then whistles between his teeth.
“One of my fans left me a can of commodity beans—you know what just one lousy bean does to me?”
“I—I really shouldn’t be here, you know,” I say. “It’s not right, if you know what I’m saying.”
The Indian turns toward me finally and, surprisingly, surefootedly, and with little grunts, hops from rock to rock until he stands next to me.
“So who’s gonna know? Whaddya, afraid of some PC Indian, some earth-mother, eagle-feather-rubbin’ Sundance Chief? Ever read Deloria? Me neither. Okay, pahdna’.” He sticks out his hand. “I’m a little person, which you may have guessed.”
I hesitate. “I’m Mr. Pitts, a big white person.” I take his hand in my palm.
He nods, then grimaces. “Is that so? So whaddya got for me? What lame white shit you gonna lay on me?”
“Mr. Pitts, you can’t lie to me. Which you’re aware of this.”
“I’m divided against myself, split down the middle, at war with my very being. I also think I’m doing a shitty job at work. It’s a waste of time. The wife and kids are fine.”
“Your wife’s fine? Who taught you to be so dishonest with yourself? Where do you people learn that?”
He puts two fingers to his lips and chucks his head a bit.
“Is that Plains Indian sign language?”
“What? No—you featuring smokes?”
I light a cigarette for him, which he takes in both hands, bringing the filter to his face. He sucks and inhales deeply, then exhales. Resting the filter end in his hands, he lets the lit end of the cigarette fall to the rock. Then he sits down, resting the filter end in his lap. He raises his arms and stretches, then hocks a loogey and spits. “Ahh,” he goes. “The boys’ll be jealous, eh? So lemme tell ya. Don’t worry so much. Those kids are learnin’, in spite of you.”
I feel suddenly disappointed.
“I sense that you’re not believing me. Okay. Forget the kids—leave ’em alone.”
“No. That’s the problem. I don’t want to forget the kids, or some of them at least. You know Kenny Rides, right? Comes around here sometimes?”
“Big kid?” He coughs. “Okay, leaves that Star Wars shit?”
“Tell him we don’t like that. We need stuff we can use. Anyway. Where were we? Divided, divided…”
“Oh yes, that’s right. Divided being. Well, lemme say this. Your being is forever divided. This is a good thing. You need to make it a good thing. Believe me. ‘Cuz it never goes away. You know, I’ve done some healing in my time. Sometime I’ll tell you the story of Burnt Face—Indian kid, divided being such as yourself. Good jump shot. Comes here. I tell him this division gives him special powers. Boom, he’s got special powers.”
“Do I have special powers?”
“Why not? Indian, white, what the hell.”
He hoists the cigarette to his lips and sucks again, inhales, exhales.
“Well, that’s all I got today, eh? How about you giving me a few smokes?”
I understand. I turn to get the pack of cigarettes, and when 1 turn back he’s gone. I place a few smokes on the rock.
“Listen!” I begin loudly. “There’s a lot that could be done here! You could do a lot! How about being a guest speaker in my sixth period?”
“Fuck yooooooo!” I hear.
I spend the overheated summer constructing, at traffic lights and diaper changes, arguments for either quitting teaching or for returning in the fall, convinced that the queasy feeling is something more than pure dread.
At least I know the source of the dread: the muck of school-year busyness conspiring to suffocate the truth—the prissy routine of “subjects”; the phony “authority figures” and “role models”; the Steven Covey tripe about “success” and “self-esteem”; narrow-eyed ignorance and suspicion; the gaseous posturing of the national education debate. By the end of the summer, when I’m finally at a loss for any kind of motivation, I blame everything on the low pay and start circling the Help Wanted ads for American Express financial planners, who will surely be in great demand around the reservation in the new prosperity. I’m left with myself, the real culprit.
I see Kenny at the Custer reenactment outside town, in the fallow fields of a beet farm. A huge parking lot fills up with motor homes with names like Intruder and Predator, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and new silver sedans from faraway states. The bleachers are set up on three sides of a field at the bottom of a line of hills. Behind the bleachers spectators shamble up and down a midway, stepping over rubbercovered power cords and piles of horseshit to buy beer or pick through birdhouses and pastel paintings of Indian maidens and mountain men. In trailers on the far side of the field, Indians and whites dress for their parts, while ponies and cavalry mounts wait in corrals. An Indian village representing the vast multination tipi city Custer blundered into has been set up on the other side of the field. Women and children in traditional dress play around the tipis and the arbors.
Sitting next to me, bikers wave American flags and swill beer. I could pick a fight with them or join them—either way I lose. An Indian family arranges itself nearby, the ponytailed father tall, barrel-chested and impassive. Are they here to have fun? While I’m attracted by the promise of seeing Custer and his men get creamed, that part isn’t reenacted. Plus, the people near the crest of the ridge are too small to see clearly—just a lot of smoke and distant shouting. My Crow students, some of them direct descendants of Custer’s Crow scouts, like to talk about what really happened. Here’s what really happened, Mr. Pitts, they whisper luridly. Custer runs down this slope, see, followed by laughing, fucked-up braves, and jumps into the river, where he’s stripped naked by Indian mamas, who stone him to death, cut off his dick, then poke holes in his ears with their sewing awls so he’ll hear good in heaven, better than he did on earth, anyway. In his wake Custer leaves Indians like Kenny, fit for very little in this world, and who are therefore, because they have nothing to lose, the best teachers.
The bleachers themselves suggest the exciting possibility that history might reverse itself; that the annihilation of Custer and his men will spell, as it should have, the end of the white presence on Indian land. Maybe the beer-bellied braves on their ponies will swerve suddenly toward the stands, whooping, hatchets raised.
But nothing much happens in the hot, caramel air.
There’s a parade of Western historical figures. Then Custer, complete with historically inaccurate long blond Barbie curls, and Sitting Bull, holding his sack of a belly like a tanned Florida retiree, dismount and shake hands limply in the center of the arena, “Proud to Be an American” crackling over the loudspeakers. At this point most of the spectators, including some Indians, stand and place their hands over their hearts. At my first reenactment I couldn’t do it, feeling ashamed, and neither could my brothers, so with a few others scattered around the bleachers we sat there looking down into our plastic cups of Bud Light or glancing at each other in disbelief. This second time, I sit, too. Then, through the standing spectators, I see below me Kenny sitting with his mother. “Kenny!” I yell. “Kenny Rides!”
His mother turns around to scan the crowd above her. She elbows Kenny and he turns, grinning. He waves.
I wave back, grinning. I need a marker and some big white pieces of paper.
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