The Ballad of Plastic Fred


Eric Gansworth

We were going down to the corner store on the day I learned about death. My sister had just recently gotten her license. Or maybe she hadn't yet. I really can't remember. You didn't need a license to drive on the reservation, and its only store was the one we were going to. We could've walked, since it was at the end of our road. But Kay was just beginning to drive, and that made everything exciting. cheap in those days.

It was summer. I knew that I'd be heading off to school for the first time very shortly. Innis had already been there for a while. New kids had been playing with him since he started school. They'd come over and visit, and he'd be gone for long periods of time, presumably visiting them. He lived next door. We had played together all the time, but not so much anymore.

I was left hanging around with his brother Ace, whose real name is Horace. But nobody called him Horace, except for his mom when she's mad. Everyone else calls him Ace. Ace was prone to random bursts of violence, and though he was younger than me, he was much larger. I didn't hang around with him without some big person to protect me. Cowardly, but safe.

That morning Innis had actually been home. playing in the mountain. The mountain was this mound of dirt which had been dug out for Auntie Olive's patio, which had never actually gotten built beyond the cinderblock foundation.

The mountain was on the patch of land between our two houses. It was small, I guess, but to us it seemed like another whole world. We had dug a hole into one of the interior folds of the mountain for later use as a cave for the six-inch plastic Indian figures we all played with. We could never quite figure out who those Indians were. They were all peach colored and they didn't really look like anyone from our reservation.

There was some speculation from my older cousins, those in the fourth or fifth grade, that one of those figures might be of Gary Lou's older brother, who had gone to Hollywood to be a star. We had seen him in some movies on tv, but I could never recognize him. He was killed by the Cavalry before he ever got any closeups. I don't really think anyone else recognized him either, but they all wanted him to be a star so bad that they made themselves see him in "that wild horde of savages."

So one of the figure's names was always Fred, as that was our star's name. It was always the one who was in a running position, crouched with one leg up. His mouth was open wide, in either a war cry or a really big yawn. In the hand that was in front of him, he carried a hatchet, a tomahawk, and he had two feathers sticking out of his hair in the back. All he wore was a loin cloth, but when we looked underneath, to the area that wasn't covered, there was nothing there. He was a warrior without any balls. It didn't make sense to us, because we knew Fred had balls. After all, he went to Hollywood to become a star.

But it wasn't really him up there, anyway. Even at the ending credits, we couldn't find his name in the "Indian savages" list. We found out from his mother that he had changed his name. She had married a white man, who had a distinctly white last name. For Hollywood, Fred Howkowski had become Frederick Eagle Cry. Frederick Eagle Cry died daily on some tv somewhere, but Fred Howkowski lived on in California, occasionally sending his mother picture postcards of palm trees and big houses which described to her his most recent death so she could tell us and we'd all go to the movies so we could play "Spot the Savage," on bargain night.

Plastic Fred was getting a little beat. This was the figure everyone always wanted, and he usually died the most dramatic deaths of all the figures we had. He had to be rejuvenated every so often, and the old Fred would be retired to our version of the ancient burial ground. We would give the Freds to one of Innis's older brothers, Ely, who either used them for target practice, or tied them to fire crackers, or put lighter fluid to them, or in some other way creatively mutilated them.

When he was done with them, he would give us back the twisted and blackened plastic which hardly resembled a figure anymore, and we would give them to Ace. It was his job to set them strategically around the mountain for their best dramatic potential. He had quite a knack with that sort of arrangement.

This Fred's days with us were numbered. He was covered with pock marks from our discovery that we could throw darts at him and that if we were lucky, the darts would stick as he toppled from his ledge and remain stuck as he landed, which was a really cool looking death.

This Fred also had a large hardened glob of Testors Model Glue on the back of his head with a little sharp spine poking out. We had found a feather which had fallen off of this sparrow that one of our cats had killed and we decided to put it on Fred. Innis stole one of his dad's saws and we hacked the plastic feathers off of the back of Fred's head, and glued on the real one with the model glue. The feather lasted about four or five days and then it finally broke off and all we were left with was the mound of glue and the feather's spine. How do birds keep them so long, anyhow?

So it was still pretty early in the morning, probably around eight-thirty or nine, though I hadn't been able to tell time all that well yet. The sun was hot, but not unpleasantly so. We had shoved all the finely sifted dirt we had dug out for the cave. We had shoved it all together to create a small, very soft hill in the inner valley of the mountain, and now that the sun had reached over the mountain's edge, the hill was warm.

I took my sandals off and patted my toes in the dirt, leaving small circular prints. Innis did the same, but he hadn't had to take his shoes off. He never wore any in the summer. We wrestled toes with each other in the heated earth, stirring up small clouds of dust, which swirled in the sunlight.

We did this for a while. I asked him if Ace were up yet. Just as I asked it, I heard their screen door slam. I waited and listened for the splash that meant it had just been Auntie Olive throwing out some dirty wash water, but the sound never came. Ace was coming. ours, sneakers and summertime. He jumped down next to me and stuck his feet in with all. Ace had no aversion to shoes in the

Ace asked me where the Indians were. I told him that they were in the house. He was a little irate over this; he wanted to play right then. Innis said that he'd pee on him if he didn't behave, and this calmed the younger brother down instantly.

I guessed that Innis had made good on this threat at some time in the past, though I had nothing to substantiate this. I also told him that we didn't want the dogs to get them and chew them up, which is what would happen if we left them unattended. To pass time, we planned for our impending departure from the mountain.

We were waiting for my sister to get up. She had said the night before that if Mom would give her the keys she would drive us down to Jugg's store to get a new Plastic Fred. Maybe we'd get a bottle of pop, too. There was always pop in the fridge, but wasn't the same as drinking pop while sitting on one of Jugg's high stools which surrounded his lunch counter. People in high school seem to really love sleeping in late.

Kay finally came out of the door. We were pretending not to notice but had been watching the door all morning. She leaned against the porch railing for a minute, adjusting her sandals to conform against her heels. She went to the car and hopped in. I grabbed my sandals as the others ran to line up at the edge of the driveway.

After some moments of adjusting the various settings of the car, Kay started it and jerkily drove to the place my cousins were standing, just as I joined them. We all piled in, Innis getting sit in the front seat since he was older. He turned on the radio and began spinning the dial to find a good song. He found "Daydream Believer" by The Monkees and we were all happy with that, so that was what we listened to as we pulled out of the driveway.

Ace and I couldn't see too much as we were small and the seat backs were high. We entertained ourselves by pretending we were members of The Monkees. The song ended, and we all listened to find out what the next song was going to be.

The announcer said that it was going to be something new from The Jefferson Airplane. This was some new group and one of Kay's favorites. I knew that we would be listening to the new song through speakers that vibrated because the volume was turned up so high.

We never did get to hear the new song that day. In her excitement, Kay was more interested in the volume control than the steering wheel. We promptly crashed into Ardra's mailbox just down the road. We hadn't been going very fast, but we did enough damage that we had to stop. We all got out of the car and looked at the uprooted mailbox and the dent in the front end of the car.

Ardra came out of her house, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She watched as Kay picked up the mailbox and tried to stick its post back into the hole we had rammed it out of. It went back in, and actually wasn't damaged. But the hole had been widened by our hit and the mailbox sat lazily at an angle.

Ardra looked closely at it, and seeing that neither the box nor its post were any worse for the wear, told us to go along, that Enoch, her husband, would put some rocks in the hole to steady it when he got home. We went.

When we got to the store, Kay told us to stay in the car while she ran in. We started to whine, but not for long. Her mood had changed substantially since our encounter with the mailbox. She was back out in a few seconds. She threw the bag in the back seat, just barely missing me. She slammed the car into reverse and we stirred up a dust cloud in the small gravel parking lot.

We flew down to the picnic grove, just below the hill upon which the store sat. We pulled in, bouncing around in the back seat as she drove over the pitted and rutted path into the grove. She got out and left the door open as she sat down hard on the concrete bandstand. The three of us got out and walked over to where she was sitting. I opened the bag to see what she bought.

I reached in and pulled out some bottles of Pepsi and passed them around. I pulled the plastic Indian from the bag. It wasn't Fred. It was a chief with a headdress and a bow and arrow. How could she mistake this guy for Fred? I mentioned this to my sister; she told me to shut up and snatched the bag away from me. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from the bag and ripped them open. She lighted one. I didn't even know she smoked.

We left the grove a couple of minutes later. We were looking out the windows, studying hard the road and the ditches which bordered the road. We were looking for a dead cat, any dead cat would do. We just needed one. There was a high mortality rate for reservation cats and there were usually some dead ones laying around the sides of one road or another.

Innis had gotten the idea. We had to find some way to explain the new dent in the car. It wasn't as if the car were new or anything, or that it didn't already have some dents init. This dent, however, would not go unnoticed. It wasn't just the fender that was dented. The mailbox had impacted with the hood and had left its own noticeable mark.

We knew that we could get away with this if we had some really good reason for the dent. We also knew that if we said it happened because of the radio, we'd be walking to the store for quite some time to come. We were in this together.

My mom loved cats. We had eight of them. When our cat had them kittens, my mom just couldn't bear to give them up. The survivors from the second litter were already grown up, and the mother was pregnant again. It appeared we were going to have more. Virtually the entire population of the res knew of my mom's love for cats. Innis thought if we told my mom that we had hit the mailbox while trying to avoid running over a cat, that would be a good enough excuse. We agreed.

He thought he had seen a dead cat along the side of the road as we had headed to the store, but he couldn't remember exactly where. He did say that it was after Ardra's house. He was quite sure of that. He thought if we brought the dead cat home with us, it would be even more convincing. Kay thought this was really gross, but she was a desperate woman. We had to hurry, too. We were only supposed to have gone down the road.

Kay warmed to the idea the closer we got to the house, and the closer she got to not being able to drive for a while. She even told us that she hoped it was a fresh one, and not stiff and loaded with maggots. It was, after all, the middle of summer. A rotting cat would not be too convincing.

My mother would probably insist on a burial, and she would most certainly notice the odor of a high-summer dead cat. We hoped along with Kay. None of us really wanted to handle the cat. The anonymous plastic Indian sat casually on the back seat.

I spotted the cat. Innis was right. It was beyond the spot of our collision, but not much. It was in front of the field next to Spicy's house. On the other side of the field was Ardra and Enoch's. As we got out of the car we could see the lounging mailbox. Enoch apparently hadn't gotten home yet. We walked over to the cat. It was an orange one, the color of Creamsicles, my mom's favorite cat color. It was still alive.

Someone had hit it not long before Innis had seen it the first time. It was lying in the gravel and dirt which edged the road. There was a trail of streaky blood from the place on the road where it must have been hit to the place it now rested. It must have dragged itself. The blood had come from its rear end. Its back legs were bent at impossible angles. It was breathing heavily, panting. Its eyes stared up at us as we surrounded it.

I squatted down to pet it. I didn't know what else to do. Kay yelled at me and pushed me aside before I could reach it. She said that the cat might try to bite. She said that she couldn't do it.

"Sure you can, just do this," Ace said, moving closer to the cat. He was out of reach for any of us. I was still sitting in the weeds. Kay and Innis had already turned and started moving toward the car.

Ace stomped hard once on the cat's neck. The cat made a small squeaking noise and then did not make another. The cat expired under the hot summer sun. We had all seen it go. I wondered who would be putting food out for it tonight, how long those scraps would sit before they knew the cat wasn't coming home.

We started walking back to the car.

"Hey, aren't we takin' this?" Ace was holding the cat by the tail, lifting it out to his right, like a fisherman showing off his prize catch of the day. Innis told him to put it down and wipe his hands on the weeds. He dropped the cat back to the ground and did as he was told. The cat stirred up a little dust which blew away in a couple of seconds.

My mom didn't ask about the dent. She had been on the phone when we walked into the house. As soon as she finished talking to someone she would dial someone else's number and begin with her one greeting which always meant some serious bad news.

"Did you hear?"

Auntie Olive, who was sitting at our dining room table, told us what had happened. Fred Howkowski had shot himself in Hollywood. The Cavalry must have finally come.

My mother glanced at the old clock hanging on the wall near our phone, got off the phone and rushed out the door. She still had curlers in her hair. She was going to drive Fred's mom and dad to the airport. They were bringing him home to be buried on the reservation. The plastic Indian Chief rode in the back seat with Fred's dad.

I wondered why Fred went and did that. Maybe he just couldn't find someone to stomp on his throat.

I asked Kay if we could walk back and bury the cat. She said sure. We buried it in the mountain. We wrapped it up in an old flannel shirt which didn't fit her anymore. We put it in an old cardboard canning-jar box. We did this so the dogs wouldn't find it.

We told Mom about the dent when she got home. The plastic Indian Chief joined the tribe. We continued to play in the mountain, being careful not to dig where we had buried the cat. Whenever we went to the store the rest of the summer, we walked. We drank a lot of Pepsi. We occasionally bought a Mountain Dew.

We never bought another Plastic Fred.

--excerpted from Indian Summers, published by Michigan State University Press, 1998.

© 1998 Eric Gansworth

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