Philip Red Eagle
from the novella "Bois de Sioux"
in Red Earth
So, here he was bombing across South Dakota listening to the wind and the moon, headed out to see his old bud. He'd lost track of the places and the stops; many stops. Yeah, that would be his new name, James Many-Stops. He found some other "skins" to party with and slept in the back seat of the Old Goat. Yeah, James Sleeps-In-The- Back-Seat-Of-The-Old-Goat. He smiled to himself. Sometimes some pretty Indian girl would take him in. Yeah, James Sleeps-With-Pretty-Indian-Girls. He laughed at himself. Like Clifford said, "Ya' gotta laugh at yourself every once in a while, Stoney. That's the Indian way." James howled out the window at the night again
James was pretty loaded by the time he reached Clifford's rez. He slowed down to a tolerable speed and cruised slowly into indian country. Two miles inside he found the road and made the right turn going over the railroad tracks as directed by Clifford. He turned left a half mile after the tracks and proceeded past a group of two or three houses. The little road ended in a parking circle in front of a single lone house.
It wasn't a standard reservation house; a HUD special. It was older. Probably going back to the "thirties." It was square; single story. The roof had four sides and created a point at the center; pyramid like. Maybe it was older than the "thirties, " James thought. The house was white and glowed somewhat in the dim morning light. On the west side, the direction James approached from, was a wide covered porch. A light showed through the front doorway which was open. An old screen door guarded the entrance. A yellow glow escaped through a window shade in the right porch window. The left window was dark.
James turned out Old Goat's lights. He let out a deep sighing breath and turned off the engine. He stared at the house a moment. He looked at the dash clock; four AM. The sun would be up soon. The sky was already turning slightly blue behind the house. It was one of them clear deep blue sky mornings. Indigo, he'd heard someone say once. The morning star hung on the eastern horizon. The cottonwood trees which surrounded the house were beginning to show as silhouettes.
He got out of the car and walked up to the porch. He craned his neck to see in and mounted the steps. "Who's there?" came Clifford's voice.
He yelled in, "It's me, Clifford . . . James." He thought about it and yelled in, "Stoney," to make sure. He opened the screen door and stepped cautiously into the doorway. He put up his arms to show that he had no weapons. He meant it as a joke and was startled to see that Clifford had that .45 automatic pistola, as the Chicano boys used to say, pointed at him. It was the one the platoon sergeant gave him when he left The Nam. He wondered how Clifford got it out-of-country.
"Stoney, I've been waitin' for ya' brother," Clifford said. He lowered the pistola moved it to his left hand and placed it on the wide left arm of the big red "fifties" chair he was sitting in. He had put on about forty pounds and had some serious bags under his eyes. A glass tumbler with whiskey in it sat on the other arm. The television was on but only static appeared on the screen. The sound was low but you could hear the static hiss. The screen door hit James in the back and he took a step in.
"Stoney, where ye' been?" Clifford said. "Sit down," he added as he pointed to an old light blue wooden dinner table chair. James crossed the room, and with two fingers hooked under the chair back, picked it up. When he was in front of Clifford he spun the chair with the back toward Clifford. He sat down western style, crossing his arms and resting them on the back.
"Been partying hard and driving hard, pard," James said. He laughed and tried a smile with his head cocked slightly. He wanted to really smile but his friend looked like shit and it worried him. Clifford had stitches over his left eye too.
Clifford stared at him quietly for a long moment. "I've been a little sick, man," he finally said as he waved his right arm gesturing to the little TV tray next to him. It was full of brown prescription bottles with white caps. A full clip of .45 caliber bullets lay there too. Some other bullets lay scattered among the brown bottles. Their copper heads shined, even in this dim light.
James worried that Clifford's pistol would actually be loaded. He looked closer at the .45 on the armrest. The pistol's slide action was forward and the hammer down. The butt of the grip faced away from him. He couldn't tell if another clip might be in the piece. He moved his mind on to other things.
James scanned the room. A single sixty-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling lit the room they were in. The room was about sixteen feet on each side; white walls. It was almost empty except for Clifford's big chair in the middle, the television in the corner, a dining table with no chairs, a small steel barracks cot, an ironing board and the chair James sat in. The floor and the walls were bare.
The kitchen doorway was directly behind Clifford. On James' left, through a double doorway, there was a room which looked like a real living room. It had real furniture and shelves and photos and Indian stuff on the walls. There was a buffet and several soft chairs. It appeared cleaned and polished.
Clifford spoke again, "This was Gramp's house. The folks chased me out here a while after Gramps died. They live up the road." He pointed west by bringing his arm up and swishing his hand forward, "That way." The hand flipped up from the wrist and then he dropped his arm to the armrest immediately as if tired of the gesture. This is my part of the house. I keep things neat and clean in the other rooms and they leave me alone."
He continued, "Gramps died soon after I got back from The Nam. Ya' know I didn't feel it when he died. I mean like I think I should have. Part of me misses him like Hell, but I don't really feel it ya' know. Cause when I think of him in lonely, lonely moments I get sad and depressed. It ain't nothin', somethin' keeps sayin'. God, it kills me when I know I ought to feel something more." A bird chirped outside and he stopped and looked out through the doorway. "And that I don't," he finished.
He continued after a long moment, "The sun will be up soon. That's when I get my rest. Still have some bad dreams though. Wake up sweating like a pig sometimes. Goddamn it's scary, man. Ya' know, I musta killed them kids a thousand times by now. Maybe more. Goddamn bad dreams. My health's not too good. The PHS gives me these." He gestured to the pills again.
Both of his arms lay on the armrests. He picked up the tumbler and took a swig of the whiskey and set the glass down again. He started to talk again as he nodded at the bottles on the TV stand, "Yeah, I have lots of pills. I have lithium. I got pills to put me to sleep, wake me up. I got walking pills, talking pills. Man, I got pills." He took a long pause. "Ya' know, I still feel like shit."
Clifford paused again and took another swig. He continued, "Goddamn, I feel like . . . ." He fumbled to put his darkness into words. " . . . Man, I get these goddamn dark moments, like I'm being buried alive at the bottom of a deep grave. I can't even breathe. I feel like my chest is being crushed. I don't get why. God, I feel lonely, Stoney. Goddamn, I feel like I want to die."
James felt sad as he watched his friend agonize over his life. He could feel the tears coming and he shut them off, just like in Nam. He tried to get some distance and focused beyond the kitchen door. He gathered himself with a deep breath and focused on Clifford again. He was surprised to find Clifford looking him straight in the eye.
Suddenly James thought of the black stone around his neck. He pulled it out from inside his shirt, "Look Cliff, still got it." Clifford smiled somewhat and nodded his head in approval. "That was my old good luck piece, Stoney. Gramps gave me that when I left for Nam. He said his Grandpa said he got it from a raid on a Chippewa village. We liked to fight them Chippewas ya' know. It's been in the family a long time; over a hundred years. It's a arrow straightener ya' know. Gramps said it would remind me of being a Dakota warrior. One who serves the people, Gramps said. I gave it to you to help you out. To remind you of who you are. Yeah. It was a good one alright. Got us both through Vietnam. I coulda used some luck when I got back though."
James' eyes popped open and he quickly took the stone off and handed it back to Clifford, "Here Clifford. It's yours. I just kept it for you anyway."
Clifford put his hand up rejecting the offer, "It's okay, Stoney. It's yours."
Clifford got up carefully from the big chair and walked over to the cot next to the kitchen door. He got down on his knees and pulled a shoe box from under the cot. He moved back and sat in the big chair again with the box on his lap.
James watched him carefully the whole time. In front of him was an old man. Yet that old man had moved smoothly and effortlessly across the room. He remembered how graceful Clifford was in Nam. He also realized that the old man in front of him was still really a young man, just like himself. He felt his lips purse inward and he gnawed on his lower lip.
Clifford spoke again, "Ya' know, Gramps gave me these just before he died. Ya' know, Gram died just after him. He gave me these." He untied the buckskin ties and opened the box and put the lid aside. He handed the box to James.
Inside were several eagle feathers. One, about twelve inches long, had some bead work at the base. Another had red cloth strips wound around the base. There was a small leather pouch with a long leather thong to purse the top. A blue jay feather and some blue pony beads were attached to the pouch. There was a bundle of sage and some pleasant smelling yellow grass that had been braided. And then there was another object wrapped in red cloth. It was heavy as it weighted that end of the box.
"I can't take these Clifford. These are special. This is medicine. These are yours," he said as he tried to hand the box back to Clifford.
"Now they're yours, Stoney. Go learn about them. Take them and make my Grandpa proud. You're one of us. I trained you myself. As much as I could. You're one of Grandpa and me. You're special. You'll find that out soon enough." He stopped and looked out through the screen door again.
He remained silent for a few seconds and suddenly lifted his arm and gestured west again, "Dad doesn't understand this stuff. He's gone their way." He pushed the box back to James. James knew what he meant by "their" way. He had heard it many times. He nodded acknowledgement to Clifford.
Clifford bent forward and put his hand on James hand and patted it. He nodded at James and continued, "You're in good shape, Stoney, compared to me. I've been sick ya' know. I'm not well. You're the man, Stoney. I told Gramp about you at the hospital and he smiled and nodded his head. It was good to see him smile again. The pain was bad, ya' know."
He stopped talking for a brief moment and his eyes sort of lit up as he spoke again, "Hey, I got some good beer on ice in a tub on the porch. Go out and put this stuff in your car so you don't forget. Bring back a couple of the good beers. Let's drink to this. Okay, go?"
"Yuh," James said reluctantly. Clifford bent over picked up the lid and handed it to James. He found the leather tie on his lap and pushed it forward to James too. James put the lid on, tied the tie and got up and headed toward the door. He looked back over his shoulder and Clifford gave him the thumbs up sign that they used so much in The Nam. He turned his head back in the direction o the doorway, pushed the screen door open and headed out to the car. The screen door slapped shut, bounced a few times, finally vibrated to silence.
James put the box in the trunk where it would be safe. He looked up at the house again and wondered about what had just happened. Slamming the trunk closed he was startled by the noise. Until that moment he was unaware of the silence. Now he listened to hear, anything. He gazed at the morning star for a moment and finally returned to the porch.
He strode to the tub and reached into the ice with both hands, found two long-necked bottles and pulled them out. He was momentarily relieved by the feel of the cold. He held up the two beers and looked at the shiny brown bottles and sighed thinking about how good they would taste and how just one would take all this goddamn dryness out of his mouth.
A single explosion came from inside the box house. It rang in the old wood. James jumped again. He breathed in through his nostrils, twice, quickly. This time he started shaking. Then a calmness overtook him and he stopped. Almost a peacefulness. The Nam thing kicked in, survival. It wasn't him. It was the other guy.
He could almost hear Clifford say, "Don't look down, Stoney. It's not a man anymore. Move! Move! There's no time for tears out here, man. Save yer self. They're gone man! They're gone man!"
Before the next blink of his eyes, fear returned. He remained calm though. He expected this. Part of him did anyway. The real part. The part that expected death. The part that sat in that trench with Clifford that night he spilled the beans. Spilled the beans on the Vietnam War. Spilled the beans on himself. It was that child and women killing thing. He knew it would haunt his friend to death.
It wasn't supposed to happen now, though. He thought that he would be somewhere else when this happened. Drinking in some Tacoma bar. Out all night. He would come home and his dad would tell him that his friend was gone. "Last week," his dad would say. He would turn around, go out and stay drunk for a few more days, come back and they would tell him that his friend was buried. That's how he thought it would happen.
Then the other part kicked in. The sad part. The sad James. The angry part. The angry James.
He put the bottles back down in the ice and walked over to the doorway and looked in. Through the screen Clifford looked like had just passed-out. James knew better. The .45 was tight in Clifford's right fist as his arm lay across his chest. The slide action was locked back. Now the piece was empty. It only takes one. You can only do one.
James pulled open the screen door and took a step inside to look closer. Clifford didn't move. He didn't say, "Ya' got the beer, Stoney?"
James turned and stepped back outside before the screen door could close on him again. The anger part surged. He walked over to the tub, grabbed a handle and turned the tub on its side. The contents went over the edge and onto the dry ground. He got a firm grip on the handle and flung the tub out at the Old Goat. The tub hit Old Goat on the hood and rolled off on the other side. He didn't hear the noise. His ears were filled with his scream, "Whyyy?"
He turned and yanked the screen door off its hinges and strode back into the room. He yelled at Clifford, "Goddamn you, Clifford. Why'd you go do that? Huh? Why'd you do that? It was going to be okay, man. It was going to be okay. Why'd you have to do that, Clifford? "
He stopped. He kept staring at Clifford. Clifford's jaw hung open. His eyes squinted at his pill collection. James breathed deeply several times and calmed himself down.
He spoke to Clifford in a lower, pleading, tone, "Goddamn, Clifford, why'd you do that man? You coulda' got well. We coulda' got well together. We coulda' had a real good, long life. We coulda' helped other guys like us. Just like you talked about. Goddamn, Clifford, what'd ya' go and do it for?"
James turned around abruptly and walked out. He got into Old Goat and sat for about five minutes staring at the house and the sky. The sky was "blue jay" now and the sun was just coming to the edge of the world. He started the engine, backed up and turned the car west.
He drove quietly past the other houses. They remained dark The Old Goat made its deep purring sound as he turned right an moved slowly back over the tracks. He got to the main road dropped the clutch and pressed on the brake pedal. The car skidded slightly on the gravel and came to a complete stop. He sat and listened to the purring of the Old Goat against the silence of the morning.
He turned his head in the direction of the house. He placed his arm on the back of the passenger's seat and continued to stare at the white house sitting in the grove of cottonwoods, both now plainly visible in the morning light. He gently and rhythmically reved the Old Goat's engine as he began to cry for the first time since Nam.
From the novella "Bois de Sioux" in Red Earth: a vietnam warrior's journey, Holy Cow! Press
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