To Change in a Good Way


Simon Ortiz

Bill and Ida
lived in the mobile home park
west of Milan.
They'd come out with Kerr-McGee
when the company first started
sinking shafts at Ambrosia Lake.
That would be in '58 or'59.
He was an electrician's helper
and Ida was a housewife
though for a while she worked
over at that 24-hour Catch-All store.
But mostly she liked to be around home,
the trailer park, and tried to plant
a little garden on the little patch
of clay land that came with the mobile home.
She missed Oklahoma
like Bill did too who always said
they were going to stay just long enough
to get a down payment, save enough,
for some acreage in eastern Oklahoma.

That's what he told Pete,
the Laguna man he came to be friends with
at Section 17.
Pete worked as a skip tender
and once in a while they worked
the same shift and rode car pool together.

You're lucky you got some land, Pete,
Bill would say.
It's not much but it's some land,
Pete would agree.

He and Mary, his wife, had a small garden
which they'd plant in the spring.
Chili, couple rows of sweetcorn, squash,
beans, even had lettuce, cucumbers,
and radishes, onions.
They irrigated from the small stream,
the Rio de San Jose, which runs through
Acoma and Laguna land.
Ida just had the clay red ground
which she had planted that first spring
they'd spent in New Mexico with lettuce
and radishes and corn, but the only thing
that ever really came up was the corn
and it was kind of stunted and wilty looking.
She watered the little patch
from the little green plastic hose
hooked up to the town water system
that started running dry about mid-June.

One Saturday, Pete and Mary
and Bill and Ida
were all shopping at the same time
at the Sturgis Food Mart in Milan,
and the women became friends too.
They all went over to the mobile home park
and sat around and drank pepsis and talked.
Ida and Bill didn't have any kids
but Mary and Pete had three.

They're at home,
staying out of trouble I hope, Mary said.
Bill had a younger brother nicknamed Slick.
He had a photo of him
sitting on the TV stand shelf.
Bill was proud of his little brother.
He was in the Army.
Bill said, in Vietnam.
I worry about him some
but at least he's learnt a trade.
He's a Spec-4 in Signal.
Slick's been kind of wild,
so I know about trouble.
Bill passed Slick's photo
to Pete and Mary.

Ida took Mary outside
to show her her garden.
It's kinda hard trying to grow anything
here, Ida said, different from Oklahoma.
Mary said, I think you need something
in it, Ida, to break up the packed clay.
Maybe some sheep stuff.
I'll tell Pete to bring you some.

The next weekend Pete brought some sheep stuff
and spread it around the wilty plants.
Work it around and into the ground,
he said, but it'll be till next year
that it will be better.
He brought another pickup load later on.

Ida and Bill went down to Laguna too,
to the reservation,
and they met Peta and Mary's kids.
Slick was visiting
on leave and he came with them.
He had re-upped, had a new Spec-5 patch
on his shoulder and had bought a motorcycle.
He was on his way to another tour.
Bill said, I wish he hadn't done that.
Folks at home are worried too.
Good thing your boys aren't old enough.

In the yard, the kids, including Slick,
were playing catch with a softball.
He wasn't much older than Pete's
and Mary's oldest.
Slick had bright and playful eyes,
handsome, and Bill was right
to be proud of his kid brother.
I'm gonna make sure
that young jackoff goes to college
after the damn Army, Bill said.

After that, they'd visit each other.
Ida would come help Mary with her garden.
A couple of times, the kids
went to stay with Ida
when Bill worked graveyard or swing
because she didn't like to be alone.
The kids liked that too,
staying in town or what there was
of it at the edge of Milan
at the mobile home amidst others
sitting on the clay hard ground.
The clay had come around to being workable
with the sheep stuff in it.
Ida planted radishes and lettuces
and carrots and corn,
even tomatoes and chili,
and she was so proud of her growing plants
that summer.

One afternoon, up at Section 17,
Bill got a message from the foreman
to call Ida.
They were underground replacing wire
and he had to take the skip up.
He called from the payphone
outside the mine office.
Pete held the skip for him
and when he came back Bill said,
I gotta get my lunchpail
and go home.

Something wrong, Bill? Pete asked.
You okay?
Yeah, Bill said, something happened
to Slick, the folks called from Claremore.
Hope it's not serious, Pete said.

On the way home after shift,
Pete stopped at Bill and Ida's.
Ida answered the door and showed him in.
Bill was sitting on the couch.
He had a fifth of Heaven Hill halfway empty.
Pete, Bill said. Slick's gone.
No more Slick. got killed by stepping
on a mine, an American mine -
isn't that the shits, Pete?
Dammit Pete, just look at that kid.
He pointed at the photo on the TV stand.
Pete didn't say anything at first
and then he said, Aamoo o dyumuu,
and put his arm around Bill's shoulders.
Bill poured him some Heaven Hill
and Ida told him they were leaving
for Claremore next morning as soon as
they could pack and the bank opened.
Should get there by evening, she said.
And then Pete left.

When Pete got home, he told Mary
what had happened.
She said, Tomorrow morning
on your way to work, drop me off there.
I want to see Ida.
Pete said, You can go ahead
and drive me to work and take the truck.

That night they sat at the kitchen table
with the kids and tied feathers
and scraped willow sticks
and closed them in a cornhusk
with cotton, beads and tobacco.
The next morning, Mary and Pete went by
the mobile home park.
Bill and Ida were loading the last
of their luggage into their car.
After greetings and solaces,
Mary said, we brought you some things.
She gave Ida a loaf of Laguna bread.
For your lunch, she said,
and Ida put it in the ice chest.
Pete took a white corn ear
and the cornhusk bundle
out of a paper bag he carried,
and he showed them to Bill.
He said, this is just a corn, Bill,
Indian corn. The People call it Kasheshi.
Just corn. You take it with you,
or you can keep it here.
You can plant it.
It's to know that life will keep on,
your life will keep on.
Just like Slick will be planted again.
He'll be like that, like seed planted,
like corn seed, the Indian corn.
But you and Ida, your life
will grow on.

He put the corn ear back into the bag
and then he held out the husk bundle,
He said, I guess I don't remember
some of what's done, Bill,
Indian words, songs for it,
what it all is, even how this is made
just a certain way but I know
that it is important to do this.
You take this too, but you don't keep it.
It's for Slick, for his travel
from this life among us
to another place of being.
You and Ida are not Indian,
but it doesn't make any difference.
It's for all of us, this kind of way,
with corn and this, Bill.
You take these sticks and feathers
and you put them somewhere you think
you should, someplace important
that you think might be good, maybe
to change life in a good way,
that you think Slick
would be helping us with.
And you say a few things
about it to him when you do.
You take it now, and I know
it may not sound easy to do
but don't worry yourself too much.
Slick's okay now, he'll be helping us,
and you'll be fine too.

Pete put the paper bag in Bills's hand,
and they all shook hands and hugged
and Mary drove Pete on to work.

After they left, Bill went inside
their trailer home and took out the corn.
He looked at it for a while,
thinking, Just corn, just Indian corn,
just your life to go on, Ida and you.
And then he put the corn by the photo,
by Slick on the TV stand.
And then he wondered about the husk bundle.
He couldn't figure it out.
He'd grown up in Claremore all his life,
Indians living all around him,
folks and some teachers said so,
Cherokees in the Ozark hill, Creeks
over to Muskogee, but Mary and Pete
were the first Indians he'd ever known.
He held the bundle in his hand,
thinking, and then he decided not to take it
to Oklahoma, and put it in the cupboard.
They locked up their trailer and left.

Bill and Ida returned a week later.
Most of the folks had been at the funeral,
and everything had gone alright.
The folks were upset a whole lot,
but there wasn't much else to do
except comfort them.
Some of the other folks said
that someone had to make the sacrifice
for freedom of democracy and all that,
and that's what Slick had died of, for.
He's done his duty for America,
look at how much the past folks
had to put up with, living a hard life,
fighting off Indians to build homes
on new land so we could live the way
we are right now, advanced and safe
from peril like the Tuls' Tribune
said the other Sunday that's what
Slick died for, just like past folks.
That's what a couple of relatives
advised about and Bill tried to say
what was bothering him, that the mine
that Slick had stepped on was American
and that the fact he was in a dangerous place
was because he was in an Army
that was American, and it didn't seem
to be the same thing as what they were saying
about past folks fighting
Indians for democracy
and it didn't seem right somehow.
But nobody really heard him,
they just asked him about his job
with Kerr-McGee, told him the company
had built itself another building in Tulsa,
Kerr's gonna screw those folks in New Mexico
just like he has folks here being Senator.
Ida and Bill visited for a while,
comforted his folks for a while,
and then they left for Milan.

By the time they got back to their mobile home,
Bill knew what he was going to do
with the bundle of sticks and feathers.
He'd been thinking about it all the way
on I-40 from Oklahoma City, running
it through his mind, what Slick had died of.
Well because of the bomb, stepping
on the wrong place, but something else.
The reason was something else, and though
Bill wasn't completely sure about it yet
he felt he was beginning to know.
And he knew what he was going to do
with the bundle in the cupboard.

The next morning, he put it in his lunchpail
and went to work, reporting
to the mine office first.
He changed into his work clothes
and put on his yellow slicker because
they were going down that morning,
and he was glad of that for once.
He took the paper bag out of his pail
and put it in his overall pocket.
After they went down he said
he was going to go and check
some cable and he made his way to a far end
of a slope that had been mined out
and stopped and put the bundle down
behind a slab of rock,
He didn't know what to do next,
and then he thought of what Pete said.
Say something about it. Well, he thought,
I guess, Slick, you was a good boy,
kind of wild, but good. I got this here
Indian thing, feathers and sticks,
and at home, at home we got the corn
by your picture, and Pete and Mary said
to do this because it's important
even if we're Okies
and not Indians that who do this.
It's for your travel they said
and to help us with our life here
from where you are at now and they said
to maybe change things in a good way
for a good life and God knows us Okies
always wanted that though we maybe
have been wrong sometimes.
Well, I'm gonna leave this here
by the rock. Pete said he didn't know
exactly the right thing
but somehow I believe he's more righter
than we've ever been, and now I'm trying too.
So you help us now Slick.

We need it, all the help we can get,
even if it's just so much as holding up
the roof of this mine that the damn company
won't put enough timbers and bolts in, Bill said.
And then he stepped back and left.

When he got home that evening,
he told Ida what he had done, and she said,
Next spring I'm gonna plant that Indian corn,
and Slick, if he's gonna help hold up
the roof of Section 17, better be able
to help with breaking up that clay dirt too.
Bill smiled and then chuckled with Ida.

From Woven Stone by Simon Ortiz, Vol. 21, in Sun Tracks an American Indian Literary Series, University of Arizona Press
© 1992 Simon Ortiz Buy Now

Books by Simon Ortiz

Woven Stone, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press. (Hardcover)
Men on the Moon : Collected Short Stories, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press. (Hardcover)
After and Before the Lightning , Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press. (Hardcover)
Speaking for the Generations : Native Writers on Writing, Simon Ortiz (Editor), Univ. Arizona Press.
From Sand Creek : Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press.
The People Shall Continue, Simon Ortiz, Children's Book Press. (Library Binding)

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