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Ten Little Indiansby Sherman Alexie
THE SEARCH ENGINE
On Wednesday afternoon in the student union café, Corliss looked up from her American history textbook and watched a young man and younger woman walk in together and sit two tables away. The student union wasn't crowded, so Corliss clearly heard the young couple's conversation. He offered her coffee from his thermos, but she declined. Hurt by her rejection, or feigning pain-he always carried two cups because well, you never know, do you?-he poured himself one, sipped and sighed with theatrical pleasure, and monologued. The young woman slumped in her seat and listened. He told her where he was from and where he wanted to go after college, and how much he liked these books and those teachers but hated those movies and these classes, and it was all part of an ordinary man's listmaking attempts to seduce an ordinary woman. Blond, blue-eyed, pretty, and thin, she hid her incipient bulimia beneath a bulky wool sweater. Corliss wanted to buy the skeletal woman a sandwich, ten sandwiches, and a big bowl of vanilla ice cream. Eat, young woman, eat, Corliss thought, and you will be redeemed! The young woman set her backpack on the table and crossed her arms over her chest, but the young man didn't seem to notice or care about the defensive meaning of her body language. He talked and talked and gestured passionately with long-fingered hands. A former lover, an older woman, had probably told him his hands were artistic, so he assumed all women would be similarly charmed. He wore his long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and a flowered blue shirt that was really a blouse; he was narcissistic, androgynous, lovely, and yes, charming. Corliss thought she might sleep with him if he took her home to a clean apartment, but she decided to hate him instead. She knew she judged people based on their surface appearances, but Lord Byron said only shallow people don't judge by surfaces. So Corliss thought of herself as Byronesque as she eavesdropped on the young couple. She hoped one of these ordinary people might say something interesting and original. She believed in the endless nature of human possibility. She would be delighted if these two messy humans transcended their stereotypes and revealed themselves as mortal angels.
"Well, you know," the young man said to the young woman, "it was Auden who wrote that no poem ever saved a Jew from the ovens."
"Oh," the young woman said. She didn't know why he'd abruptly paraphrased Auden. She wasn't sure who this Auden person was, or why his opinions about poetry should matter to her, or why poetry itself was so important. She knew this coffee-drinking guy wanted to have sex with her, and she was considering it, but he wasn't improving his chances by making her feel stupid.
Corliss was confused by the poetic non sequitur as well. She thought he might be trying to prove how many books he'd skimmed. Maybe he deserved her contempt, but Corliss realized that very few young men read poetry at Washington State University. And how many of those boys quoted, or misquoted, the poems they'd read? Twenty, ten, less than five? This longhaired guy enjoyed a monopoly on the poetry-quoting market in the southeastern corner of Washington, and he knew it. Corliss had read a few poems by W. H. Auden but couldn't remember any of them other than the elegy recited in that Hugh Grant romantic comedy. She figured the young man had memorized the first stanzas of thirty-three love poems and used them like propaganda to win the hearts and minds of young women. He'd probably tattooed the opening lines of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" on his chest: "Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime." Corliss wondered if Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets only because he was trying to get laid. Which poet or poem has been quoted most often in the effort to get laid? Most important, which poet or poem has been quoted most successfully in the effort to get laid? Corliss needed to know the serious answers to her silly questions. Or vice versa. So she gathered her books and papers and approached the couple.
"Excuse me," Corliss said to the young man. "Was that W. H. Auden you were quoting?"
"Yes," he said. His smile was genuine and boyish. He had displayed his intelligence and was being rewarded for it. Why shouldn't he smile?
"I didn't recognize the quote," Corliss said. "Which poem did it come from?"
The young man looked at Corliss and at the young woman. Corliss knew he was choosing between them. The young woman knew it, too, and she decided the whole thing was pointless.
"I've got to go," she said, grabbed her backpack, and fled.
"Wow, that was quick," he said. "Rejected at the speed of light."
"Sorry about that," Corliss said. But she was pleased with the young woman's quick decision and quicker flight. If she could resist one man's efforts to shape and determine her future, perhaps she could resist all future efforts.
"It's all right," the young man said. "Do you want to sit down, keep me company?"
"No thanks," Corliss said. "Tell me about that Auden quote."
He smiled again. He studied her. She was very short, a few inches under five feet, maybe thirty pounds overweight, and plain-featured. But her skin was clear and dark brown (like good coffee!), and her long black hair hung down past her waist. And she wore red cowboy boots, and her breasts were large, and she knew about Auden, and she was confident enough to approach strangers, so maybe her beauty was eccentric, even exotic. And exoticism was hard to find in Pullman, Washington.
"What's your name?" he asked her.
"That's a beautiful name. What does it mean?"
"It means Corliss is my name. Are you going to tell me where you read that Auden quote or not?"
"You're Indian, aren't you?"
"Good-bye," she said and stood to leave.
"Wait, wait," he said. "You don't like me, do you?"
"You're cute and smart, and you've gotten everything you've ever asked for, and that makes you lazy and dangerous."
"Wow, you're honest. Will you like me better if I'm honest?"
"I've never read Auden's poems. Not much, anyway. I read some article about him. They quoted him on the thing about Jews and poems. I don't know where they got it from. But it's true, don't you think?"
"A good gun will always beat a good poem."
"I hope not," Corliss said and walked away.
Back in Spokane, Washington, Corliss had attended Spokane River High School, which had contained a mirage-library. Sure, the books had looked like Dickens and Dickinson from a distance, but they turned into cookbooks and auto-repair manuals when you picked them up. As a poor kid, and a middle-class Indian, she seemed destined for a minimum-wage life of waiting tables or changing oil. But she had wanted a maximum life, an original aboriginal life, so she had fought her way out of her underfunded public high school into an underfunded public college. So maybe, despite American racism, sexism, and classism, Corliss's biography confirmed everything nearly wonderful and partially meritorious about her country. Ever the rugged individual, she had collected aluminum cans during the summer before her junior year of high school so she could afford the yearlong SAT-prep course that had astronomically raised her scores and won her a dozen academic scholarships. At the beginning of every semester, Corliss had called the history and English teachers at the local prep school she couldn't afford, and asked what books they would be reading in class, and she had found those books and lived with them like siblings. And those same teachers, good white people whose whiteness and goodness blended and separated, had faxed her study guides and copies of the best student papers. Two of those teachers, without having met Corliss in person, had sent her graduation gifts of money and yet more books. She'd been a resourceful thief, a narcissistic Robin Hood who stole a rich education from white people and kept it.
In the Washington State University library, her version of Sherwood Forest, Corliss walked the poetry stacks. She endured a contentious and passionate relationship with this library. The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she'd been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf. An impossible task, to be sure, Herculean in its exaggeration, but Corliss wanted to read herself to death. She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks.
She found W. H. Auden's Collected Poems on a shelf above her head. She stood on her toes and pulled down the thick volume, but she also pulled out another book that dropped to the floor. It was a book of poems titled In the Reservation of My Mind, by Harlan Atwater. According to the author's biography on the back cover, Harlan Atwater was a Spokane Indian, but Corliss had never heard of the guy. Her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation. And the rest of her ancestors, going back a dozen generations, were born and raised on the land that would eventually be called the Spokane Indian Reservation. Her one white ancestor, a Russian fur trapper, had been legally adopted into the tribe, given some corny Indian name she didn't like to repeat, and served on the tribal council for ten years. Corliss was a Spokane Indian born in Sacred Heart Hospital, only a mile from the Spokane River Falls, the heart of the Spokane Tribe, and had grown up in the city of Spokane, which was really an annex of the reservation, and thought she knew or knew of every Spokane. Demographically and biologically speaking, Corliss was about as Spokane as a Spokane Indian can be, and only three thousand other Spokanes of various Spokane-ness existed in the whole world, so how had this guy escaped her attention? She opened the book and read the first poem:
The Naming Ceremony
No Indian ever gave me an Indian name So I named myself. I am Crying Shame. I am Takes the Blame. I am the Four Directions: South, A Little More South, Way More South, and All the Way South. If you are ever driving toward Mexico
And see me hitchhiking, you'll know me By the size of my feet. My left foot is named Self-Pity And my right foot is named Born to Lose. But if you give me a ride, you can call me And all of my parts any name you choose.
Corliss recognized the poem as a free-verse sonnet whose end rhymes gave it a little more music. It was a funny and clumsy poem desperate to please the reader. It was like a slobbery puppy in an animal shelter: Choose me! Choose me! But the poem was definitely charming and strange. Harlan Atwater was making fun of being Indian, of the essential sadness of being Indian, and so maybe he was saying Indians aren't sad at all. Maybe Indians are just big-footed hitchhikers eager to tell a joke! That wasn't a profound thought, but maybe it was an accurate one. But can you be accurate without profundity? Corliss didn't know the answer to the question.
She carried the Atwater and Auden books to the front desk to check them out. The librarian was a small woman wearing khaki pants and large glasses. Corliss wanted to shout at her: Honey, get yourself some contacts and a pair of leather chaps! Fight your stereotypes!
"Wow," the librarian said as she scanned the books' bar codes and entered them into her computer.
"Wow what?" Corliss asked.
"You're the first person who's ever checked out this book." The librarian held up the Atwater.
"Is it new?"
"We've had it since 1972."
Corliss wondered what happens to a book that sits unread on a library shelf for thirty years. Can a book rightfully be called a book if it never gets read? If a tree falls in a forest and gets pulped to make paper for a book that never gets read, but there's nobody there to read it, does it make a sound?
"How many books never get checked out?" Corliss asked the librarian.
"Most of them," she said.
Corliss had never once considered the fate of library books. She'd never wondered how many books go unread. She loved books. How could she not worry about the unread? She felt like a disorganized scholar, an inconsiderate lover, an abusive mother, and a cowardly soldier.
"Are you serious?" Corliss asked. "What are we talking about here? If you were guessing, what is the percentage of books in this library that never get checked out?"
"We're talking sixty percent of them. Seriously. Maybe seventy percent. And I'm being optimistic. It's probably more like eighty or ninety percent. This isn't a library, it's an orphanage."
The librarian spoke in a reverential whisper. Corliss knew she'd misjudged this passionate woman. Maybe she dressed poorly, but she was probably great in bed, certainly believed in God and goodness, and kept an illicit collection of overdue library books on her shelves.
"How many books do you have here?" Corliss asked.
"Two million, one hundred thousand, and eleven," the librarian said proudly, but Corliss was frightened. What happens to the world when that many books go unread? And what happens to the unread authors of those unread books?
"And don't think it's just this library, either," the librarian said. "There's about eighteen million books in the Library of Congress, and nobody reads about seventeen and a half million of them."
"You're scaring me."
"Sorry about that," the librarian said. "These are due back in two weeks."
Corliss carried the Auden and Atwater books out of the library and into the afternoon air. She sat on a bench and flipped through the pages. The Auden was worn and battered, with pen and pencil notes scribbled all over the margins. Three generations of WSU students had defaced Auden with their scholarly graffiti, but Atwater was stiff and unmarked. This book had not been exposed to direct sunlight in three decades. W. H. Auden didn't need Corliss to read him-his work was already immortal-but she felt like she'd rescued Harlan Atwater. And who else should rescue the poems of a Spokane Indian but another Spokane? Corliss felt the weight and heat of destiny. She had been chosen. God had nearly dropped Atwater's book on her head. Who knew the Supreme One could be so obvious? But then again, when have the infallible been anything other than predictable? Maybe God was dropping other books on other people's heads, Corliss thought. Maybe every book in every library is patiently waiting for its savior. Ha! She felt romantic and young and foolish. What kind of Indian loses her mind over a book of poems? She was that kind of Indian, she was exactly that kind of Indian, and it was the only kind of Indian she knew how to be.
Corliss lived alone.
Copyright © 2003 by Sherman Alexie
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