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The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: A Memoir

The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: A Memoir Cover

ISBN13: 9780618154487
ISBN10: 0618154485
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Excerpt

I Hate

Mary Potato

The back of my battered pickup truck is a mess. It is not unlike my

life. My tools are always shifting around back there. Making clunking

noises when the truck moves. I bought a camper shell so I could camp

out in the back of my truck. Now groceries don't blow away on my way

home from the grocery store.

I bought a new hydraulic jack. There's my fishing stuff back

there. Poles. A net. There's an old pair of cowboy boots I don't wear

because I wore them out. Some things are harder to throw away than

other things. Those cowboy boots walked through a lot of memories.

There's a hundred-pound bag of dog food I was supposed to drop off at

the Wolf Ranch in Ramah for the wolves but I keep forgetting about it.

There's a cement block I use as a weight to get me through snow. There

are my tire chains I never use, as putting on tire chains in the Big

Mud (the Navajo term for the terrain in this part of New Mexico) is

about as much fun as wrestling with an ornery pig. And there's a

basketball that rolls around back there every time I turn a corner.

Mary Potato bought the basketball. "Boys play basketball," she

said. The basketball was a birthday gift for Tommy. Tommy Nothing Fancy

was my Navajo son. Tommy Nothing Fancy is dead.

He was a little brown guy with lungs. When Tommy was an infant,

he'd cry louder than a coyote wails against the moon. I can still hold

both his cowboy boots with one hand.

Jet-black hair. Almost blue. Eyes the soft color of the Navajo

mountains. Tommy was beautiful. In his own way, the boy was perfect,

even if perfection is relative. My Indian wife and I took Tom into our

hearts and into our home when he was brand spanking new. The

particulars are irrelevant. Infants are like freight trains. We did not

know Tommy had fetal alcohol syndrome. I do not know if it would have

mattered had we known about the FAS ahead of time. How can anyone be

ahead of time for anything? We were not ready for FAS but there it was.

You deal with it or you don't.

Seizures mainly. And an otherness about the eyes. They would cross

when he was mad, which was regular.

But the kid had spunk. Tom loved to fish and he loved to play

basketball, although he never learned to dribble very well. He would

use both his hands. And Tommy loved riding around Navajoland in Old Big

Wanda, my Ford F150 with the camper shell. Even as an infant, Tommy

would be hypnotized by the velocity of the truck along the reservation

roads and the red rock horizons of the Navajo.

I call that truck a reservation truck because it has pits and

bashes yet it runs well. It has survived Big Mud, Big Winter, and the

big old loads of piñon wood. Whenever I clean Old Big Wanda I always

find new pockets of reservation mud caked to her. That pickup is of the

earth. She's the kind of truck migrant workers drive, sometimes live

in. A mongrel migrant vehicle, and it is owned by a mongrel migrant.

My parents were migrant workers, and my cowboy daddy had trucks

just like Old Big Wanda. We worked the ranches of the West and crops

anywhere. My cowboy dad was white. My mother's people were with the

Navajo.

Mary Potato was a Navajo, too. She looked like a Navajo. I never

did ask to see her papers. Why would I? It was none of my business.

Mary Potato could say she was anything. She could have been a Kickapoo

for all I knew. I did not care one way or the other what tribe she was

from. If she wanted to claim she was a Navajo, then let her. Most folks

in Gallup are all Navajo or part Navajo or they live among the Navajo

because the Navajo are the majority and not the minority in this place.

I did my best to ignore Mary Potato. My policy was to ignore drunks who

wanted money. Usually they'd go away, but ignoring Mary Potato did not

always work. "You're white," she said to me one day in the city park.

That and fifty cents gets you on the bus.

"My folks were migrant workers, and we worked ranches all around

here," I tried to explain. I loathe explaining it. White folks

particularly always have to know the exact spot you are from. I'm from

everywhere. For the life of me I cannot see why it matters.

Most migrants are Hispanic. But not this time.

Mary Potato claimed she knew what it was like to work in fields.

This did not surprise me in the least, as I had known many, many

Indians who had lived something of the migrant life. I knew Chippewa

who picked cherries. I knew Muckleshoot Indians who picked apples. I

knew Ute Indians who baled hay during baling season. I knew Red Lake

Band Chippewa who worked sugar beets. I knew Alabama-Coushatta who

picked Texas cotton. I knew Cherokee who worked tobacco. I knew Fort

Sill Apaches who worked melons. I knew Seminoles who picked tomatoes.

The Navajo work with sheep. Sometimes horses. Sometimes cows. But the

fields I knew Mary Potato worked were mainly plowed in bars and saloons

in Gallup, New Mexico, watering holes of gin and sin. I did not care

where she was from. It was irrelevant. She knew a hardness. She knew

loss.

Mary Potato gave Tommy the basketball. She knew he would love it.

The Navajo boys love basketball. Reservation basketball.

There was an old rusted basketball hoop attached precariously with

screws to a telephone pole not far from where I lived on the Navajo

Nation, and Navajo boys would come here to play basketball on the

blacktop where the asphalt met the dirt road and the reservation mud.

Big snow deterred them but ice on the asphalt did not deter them.

It was pretty basic basketball. No frills. No coaches. No net.

Someone had stolen the net years ago. The lone, rusted rim was in

perpetual danger of falling off the telephone pole every time a

basketball made deadly contact. But Navajo boys would come here and

play informal pickup games.

The little boys particularly liked coming, though they could never

commandeer what passed for a basketball court for very long, as the

older boys would show up, start their games, and elbow the little guys

like Tommy out of the way.

But Tommy had something not all of the little Navajo boys had.

Tommy had a new basketball. He wasn't much bigger than the ball itself,

and the older boys — older being maybe twelve — would tolerate his

presence if Tom showed up with his ball.

The game begins. In time, the suave patience of the bigger boys

with the little pretzels would grow thin, strained, and eventually it

would wear out: Tommy would sit there sniffling on the sidelines,

content (or forced) to watch the Navajo boys with their long flowing

hair show off their adolescent stuff. Pose and strut. Pumped up. Free

throws. Take the shot. Little boys wanting to be big boys and big boys

wanting to be men. Fetal alcohol syndrome or no fetal alcohol syndrome,

the boys always want to be men. I knew better than to interfere. Any

father wants his son to learn how to defend himself some.

When Tommy was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome my wife wept for a

week.

There was little help to be had for it.

So I did exactly what I think all parents should not do: I spoiled

him rotten. I wasn't rich, but I could give him certain things. I could

try to teach the boy to dribble, and I could teach the boy to fish.

More than anything, I was determined to do this for Tommy. I would not

allow fetal alcohol syndrome or whatever to ruin that for me, or for

him, and I did teach him to fish, and gently.

Fishing is a gentle business when you're out on a lake or in a

Rocky Mountain stream. Fishing is a gentle business anywhere on the

Navajo Nation. Ramah Lake. Blue Water Lake. If Tommy had been confined

to a wheelchair (which he was not), I would have pushed that chair into

any number of rivers. The San Juan River, where there was a private

spot of sand where we could fish and swim, was Tommy's favorite place.

We went there often.

I was damn well determined that Tom would not have the kind of

grinding migrant life I'd had. No matter how many years I might or

might not have with him. Ask anyone who has lost a kid. All we ever

have is now. He would not be knocked around relentlessly like I had

been knocked around all my life. I would do it differently.

Tommy was the one thing I did that was good and didn't fail. The

rest of it is ephemeral. The fetal alcohol syndrome was a reality. I

gave him happiness and joy and fishing tackle and trucks and dogs. I

would do it again.

"I didn't mean to have him," Mary Potato said.

Tom and I were playing in a park in town. Swings. Sandbox. Teeter-

totter. Monkey bars.

At first, I had thought she was just another town drunk. People

were always coming up and talking to us and engaging us in conversation

if they could. People needed booze and change. I had neither. I had

seen Mary Potato around like you see people around, but I had never

directly engaged her, as I am apt to avoid such people. In fact, I

avoid people whenever I can, which is never enough.

"I had a boy who would be his age but they took him from me," Mary

Potato said.

Why I attract the losers from everywhere in the universe I do not

know. Like a magnet. She's watching Tommy with a glaze that is mainly

sadness. I know that look. It's about what you do not have.

Mary Potato claimed she was Tommy's natural mom. I was doubtful. I

was angry. I was angry this strange woman approached us. I was angry

she was making some kind of claim to what was mine.

"I don't want him back," she said.

Good. She wasn't getting him back. Over my dead body.

"I just wanted you to know about me." She paused. "That I'm

there."

I was angry she had to be a drunk. I was angry she had done this to

this kid — and if not this kid, some other kid with FAS. Some other

kid who had seizures and who would never read goddamn English. Some

other kid whose teachers would say try harder! and who climbed the

walls. Some other kid who never slept. Some other kid in some other

family.

I was angry she would even attempt to speak with me. (It took me

years to realize how carefully she actually did it, making sure Tommy

was far enough away so as to be kept out of it, and I thank her for

that.) I was angry her life was like a wound. I was angry she had had

her children taken away. I was angry she was a hooker. I was angry all

the medicine men in the world could not cure her life to balance. I did

not want to know that she was there.

That I'm there, she said.

It was too much to ask of me.

But there she was, her body hunched over the picnic table. She

could have been my Tommy's mom. It was possible even if I didn't think

it was probable. She could have been my mom. She was like my mom. My

mother was a hopeless drunk. I would use the word "alcoholic," but it's

too polite. It's a white people word. Alcoholic. In the migrant life,

what we knew was falling-down Jezus drunk and puked again. There's

nothing polite about cleaning up your mother in her vomit and dragging

her unconscious carcass back to the migrant housing trailer you lived

in. Daddy, too. The story is ordinary. Mama usually just passed out

wherever she happened to be. I'd find her in the back of pickups all

the time. With men. For all of Mary Potato's failures, they did not

match the failures of my mom. And I loved my mom. Even if I was (and

am) angry with her.

Mary Potato was a whore who had been kicked off the reservation

and lived in a shack made of toothpicks and tarpaper and magazines out

by the railroad tracks. Mama had it worse. My dad would sell my mom to

other migrant men for five bucks. The life Mary Potato lived was a walk

in the park and a ride on the teeter-totter compared to the life my

mother lived. Mary Potato could have been my mom. In another life. I

could have been Mary Potato. Easily. How can another human being

measure what she has given up?

How do you divorce loss from rage? If I let the rage out, it will

destroy everything. Wolves! I do not let it out, do not tell this story

lightly. I cannot speak of it aloud. Or only to people who are close to

me, and even then I try hard to leave out the darker pieces of it.

"I didn't mean to have him, but these things happen," Mary Potato

said.

I'm minding my own business at the picnic table. Tommy is off on

his squeaky swing. Me in my brooding silence. As is my way.

I had known Mary Potato in other incarnations. On other

reservations. She did not want him back.

"I just wanted you to know," she repeated, "that I'm there."

That I'm there. A recognition of obscurity and existence.

Somewhere around the late 1940s, my mom and my dad met in a bar in

Gallup. I think they died somewhere in one, too. Bit by bit. In

fragments. In tequila shots. In some vast midnight whiskey mist my

parents seemed to simply slip away. They did not have far to go. We

existed at the edges: the edges of the migrant camps, the edges of the

Rio Grande, the edges of the horse-poor ranches we lived on, the edges

of the reservation.

The Navajo Nation.

The Taos Pueblo.

The Acoma Indian Reservation.

The Jicarilla Apache Reservation.

The Ramah Navajo.

The Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.

The Ute Indian Reservation.

Anywhere there were ranches and cows to work, or sheep to shear,

or crops to pick or harvest.

Texas cotton. Colorado wheat.

New Mexico roundups. Castrating calves and stompin' feet.

I have seen my share of the insides of those Gallup bars. Even as a

kid, my dad, the cowboy, brought me to enough of them. Those strong

Indian men laughing and putting me up on the pool table where I could

spin around like entertainment. Pulling my dad out of those Gallup bars

in the 1950s, always fights among the men, the women quite content to

step over my daddy's stinking piece of breathing meat. Me getting that

man back to his cowboy truck. I could have used those strong pool-table

arms then. Gallup or El Paso, it was all the same to me, as it would be

the same to any kid.

I never put my son through that wringer.

The first memory I have is of a time my mother and I were under a tree.

I do not know where. I think the desert. I am sitting naked in a big

white ceramic pan, and the pan is filled with cold water. I am having a

ball. Just splashing water underneath a tree. There is a line of

clothes hung out and drying in the desert heat. The air is very dry. My

mother's hands dipping into the coolness of the water.

She leaves. She does not come back.

I'm still angry about the life Mary Potato is forced to live. I say

"forced to live" because I know her options are so limited as to be

almost nonexistent. Truckers could turn off I-40, make a quick trek

down old Route 66 — U-Haul Central, the Wild West Shangri-La Road Motel

parking lot, Palm Tree Trinket Shop and Indian Curios, Uranium Mine

Museum, Pizza Hut, feed store, Tortilla Emporium, drive-up liquor

store, Powwow Park — and pull their rigs into the lot. Strangers

popping Mary in the motel dark. Mary got slammed around. Black eyes,

broken bones. She was brittle.

Mary Potato's children had been taken from her. Other people raise

them now.

I live with fetal alcohol syndrome, too. I saw my mother go

through whole bottles of vodka while she was pregnant, and she was a

heavy drinker when she had me. I saw her lose babies. At least they

were lucky enough not to be born alive.

It is very unusual that someone with this disease would become a

writer. But I am stubborn and perverse. I am also more than a little

angry, which is probably why I was so damn determined I would do good

by Tom. Tommy was my sweet revenge. That he could experience joy and

all the good things that make life worth living was my salvation. Now

he is gone. Writing is my new revenge. That I can put any of it down in

the limited confines of the English language is a salvation of sorts.

I would rather have my Tom than this writing about him, which is

just about all I have now. Sweating blood over words is anything but

simple, and English is a foreign language I do not readily understand.

I became a writer to piss on all the many white teachers and white

editors out there (everywhere) who insisted it could not be done. Not

by the stupid mongrel likes of me. Tom was like me and had little

respect for authority. You had to earn it. I did.

These expert people in the vast universe of writing were not too

different from the people who always told me Tommy Nothing Fancy was

hopeless. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a mean buzzard. Tommy was many

things, but hopeless was not one of them. I understood his battles with

the things he saw, like words on the printed page. Reading is a real

struggle. It's extremely hard work. Things appear upside down. Writing

is worse. My new babies are the stories I tell as I have lived them,

touched them, been touched by them, lived through them, and survived

them. They are my feeble attempt to bring the dead to life. I will

paint a picture of my Tommy here.

In order to succeed as a writer, you have to grow some pretty thick,

scarred skin, and you have to get used to lots and lots of failure. FAS

actually prepares you pretty well. Failure is the landscape and the

barriers. I am not glad to have FAS. I am not glad Tom had it. FAS

killed him. It is hard for me to be compassionate toward whatever human

being or set of circumstances gave him this horrible thing. Try as I

might, I cannot bring him back. Sometimes kids with FAS have very

serious seizures. The medications Tommy took stopped working. It

happened gradually. The seizures got worse. No one knows why.

I still have the rivers and the horses and the mountains and the

mesas and the red rocks soft with sand. And a basketball I keep in the

back of my pickup truck. That basketball rolls around back there with

my other junk like the past that will give me no peace. Someday I am

going to find some deserving six-year-old to give it to.

Even if Mary Potato was Tom's natural mom, she wasn't there. Mary

Potato wasn't there when my Tom was sick. She wasn't there when he was

having seizures. She wasn't there to make bunny patches for his knees.

She wasn't there when all you're left with is the phone in the middle

of the night. I was there in the middle of the night. I was there

through the seizures. I was there in hospitals in White People Town

with medical specialists who knew nothing. I was there when they said

he would never learn anything. I was there when I proved them wrong.

We did not see Mary Potato often. But I knew now she was out

there. In the dark with the wolves. Like a shadow.

She called. I was not amused. I do not know how she managed to get

my number. It was his birthday — she claimed — and she was coming over

with a basketball she had purchased as a birthday gift.

I hung up the phone. She knew where we lived. It was not his

birthday. She arrived in an ancient Buick filled with men.

I would not let her in. But I would take the basketball if she

agreed to leave. I took the basketball. The muffler dangling from the

Buick like a broken limb dragging, limping, scraping blue-hot dragon's

breath all along the asphalt as they left my place for the dragon bars

in Gallup. Back to the good life, or in any case the life they knew.

My dog and I drive to Mary Potato's sad place. Navajo hogans can be

poor, but none of them are as poor as the bare-bones tarpaper shacks

folks live in at the edges of White People Town. I did not let Mary

come to Tommy's funeral. Now, the least I owed her was a ride.

When you live on the reservation, you give rides to people who do

not have transportation. That's just the way it is. That's all it was.

A ride.

Mary Potato keeps a big black mongrel dog clipped to a chain on a

cottonwood tree in the front yard. She is almost ready.

I sit on the couch and wait. The house smells of swamp tea and old

underwear and boiled roots and dark rooms. Faded Jesus yellow on the

wall. Gin. Years and years of cigarettes. Mary Potato walks slowly,

with the knowledge she will never heal. How many knife blades have

plunged into her solitary heart only to find their way into her belly

where all her reversals and her hollow aching live. She does not dance

on the wind with mad wings but is blown into her dreams of savage

incapacity. There is no refuge in her house, which shakes like

toothpicks with the passing of the train. What seems to live here is

contempt. She is tough because she has to be.

Finally, she is ready. She wanted to look nice. She is dignified.

I have a hard time keeping the truck on the road. The closer I get to

where Tommy is buried, the closer I come to knowing I know nothing.

Everything I have ever known has been taken from me. My only grip is on

the steering wheel. Everything at the periphery of my vision is

compressed, and all I can see is what's directly in front of Old Big

Wanda. I know Mary Potato has been talking. About her life. Who can

estimate what she has given up? I am no judge of anything. I am no

moral judge of Mary Potato. I am only a man giving a woman a ride to a

cemetery. Go, go, and the wind just sings.

He needs me. He is cold. I cannot be here long. I fall apart.

This woman who says she gave birth to my son smokes a cigarette

and walks around looking at the other graves. She takes a plastic rose

from her purse and sticks it into the almost frozen ground. We do not

say much. Certainly nothing meaningful. The Navajo abhor speaking of

the dead.

We drive back to Mary Potato's place in White People Town. Junkyards.

Rusted vehicles piled high as a mountain. It is getting late. I do not

go inside. We talk a little in the truck. She is soft and sad. It is

difficult to hate her or keep my anger burning like it was some nuclear

vehemence. I will never have to see her again. She still thinks Tommy

was her son, and I still doubt it. It doesn't matter what I think. What

matters is we both have lost fragments of ourselves to wolves of

adversity. Life.

I leave her and start to drive home. The weather shifts and it

begins to snow. The New Mexico sky deepens, casting purple shadows

along the roadside ditch. The night comes down. The close dark.

Something out there howling. Rocky Mountain snow sharp as ice picks.

The old Navajo songs in my grandmother's mouth. The snow coming down

harder than a bar fight. Old Big Wanda slips on a crusty patch of ice.

We slide slow motion down into an arroyo. The dog and I are stuck and

will need someone to pull us out of here. No one comes along. We will

be here until morning. Navajo folks in their trucks will arrive

eventually. Someone will have a chain. Someone will help pull the fool

out of the snow.

Only thing to do is crawl into the back of the vehicle, into the

sleeping bag with the dog, and stay as warm as possible. Avoid

frostbite if I can. A numbness. It is impossible to sleep.

I turn over on my side and come face to face with the basketball.

He always dribbled it with two hands. Never one. I put the basketball

underneath my shirt so I might see what it looks and feels like to be

pregnant. It is not the same. The basketball is light and empty. Tommy

Nothing Fancy was never empty. His quarrels with the world were never

light. They were grave battles, and he met them head on with the

hardiness of who he was.

In the old days, the Navajo disposed of their dead in the branches

of trees, where the spirit lingers. Tom's burial is still crushing me,

and time does not make it better. The basketball still rolls around in

my pickup. I cannot rid myself of it, or of Mary Potato. And the wind

sings go, go. The ghostly laughing voices of the Navajo.The back of my

battered pickup truck is a mess. It is not unlike my life. My tools are

always shifting around back there. Making clunking noises when the

truck moves. I bought a camper shell so I could camp out in the back of

my truck. Now groceries don't blow away on my way home from the grocery

store.

I bought a new hydraulic jack. There's my fishing stuff back

there. Poles. A net. There's an old pair of cowboy boots I don't wear

because I wore them out. Some things are harder to throw away than

other things. Those cowboy boots walked through a lot of memories.

There's a hundred-pound bag of dog food I was supposed to drop off at

the Wolf Ranch in Ramah for the wolves but I keep forgetting about it.

There's a cement block I use as a weight to get me through snow. There

are my tire chains I never use, as putting on tire chains in the Big

Mud (the Navajo term for the terrain in this part of New Mexico) is

about as much fun as wrestling with an ornery pig. And there's a

basketball that rolls around back there every time I turn a corner.

Mary Potato bought the basketball. "Boys play basketball," she

said. The basketball was a birthday gift for Tommy. Tommy Nothing Fancy

was my Navajo son. Tommy Nothing Fancy is dead.

He was a little brown guy with lungs. When Tommy was an infant,

he'd cry louder than a coyote wails against the moon. I can still hold

both his cowboy boots with one hand.

Jet-black hair. Almost blue. Eyes the soft color of the Navajo

mountains. Tommy was beautiful. In his own way, the boy was perfect,

even if perfection is relative. My Indian wife and I took Tom into our

hearts and into our home when he was brand spanking new. The

particulars are irrelevant. Infants are like freight trains. We did not

know Tommy had fetal alcohol syndrome. I do not know if it would have

mattered had we known about the FAS ahead of time. How can anyone be

ahead of time for anything? We were not ready for FAS but there it was.

You deal with it or you don't.

Seizures mainly. And an otherness about the eyes. They would cross

when he was mad, which was regular.

But the kid had spunk. Tom loved to fish and he loved to play

basketball, although he never learned to dribble very well. He would

use both his hands. And Tommy loved riding around Navajoland in Old Big

Wanda, my Ford F150 with the camper shell. Even as an infant, Tommy

would be hypnotized by the velocity of the truck along the reservation

roads and the red rock horizons of the Navajo.

I call that truck a reservation truck because it has pits and

bashes yet it runs well. It has survived Big Mud, Big Winter, and the

big old loads of piñon wood. Whenever I clean Old Big Wanda I always

find new pockets of reservation mud caked to her. That pickup is of the

earth. She's the kind of truck migrant workers drive, sometimes live

in. A mongrel migrant vehicle, and it is owned by a mongrel migrant.

My parents were migrant workers, and my cowboy daddy had trucks

just like Old Big Wanda. We worked the ranches of the West and crops

anywhere. My cowboy dad was white. My mother's people were with the

Navajo.

Mary Potato was a Navajo, too. She looked like a Navajo. I never

did ask to see her papers. Why would I? It was none of my business.

Mary Potato could say she was anything. She could have been a Kickapoo

for all I knew. I did not care one way or the other what tribe she was

from. If she wanted to claim she was a Navajo, then let her. Most folks

in Gallup are all Navajo or part Navajo or they live among the Navajo

because the Navajo are the majority and not the minority in this place.

I did my best to ignore Mary Potato. My policy was to ignore drunks who

wanted money. Usually they'd go away, but ignoring Mary Potato did not

always work. "You're white," she said to me one day in the city park.

That and fifty cents gets you on the bus.

"My folks were migrant workers, and we worked ranches all around

here," I tried to explain. I loathe explaining it. White folks

particularly always have to know the exact spot you are from. I'm from

everywhere. For the life of me I cannot see why it matters.

Most migrants are Hispanic. But not this time.

Mary Potato claimed she knew what it was like to work in fields.

This did not surprise me in the least, as I had known many, many

Indians who had lived something of the migrant life. I knew Chippewa

who picked cherries. I knew Muckleshoot Indians who picked apples. I

knew Ute Indians who baled hay during baling season. I knew Red Lake

Band Chippewa who worked sugar beets. I knew Alabama-Coushatta who

picked Texas cotton. I knew Cherokee who worked tobacco. I knew Fort

Sill Apaches who worked melons. I knew Seminoles who picked tomatoes.

The Navajo work with sheep. Sometimes horses. Sometimes cows. But the

fields I knew Mary Potato worked were mainly plowed in bars and saloons

in Gallup, New Mexico, watering holes of gin and sin. I did not care

where she was from. It was irrelevant. She knew a hardness. She knew

loss.

Mary Potato gave Tommy the basketball. She knew he would love it.

The Navajo boys love basketball. Reservation basketball.

There was an old rusted basketball hoop attached precariously with

screws to a telephone pole not far from where I lived on the Navajo

Nation, and Navajo boys would come here to play basketball on the

blacktop where the asphalt met the dirt road and the reservation mud.

Big snow deterred them but ice on the asphalt did not deter them.

It was pretty basic basketball. No frills. No coaches. No net.

Someone had stolen the net years ago. The lone, rusted rim was in

perpetual danger of falling off the telephone pole every time a

basketball made deadly contact. But Navajo boys would come here and

play informal pickup games.

The little boys particularly liked coming, though they could never

commandeer what passed for a basketball court for very long, as the

older boys would show up, start their games, and elbow the little guys

like Tommy out of the way.

But Tommy had something not all of the little Navajo boys had.

Tommy had a new basketball. He wasn't much bigger than the ball itself,

and the older boys — older being maybe twelve — would tolerate his

presence if Tom showed up with his ball.

The game begins. In time, the suave patience of the bigger boys

with the little pretzels would grow thin, strained, and eventually it

would wear out: Tommy would sit there sniffling on the sidelines,

content (or forced) to watch the Navajo boys with their long flowing

hair show off their adolescent stuff. Pose and strut. Pumped up. Free

throws. Take the shot. Little boys wanting to be big boys and big boys

wanting to be men. Fetal alcohol syndrome or no fetal alcohol syndrome,

the boys always want to be men. I knew better than to interfere. Any

father wants his son to learn how to defend himself some.

When Tommy was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome my wife wept for a

week.

There was little help to be had for it.

So I did exactly what I think all parents should not do: I spoiled

him rotten. I wasn't rich, but I could give him certain things. I could

try to teach the boy to dribble, and I could teach the boy to fish.

More than anything, I was determined to do this for Tommy. I would not

allow fetal alcohol syndrome or whatever to ruin that for me, or for

him, and I did teach him to fish, and gently.

Fishing is a gentle business when you're out on a lake or in a

Rocky Mountain stream. Fishing is a gentle business anywhere on the

Navajo Nation. Ramah Lake. Blue Water Lake. If Tommy had been confined

to a wheelchair (which he was not), I would have pushed that chair into

any number of rivers. The San Juan River, where there was a private

spot of sand where we could fish and swim, was Tommy's favorite place.

We went there often.

I was damn well determined that Tom would not have the kind of

grinding migrant life I'd had. No matter how many years I might or

might not have with him. Ask anyone who has lost a kid. All we ever

have is now. He would not be knocked around relentlessly like I had

been knocked around all my life. I would do it differently.

Tommy was the one thing I did that was good and didn't fail. The

rest of it is ephemeral. The fetal alcohol syndrome was a reality. I

gave him happiness and joy and fishing tackle and trucks and dogs. I

would do it again.

"I didn't mean to have him," Mary Potato said.

Tom and I were playing in a park in town. Swings. Sandbox. Teeter-

totter. Monkey bars.

At first, I had thought she was just another town drunk. People

were always coming up and talking to us and engaging us in conversation

if they could. People needed booze and change. I had neither. I had

seen Mary Potato around like you see people around, but I had never

directly engaged her, as I am apt to avoid such people. In fact, I

avoid people whenever I can, which is never enough.

"I had a boy who would be his age but they took him from me," Mary

Potato said.

Why I attract the losers from everywhere in the universe I do not

know. Like a magnet. She's watching Tommy with a glaze that is mainly

sadness. I know that look. It's about what you do not have.

Mary Potato claimed she was Tommy's natural mom. I was doubtful. I

was angry. I was angry this strange woman approached us. I was angry

she was making some kind of claim to what was mine.

"I don't want him back," she said.

Good. She wasn't getting him back. Over my dead body.

"I just wanted you to know about me." She paused. "That I'm

there."

I was angry she had to be a drunk. I was angry she had done this to

this kid — and if not this kid, some other kid with FAS. Some other

kid who had seizures and who would never read goddamn English. Some

other kid whose teachers would say try harder! and who climbed the

walls. Some other kid who never slept. Some other kid in some other

family.

I was angry she would even attempt to speak with me. (It took me

years to realize how carefully she actually did it, making sure Tommy

was far enough away so as to be kept out of it, and I thank her for

that.) I was angry her life was like a wound. I was angry she had had

her children taken away. I was angry she was a hooker. I was angry all

the medicine men in the world could not cure her life to balance. I did

not want to know that she was there.

That I'm there, she said.

It was too much to ask of me.

But there she was, her body hunched over the picnic table. She

could have been my Tommy's mom. It was possible even if I didn't think

it was probable. She could have been my mom. She was like my mom. My

mother was a hopeless drunk. I would use the word "alcoholic," but it's

too polite. It's a white people word. Alcoholic. In the migrant life,

what we knew was falling-down Jezus drunk and puked again. There's

nothing polite about cleaning up your mother in her vomit and dragging

her unconscious carcass back to the migrant housing trailer you lived

in. Daddy, too. The story is ordinary. Mama usually just passed out

wherever she happened to be. I'd find her in the back of pickups all

the time. With men. For all of Mary Potato's failures, they did not

match the failures of my mom. And I loved my mom. Even if I was (and

am) angry with her.

Mary Potato was a whore who had been kicked off the reservation

and lived in a shack made of toothpicks and tarpaper and magazines out

by the railroad tracks. Mama had it worse. My dad would sell my mom to

other migrant men for five bucks. The life Mary Potato lived was a walk

in the park and a ride on the teeter-totter compared to the life my

mother lived. Mary Potato could have been my mom. In another life. I

could have been Mary Potato. Easily. How can another human being

measure what she has given up?

How do you divorce loss from rage? If I let the rage out, it will

destroy everything. Wolves! I do not let it out, do not tell this story

lightly. I cannot speak of it aloud. Or only to people who are close to

me, and even then I try hard to leave out the darker pieces of it.

"I didn't mean to have him, but these things happen," Mary Potato

said.

I'm minding my own business at the picnic table. Tommy is off on

his squeaky swing. Me in my brooding silence. As is my way.

I had known Mary Potato in other incarnations. On other

reservations. She did not want him back.

"I just wanted you to know," she repeated, "that I'm there."

That I'm there. A recognition of obscurity and existence.

Somewhere around the late 1940s, my mom and my dad met in a bar in

Gallup. I think they died somewhere in one, too. Bit by bit. In

fragments. In tequila shots. In some vast midnight whiskey mist my

parents seemed to simply slip away. They did not have far to go. We

existed at the edges: the edges of the migrant camps, the edges of the

Rio Grande, the edges of the horse-poor ranches we lived on, the edges

of the reservation.

The Navajo Nation.

The Taos Pueblo.

The Acoma Indian Reservation.

The Jicarilla Apache Reservation.

The Ramah Navajo.

The Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.

The Ute Indian Reservation.

Anywhere there were ranches and cows to work, or sheep to shear,

or crops to pick or harvest.

Texas cotton. Colorado wheat.

New Mexico roundups. Castrating calves and stompin' feet.

I have seen my share of the insides of those Gallup bars. Even as a

kid, my dad, the cowboy, brought me to enough of them. Those strong

Indian men laughing and putting me up on the pool table where I could

spin around like entertainment. Pulling my dad out of those Gallup bars

in the 1950s, always fights among the men, the women quite content to

step over my daddy's stinking piece of breathing meat. Me getting that

man back to his cowboy truck. I could have used those strong pool-table

arms then. Gallup or El Paso, it was all the same to me, as it would be

the same to any kid.

I never put my son through that wringer.

The first memory I have is of a time my mother and I were under a tree.

I do not know where. I think the desert. I am sitting naked in a big

white ceramic pan, and the pan is filled with cold water. I am having a

ball. Just splashing water underneath a tree. There is a line of

clothes hung out and drying in the desert heat. The air is very dry. My

mother's hands dipping into the coolness of the water.

She leaves. She does not come back.

I'm still angry about the life Mary Potato is forced to live. I say

"forced to live" because I know her options are so limited as to be

almost nonexistent. Truckers could turn off I-40, make a quick trek

down old Route 66 — U-Haul Central, the Wild West Shangri-La Road Motel

parking lot, Palm Tree Trinket Shop and Indian Curios, Uranium Mine

Museum, Pizza Hut, feed store, Tortilla Emporium, drive-up liquor

store, Powwow Park — and pull their rigs into the lot. Strangers

popping Mary in the motel dark. Mary got slammed around. Black eyes,

broken bones. She was brittle.

Mary Potato's children had been taken from her. Other people raise

them now.

I live with fetal alcohol syndrome, too. I saw my mother go

through whole bottles of vodka while she was pregnant, and she was a

heavy drinker when she had me. I saw her lose babies. At least they

were lucky enough not to be born alive.

It is very unusual that someone with this disease would become a

writer. But I am stubborn and perverse. I am also more than a little

angry, which is probably why I was so damn determined I would do good

by Tom. Tommy was my sweet revenge. That he could experience joy and

all the good things that make life worth living was my salvation. Now

he is gone. Writing is my new revenge. That I can put any of it down in

the limited confines of the English language is a salvation of sorts.

I would rather have my Tom than this writing about him, which is

just about all I have now. Sweating blood over words is anything but

simple, and English is a foreign language I do not readily understand.

I became a writer to piss on all the many white teachers and white

editors out there (everywhere) who insisted it could not be done. Not

by the stupid mongrel likes of me. Tom was like me and had little

respect for authority. You had to earn it. I did.

These expert people in the vast universe of writing were not too

different from the people who always told me Tommy Nothing Fancy was

hopeless. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a mean buzzard. Tommy was many

things, but hopeless was not one of them. I understood his battles with

the things he saw, like words on the printed page. Reading is a real

struggle. It's extremely hard work. Things appear upside down. Writing

is worse. My new babies are the stories I tell as I have lived them,

touched them, been touched by them, lived through them, and survived

them. They are my feeble attempt to bring the dead to life. I will

paint a picture of my Tommy here.

In order to succeed as a writer, you have to grow some pretty thick,

scarred skin, and you have to get used to lots and lots of failure. FAS

actually prepares you pretty well. Failure is the landscape and the

barriers. I am not glad to have FAS. I am not glad Tom had it. FAS

killed him. It is hard for me to be compassionate toward whatever human

being or set of circumstances gave him this horrible thing. Try as I

might, I cannot bring him back. Sometimes kids with FAS have very

serious seizures. The medications Tommy took stopped working. It

happened gradually. The seizures got worse. No one knows why.

I still have the rivers and the horses and the mountains and the

mesas and the red rocks soft with sand. And a basketball I keep in the

back of my pickup truck. That basketball rolls around back there with

my other junk like the past that will give me no peace. Someday I am

going to find some deserving six-year-old to give it to.

Even if Mary Potato was Tom's natural mom, she wasn't there. Mary

Potato wasn't there when my Tom was sick. She wasn't there when he was

having seizures. She wasn't there to make bunny patches for his knees.

She wasn't there when all you're left with is the phone in the middle

of the night. I was there in the middle of the night. I was there

through the seizures. I was there in hospitals in White People Town

with medical specialists who knew nothing. I was there when they said

he would never learn anything. I was there when I proved them wrong.

We did not see Mary Potato often. But I knew now she was out

there. In the dark with the wolves. Like a shadow.

She called. I was not amused. I do not know how she managed to get

my number. It was his birthday — she claimed — and she was coming over

with a basketball she had purchased as a birthday gift.

I hung up the phone. She knew where we lived. It was not his

birthday. She arrived in an ancient Buick filled with men.

I would not let her in. But I would take the basketball if she

agreed to leave. I took the basketball. The muffler dangling from the

Buick like a broken limb dragging, limping, scraping blue-hot dragon's

breath all along the asphalt as they left my place for the dragon bars

in Gallup. Back to the good life, or in any case the life they knew.

My dog and I drive to Mary Potato's sad place. Navajo hogans can be

poor, but none of them are as poor as the bare-bones tarpaper shacks

folks live in at the edges of White People Town. I did not let Mary

come to Tommy's funeral. Now, the least I owed her was a ride.

When you live on the reservation, you give rides to people who do

not have transportation. That's just the way it is. That's all it was.

A ride.

Mary Potato keeps a big black mongrel dog clipped to a chain on a

cottonwood tree in the front yard. She is almost ready.

I sit on the couch and wait. The house smells of swamp tea and old

underwear and boiled roots and dark rooms. Faded Jesus yellow on the

wall. Gin. Years and years of cigarettes. Mary Potato walks slowly,

with the knowledge she will never heal. How many knife blades have

plunged into her solitary heart only to find their way into her belly

where all her reversals and her hollow aching live. She does not dance

on the wind with mad wings but is blown into her dreams of savage

incapacity. There is no refuge in her house, which shakes like

toothpicks with the passing of the train. What seems to live here is

contempt. She is tough because she has to be.

Finally, she is ready. She wanted to look nice. She is dignified.

I have a hard time keeping the truck on the road. The closer I get to

where Tommy is buried, the closer I come to knowing I know nothing.

Everything I have ever known has been taken from me. My only grip is on

the steering wheel. Everything at the periphery of my vision is

compressed, and all I can see is what's directly in front of Old Big

Wanda. I know Mary Potato has been talking. About her life. Who can

estimate what she has given up? I am no judge of anything. I am no

moral judge of Mary Potato. I am only a man giving a woman a ride to a

cemetery. Go, go, and the wind just sings.

He needs me. He is cold. I cannot be here long. I fall apart.

This woman who says she gave birth to my son smokes a cigarette

and walks around looking at the other graves. She takes a plastic rose

from her purse and sticks it into the almost frozen ground. We do not

say much. Certainly nothing meaningful. The Navajo abhor speaking of

the dead.

We drive back to Mary Potato's place in White People Town. Junkyards.

Rusted vehicles piled high as a mountain. It is getting late. I do not

go inside. We talk a little in the truck. She is soft and sad. It is

difficult to hate her or keep my anger burning like it was some nuclear

vehemence. I will never have to see her again. She still thinks Tommy

was her son, and I still doubt it. It doesn't matter what I think. What

matters is we both have lost fragments of ourselves to wolves of

adversity. Life.

I leave her and start to drive home. The weather shifts and it

begins to snow. The New Mexico sky deepens, casting purple shadows

along the roadside ditch. The night comes down. The close dark.

Something out there howling. Rocky Mountain snow sharp as ice picks.

The old Navajo songs in my grandmother's mouth. The snow coming down

harder than a bar fight. Old Big Wanda slips on a crusty patch of ice.

We slide slow motion down into an arroyo. The dog and I are stuck and

will need someone to pull us out of here. No one comes along. We will

be here until morning. Navajo folks in their trucks will arrive

eventually. Someone will have a chain. Someone will help pull the fool

out of the snow.

Only thing to do is crawl into the back of the vehicle, into the

sleeping bag with the dog, and stay as warm as possible. Avoid

frostbite if I can. A numbness. It is impossible to sleep.

I turn over on my side and come face to face with the basketball.

He always dribbled it with two hands. Never one. I put the basketball

underneath my shirt so I might see what it looks and feels like to be

pregnant. It is not the same. The basketball is light and empty. Tommy

Nothing Fancy was never empty. His quarrels with the world were never

light. They were grave battles, and he met them head on with the

hardiness of who he was.

In the old days, the Navajo disposed of their dead in the branches

of trees, where the spirit lingers. Tom's burial is still crushing me,

and time does not make it better. The basketball still rolls around in

my pickup. I cannot rid myself of it, or of Mary Potato. And the wind

sings go, go. The ghostly laughing voices of the Navajo.

Copyright © 2000 by Nasdijj. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

desi_young, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by desi_young)
Written as a memoir by a Navajo, later found out to be false, this book still should be read. Although not a "memoir" - you may view it as fiction, this book is still beautifully written and should be read. Not many contemporary books out there are about the Navajos or reservation life. Open your eyes and mind, forget the controversy surrounding the author and read a lovely piece of work.
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mary scriver, March 4, 2009 (view all comments by mary scriver)
This anthology of essays is the first of three books by Timothy Barrus, writing under the pseudonym "Nasdijj." Though he was excoriated and ostracized for pretending to be half-Navajo, he was in fact protecting the reservation community where he and his wife were living and working. These stories are true, closely observed, and heart-breaking. They are worth reading before condemning them out-of-hand.

Prairie Mary
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780618154487
Author:
Nasdijj
Publisher:
Mariner Books
Location:
Boston
Subject:
Biography
Subject:
Indians of north america
Subject:
Specific Groups - Special Needs
Subject:
Parental Memoirs
Subject:
Ethnic Cultures - Native Americans
Subject:
General Biography
Copyright:
Edition Description:
PAPERBACK
Publication Date:
20010917
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.5 in 0.51 lb

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Product details 224 pages Mariner Books - English 9780618154487 Reviews:
"Review" by , "The symbols he molds....cohere into a unique voice, whether...recounting his adventures on the periphery of white America, musing over the continued impoverishment of the Navajo, or lamenting the loss of his adopted son."
"Review" by , "A memoir of survival...the flat-out best nonfiction writing of the year."
"Review" by , "An authentic, important book...unfailingly honest and very nearly perfect."
"Review" by , "Mesmerizing, apocalyptic...a powerful American classic...[that] doesn't just catch your breath, it stops yor souls progress in mid-stride."
"Review" by , "Riveting...fascinating...unlike anything you are likely to read."
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