Ride by Francesca Thompson It’s way too hot on the rez today. July and the grass has begun to shrivel in the heat. We all sit around in the Community Center listening to the Olson brothers in their drum circle, and everyone is fanning themselves with the little white booklet that has Nita Traversie’s face printed on the front. It’s a school picture--I can tell by the ugly backdrop, the same one they use every year for all the grades, and in it her two large front teeth push against her lips like squares of gum. The Community Center is a sea of slightly bucktoothed identical faces, nodding back and forth, pushing the stuffy air around. Mahogany is the only wood name I can think of so I imagine that is what her coffin is made from. It is propped at the front of the room, draped with a blue and purple star quilt. The air conditioning in here isn’t working for shit, so the side doors have been propped open and the July air pours in like a hot breath. People are mumbling amongst themselves and the muted words create a rumbling undertone. The chairs are lined up in many rows, and people who don’t have seats are gathered around the perimeters of the room. The town of Little Eagle, population 346. Little Eagle Community Center, population 320. The missing are drunk, sleeping or apathetic. The roof seems lower than it should be, and I can feel people looking at me; faces glance and turn away quickly but it is easy to sense their stares. A wall of faces, looking and looking away. This old man who is sitting in the row ahead, Long Yellowtail who works at the gas station, turns around and looks at me seriously. “How’s that riding coming, son?” “Mom wants me to stay at home for a little while. Probably not gonna ride for a
bit,” I say. Long clears his throat, nods and narrows his eyes at me. “Neither is your brother, enit?” he says, his voice biting. I don’t say anything, but I can feel my heart pounding in my ears. Long turns back around in his seat. His words are true enough, but I am not my brother. Our shared names do not make us the same person. I should not have to bare the resentment people have for him just because he is not here to bare it himself. I resist the urge to land one on the back of Long’s head. It’s true, my brother won’t be riding broncs any time soon. My brother killed this girl. He is now fucked. He sits in the tribal jail. He was supposed to teach me how to ride his bike and now Nita’s blood is all over it. Now it’s over because no amount of smudging can burn away death. I’m Indian enough to know that. It’s not like I’m happy Nita died or anything, and I think that maybe once I’m done being angry it’s possible I could feel pain for her. We were in almost every class together since elementary school, and the strange thing was that I always seemed to end up sitting directly behind her. I knew that she was a pencil chewer, and she had beautiful hair. She would chew the erasers off of the ends of pencils and at the end of the day there would always be tiny chunks of pink rubber littering the ground around her desk. And her hair. She was a little bit white somewhere in her family tree, so it had a little kink to it, and these brownish highlights that would come out on bright April days when the sun came in through the classroom windows and we all had cabin fever. I knew who she dated, and I knew where she had always lived. And I knew that she had me trapped in the Community Center on a Friday morning in this unbearable fucking heat, breathing in everyone else’s evaporated sweat.
Miri Hawk Eagle, who was just Miri Eagle before she married Louis Hawk Eagle, gets to the front and dedicates this ugly red and orange star quilt to Nitaâ€™s memory. Miri works over at the rez high school teaching science; Nita was a student of hers. Her parents are Billy and Bonnie Eagle, and she has two siblings: Jimmy and Dom. They both work for the government in BIA. Miri and Louis have been married for four years and last year she had a miscarriage, or an abortion, we havenâ€™t really gotten it straight. Personally I think it was an abortion; sometimes I get these feelings in my gut. Miri sews and sells star quilts. She and Louis live on that street before the dump, a long row of HUD houses. This is what I know about her. A name is only a name, but here a name is the first page of a heavy book.
Last week on Friday we held our monthly Indian taco sale from the front room of our house. This is how it works. My dad is this big guy, tall and hulking with slouchedover shoulders and a big nose. He dishes ground beef, shining with grease, onto pieces of fry bread that my mom makes. She has these little hands, short and pudgy fingers that are perfect for shaping balls of dough. My dad passes the tacos to me, and I pass them to customers, mostly relatives, who hand me five dollars and can dress them how they want. My skinny cousin Carmen takes meat and bread and nothing else. Aunt Mindy dumps cheese and salsa on top and eats with her hands like a chimp. Cousins Mokie, Dane and Brandon take cheese and lettuce, cheese and onions, and cheese and tomatoes and Tabasco sauce respectively. Everyone comes on their lunch break, which means we work as fast as we can from noon to one. Then we spend the rest of the day nibbling on edges of fry bread slices and sitting in front of the plastic fan.
At three p.m. last Friday I sat on the front step watching dogs go by. A skinny caramel colored dog wandered past the house and sniffed at the oil spot left by my brother Manny’s Yamaha. The oil spot was visible most of the time, because the bike was gone most of the time. Instead of working, Manny rode his bike at least three days a week, but never on Sundays. On Sundays he stayed home to wash it and watch television and fuck his girlfriend Laura, or sometimes other girls, if he felt like it. When he did ride out, sometimes he drove to the capital and sometimes to Rapid City, but he always came back and sometimes he brought fast food. I watched the stray meander away from the house again. All I wanted to do was ride that bike. I could take it if I wanted. I was sixteen, with a license. But without my brother’s permission, I’d be dead before I got ten feet on the thing. Manny was nineteen, lean but muscular from riding broncs, and he could easily break my arm if he wanted. It was more likely that all the dead Ghost Dancers would rise, piece together their bulletshattered bones and sing again than it was that my brother would grant me permission to even sit on that bike. He kept promising, again and again, that he’d teach me how to ride it, eventually. I waited and itched to get on it, but he got pissed off if I bothered him too much so I mostly kept my mouth shut. After riding the Yamaha, my second greatest wish was that Manny would come back to rodeoing. I quit riding after Manny quit, after the appearance of the bike, because it had started feeling different. It had gotten way too easy, and the walk to the rodeo grounds felt too long without him next to me. The only competition I ever really had was my brother, and he had kicked my ass every time riding a horse called Crazy. Really fucking clever, right? He taught me everything I knew about riding, but I felt like he held back the really important stuff
because he still beat me at every race, every calf roping, just by a hair each time. He was the only Indian bronc rider who won every prize statewide. “I just do it to see the looks on the white boys’ faces when I stomp them into the ground again and again,” he’d said, laughing and digging the heel of his boot into the dirt. Now he was using his prize money to fill up his bike, but it wouldn’t last forever. He’d stopped talking to his friends and they’d stopped talking to him because he gave up drinking and started riding that bike instead. He’d bought it a few months ago from Bobby Farlee, a half-white boy who’d won big on some racing bets, then just as quick went broke. He owned that bike for less than a year before he sold it to pay for his diabetic father’s hospital fees. Really, he had just gone straight to Manny because he knew Manny was the only one around able to pay anything close to what the bike was worth. It had cost my brother just under five thousand dollars. That’s what we could make if we sold one thousand tacos. I imagined my mother bent over the deep fryer, dropping one thousand pieces of bread dough into the oil and rubbing her brown, arthritic fingers. Today we sold almost thirty tacos, and the house would smell like oil and meat for the rest of the week and the money would be gone in four hours. $2.99 for toilet paper and the rest for Bud Light. I heard the rumble of the Yamaha outside of our house at eleven thirty that evening. Sometimes Manny would come inside and sometimes he’d head straight over to Laura’s house and wouldn’t come home until morning. But that night I heard him come inside, letting the screen door slam behind him. I was lying in bed listening to Elton John on my Walkman, partly because I really like Elton John and partly because his was the
last CD I was able to steal from the rez library. I pulled my headphones off as Manny walked into our room. “Hey, brother,” he said and plopped a grease spotted McDonald’s bag onto my stomach. “Hey,” I said and sat up to open the bag. It contained a king-size order of fries. I grabbed several at a time and shoved them into my mouth. Cold, but still good. “Where’d you go today?” I asked through the mouthful of fries. “Rapid,” he said and let himself fall onto his bed, which squeaked heavily underneath him. I hadn’t been to Rapid City since I was ten or eleven, but Manny went at least a couple times a month. I knew his bike wasn’t designed to carry two people, and even if it was I didn’t think he would ever take me. I wasn’t part of his routine.
The last time we competed in riding together, the last time Manny had competed before he got locked up, he beat me. It wasn’t even a competition that mattered, just a local event held as part of our Founder’s Day weekend. There were parades, cookouts, and other stuff that nobody gave a shit about, but everyone, as close to 346 as you can get, crammed into the stadium for the rodeo. We’d been even up until the last event, and I could tell Manny was pissed off about it; he was usually ahead of me by this point in the competition. But I had ridden hard and we held the same amount of points. The timed race was what would break it. It was the simplest event, just a three-lap race around the perimeter. Three other boys rode with us. I can’t even remember who anymore, I barely paid attention to them. I only cared that I beat Manny even by half a second.
It was June, humid after a week of rain. The air was heavy and hard to breathe. We waited around for the event to begin. Manny trotted restlessly back and forth on his horse Crazy and acknowledged calls from the crowd in the stands. My horse was named Elton, after the Rocketman himself. We stood near the fence, still, and the need to win, just this once, began to consume me. I felt the nerves in the balls of my feet. We lined up at the start. There was one kid between Manny and meâ€”I remember now it was Frankie Olson, a latchkey kid whose parents worked off-rez at the capital building in Pierre. I glanced over past Frankie at my brother. He hunched low over his horseâ€™s neck and closed his eyes. When he opened them and saw me looking he grinned. I turned forward again. The starter pistol cracked. We lunged forward. Manny and I were neck and neck for the first two laps. This was how it always worked. Like maybe he was perfectly capable of pulling ahead early but liked to let me think that I could still win, like I was still in the running. I felt good this time. Elton kicked up big clumps of dirt. I could feel the other three boys falling behind us. At the last curve of the third lap, Manny began to pull ahead, like he had been waiting to do it. I leaned into Elton, urging him forward, wanting it so badly. We approached the finish, the white line of paint in the soft dirt. Manny reached out his left hand, extended it over his horseâ€™s head like he was grabbing for something. Like he could win if he just reached toward that line. And he did reach the line, less than a second before I did but it was enough. The crowd watching screamed in unison and I felt something go out of me. We slowed. Manny turned his horse around and trotted back to meet me, smiling, unable to hide his smugness. Or maybe it was relief, relief that he had beaten me once again.
“Good job, brother,” he said. I didn’t say anything. I wanted to punch him. He did a victory lap as the announcer read out the final accumulation of points. Me, second place overall. Easily first place if Manny hadn’t competed. I was defeated, a loser. If I believed in fate, I might have had to say that this was it for me. To be oneupped over and over. But I decided not to believe in fate.
When the funeral service ends, my mother and I join the stream of people who push through the door and outside. She goes on ahead of me to go home to my dad who is too whiskey-sick to go anywhere today. He doesn’t often get like that, but I knew he would be sick this morning before I even caught the vomit smell from the bathroom; I felt it in my gut. People wouldn’t talk about his absence at the service. They always know who is drunk and who isn’t, who to expect and who to forget. I walk around the side of the building and pull out a pack of cigarettes. I don’t really know how to smoke properly, but stealing them from my mom’s jewelry box is easy, and holding and puffing on cigarettes feels good and smells good and cures my idle hands. So I just suck in and hold the smoke it my mouth for a few before blowing it out. After a minute or two I hear someone else round the corner. Kitty Hawk Eagle jingles as she walks because she’s sewn tiny little bells around her Family Dollar Keds. It seems like a silly thing for a twenty-five-year-old to do, but she used to be a really great jingle dress dancer so I think maybe she misses the way those tinkling dresses sounded and uses her shoes as a replacement. She’s the sister of Louis Hawk Eagle, Miri’s husband. Kitty and Louis have one other brother who’s name I can’t remember. He left the rez a few years back. She leans against the wall near me and lights her own cigarette. Her hair is
streaked with red, her eyes lined with dark makeup. Her breasts strain against the light blue t-shirt she has on and her jeans sit low around her hips. I look down at my feet. “So,” she says, and I don’t take my eyes off of my shoes. “Must suck for you, enit? Now the name Circle Eagle’s got blood on it.” I don’t say anything, but take a long pull on my cigarette and taste the smoke. “What are you going to do with that bike? You know no one in this town will buy it now.” I release the smoke from my mouth and it breaks on the wind. Every time Kitty shifts a little, the bells on her shoes jingle slightly. “I could ride it,” I say. “You know how to ride it?” “No.” She glances at me and wrinkles her eyebrow a little, but doesn’t say anything else. I throw my cigarette to the ground, unfinished, and stomp it out. The sun bores down on the back of my bare neck like hot fists as I make the short walk home. I tread a stretch of sidewalk bordering open grass; grasshoppers lunge from the brush onto the cement and I crush them with the soles of my shoes, sometimes on accident and sometimes not. When I get home the taco sale is in full swing. Today there is also wojapi, sloppy berry pudding made with chokecherries today, because we like to get traditional when someone dies. The wojapi is free, tacos still five bucks. I step around my old uncle Henry who is seated on the front steps, singing a funeral song into his styrofoam bowl. Inside, the smell of tacos is sickening. It had just begun to fade from the last time
and now the oil is splattering again, thickening the air. My mom is frantic without my dad to help her, dishing out meat and dropping balls of dough into the deep fryer and trying to take everyone’s money. “Ey,” she shouts when she sees me. “Get over here and help me!” She motions to me with her hand and for a second I get mad at Manny. I’m mad at the way, after he’d bought it, he’d get on that bike as soon as the oil for the bread started heating up and only return hours after the last person had purchased a taco. The way he’d just turn around and walk out when mom waved at him the way she was waving at me now. And I turn around. You know how to ride it? No. But I find the bike in the gangway, tear off the tarp that covers it and slide on slowly. I grip the handles and lean forward. After waiting so long, I am finally on. “How much different are you from a horse?” I say into the plastic covered dials. I lift my head, look around the gangway and out to the street. I am half expecting Manny to come walking around the corner, smirk at me, break my nose with the heel of his hand and shove me off of his bike. But he can’t. I have to say this to myself a few times before it really starts to sink in. He’s not coming, he’s not coming. He can’t stop me. And I don’t know how to ride a bike, not one like this, but I retrieve the key that I’ve been keeping tucked in my shorts since the accident. And I put it in and I press a button that says “start” and squeeze, and the noise is so loud that it shoots around in my head like marbles. I fiddle with levers, move my hands over the handles. Then I do
something right and the bike jerks forward so quickly that I get whiplash in my neck and I stop it just as quickly. My hands can control. I try again and move forward, more slowly this time. And I stare ahead at the place where the gangway lets out onto the street and imagine the place where the street lets out onto the highway. And I can feel myself pulling forward already. And I ride.