We didn’t want the funeral for Che’s mother to be the Crisis or Climax of the story, but it was pretty intense stuff. Hard to keep up that level. So we decided we needed a chapter that was mild and ordinary, to take the story down a little bit. There can’t be trauma and emotional breaking points all the time.
We didn’t talk about post-traumatic syndrome at the time. It was before the Gulf Wars, so it didn’t come into our thinking from the military context. Some work has been done recently about the effects on descendents of the Nazi Holocaust, even down several generations. No one had really dared to name the Native American Holocaust and try to uncover the effects on descendents, even though we all knew people whose parents were victims or survivors of the Baker Massacre. The starvation deaths of the Thirties and the effects of the high rates of violence weren’t really discussed much yet. One brave school counselor in Browning began a group for grieving people, but he got into trouble for it. The culture said, “Don’t talk about it. You’ll just stir up trouble.”
What WAS being discussed a lot was the effects of being raised in boarding schools on the parenting skills of the students. There seemed to be a lot of skills that had to do with comforting and guiding that were just missing, especially for kids who were no longer little kids but not yet grown. But it was too hot a topic for us to really address. We let the mother just be passive.
AN IDYLLIC INTERLUDE
Che and Heather sat together at the table in Heather's trailer. Heather's mother was across the table from them. She was helping Heather bead a new set of moccasins to wear to pow-wows. Summer was near.. The weather was so soft and warm that the windows and door of the trailer stood open and the gently drifting air smelled vaguely of the smoked and tanned elkhide and more strongly of green grass. Both the washer and the dryer were running in the trailer, so there was a soft thumping and churning. The tiny sparkling beads lay in saucers. The beading needles in the deft hands of mother and daughter went in and out, creating one of the old patterns the Blackfeet have always used, a shape round at one end and a kind of fan at the other. Che sat watching their quick hands, feeling more at peace than he had for a long time. The radio played something throbbing, the sentimental kind of cowboy music.
Heather stopped for a minute to gaze at Che. "It's just amazing that your grandfather showed up, Che! Where has he been all this time?"
"He doesn't really say. When I ask him he just gets real fuzzy and shrugs it off."
Heather's mom stopped now. "Is he your mother's father, Che?"
"No. He's my father's father. But I don't even remember my father. He took off a long time ago and my mother was so mad about it she wouldn't tell me anything." Che's hands started to move on the table, picking up the scissors, then the thread, and putting them down again. He was nervous and it helped him if he was feeling something in his hands.
"But where CAN he have been?" Sometimes Heather worried a lot about where people were, especially her father, who was gone so much.
"I don't know. Maybe up in Canada. But he's back in his own house now. You know that little old shack on the edge of town? Near the cottonwoods along the creek? The one that's always been boarded up? He says that's his house."
"Are you going to stay with him?" Heather thought that little house was charming, like a fairytale house or a long-ago house. She just liked houses in general, anyway, all kinds of houses. She could imagine herself choosing curtains and arranging things on the shelves.
"I don't know. He and my aunt and grandma have to talk. I don't get to say anything." He couldn't keep the resentment out of his voice. At his age he thought he ought to be able to make decisions, but here was everyone taking over his life again. In a very small voice, not quite meaning to say it out loud, he added, "There's a goddamn social worker, too."
Heather's mother, seeming not to have heard, rose stiffly. Her varicose veins were giving her trouble this week. "That little old place has no indoor water. I'm not even sure it has electricity. He's too old to live there, but if he thinks he must, he'll need someone to split wood and carry water. I hope you can handle living without a bathroom, Che." She began to move around the little trailer, straightening up the kitchen and carrying laundry down the hall to put in the machine. When she was out of sight, Heather looked into Che's eyes and smiled. Che, who prided himself on being tough and knowing everything and always being cool, blushed. He felt like a little kid.
Holding her beadwork at arm's length, Heather squinted at the shapes of yellow and orange against blue. She had made the traditional keyhole design. "Pretty good," admired Che.
"It's kind of lumpy. I've done better. You're distracting me," she flirted back. She hadn't known she knew how to flirt, but here she was doing it with her eyes flicking up and down and her dimples flashing. Somehow she just felt irresistible.
Shyly, gently, Che reached out as if to touch her hand, but the sound of her mother coming back along the trailer made him pull back. "Heather, I'm going next door for a minute. If the dryer goes off, will you fold the clothes please?"
"Sure." She tried not to sound too delighted, but she really wanted to talk to Che alone. As soon as the door banged shut she asked, "Are you still having nightmares?"
"No. Not as much. He picked up the scissors and began opening and closing them.
"I love you, Che." She ached to say that out loud. She said it in her head all the time. But it seemed too bold to just say to Che, after all. Maybe she could start out sort of cool. Something like, "I suppose you've gone with lots of girls." No, that would sound jealous. Maybe, "I'd really like to get close to you, Che. I mean be special, you know?" How about, "My feelings for you are strong." No, that was like a movie or something.
It turned out that she didn't say anything at all, but her face showed all the things she was thinking and Che got the message.
"You'd better be careful. I'm a bad dude. Just ask anyone. I'm worthless, just like my folks."
"Maybe now that your grandfather is here, you'll be different. He doesn't drink and he knows the old ways. Maybe he'll teach you."
"Why should I learn any old ways? The old times are long gone. There's nothing for anyone like me nowadays. I'll just party and drive fast and die young." He glanced at her sideways under his eyelashes to see how she reacted and was a little sorry when he saw her flinch as though she'd been struck"
"No, no, Che! There's a whole world! Education is the key. You just need to --well, get good grades, and..." She was a little vague about just how it worked. But everyone had always told her that doing well in school was the key to a good future.
"You're forgetting that I'm expelled. I'm not just a high school drop-out. I'm EXPELLED."
Heather was shocked. "But why would they expel you?"
"You dummy! You bonehead! Shows what you know about it!" He could see that she didn't like being called names, so he said, quickly. "Ah, jokes! No, really. I was expelled for being truant! See how smart they are? I don't come to school, so they get mad and say I can't!!" He crashed the scissors down on the table.
"Maybe if you went and explained how it was with you and asked to come back?" Heather's parents had always accepted an apology from her, so long as she was really sorry and tried to do better.
But Che's way was different. He was proud and he didn't believe anyone would help him anyway. No one had. Or at least if anyone had, he couldn't remember it. "NO! School is not for me. I won't go to school." Jumping up he looked to see where Heather's mother was. Maybe she would come back and get him out of this nasty turn of the conversation.
Heather was completely flattened. The fantasy in her head of Che as the steady hard-working father and herself as the warm and comforting mother kept falling apart. Che could tell she was disappointed. He came over and stood behind her with his hands on the back of her neck, softly kneading the muscles. She was relaxed and her shoulders were soft, surprisingly small. He was just about to lean over and kiss her when her mother came up the steps, and so, to show her he knew she was there, he pretended to strangle Heather. "Augh! Hey! Not so hard!" But she was really delighted to have his hands on her anywhere, anyhow. She would have put up with a lot more pain. Between her overactive imagination and her overreacting body, she felt as though she were electrified by any contact at all. Her mother didn't look amused, but she was tolerant.
Then there was a tall shadow in the doorway. It was Che's grandfather. He wore a tweed cap, like the old people farther North, and he took it off in courtesy as he stood there, leaning on a walking stick. He nodded formally. Heather's mother felt like a child, with this old man looking at her. "I would like to speak to my boy, Charles."
Che did not go to the door, but standing where he was, he answered with respect. "What is it, Grandfather?" Heather was astonished! Charles??
"Oki, nisohko. I need help in my house. Can you come with me? To live?"
"Yeah. That would be all right."
"Then you must come now. Lots of work to do." For a moment they all stood transfixed, gazing at each other and trying to imagine what the little house might be like to live in with an old, old Indian. Would he smudge? Would he pray? What things would he have in the house? Then the dryer buzzer broke the mood. BRRZZZZZPPP!!
As it happened, the first thing Che's grandfather wanted him to do was to dig two good deep postholes so he could string a clothes line. That much work made the sweat pour off Che, but no sooner did he get the posts set and the line strung than Grandfather wanted all the bedding taken out and hung up in the sun. It turned out there were two beds--old creaky metal beds with musty mattresses. By one of the beds was a foot locker with some of his clothes in it, the clothes that were at his aunt's house being washed when the apartment burned.
That night he lay awake for a long time. Too many things were different. His grandfather and Heather were both too new in his life. They changed the balance somehow: made him feel like he wasn't himself. Girls had liked him before, but they were never so... what was she, anyway? Motherly? And this grandfather... now he was snoring in the other bed, making a terrible racket. He thought, “What I need is a drink to make me relax.” But it was dark and he didn't know where anything was and he doubted there was anything to drink anyway. There wasn't even a refrigerator. He wished for his dog, wished he'd gone around where the apartment had burned and looked for that dog. He had seen the dog outside, safe from the fire. Hadn't the dog come over to be with him when Heather was there? That Heather! Right in front of everyone.
There was a scratching at the door. He got up, stumbled a bit in the dark, finally felt his way over and opened the door. It was his dog. She followed him in and when he got back under the old quilts--which smelled fresh from the sunshine all afternoon-- she jumped up to lie alongside him on the bed. Grandfather snored on and the dog heaved a great sigh. At last Che relaxed and sank down into sleep.