8 Dennis Lipsy was thirteen when he found the dead Indian. His Uncle Tap had driven him and his older brothers, Noel and Powell, down from Austin to hunt on their grandfathers deer lease just over the Mexican border, near Piedras Negras. Dennis lay awake in the tent that night listening to the fire pop and his brothers drunken talk about the Mexican girls in cutoffs theyd seen in Eagle Pass on the way to get liquor, Uncle Tap saying you had to keep your mind off it while laying out for deer.
Once, Dennis and his Uncle Tap were sitting at a red light on South Congress Avenue in Austin, and a redhead woman had leaned into the drivers window, her breasts visible in the open V of her blouse, and shed smelled like the row of scented candles at Naus Pharmacy. The woman narrowed her eyes at Uncle Tap and said, Steven? and Uncle Tap had laughed, telling her that Steven couldnt make it, but maybe Denny here would like to partake, winking at Dennis. And the woman had looked at Uncle Tap blank-faced, her mouth slightly ajar, and then shed glanced at someone sitting in a parked cream Oldsmobile alongside them. Uncle Tap kept jabbering and winking until the light changed and never even saw the man in the Oldsmobile leap out and then round the back of the LTD with a baseball bat in his hand, the mans long strides and the coiling of his body one movement, and the bat blurring through the open driver window into Uncle Taps jaw. Later, lying in the hospital with his jaw wired shut, Uncle Tap complained to Dennis that his nocturnal activities had been curtailed.
Inside the tent, Dennis listened to the crickets in the tall grass. The fire quivered against the canvas. A while later, javalinas tracked through the edge of the camp, scuffling over bits of crackers and sardines Noel and Powell had tossed them. Powell cursed and threw something into the brush. Laughter. Then it grew quiet except for the popping of the fire and Dennis thought of the girls in cut-offs, their acorn-brown thighs. He touched himself inside his sleeping bag but heard his brothers muttering outside the tent, so lay perfectly still, not even breathing, his blood thrumming in his ears. He swore he would stay awake all night but was awakened by rain thumping against the tent and was angry with himself.
And that morning, after the rain let up, while stepping in among the mesquite and cedar elms to piss, he had seen the skeleton along the opposite side of the wash, jutting beneath a slab of limestone that previously covered it. It was on its side, knees bound to its chest, partially buried in silt. Dennis squatted beside it. The bones were a dark amber color as if they had absorbed the caliche around them. The skull stared sightlessly down the wash, its jaw askew. Beside the pelvis lay a small fibrous bundle. When Dennis picked it up, the gauzy material crumbled like burnt paper. Inside, what looked like a blackened root. He turned the root over in his hand, wondering if it were some sort of talisman. He smelled it: a dry leathery odor. Blood rushed to his head. Dennis stood up. A ten-point buck stared back at him from a grove of mesquite, twenty feet away. The buck made a coughing sound and then crashed through the surrounding cenizo and disappeared. Dennis stuffed the root into his jacket pocket, then covered the skeleton with brush and leaves and headed back to camp.
Its a finger, his Uncle Tap told him later while inspecting the root. See the nail? And here, the middle joint? Uncle Tap said the Comanches buried their dead along washes like this or up in trees. Afterwards, there would be intense grieving, by the women in particular. The squaws would try to outdo one another, Uncle Tap said. Gash their forearms, cut their hair, slice off a body part. Fingers were common. Wrap it in salt and leave it with the dead fella. Now theres love for you, Uncle Tap said, sniffing the finger. I cant even get my Rhonda to perform fellatio.
That night, around the fire, Uncle Tap told Dennis that he needed to toast the dead Indian with bourbon to ward off its ghost, and hed passed Dennis the bottle. Dennis drank from it and it burned his throat at first but then after a few more it didnt burn and only felt warm. Uncle Tap made exaggerated high steps around the fire as if running through snow and the brothers laughed. He chanted in Latin but claimed it was Comanche. He squirted butane onto the fire from a little can that he used to fill his Zippo and the flames shot up, singeing his brow. God and baby Jesus, he yelped, slapping at a trail of blue fire that had moved up the back of his hand. The brothers howled. Uncle Tap looked around wild-eyed, like he would do some damage, then smiled. Dennis handed the bottle of bourbon off to Uncle Tap but then found it back in his hands again. The tall grasses at the edge of the firelight made a raspy sound in the breeze. The bourbon made everything bright and shrill.
How you feeling, bro? Powell asked.
All right, Dennis said, grinning stupidly. Powell grinned back.
Now boys, Dennys had enough, Uncle Tap said, halfheartedly.
Denny, you having a good time? Noel asked.
The flickering trees began to pitch sideways but Dennis righted them. He looked steadily at Noel and Powell to show them hed kept the trees upright. He felt in his pocket for the finger, which hed wrapped in foil. He wondered how you could love someone enough to cut off a finger. Billy Mueller had carved Lucinda Bissons initials into his arm the year before with an X-acto knife. Eventually it scabbed over and faded.
Something moved in the grass.
He was sweating. The trees pitched sideways again. And then he was bent over, sick, his hot insides roaring out. He lay curled on the ground, knees to his chest, as if in imitation of the Indian.
And the year after, when Dennis came to the camp with his father and Uncle Tap and hed shot and dressed his first deer, he found the Indian again, arms and legs detached, carried off by animals or rushing water he supposed. And though he didnt know why, he reburied it. And he returned the next year to find only its ribcage intact, poking out from the caliche like the frame of a ruined ship.
Sonny Farbrother owned an import shop off Highway 290, where Dennis worked the summer he turned fifteen. Sonny had been a Hollywood Indian in the 1950s and on some nights, after Dennis totaled out the register, Sonny would grab a six-pack from the fridge, and sit with Dennis on the steps of his stone house behind the shop and tell him stories while they drank beer. Sonny claimed to be a real Indian, a Tonkawa, a tribe that had once lived along the Colorado River that runs through Austin. He said hed grown up on a reservation in Oklahoma and been a Golden Gloves boxer before going to L.A. and getting his break in the movies. He had a daughter, he said, who was still on the reservation and was planning to visit him at Christmas. But some people, including Uncle Tap, said Sonny wasnt Indian at all but Mexican and that hed been in and out of jail, though no one could say for what.
Sonny had once shown Dennis a black-and-white photo of himself and John Wayne in swimsuits beside a hotel swimming pool, beer bottles in their hands. Ropes of muscle ran along Sonnys dark arms in the picture and Dennis thought he looked like a boxer. Confident and dangerous, not dried up the way he looked now. Wayne, his blurred hand gesturing with a cigarette, was looking off to the side, mouthing something. The Duke hated horses, Sonny told Dennis, as if explaining the difference between John Wayne and himself. Sonny told him about living on location in Guanajuato, Mexico, and in Monument Valley, where they filmed The Searchers. Everyday, I got killed, Sonny said. Stabbed. Shot. Thrown off my horse. Some goddamn acting. He clinked Denniss bottle with his own, making Dennis feel awkward but a part of Sonnys story just the same. Out in Hollywood, Sonny said, he lived out of hotels, slept with dozens of strange and beautiful women, making some insanely jealous. An image rose in Denniss head of naked women cartwheeling behind Sonny and John Wayne, their skin smooth and white except for the dark wedge between their legs, their bodies pinwheeling slowly into the glistening pool.
Sonny told Dennis that one of the women, a makeup artist, had tried to kill him. Gave me an extra mouth, Sonny said, lifting up his shirt, revealing in the porch light a halfdollar-sized gouge in his belly, the skin puckered at its edges. Put your finger in there and it wont come back, he said, grinning obscenely. Dennis looked off at car headlights passing on the highway to have somewhere else to look. He swallowed hard on his beer. Sonny explained how just after a particularly bad fightone in which theyd drunkenly said and done unpardonable things to one another and then smashed lamps, room service dishes, and overturned the TVthe make-up artist had stepped into the bathroom where he was pissing, holding a jagged crescent of broken dish in her hand. She was naked, her neck and chest flushed, eyes wide. Radiant. What are you planning to do with that? hed asked her. Hed laughed weakly when hed said it: a short chuckle that caught in his throat. He kept pissing. Hed even had time to sidestep her when shed lunged at him, but for some reasonmaybe the vodkahe hadnt moved. She stuck the crescent of dish just under his ribs. It hung out of him at an odd angle, as if finding a pocket. But he felt nothing, no pain. Maybe, hed thought absurdly, he had mimicked pain for so long in movies that hed become immune to it. The make-up artists hand, a beautiful slender thing, alternately moved between the crescent and his face. Caressing. Oh how she loved him.
She was crazy, Dennis said. He glanced at the spot where the mouth had appeared beneath Sonnys shirt, then looked down at his own boots.
Sonny went on with his story. He said that the next he knew, he was staring up at his make-up artist from the bathroom floor and that beyond her face were the water marks on the ceiling. Pain coiled through him. White wall tiles gleamed. He pulled the crescent free from its pocket, partly because it seemed the source of the pain, which clouded everything, and partly because he thought this way the make-up artist would stop fretting and apologizing which annoyed him to no end. Blood went everywhere, of course. After awhile, he grew cold. She wrapped him in the bed sheet there on the tiled floor, even swathing his head turban-like with a towel. Sonny lay there, he said, for what seemed like hours, slowly bleeding to death. Sonny, you dont look so good, his make-up artist said at one point. She sang a Nat King Cole song to him, her bleach blonde head resting on his chest, her voice vibrating against his sternum. She had a beautiful alto, he said. He passed in and out of consciousness. He woke to find her brushing something onto his face. Beside her on the tile, her make-up kit stood open. Im putting some color back in your cheeks, she said. Hold still. Shed held the mirror up for him to see. The image? A painted warrior. On his head, a headdress made from a large white crane. Its eyes shone sky blue. His make-up artist ran her fingers through its plumes singing his name. This is what I saw, no lie, Sonny said. It was a vision.
The crane is my guardian spirit.
I tried to have a headdress made just like it, but cranes are endangered. Sonny flicked his cigarette into the yard and spat. Well, the room service guy came by to pick up the lunch dishes and when he heard the singing he mistook it for somebody inviting him in. Pure luck. Another thirty minutes and Id have bought it. Sonny drank from his beer, then tapped another cigarette from a pack. He said he supposed what he and the make-up artist felt for one another was a kind of love, if looked at a certain way. That violence and rage were a part of love, too. I read a story once about how the first human being was cut in halves, male and female, and how those separate halves had looked for each other, far and wide. When they finally found one another, though, and tried to come together, too many of the connecting pieces had broken off. So now, they spite one another for being what they cant help being, Sonny said.
What happened to the girl? Dennis asked.
Oh. I ended up marrying her. Sonny laughed.
When Sonny Farbrothers daughter climbed into the car, she looked hard at Dennis in the back seat as if trying to place him. Dennis waved awkwardly, said Hi, disheartened she hadnt remembered but a little relieved, too. The girl turned to Billy Mueller, who was driving, and gave him a sour look, like the night had suddenly turned on her. Billys shoulders were too small for the rest of him. They belonged on a child. His shoulders had been that waybehind the rest of himsince Dennis could remember. Billy got laid more than anyone, though, it seemed to Dennis, even with his affliction. He knew things.
They were headed to a party, though no one could remember the name of the person who was having it. Dennis guessed that if you knew whose house it was, maybe youd feel worse about messing it up. He stared off at Sonnys little stone house, where a string of green Christmas lights swirled around the big window in the front. He could see Sonny inside at the table, cracking pistachios, watching TV. Dennis hadnt seen Sonny since Sonny had slammed the college boys head with the car door the year before. After that, Denniss parents had forced him to quit the import shop. Dennis had written Sonny telling him that he probably had good reasons for what he did. But all hed gotten back from him was a $125 check for the painting hed done.
Sonnys daughters name was Margo and, like her dad, she was long-legged and her skin was as dark and smooth as polished pecan. She had taken a bus down from Oklahoma just as she had the previous Christmas when Dennis had first seen her working the register at the import shop, only this time, apparently, she was staying. Margo had caught him staring at her a few times through the shop window while he scraped paint from the side of the building. He remembered thinking she looked older than him, though he found out later that she was the same age, 15. Around Sonny, Margo was serious and there was very little small talk. They were wary of one another, it seemed, after spending so much time apart, though Sonny claimed that they had a special bond. I buried the stem of her umbilical cord under a persimmon tree like the old people said to, you know. And, so when I came to Austin, I had the tree dug up and planted out back to keep her and me close. It doesnt much like the soil here, though. Margo, as if to spite Sonny, flirted openly with the men who came in the shop. She would squeeze a mans arm, hover near his shoulder, toss back her hair and laugh with her high cheekbones at something that struck her as funny and which she would share only with him. She and Dennis had talked around the checkout counter and shed gotten Denniss last name wrong, calling him Lewis, and it stuck for some reason. Hey there, Smokin Joe Louis, shed say when he came up to the register to help customers to their cars with chimeneas or ornamental bird baths.
And when Dennis had stayed late to help unload a Mexican pottery truck, Margo had pressed against him in the trucks narrow canvas-covered bed, her arms encircling his waist. Dennis held a goat-shaped pot in one hand. He stood perfectly still. Sugary. That was how she smelled. Like the waffle cakes you bought at the River Festival. She kissed him on the mouth. And when she squeezed past him to grab a box of smiling crescent moons, her hand had brushed his crotch. Shed then headed out the back of the truck, down the ramp, into the glare of the floodlights.
Billy pulled the car onto the highway. The Ramones I Wanna Be Sedated thumped out of speakers near Denniss head. Billy leaned over and said something close to Margos ear that made her glance back quickly and laugh. Denniss face burned. He looked out the window at the exposed layers of limestone where the road cut through. He tried to think of something clever to say that would humiliate Billy but all his thoughts dried up.
Billy pulled out a Coke bottle with Wild Turkey in it from under the seat and handed it to Margo. She took a drink, then passed it back to Dennis. Hey, I remember you, Margo said suddenly, her face brightening. Smokin Joe Louis.
Hows Sonny? Dennis said.
Not well. Sonnys a sick man. She took the bottle back and took another drink. He wanted me to stay home tonight, but I just said, got some plans, Geronimo.
Thats good, Dennis said, and then wondered why he said it.
Billy said, You bet its good. He reached across and did something with his hand that Dennis couldnt see and Margo laughed and told him to stop.
Dennis drank from the bottle and looked out the window at the hills, their purple ridges, wishing he could get out and walk home.
The college boy had called Margo a cunt. Thats not where it started, only where Dennis came in. Hed been on a ladder caulking the sides of the import shop when the boy drove up in his maroon Firebird and went inside. Cunt. It sounded sharp and final. Then something banged against the inside wall where Dennis was caulking. It made the ladder shake. He could hear the tinny sound of the radio inside playing Sam and Daves Sooth Me. More yelling. Then the back door had banged open and Sonny had followed the college boy out to his car, quick long strides crunching over gravel. What happened next was unclear. Dennis couldnt remember which things hed actually seen or which things hed heard about later.
Thunk. That was the sound he heard as he came around the corner of the shop, caulking gun in hand. The sound of metal on bone.
The college boy was sitting on the gravel next to his Firebird, holding his head, blubbering softly. Long blonde hair hung in his face. Blood spattered the front of his shirt. Margo circled the car, her gaze shifting between Sonny and the boy. Sonny was quiet, standing beside the open drivers door, running his hands through his gray-streaked hair. Well, goddamn, Sonny said matter-of-factly, tossing up his hands like someone whose horse had lost. He sighed, looked at Dennis holding the caulking gun. Dont shoot, he said, flatly, then looked out at a knot of junipers and some rusted machine parts sticking out of the bunch grass. The college boy whimpered. Margo crouched near the front of the Firebird, came toward the boy on all fours. Go away now, Daddy, she said in a low pleading voice. Sonny walked over and kicked the boy in the side. He yelped. Sonny wouldnt let Margo go near him. He slung handfuls of gravel at her until she went in the shop. Then Sonny had turned to Dennis and said, We look like crazy people, dont we? and, not waiting for an answer, had gone inside. Dennis had waded through the bunch grass and cactus and walked home before the EMS and police came. He didnt tell anyone he was there, offered no witness.
Sonny was in the Travis County Jail for
four months for assault. Later, he would tell his friends that he listened
to his cellmate, a man convicted of killing his own child, bawling like
a baby for nights on end before theyd taken him off to the State
Prison in Huntsville. The man pleaded with Sonny to believe that he
hadnt killed the toddler, that the boy had fallen from a retaining
wall onto his head. He was sleepy afterwards, the man had
told him, so I let him sleep. Finally, though he had followed
the case and knew the preponderance of evidence stacked against the
man, he also knew that a fiction was all the man asked of him. Sonny
said it was a small gift to give.
At the party, Dennis and Margo sat around a backyard bonfire, passing a joint she had pulled from her change purse. It was late and cold and theyd lost track of Billy an hour ago, not long after he sampled some pills from a bathroom medicine cabinet. Other faces were nearby: Sean Weakes, robed in a blanket, his arm around Lucinda Bisson, two people Dennis had known off and on since elementary school but hadnt spoken to in years. He nodded to them, said hello.
A group was on the roof of the house shooting off bottle rockets. Each time one exploded overhead, a dog howled mournfully from its pen at edge of the yard. The dogs eyes shone yellow in the firelight.
We should look for Billy, Margo said.
You worried about him? Dennis asked.
Billys special, Margo said. Hes our ride.
Dennis was quiet for a little while, then he said, Are yall together?
Billy and me? Naw, he just makes me laugh.
Billy says yall are.
He says that, huh? Margo took a hit off the joint, coughed.
He says that youre going to Las Vegas together and work in the casinos.
You believe that? Margo asked.
No. I dont know. Billy says things, Dennis said.
You boys, Margo said and laughed.
Dennis laughed too, but his heart wasnt in it. She had a way of saying it that made you feel small.
Margos eyes followed the cinders rising from the fire. She was quiet for a while. Tree sap popped and sizzled. Dennis could hear a Rolling Stones song playing inside the house. Then Margo said, When I was seven, I had these migraines. None of the doctors could explain it. They did spinal taps, thinking it might be meningitis. She licked her fingers and pinched the joint out. Sonny was never around. And my mom had to go to work, so on bad days my older cousin Cecilia would stay with me and put cold wash cloths on my head, feed me aspirin. Shed sing me songs, too. Church songs. Margo sang softly.
When my feeble life is over, time for me will be no more.
Except I thought it was father shore. She smiled.
Was this on the reservation? Dennis asked.
Sonny said you lived on a reservation.
Hes so full of shit. Margo said.
He said you and your mother still lived there.
We never did. We live in an apartment building in Tulsa.
Dennis stoked the fire with a stick. He hated Sonny, he decided.
Anyway, when Id have these migraines, Id get delirious from the pain. Have nightmares but be awake. Sometimes, Id look out the window and see my dad waving up at me from the street. Hed have a blue sport coat on and be young and good looking like when he was in the movies and hed say, come on down and give me a kiss, because hes such a liar. Margo paused. In the flickering light her face seemed ashen. Dennis wanted to touch her hair.
And once, when my mom was off visiting my grandma in Lawton, I had this real bad one. Poor old Cecilia tried the wash cloths and songs but nothing worked. The neighbors heard all this crying and screaming and not knowing the story, they started banging on ceilings and floors with whatever was handy. And then some shit-for-brains yelled up through the vents that hed come up there and shut me up. A door slammed. This scared poor old Cecilia so much that she grabbed my hand and out we went into the hall and through a door Id never even seen, up some dark, pee-smelling stairs. I looked down and saw my dad at the bottom, hands cupped to his mouth like he was calling up at me. But instead of words, feathers were coming out. Margo paused. The wind picked up and ash from the fire dusted her lap and Margo brushed it off. So me and Cecilia ran faster. Then I heard somebody bawling. Cecilia told me to shut-up and yanked my arm. Then we went through another door. We stepped into blue sky. Pigeons exploded around us. A huge white womans face smiled down at me. Gleaming teeth. Then I saw the cars and people way down below. Wed left them behind. Cecilia had taken me to Heaven. Are other kids here? I asked her. Cecilia just stared at me. Will you hush? she said. I noticed her shaking. I remember wondering if wed have different names in heaven. We sat there on the roof until the sky went dark and the lights came on below and we didnt say anything. Just waited to see what would happen. After a while, I noticed my migraine was just a dull ache and that I had to pee. Then me and Cecilia got up and made our way across the rooftops and down through another door and stairwell and found Cecilias stepmother in her apartment, cooking Tuna Helper. Wed gone and come back, I remember thinking. But nothing had changed. Things went back to the way they were before. I wasnt different.
Margo looked hard at Dennis. You think things are set up a certain way, Joe Louis, but they arent. You cant change whats coming by being one place or the other. So you might as well pretend you chose it that way.
Lie, you mean, Dennis said.
She smiled. Was my story true or not?
I dont know, he said. It sounded true.
Then it doesnt make any difference, one way or the other, does it?
Margo leaned forward and kissed him. Molasses and ash filled his mouth. She pressed into him. He ran his hand up under her jacket, touched the warm skin of her belly. An erection swelled awkwardly in his jeans. Goddamn, your hands are cold, she said after a minute, pulling her jacket down.
A boy in his underwear came across the lawn carrying an end table and couch cushions. It wasnt until he stood in front of the fire that Dennis recognized him as Billy Mueller.
Billy? Margo said.
Yeah? Billy wheeled around, dragging the cushion along the ground.
What the hell are you doing? Margo said. Where are your clothes for Christ sakes?
Just keeping yall warm, he said, matter-of-factly, and tossed his armload in the fire. A cheer went up from the roof. Flames licked at the end tables varnish for a few seconds and then rose. Hey, Lucinda, Billy said and stood there canting his bony hips, as if he would say more but then didnt. Billys face was ecstatic. Lucinda Bisson laughed. Billy raised a fist in salute, then headed back across the lawn.
We should get him in the car, Margo said, rising, following Billy.
Sure, Dennis said, but he sat there for awhile, his head sodden with Margo. Sonny stood in a dark stairwell somewhere, his mouth full of feathers. Across from him, Sean and Lucindas faces were hidden by the blanket, a pair of monks. Bits of ash from the couch cushion fell softly on them, like snow.
He stood up and headed toward the house. Another rocket exploded and the dog started up again.
On the porch, Mark Sievers, a sallow-faced boy from Denniss English class, asked him how it was going. Mark Sieverss eyes were jittery. He rubbed his sideburns and mouth with his fingers. Dennis said it was going all right and started to squeeze by him to the sliding glass door. You getting any out there? Mark Sievers said. Through the glass door, Dennis could see the deserted living room. Bottles and trash everywhere. A knot of people now stood in the entryway. He could see Margo there, looking down at something. Mark Sievers said, You know about her, right? Dennis looked at him. Her and her daddy, Sievers said, making a circle with his index finger and poking his other index finger through it. Denniss stomach grabbed. Youre a goddamn liar, Dennis said, though he knew it was true and that hed known it for some time. He shouldered Sievers out of the way and headed into the house, which was thick with smoke and the smell of spilled beer. Someone had smashed the dining-room light fixture. The bare metal rod hung at an odd angle from the ceiling. Eggshells of glass lay on the linoleum. In the entry way, where the crowd gathered, Billy, still in his underwear, was bent over a fat boy, giving him mouth to mouth. Billy looked up, a string of saliva swinging from his bottom lip. His eyes were shiny from whatever hed taken. For a second, he glanced around and seemed to forget his task, seized by the shine of that other world. Then he started on the boy again. Dennis watched the rise and fall of Billys child shoulders. No one seemed to know who the fat boy was. He drove a red Ford pickup, someone said. Hed come late, made a pass at Taeger Sutfins girlfriend, and then he and Sutfin had gotten into it. Before anybody threw a punch, though, the fat boy collapsed there in the entryway with a thud.
Margo was down beside Billy, tugging at her hair. Dennis closed his eyes. Opened them. His heart thudded crazily. His face felt tight and swollen from the heat of the bonfire as if he were outgrowing his own skin.
Billys lips were sealed around the fat boys. They shared the same air. At any moment it seemed the boys jowly cheeks might suck Billy in. Billy breathed deeply into him once, twice, and then the fat boy opened his eyes.
Rise, Billy said. Rise and walk. <
Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review