Mapping the Interior, page 1
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For Kelly O’Connor: thank you
I was twelve the first time I saw my dead father cross from the kitchen doorway to the hall that led back to the utility room.
It was 2:49 in the morning, as near as I could reconstruct.
I was standing alongside the dusty curtain pulled across the front window of the living room. I wasn’t standing there on purpose. I was in only my underwear. No lights were on.
My best guess is that, moments before, I’d been looking out the front window, into all the scrub and nothing spread out in front of our house. The reason for thinking that was I had the taste of dust in the back of my throat, and the window had a fine coat of that dust on it. Probably. I’d breathed it in through my nose, because sleepwalkers are goal oriented, not concerned with details or consequences.
If sleepwalkers cared about that kind of stuff, I’d have at least had my gym shorts on, and, if I was in fact trying to see something outside, then my glasses, too.
To sleepwalk is to be inhabited, yes, but not by something else, so much. What you’re inhabited by, what’s kicking one foot in front of the other, it’s yourself. It doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think it’s under any real compulsion to, finally. If anything, being inhabited by yourself like that, what it tells you is that there’s a real you squirming down inside you, trying all through the day to pull up to the surface, look out. But it can only get that done when your defenses are down. When you’re sleeping.
The following morning—this was my usual procedure, after a night of shuffling around dead to the world—would find me out in the sun, poring over the stunted grass and packed dirt for eighty or a hundred feet past the front window. Mom would be at work, and my little brother, Dino, would be glued to one of his cartoons, so there would be nobody there to call out from the porch, ask me what was I doing.
If I’d had to answer, I’d have said I was looking for whatever it was I’d been looking for last night. My hope was that my waking self had cued on some regularity to the packed dirt’s contour, or registered a dull old pull tab that was actually the lifting ring for a dry old plywood door that opened onto . . . what? I didn’t care. Just something. Anything. An old stash of fireworks, a buried body, a capped-off well; it didn’t matter.
The day I found something, that would mean that my nighttime ramblings, they had purpose.
Otherwise, I was just broken, right? Otherwise, I was just a toy waking up in the night, bumping into walls.
That next morning, though, my probing fingers turned up nothing of any consequence. Just the usual trash—little glass bottles, a few bolts with nuts and washers rusted to the thread, part of a dog collar, either the half-buried wheel of a car long gone or the still-attached wheel of a car now buried upside down.
I wanted the latter, of course, but, to allow that possibility, I had to resist digging around the edges of that wheel.
When I looked back to the front window of our modular house, I half-expected to see the shape of my dead father again, standing in the window. Watching me.
The window was just the window, the curtain drawn like Mom said, to keep the heat out.
Still, I watched it.
How I’d know it was him from a house length out, it wasn’t that I would recognize his face or his build. He’d died when I was four and nearly dying from pneumonia myself, when Dino was one and staying with an aunt so he couldn’t catch pneumonia, when Mom was still working just one shift. All I had to go on as far as how he looked, it was pretty much just snapshots and a blurry memory or two.
No, the way I’d recognized him the night before, when he was walking from the kitchen doorway back to the utility room, it was his silhouette. There were spikes coming out from his lower back, and the tops of his calves bulged out in an unnatural way, and his head was top-heavy and kind of undulating, so he was going to have to duck to make it into the utility room.
But—for all he was wearing, he was absolutely silent. Zero rustling, like you can usually hear with a fancydancer, when they’re all set to go, or have just finished.
Thing was? My father never danced. He didn’t go to the pow-wows to compete for cash. One of the few things I remember about him, it’s that he didn’t call the traditionals down at the town pump or the IGA “throwbacks,” like I’d heard. His words always got scrambled in his mouth—Dino’s got that too—so that what he came out with, it was “fallback.”
My father was neither a throwback nor a fallback. He didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the stories, and didn’t care that he didn’t. Once or twice a year, he’d sign on to fight whatever fire was happening, but it wasn’t to protect any ancestral land. It was because when you signed on, they issued you these green wool pants. He’d sell those to the hunters, come fall. Once a year, Mom told me, he’d usually walk home in his boxers, with a twenty folded small in his hand so none of the reservation dogs would nose it away.
That’s my dad, as I know him.
But in the year or two after he either drowned or was drowned—there’s stories both ways, and they each make sense—when we were still on the reservation, when his sisters would still watch us some days, they’d tell us about Dad when he was our age and his eyes were still big with dreams.
He’d been really into bows and arrows and headbands, they said, the toy ones from the trading post. I imagine that when you grow up in a cowboy place, then you’re all into saddles and boots and ropes. When you grow up in Indian country, the TV tells you how to be Indian. And it starts with bows and arrows and headbands. They’re the exciting part of your heritage. They’re also the thing you can always find at the gift shop.
Back then, Dad would always be in the stands at the pow-wows, his sisters told me—well, me and Dino, but Dino was one and two, so I think the stories just skidded right past him, pretty much.
As for me, I really keyed on that, on my dad watching those dancers with every last bit of his attention, his headband strapped tight over his hair. Like he was trying to soak all this in, so it could fill him up. So he could be that.
Who wouldn’t want to step into a fancydancer outfit? It would be the obvious next step.
The bustles, the armbands, the beadwork, the cool knee-high moccasins—and the facepaint. It makes you look like the assassin-aliens in space movies. With your face black and white like that, you automatically slit your eyes like a gunfighter, like you’re staring America down across the centuries.
I can see my dad slitting his eyes in the bleachers like that all those years ago. What he’s doing, it’s pretending. What he’s doing, it’s waiting.
“He was going to be the best dancer of us all, once he straightened back up again,” one of his sisters had told me. She wasn’t a dancer herself, but, playing it again in my head, I think she was talking about all the Indians on the whole reservation, maybe even on the whole pow-wow circuit. I think she was saying that if my dad would have just applied the same energy and forethought to his regalia and his routine as he did to what trouble there was to get in once
That’s how you talk about dead people, though, especially dead Indians. It’s all about squandered potential, not actual accomplishments.
My father, my dad, he could have been the best fancydancer of us all.
And that’s how I recognized him that first night, crossing from the living room through the kitchen.
His boots, his bustle. His fancydancer outline.
In death, he had become what he never could in life.
And now he was back.
Or, he had been for a few steps.
My heart pounded in my chest with what I wanted to call fear but what I know now was actually hope.
* * *
Our house, like I said, it was modular.
You can leave the reservation, but your income level will still land you in a reservation house, won’t it? I’d heard my mom say this on the phone once, and it had stuck to the inside of my head in a way I knew I was going to be looking over at that part of the inside of my skull for the rest of my life, probably.
I read once that a baby elephant doesn’t have the digestive enzymes it needs to live, but it can get them—and does—by eating its mother’s dung.
That’s an old Indian story, right there.
Anyway, the house we were renting, it was 1140 square feet. I knew that from a sticker on the backside of the cabinet under the sink.
Square feet don’t tell you anything, though.
For delivery purposes, our house was almost twenty feet wide and nearly three times as long, about. My tape-measuring involved Dino holding it steady for me every twelve feet, though, a red popsicle melting down his left fist, so there could have been some missing inches.
Twenty feet wide sounds like a trailer house, I know, which we’d also lived in, but the difference in a trailer house and modular one, it’s that a modular house, it gets delivered and it stays there, more or less, while a trailer house keeps its wheels and the tongue it gets pulled with, so it can still roam if need be. They’ve both got skirts that never last the winter, though, and the sidings are pretty much the same, and if you end up with one of each, you can kind of rub them together like puffy Cheetos and make a bigger, more complicated house.
I say all this because, the week after I saw my dad in the house, I scoured every single inch of those 1140 square feet for evidence of his having walked through.
What I wanted was a single lost bead, just one stray, bright-blue feather. Even a waxy smear on a doorjamb, that could be where he’d touched after he’d wiped an itch on his cheek.
He was back watching us, I knew.
It made me sterner with Dino, to prove the good big brother I was being in Dad’s absence. How I was picking up the slack.
It also made me ask Mom questions about Dad, on as much of the sly as I could manage. What was the first car he had? What was the last? Where did she meet him? What was he doing? Did he name me, or did she? What was the best fight he was ever in? How much could he lift if he had to?
They’re questions a nine-year-old would ask, I know, not a sixth-grader, but I think when you’re talking about your dad, you kind of go back in years—the more you become a kid, the more he gets to be the dad, right?
So, we ate crunchy fish sticks over the game shows of dinner, and Mom shrugged and chewed and told me some stories. Not the ones I was ever asking for but ones she remembered from when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. How Dad had come to school with his whole head shaved once, to prove something to a teacher. Or how one time she saw him standing by the lake and throwing a trash bag of shoes into the water, shoe by shoe.
He hadn’t made it through to graduation—who ever does?—but he’d been there all the same, and he’d clapped louder than anybody, and hooted for every person who crossed the stage, and Mom thought that was probably either the first or the second weekend he ever had to spend in jail.
When he died, they didn’t find him right off. The tribal cops, I mean. But everybody knew where he was. Probably some kids from my own class had even snuck out to see him, dragged by their older brothers and sisters, meaning they knew my dad was dead before I did.
Was it because a truck he was driving had thrown a rod he couldn’t afford to pay for, or was it because he was drinking and stumbled, and couldn’t get back up?
There were stories both ways, and Mom told us that either being true wouldn’t make him alive again, and that—she only said this when she was down—we were maybe better off anyway. We never would have left otherwise.
Now I was going to a school with a higher graduation rate, and there weren’t as many fights.
Also, there weren’t dogs smiling at us around every corner, or faces we knew in cars driving by, or the snow coming off the mountains the same way, but it was supposed to all be worth it in the end.
And, as near as I could tell, there were no beads or feathers or facepaint anywhere in the house. No proof of Dad having walked through. I even checked the vacuum cleaner bag, even though we hardly ever used the vacuum because the smell from the belts always made us have to eat our fish sticks outside.
That didn’t mean I was done looking, though.
If I couldn’t find any trace of him, then maybe I could reconstruct what he’d been doing.
Over and over, and slower and slower, I walked what I’d seen of his path from the kitchen to the utility room. Maybe fourteen feet—a little longer than the tape measure would go. I looked at every chair back and coffee-table edge and wall he could have brushed by, that he could have touched with his fingertips the way I imagine the dead touch solid things: with wonder.
Then I backtracked, figured he must have crossed the living room before crossing the kitchen, right? Which meant he’d walked right behind me when I was standing there asleep, looking out into the driveway—meaning that, maybe, my sleeping self had heard his ghost truck pull up out there. That truck with the thrown rod, the truck he’d killed, that had maybe killed him. I’d heard it and risen to watch him walk up, but, asleep, I’d been too slow. He’d probably been coming through the front door right as I was parting the curtain, and then had been walking behind me when my sleeping eyes were trying to see out into the dark. It was pure luck that I’d sensed motion in my peripheral vision, and that flurry of movement had shaken me awake, pulled my head around to barely catch him slipping out the kitchen.
To the utility room.
Mom caught me in there when she got home from work.
I had her roll of duct tape, was tearing some out, then pressing it to every surface in there, trying to lift something that would prove I’d seen what I’d seen.
“Junior?” she said, standing in the doorway.
I didn’t try to explain. What I asked her instead was were there any secret compartments in here, or any old photo albums, or maybe a box of old leftover clothes, something like that?
She didn’t answer, just watched me some more.
“What have you been reading?” she asked.
Our questions were going right past each other, as usual.
Another effect Dad being back was having was that I was less patient with Mom now. Quicker to dismiss her. I mean, sure, that could be part of being twelve. But I think it was my way of siding with my dad, too.
I don’t claim to be smart or good or right or any of that.
My name’s “Junior,” after all. I’m my father’s son.
* * *
When two thirty rolled around that morning, I was rooted to the exact same spot by the front window. I was even still wearing the exact same underwear. The only difference was that I had my glasses on now. I hoped they wouldn’t mess everything up.
What I’d also done, just on the chance this was key, was deadfoot it into the living room. It was something I’d learned at my new school, listening in: if both your feet fell asleep and you walked around anyway, you could accidentally step into some other world. I figured that’s maybe what had happened to me the night
The difference, it was that I wasn’t asleep. To try to make up for it, I’d snaked one of Dino’s jump ropes—they were supposed to teach him to count, if anything ever would—and pythoned it tight around my thighs until the beds of my toenails had started to darken.
My concern now was that, by being early so as to be sure not to miss anything, I was also insuring that my feet would be awake by 2:49, and I’d be standing in the same waking level or depth I was standing in every other day.
At 2:43, the skin on the outside of each of my feet started to tingle and pinprick. I hotfooted it back and forth without thinking, then just stood there looking down at what was happening. Circulation. It was ruining everything.
I could gamble that it didn’t matter what my blood was doing, and whether that blood was somehow connected to my brain in a way that nudged my vision over just enough, or . . . I did it, I sat down right there and tied my legs off one more time, tighter than before, and pulled the rope between my teeth instead of knotting it like last time.
This time, it hurt. I think it was because all the blood that had just got to go back where it was supposed to have been, it had only been starting to make the turn, suck back up to my heart, but now I was shutting it off again. It felt like my feet were balloons. When they weren’t supposed to feel like anything.
I pulled tighter, closing my eyes, leaning back to do it, and then jerked forward when our dog Chuckhead brushed my bare back with his mangy, matted coat.
An instant after that, I remembered that Chuckhead hadn’t come with us down here. He was living on the streets now, was trying to put on fat for winter, or else becoming fat for one of the bigger dogs.
I twisted around, letting the jump rope sling past my mouth, the handle taking a chunk of lipmeat with it, but I was alone. It wasn’t the air conditioner or the fan, either. Mom kept the fan in her room mostly, and the air conditioner parasited onto the back window behind the TV was rusted shut.
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