Ancestors

I sat next to him at a bar at the edge of the reservation.
“Why don’t you leave?” I ask.
He twist in his stool, the toes of this bulky sneakers wrap around the legs.
“Have you seen an Indian off a reservation?”
“I’m sure I have.”
“But have you seen an Indian off a reservation and said ‘that is an Indian’?”
“No. But it’s not like all Indians live on reservation.”
“I know. But what happens when an Indian moves off the reservation?”
“He lives like every other 25 year old in America.”
“Exactly,” he says. He talks a long drink of his beer and starts blowing air into the mouth of the bottle.
“Come on. So you don’t want to be like everyone else? Thats why you won’t move?”
“What happens if I move off the reservation and I stop being Indian.”
“That makes no sense. It’s not like you can scrub the brown and the ancestry out of you.”
“But I won’t visit. I’ll call my mom but it’s not like I’m gonna stop by on my way home from work or whatever.”
“But visiting doesn’t have anything to do with being Indian.”
“Well what are you? American.”
“No. I’m Mexican and Polish”
“You don’t live in Mexico or Poland. You speak broken Spanish to order tamales but so does my high school spanish teacher and she was Irish.”
“But my parents are from those countries. We do, like, traditions and stuff.”
“But you’re the melting pot.”
“So. Inside the pot is Mexico and Poland. You call your lunch ‘soup’, not ‘cooking pot’. It’s the contents not the container that matter.”
“But what do you do that makes you Mexican and Polish?”
“I breath…? Look, the fact that I’m half and half, the fact that I’m first generation, that’s important to me.You don’t think it was hard? I wasn’t Mexican enough for the latinas at school or Polish enough for my classmates that walked off the boat and into my neighborhood. I have this background, these cultures, that I was never enough for. I was just a voyeur into my history. But now I understand. I read books and asked relatives questions and stuff.”
“So now that you read those books and asked those questions, you are now officially Mexican and Polish. Like, you can proclaim it without shame”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because once I leave, I’m a relic or a ‘new man’ and I don’t want to be either.”
“And you want to be…”
“Whatever it is that I am now.”
“I get it. I envy you. You know how many times I am asked what I am? People think it’s funny to guess my race. And I guess it was. Sometimes it still is. But it just makes me realize that I am this woman just floating in between identities.”
“But you don’t have to identify with your race.” He orders another beer, grabs the edge of the bar, and rocks the stool on it’s back legs.
“Then why are you worried that you’ll stop being Indian if you move?”
“Because thats, like, my history.”
“And my race is my history too. I like to know where I’m from. Just as you being Indian tells people a little bit about you, my being half and half does the same.”
“I like being around it.”
“The reservation?”
“Just around the, I don’t know, Indian-ness of it all.”
“This place looks like a million mountain towns. It’s not like people walk around in headdresses.”
“Exactly. They are just ordinary. People are going to project those characters on me. What happens if I believe them?”
“Look, I’m not going to sit here and press it any more. I get it. You don’t want to move. That’s fine. But it’s not because you’re afraid you’ll lose all the Indian in you.”
“Then why?”
“I don’t know. Stop lying to yourself and figure it out.”
He stares at me in silence. I stare at his hands wringing the neck of the beer bottle.
“That’s really the reason.”
“Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I got up and he sat at the edge of the stool.
“I’m sorry you’re not surrounded by people like you. I mean, people that have the same background as you. I guess it’s nice sometimes.”
I give him a hug and walk to my car. The radio comes on and I turn it to the Spanish station. I pick up a word or two but I can’t follow the conversation. I’m not Mexican, I’m not Polish. I am nothing. My history is the highway through the rearview mirror: pale grass that covers the whole region, trees in perfect rows on a tree farm, the same yellow dandelions that sprout in the midwest, the southwest, and the plain old west.

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Two Hours and a Shower

He wears the same clothes and likes the same things as the other kids but he is still brown and they aren’t. He knows he smells like curry and they smell like Downy and they make sure to remind him often.

“Do you even take showers?” a girl asks.

He gets home from school, strips down, and goes into the shower. Before he turns the water on, he smears soap on his dry skin. It is thicker, less diluted, and, he hopes, more effective. He rubs it in, hoping his pores will breath in the ordinary scent of the generic soap. He turns on the hot water. It’s scalding. He lets out a wince and takes a belly full of hot steam

Once the soap gathers as suds around the mouth of the drain, he takes a washcloth, reaches out of the shower curtain for a large bottle of vinegar he found in the kitchen, and soaks the washcloth in it. He rubs his skin red. He smells like clean floors, gleaming counters, and a bit like pickles. He rinses, turns the shower knob to off, and right as he opens the curtain, he smells it. Curry. He throws on a towel to see if someone is cooking in the kitchen. They aren’t. It’s him.

He gets back in, turns the water to scalding, and covers the washcloth in soap. He scrubs his arms, rubbing the leathery cap off his elbow. He scrubs his legs so hard that the light coat of black fuzz lining his calfs gets carried away with the water. He scrubs behind his ears, in the small rolls of his sides, anywhere the scent could be hiding. He scrubs so hard that his skin starts to flake off. The water pooled around his feet has a faint brown tint.

It’s working.

He grins and scrubs harder. His skin is raw but he keeps scrubbing. He turns to scabs but he keeps scrubbing. All his skin gets caught in the water and rushes down the drain. He scrubs it all off: all of the skin and the scent and the brown and everything that could identify him as a boy with a past. Once the hot water runs cold, he turns the shower off.

He walks out as a shadow of himself. He is not different but he is not ordinary. He doesn’t stand out but he doesn’t fit in. He is just a shadow. You can no longer read a small history in the color of his skin or the worry lining his eyes because he has no color and no lines. He lingers around his classmates that no longer make fun of him because he is nothing. He blends into the walls and the sky and the earth and lives the rest of his days as a flat plain with rocky soil. He can harvest no history and produces nothing but monotony you drive past.