Part 2 of a sporadic saga. Part 3 is here
I had been driving most of the day, I had seen nothing but grass and antelope for the last four hours, and I was starting to think that maybe the highway folks really were serious when they put up that sign that read “Caution: Road Not Maintained.” Apparently it was never patrolled either. I looked at the gas gauge and decided I would start worrying when the engine died and not before.
I had reached the crest of another gently sloping hill when I saw the sunshine flash off something away in the distance. More detail came into view as my battered car came closer. I slowed down and pulled over.
The flashing had come from the windshield of a sleek looking, late model Chevy van parked neatly at the side of the road. A white canvas awning stretched from the side of it, supported by two aluminum poles. Underneath the awning a large, well-worn Nez Perce blanket was splashed on the ground. On this blanket sat a pile of trading post blankets and a collapsible director’s chair. In the chair sat the man who was to teach me much about myself, although I didn’t know it at the time.
He may have been fifty, he may have been a hundred and fifty. He watched me get out of my car and come towards him. The expression on his face hinted at amusement, but it may have been arrogance. It was a look that said “I know something about you that you will never understand about yourself.”
I walked up until I stood in the shade of the awning.
“Hello.” he said. “How did you find me?”
It seemed an odd thing for him to say to a stranger, but I grinned and looked around.
“It wasn’t hard. You’re the only thing that isn’t either grass or sky.”
He laughed at that. “Yep. We sure have a lot of that in Dakota.”
“Dakota? I thought I was in Montana.”
He squinted up at me. “Montana? You’re even more confused than that bastard Columbus was.”
It was my turn to laugh. “Well, it was Montana when I started out this morning.” I squatted on my heels and rummaged through the pile of blankets, looking for particular colors. “Do you sell many of these? I don’t imagine you get many customers way out here.”
“You’re the first I’ve seen all week.”
He must have sensed my amusement. He shrugged his shoulders as he looked around at the vast expanse of nothing, the empty road that shimmered off into the distance. He turned back to me and waved a hand at the pile of blankets.
“This is just an excuse to get away from my wife every once in a while.”
Not knowing whether he was serious or not, I started rummaging through the blankets again. Just before the silence became awkward, he laughed.
“Do you speak Lakota?”
“No. I know a handful of words.”
“Do you know what tatezi means?”
“I think so.”
“That’s what I call my wife sometimes. If you ever get her angry you will you know why. But when you meet her, you must call her Mary.” He reached into a cooler at his feet and pulled out two bottles of water. He handed one to me and opened the other for himself.
“As soon as you get all this stuff loaded in the van, we will go to my home and you will meet her. We will eat when we get there.” He took a long drink from his bottle.
“She makes good fry bread.”
Mary was exactly the opposite of what I had been led to expect. She was a tiny, thin woman with a high forehead and laugh lines that seemed to reach her ears. Her eyes and hair were both lighter than usual. Her only concessions to vanity were her intricate earrings and her quick laugh. She was beautiful when she laughed.
We were sitting at her kitchen table the morning after her husband had brought me home for dinner. Mary had allowed me to make the coffee. Her husband was out feeding the horses. To this day I don’t know why they asked me to stay the night, or why I accepted.
“My husband says he found you on the prairie. He says you were wandering like a lost kitten.”
“He said that?”
“He told me you are not running from anything and you are not looking for anything.” She looked at me, her face crinkled with silent laughter. I noticed that her brown eyes were heavily flecked with gold. “He also said you didn’t come here to learn how to be an Indian.” She laughed out loud. “We get a lot of those.”
“Yeah? He learned all that from our dinnertime conversation last night?”
“No, he knew it before that, or he never would have brought you here for dinner.” She poured herself more coffee. She was still chuckling. “He is a wonderful liar sometimes, but in these things he is never wrong.”
She picked up her coffee cup and said, almost as afterthought, “You have metal in your foot.”
This made the back of my neck creep, because it was true. I have two stainless steel screws in my left ankle, souvenirs of a motorcycle wreck in my twenty-fifth year.
“How do you know that?”
“How does anyone know anything?” she answered. She was smiling, but I still felt twitchy. I tried not to let my mind get too involved with the implications.
“You’re taking it much too seriously,” she said.
“How can I not?” I said. “It is kind of ……not everybody can do that.”
“Yes they can. Everybody is born with it. They just have to learn to pay attention.”
She stood up, slowly, and took her coffee cup to the sink. Her movements, despite her age, were graceful. She had probably been pretty fifty years ago, the type of pretty that eases into true beauty over the years.
“I have much to do. You may stay or leave, as you please. If you are still here tomorrow, my husband will take you to Pine Ridge and show you what you want to see.”
She started to rinse her cup. Without turning around, she spoke.
“Yes, I was very beautiful fifty years ago. Silly men like yourself were always falling in love with me.”
Even though her back was turned, I knew she was smiling.
I knew that because I was learning to pay attention.