Thursday, December 18, 2014

MASKED MAN—novel excerpt

The first 20 pages of my (as yet unpublished) novel, MASKED MAN. Enjoy.

Crow circles over South Mountain, in Phoenix, early morning, cawing occasionally, flying lower and lower until it lands on the branch of a palo verde tree outside a ranch house in Ahwatukee, side-stepping until he can see through the window, at the old man laying on the black pleather couch in the middle of the room, asleep with an empty bottle of scotch on the floor. Long-sleeved green shirt untucked, fly on his Wranglers unzipped, and snakeskin cowboy boots.
On the wall behind the couch, with the door on one corner, hangs a college diploma, a doctorate in literature from Wayne State University. Also pictures: The man a little younger, but not too much, smiling, with a thin woman his age next to him, a bit tired looking, though also smiling, wearing a bandanna, because she has no hair.
More: The man and woman, at different points in their younger lives, with a young woman/girl with them, hugging them. The young woman in graduation robes and hat standing on the University of Arizona campus. The three them standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The man and woman looking like frazzled graduate student parents, the man with dark hair and a beard, the woman with long brown hair, holding their baby.
Shelves of books on the next wall: Russian and American anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Thoreau, Abbey, as well as novelists like Tolstoy, Cervantes, Hugo. One whole section filled with Louis L’amour and Zane Grey. A large screen tv against the third wall, with rows of DVDs on each side. The television on, sound down low, a woman on the screen. The bodies of two more young women were found buried in the desert on the mexican side of the border this weekend, yet more victims of drug-related violence that has been building for years in the city of Santa Teresa, in the state of Sonora.
Crow inches himself closer to the window, cawing again, the branch dipping down under his weight. He caws again, and lightly taps its beak against the glass. The old man inside moves slightly, putting his arm over his eyes. Crow tilts his head, waiting, then caws and again taps on the glass, harder this time.
The man snores once, loudly, jerks, and opens his eyes, looking around, not moving, then slowly closes his eyes again. A Taco Bell commercial. Head to the border!
Crow moves his head, looking at the man with its other eye, and caws again.
The man opens his eyes again, sighing. He sits up and rubs his face. Goddamn crow. Goddamn everything.
He looks out the window and sighs again. He stands up, accidentally knocking over the bottle. Looks at it. Leaves it. Walks around the couch to the pictures on the wall, looking at the newest one, the latest one. He kisses his pointing finger, then puts the finger against her mouth. Hello Jenny.
He leaves his Man Room, goes into the kitchen and starts a pot of coffee, leaning against the counter, staring out the window at the corral next to the house. The horses up and out and walking around. When the coffee is ready he pours a big cup, straight, and walks outside.
The air still cool. The old man holds the coffee cup in both hands walking out to the corral. The horses see him and trot over to the fence, lifting their heads. Morning Silver. Morning Sunshine. Morning Lady.
He strokes their snouts. Are we ready?
He goes into the barn and pours their oats. The horses come in and dip their heads in, munching while he runs some fresh water into their tank.

Back inside, he goes into the bathroom with a pair of scissors, looking at himself in the mirror as he trims his beard. With a razor, he shaves the rest off, splashing aftershave on and wincing.
He showers, puts on his Wranglers and boots, then a fresh, light-blue long-sleeve shirt that he buttons up all the way. In the bedroom, he finds his white hat and puts it on, looking at himself in the full-length mirror on the closet door.
He packs a travel bag with two extra shirts, some underwear, and toiletries. Back outside, he goes into the barn and saddles up Silver and Sunshine, with saddle-bags, and puts a packsaddle with bags on Lady, filled with oats. All three of the horses stand and wait patiently while he does this, excited. He ties a lead line between them and leads all three out into the driveway next to the house, tying Silver’s rein to the doorknob.
Back inside to get his travel bag. In the hallway he stops and looks down at the Navaho rug. You need a blanket Ed.
He stoops down and rolls up the rug, then takes it and his bag out, putting them on Silver.
For the next hour he goes in and out of the house, bringing food items, bread, almond butter, Grape-Nuts, raisins, some chocolate bars, coffee, along with a pan, a coffee pot, and some cups, all of which he tries to put in Sunshine’s bags, and if they don’t fit, he ties them on the outside with zipties and bungee cords.
When the horses’ bags are bulging, he tells them to hold on, and goes back inside, walking around the house, looking for something. He can’t find it. He stands in his study, looking around, thinking. He looks at his desk, goes over to it, and opens one of the side drawers, labeled “School Stuff.” Taking out a black marker and going back into the bathroom. Leaning in close to the mirror, he uncaps the marker and draws a large circle around each eye, up over his eyebrow and over the bridge of his nose, filling them in all black. He puts on his white hat. He smiles.
Leaving his keys on the kitchen counter, he goes outside, locking the door behind him. Untying the horses, he swings himself up into Silver’s saddle and sits, straight-backed, looking around one last time. With a soft flick of the reins, he says to his horse, Hi ho Silver, and heads south.

Gordon Lightfoot came out the front entrance of the Wildhorse Casino, rolling up his smock. His supervisor, Gus, right behind him. Hey college boy!
Gordon leaned up against one of the columns, searching with one hand in his jean jacket pockets.
Gus came up to him, pointing. No one talks to me that way, college boy.
You mean when I said stop talking to me like I’m an idiot?
I mean you disrespecting me.
Me disrespecting you? Gordon handed him his bunched up smock. You can find someone else to cook burgers.
Gus grabbed the smock. I can find anyone to cook burgers.
You can’t quit.
I just did.
You’ll never work on the Gila River Reservation again!
I think that’s ok.
Gus stared at him a second, then walked back inside. Gordon checked his pockets again and found a pack of cigarettes, American Spirit, and took one out and lit it. After he took his first drag, he looked out across the parking lot and saw a man with three horses riding towards the casino. They reached the parking lot and kept coming through the rows of cars, right up to the front step where Gordon was standing. The man said whoah softly and pulled on the reins, bringing all three horse to a stop. He looked at Gordon, pushing back his hat. Howdy.
Gordon did a double-take. What’d you do to your eyes?
Tonto, that’s my mask. You should know that.
Gordon took a last drag of his cigarette, and threw it to the ground, stepping on it. What did you call me?
That’s what I thought.
We’ve got a mission Tonto.
A what?
A mission. An adventure. A quest.
Man, are you fucking batshit crazy or what?
Two middle-aged white ladies walked past them, going in, looking at both of them, wide-eyed. Gordon heard one whisper to the other, Do they have wild west shows here? Gordon looked back through the doors and saw Gus inside, talking to two security guards. Shit.
Well Tonto, ready?
Let me get this straight. You want me to go with you? Where’re we going?
Mexico? Why?
To rescue a mexican señorita.
Because that’s what we do. We help people. We rescue them when they need rescuing. Like mexican señoritas. It’s our job. I need your Indian tracking skills.
Gordon shook his head. Oh shit. Look man, I never rode a horse in my life.
The man pulled out his wallet, which was bulging. I have wampum.
Gordon smiled, shrugging. Well why didn’t you say so?
He looked back at the casino doors, through which the two security guards were coming. He jumped up on Sunshine’s saddle and flipped them off, smiling. Adios muthafuckas!
The man flicked his reins, saying Hi ho Silver, and they started off through the parking lot.

They crossed the parking lot, south and a little west, out into the Reservation desert, until they were paralleling the freeway. Turkey buzzards circling overhead. Garbage scattered everywhere. Beer cans. Diapers. Somewhere up wind, a sewage treatment plant, its foul stench hitting them like a physical blow. They wrapped bandanas over their noses and mouths, but that did no good.
In the middle of tall scrub and palo verde trees, nearing an old deserted building, windows long smashed in and half the roof missing, they passed three big rectangular cement holes, with about a foot of green algae-filled water. Gordon almost jumped out of his saddle when something long and slimy, primordial, flopped in the deepest area. Jesus Christ what the fuck is that?!
They stopped the horses, covering their mouths in the crooks of their arms. In the murky water lay a huge mutant trout, the marks on its back like black eyes, or torture scars, or a prophecy thrown with ancient bones. The fish flopped its tail again, barely moving in what little water there was. What they looked more closely they saw two other fish just as large, barely moving their fins.
Gordon looked at the building. What is this place?
Ed McCarthy looked around. Trout farm?
A trout farm? In the middle of the desert? How? Why?
McCarthy shrugged.
Gordon shook his head. Fucking Indians. Only they would do something like that.
The first fish flopped again, like a death throe, but they saw that it was actually raising itself to catch one of the bugs, flies, mosquitoes, that had begun to buzz them and the horses, going straight for their eyes.
Come on, Tonto, let’s get out of here. Nothing but ghosts.
They passed some BIA houses, ten of them out in the middle of nowhere, all the same, faux-adobe squares, scrunched together on a few acres of land when there were acres of desert all around. Some children were playing outside one of the house and waved to them. They waved back.
They took a dirt road south from the BIA houses and got to a brand new complex of buildings, though no one seemed to be around. The sign out front at the paved road/highway proclaimed it an alcohol rehab center.
They looked up and down the road. Nothing to the west, though to the east in the distance they could see buildings and the sun shining cars on I-10. They nudged the horses across the pavement and into more garbage-strewn desert.
They rode until evening, then stopped in an old sandy wash. Ed took off his hat, wiping his brow on his sleeve, slightly smearing the marker, which had already been running down his cheeks like black tears. We’ll stop here and camp for the night.
Gordon looked around. Here?
We’re not going to get a hotel or anything?
Not even a motel?
Now Tonto, if you want to collect some wood, I’ll take care of the horses and then get out some food for us.
Ok boss.
There wasn’t much wood to get in a desert, but Gordon found some old palo verde branches and a dried out saguaro trunk. He dragged them back and piled on other smaller branches and some grass into a pile. Taking out a notebook from his inside jacket pocket, he tore off a page and stuck it in the bottom of the pile, lighting it with his lighter. The grass took, and soon flames spread to the branches. He stared at the flames for a while, then looked up at the sky. The stars had started to come out, bright and clear away from the city, though he could still see car lights from the freeway way off in the distance.
Ed put the coffee pot on the edge of the fire, and threw some beans in the frying pan. When they were warm, he poured half in a bowl and handed it to Gordon, along with some bread and cheese.
I didn’t know you spoke Spanish, Tonto.
A little. Couple years in college. For example, did you know that tonto means stupid?
I didn’t know that, Tonto. We’ll need your Spanish-speaking skills when we get down to Mexico. When we rescue María.
The mexican señorita?
Do you actually know this mexican señorita?
Not actually, Tonto, but I’ve heard she’s in trouble. Mexican banditos.
Or maybe the federales. But probably banditos. Hard to tell nowadays.
Well, that’s probably true. Do you know where to find her?
That’s where your Indian tracking skills come in, Tonto.
They ate refried beans on tortillas, with slices of cheese, washed down with water, sitting over the fire, which had dwindled to some embers under the coffee pot. After he had washed out the pan with a little water, Ed McCarthy continued to throw small twigs and branches on, as they sipped coffee.
Gordon spat. Damn Ed, you could’ve brought some instant. These grounds are killing me.
That’s cowboy coffee, Tonto.
It’s like rock coffee. If rocks could float, which they can’t, so never mind.
Adding the cold water is supposed to make the grinds sink to the bottom.
Supposed to, huh?
Ed McCarthy shrugged. The life of a cowboy is rough.
Gordon spat out another ground. For an Indian too.
So Tonto, tell me about yourself. You’re always so stoic, never saying.
Gordon stared at him. Are you serious?
Your help is always appreciated, but we’ve ridden so long together I feel we should finally unburden ourselves.
As he said this, Ed McCarthy was staring into the glowing coals. Gordon took another sip of coffee and ate another piece of 82% cacao chocolate. Well, Ed, my father’s Apache, but my mother’s actually Crow. She and my dad met at a powwow up in Boseman, and she just came back down to Arizona, to Globe, with him and they got married. My dad was a firefighter for the BIA for a long time, he was already in his thirties when they had me. My mom, she was like eighteen. Bad mix. Also, they both drank. My dad not so much, but my mom, a little too much. She didn’t work cause she had me, and my dad was always gone on fires, so there she was stuck on a new reservation and basically stuck in the house taking care of me, so she did a lot of drinking. My dad would come back from being out of state on fires somewhere and sometimes just find me by myself in my crib. My mom would be down at the bar. I don’t remember any of this, you know. Anyway, this went on, I was oh, two or so, and then one time my dad came back home and she wasn’t there and she never came back.
They stared at the fire.
So I got raised by my dad when he was home, but mostly by my aunt, his sister. She already had five kids of her own, so she didn’t really mind. I guess.
Did you ever see your mother again?
Oh yeah. Later. Like when I was ten she got back in touch with me. She married this white guy up there. An oil driller, but like the owner of a company. Big christian. So he kind of cleaned her up. Or she cleaned herself up. Didn’t want to lose out on that money. She called, asked me if I wanted to come live with her. But I said no. I didn’t even know who she was. Like, who was this strange woman talking to me on the phone? She tried talking to my dad about it, but he wasn’t having any of it. And, she didn’t push it. Probably could’ve made me go up there if she really wanted. But she didn’t. I think she was just doing her christian duty, though I don’t think she ever really cared about all that. Later when I was a teenager I did go up and visit. Wanted to check it out, you know. Her husband, Jack, was a real winner. Nice house. Nice church. She never said nothing when he was around. Fucker tried to make me go to church when I was there. Like, any person under my roof goes to church, but I was like, no way. His face got beet red, you know the way palefaces get when they’re angry, which is all the time.
Later that night I heard them fighting in the kitchen. About me. Like, arguing, but then fighting. I was upstairs in the guest room and I heard him hit her and I was down there like a jackrabbit. She was sitting on the floor crying, holding her face, and he was standing over her and I didn’t even slow down, I just walked right up and hit him right in the nose. Knocked right to the ground. I think all three of us were surprised. I didn’t know what else to say, so I said something like, Don’t hit my mother or I’ll kill you! He just stared at me, then got up and went upstairs. Big guy too. I was just a scrawny Indian kid.
And what’d I get? My mother told me, You can’t stay here. You have to leave now. So I packed my stuff. Right before I left, she handed me an envelope with a thousand dollars in it. I don’t know how she got it, if she just stole it or had been saving it. But she told me, Gordon, you have to get off the Rez. You have to make money. This is what happens to us because we don’t have any money. I’ll always remember that. So I took the money and left. I didn’t know whether to say thank you or what.
You never saw her again?
No. Thing is, she stayed with the motherfucker. But, she had my address, and sometimes she would send me money. When I got in high school, every letter had some money, a check, and a short note, saying she was ok and that she hoped I was ok and that I needed to keep my grades up and get into college. Get off the Rez. Get off the Rez. And, she was right. I don’t know how she was right, since she was so fucked up, but there it is.
You should see her again.
And say what?
Just, hello.
Yeah, well. Gordon poured himself some more coffee. This isn’t decaf, I can tell. I’m gonna be up all night.
So how did you get off the Rez?
Well, somewhere, I started to like reading. Didn’t get it from my dad. Didn’t get it from my mom. And not from my aunt Mabel either, but her kids, my cousins, they were in school and bringing home their books, and as soon as I learned to read I was always poking around in them. Plus at school all the poor old white women who taught us were just so grateful that some of us ignorant Indians had any interest in reading they’d start giving us books every day. I didn’t fit in anyways, since I was the runt of the family I was already being picked on at home, by the time I got to school, being picked on was second nature. It was just the way it was. Books were just a way to escape, get away. Better to go to the library for lunch than hang around the cafeteria and get picked on. And the teachers and librarians let me, and some others. Like I said, old white ladies love Indians. Or at least the ones who want to read books about white people.
My daughter’s a schoolmarm too.
A what?
A schoolmarm.
Jesus Ed, I forgot, you’re crazy. Anyway, I shouldn’t make fun of those women. They saved my Indian ass. By junior high I moved back into my dad’s house and basically lived by myself, since he was gone a lot. I shouldn’t say that. In the winter he was around, and he took me hunting. Sometimes we’d just drive, go on all the old two tracks, listening to the radio if we could get something way out there. Fishing. He knew some good fishing spots too. So, suddenly I wasn’t an Indian nerd. I wasn’t overweight, didn’t have glasses. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there were plenty of other kids who were eating Coco Krispies every meal and just watching tv and getting beat and fucked by their fathers. Prime victims. Whereas I had actual real Indian skills like fishing and shooting guns. Kids stopped picking on me.
I never forgot what my mom told me. Whatever else she did, she was right. I looked around at the Rez and just saw that we couldn’t win. My dad was one of the lucky ones, with an actual real job, but firefighting doesn’t pay that much unless you’re on fires, unless you’re working overtime, unless you’re gone a lot. But those kinds of jobs are the ones all the guys want. Any other BIA jobs are just hard to get, and people who work them tend to get their family in on them. Other than that, nothing. So, you stay and have no work and are poor, or you leave the Rez and are just a little bit more than poor, but nobody ever does. Families don’t want their kids to leave. They say they don’t want us to lose our culture, our heritage, so we stay and end up like our parents, poor, overweight, living in shitty houses in shitty cities, like Globe.
Did your father want you to stay?
You know, I think maybe they only thing my parents had in common was to get me to college. Once I was sixteen, he got me into firefighting, on the BIA handcrews, during the summer, and sometimes even during school, for the money, but even if he wasn’t home a lot, he did always ask about my grades. I think his plan was for me to go off to college, but then come back.
Is that what you’re going to do?
Does it look like it?
Something happened.
I got up with the fire bug. Instead of heading to college right after high school, I just fought fires. Good money, lots of travel. Kept me in shape. I could drink all the beer I wanted and never get a gut. I started to be gone more than my dad. We hardly saw each other for two years.
I know why you stopped fighting fires.
Yeah? Why?
I saw that notebook you were scribbling in.
Gordon grinned. Ed, you guessed my secret! The reason those white ladies loved me so much in school was because I wasn’t just reading, I was writing.
Tonto, you are a poet.
He nodded. Yep, and after two years of fighting fires, I realized I hadn’t written anything, and hadn’t read much either. I could see that I was going to end up exactly like my dad. Which to most people, that’s not a bad thing. Most guys on the Rez would kill for my job.
You quit.
Yep. Cold turkey. Went back to my white lady angels from school and they helped me get my application for Mesa Community College together and then I left.
That’s where my daughter’s a schoolmarm.
Yeah? Small world. I didn’t even say goodbye to my dad, he was up in Idaho with his engine. With the fire money I had from that summer I headed to Phoenix and fell into the Indian curse.
The Indian curse?
Away from the Rez, surrounded by white folks. I started to understand why no one ever left. Every fucking day somebody calling me Chief, asking me where my bow and arrows were. Trying to go to classes, filled with white people, and work at a Safeway filled with white people. It’s hard bagging groceries knowing you could be on a fire out in the Chiracawas, getting paid three times what Safeway pays, and at least getting respected. Or at least just, you know, walking around on a mountain with a pulaski in my hand watching trees torch a hundred feet in the air. So, I did what any self-respecting Indian would do: I started drinking.
That’s the Indian Curse?
The whole thing’s the Indian Curse. The drinking’s just the final manifestation of it. Or, no, the final manifestation is waking up under a bush out back of my apartment complex.
Did you drop out of school?
Gordon smiled. Not at first. I made it to year two, and I never would’ve done it without another white woman helping me. She was my composition teacher my first semester and then my second. She didn’t give up on me, even when I would vanish for a week because I was drunk. I barely passed most of the other classes, and she did some talking to some of the other instructors too. I’m telling you, she went out of her way. I don’t know why. No, I know why. She liked my writing. She said I was a good writer. So I took her second writing class, and then the next year I took a creative writing class she taught. After that I didn’t have any more writing classes and things went downhill.  As long as I had writing classes, I could keep my GPA up. That, plus I did ok in the two lit classes I had, and ok in Spanish too. The rest? Math? Science? Not so good. Meanwhile I kept losing jobs. They’re not so understanding about vanishing for a week. My fire money ran out. I couldn’t get work. I just could not take going to another white guy and asking him for a job bagging groceries. I just couldn’t.
What was this teacher’s name?
Ms. McCormick. Hot too. And young, sort of.
Tonto, that’s my daughter you’re talking about.
Ed, are you serious? I’m sorry I said she’s hot.
It’s alright. Why didn’t you ask her for help?
Gordon hesitated. Well, she was always busy. I mean, she wasn’t my teacher anymore. I guess I was just ashamed.
He dumped the grounds at the bottom of his cup into the fire. I just didn’t want her to know how bad it was. How bad I was. I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Ok, go on.
Go on? I haven’t talked this much in my whole life! Nothing else to say. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t work in another fucking Safeway, so I went down to the Wildhorse Casino. I went to another Rez, just so I wouldn’t feel like a freak. Just so I could be around some more brownfaces. And you saw how that worked out. Not all brownfaces treat other brownfaces from other tribes very well. Plus, I’m an asshole.
Tonto, you’re a poet.
I’m an asshole poet.
But a poet nonetheless.
Ed McCarthy stood up, tossing the dregs of his coffee on the fire. Well Tonto, we have a long day tomorrow.
Ed, can we maybe stop at a WalMart or something tomorrow? Get some water? Or a Coke?
If you can use your tracking skills to get us to a trading post, Tonto, I’d be much obliged.
Ok Ed. Well, I’m going to turn in. You got a sleeping bag for me?
I’ve got this Navaho blanket for you.
You know Ed, nobody actually uses those anymore. Not even the Navahos. Look, this one was made in China.
The Navahos make great scouts, Tonto.
What’s that got to do with anything?
Ed McCarthy didn’t reply. Gordon stood up. Hey Ed?
Yes Tonto?
Did you pack any toilet paper?
Cowboys don’t use toilet paper Tonto.
They don’t? What do they use?
Leaves. Rocks.
River rocks work well because they’re smooth.
Ed, we’re in a desert.
Goodnight Tonto.
Ed lay down on his rug and wrapped himself up. Gordon stood looking at him for a second, then got out his notebook, tearing out a couple sheets. For once, his poetry notebook would be good for something.

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