Read an Excerpt
By Sherman Alexie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Sherman Alexie
All rights reserved.
CALL ME ZITS.
Everybody calls me Zits.
That's not my real name, of course. My real name isn't important.
This morning, I wake in a room I do not recognize. I often wake in strange rooms. It's what I do. The alarm clock beeps at me. I know I didn't set that thing. I always set alarm clocks to play wake-up music. Something good like the White Stripes or PJ Harvey or Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Kanye West. Something to start your brain, cook your guts, and get you angry and horny at the same time. Sometimes I wake to my mother's favorite music, like Marvin Gaye or Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Yes, there used to be a band called Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Isn't that the most amazing name for a rock band you ever heard? When it comes right down to it, everything in the world is about blood, sweat, and tears. So that name is perfect. No, it's almost perfect. The perfect name would be Blood, Sweat, Tears & Come, but I wonder if people would buy a CD by a band named so graphically.
All of the guys in Blood, Sweat & Tears had long stringy hair and greasy beards and bloodshot eyes. They were ugly. Back in the seventies, all of the rocks stars were ugly. And they were great musicians. Do ugly guys compensate for their ugliness by becoming great guitar players? Or do certain guitars choose their homely players like Excalibur chose Lancelot? I wish I lived back in the seventies. As ugly as I am, I might have been the biggest rock star in the world.
I love Blood, Sweat & Tears because they're ugly and because they rock hard. And because they were my mother's favorite rock band. Her favorite song was the one called "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know."
She used to sing that to me when I was a baby. I remember her singing it to me. I know I'm not supposed to remember it. But I do.
My memory is strange that way. I often remember people I've never met and events and places I've never seen.
I don't think I'm some mystical bastard. I just think I pay attention to the details.
I remember my mother and father slow-dancing to that Blood, Sweat & Tears song. I remember how my father whisper-sang "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" to my mother. I remember how they conceived me that night. Okay, I don't exactly remember it. I can't see my mother and father naked in bed, but I can feel a lightning ball rebound off my soul whenever I think about it.
I figure my father's sperm and my mother's egg were equal parts electricity and water.
So, yes, I was created because of that bloody, sweaty, tearful, and sex-soaked song. And so my mother always sang it to me to celebrate my creation.
My mother loved me more than any of you will ever know.
But I don't like to think about my mother or father. Especially this early in the morning. And my alarm clock isn't playing Blood, Sweat & Tears or any other kind of music, so I punch it quiet, get out of bed, walk into the strange pink bathroom, and pee for three minutes.
I keep trying to figure out where I am, and then I remember: This is my new foster home.
I can hear my new foster family bumping around in the other rooms. I don't care about them. There are more important things to think about, so I look in the mirror and count the zits on my face.
One, two, three, four, all the way up to forty-seven.
Fourteen zits on my forehead. Twenty-one on my left cheek. Six on my right cheek. Five on my chin. A huge North Star zit shines brightly on the end of my nose.
I can't even count the Milky Way on my back. There are billions and billions of those pimple-stars. I bet I could sell the rights to name each of them. Maybe I'll stand at a freeway exit and shout at all of those lonely commuters: "Back zits for sale! Back zits for sale! Yes, you can purchase the rights to name one of my back pimples! Give it as a birthday gift! Buy one for your Valentine! Name one after your clear-skinned and beautiful teenage daughter to remind her how lucky she is!"
The skin doctor tells me I have six months to live. I'm exaggerating. I don't have a skin doctor and you can't actually die of zits. But you can die of shame. And, trust me, my zit-shame is killing me.
I'm dying from about ninety-nine kinds of shame.
I'm ashamed of being fifteen years old. And being tall. And skinny. And ugly.
I'm ashamed that I look like a bag of zits tied to a broomstick.
I wonder if loneliness causes acne. I wonder if being Indian causes acne.
My father was an Indian. From this or that tribe. From this or that reservation. I never knew him, but I have a photograph of his acne-blasted face. I've inherited his ruined complexion and black hair and big Indian nose.
My father was a drunk, too, more in love with beer and vodka than with my mother and me.
He vanished like a cruel magician about two minutes after I was born.
My mother died of breast cancer when I was six. I remember a few things about her. Her voice, her red hair, and the way she raised one eyebrow when she laughed. I sometimes wish she'd died when I was younger so I wouldn't remember her at all.
I remember her green eyes.
She was a white woman. Irish, I guess. I have a photograph of her, too, and she is gorgeous. My eyes are green, like hers, but I'm not pretty. I wish I looked more like her.
Yes, I am Irish and Indian, which would be the coolest blend in the world if my parents were around to teach me how to be Irish and Indian. But they're not here and haven't been for years, so I'm not really Irish or Indian. I'm a blank sky, a human solar eclipse.
A social worker, a woman who wore blue eyeglasses with a green stripe and perfect black pants, once told me that I had never developed a sense of citizenship.
"It's all in the small ceremonies," she said. "For instance, do you know how to knot a necktie?"
"No," I said.
"Do you know how to shine a pair of shoes?"
"No," I said.
"When you walk around this city, how many men do you see wearing neckties and shiny shoes?"
"A lot, I guess."
"Hundreds of men, right?"
"Thousands in Seattle, thousands in other cities, hundreds of thousands in the country."
"So what do you think it means for you?"
She stared at me with sympathy. I hate sympathy.
"This is bullshit," I said.
"What is bullshit?" she said.
I laughed at her. I hate it when social workers curse to prove how connected they are to youth and street culture.
"You're a fucking dreamer," I said to her. "What do you think this is, the nineteen-fifties or something? Do you really think I'd become some kind of asshole citizen if I wore a tie and shiny shoes?"
"It would help," she said.
She leaned close to me. She smelled like cigarettes and cinnamon gum.
"Here's the thing," she said. "You've never learned how to be a fully realized human being."
Jesus, what kind of overeducated bitch says that to a kid?
She made me sound like I was raised by wolves when, in fact, I haven't been raised by anybody.
No, that's not true.
I've been partially raised by too many people.
I've lived in twenty different foster homes and attended twenty-two different schools. I own only two pairs of pants and three shirts and four pairs of underwear and one baseball hat and three pairs of socks and three paperback novels (Grapes of Wrath, Winter in the Blood, and The Dead Zone) and the photographs of my mother and father.
My entire life fits into one small backpack.
I don't know any other Native Americans, except the homeless Indians who wander around downtown Seattle. I like to run away from my foster homes and get drunk with those street Indians. Yeah, I'm a drunk, just like my father. I'm a good drunk, too. Gifted, you might say. I can outdrink any of those homeless Indians and remain on my feet and still tell my stories. Those street Indians enjoy my company. I'm good at begging. I make good coin and buy whiskey and beer for all of us to drink.
Of course, those wandering Indians are not the only Indians in the world, but they're the only ones who pay attention to me.
The rich and educated Indians don't give a shit about me. They pretend I don't exist. They say, The drunken Indian is just a racist cartoon. They say, The lonely Indian is just a ghost in a ghost story.
I wish I could learn how to hate those rich Indians. I wish I could ignore them. But I want them to pay attention to me. I want everybody to pay attention to me.
So I shoplift candy and food and magazines and cigarettes and books and CDs and anything that can fit in my pockets. The police always catch me and put me in juvenile jail.
I get into arguments and fistfights with everybody.
I get so angry that I go blind and deaf and mute.
I like to start fires. And I'm ashamed that I'm a fire starter.
I'm ashamed of everything, and I'm ashamed of being ashamed.
This morning, as I count my zits in the mirror, I'm ashamed that I can't remember the names of my new foster mother and father.
I've only been living here in this strange house, with its strange pink bathroom, for two days.
I can't remember the names of my new foster parents' two real kids, either, or the names of the other five foster kids.
When it comes to foster parents, there are only two kinds: the good but messy people who are trying to help kids or the absolute welfare vultures who like to cash government checks every month.
It's easy to tell what kind of people my latest foster parents are. Their real kids have new shoes; the foster kids are wearing crap shoes.
But who cares, right? It's not like I'm going to be here much longer. I'm never in any one place long enough to care.
There's this law called the Indian Child Welfare Act that's supposed to protect half-breed orphans like me. I'm only supposed to be placed with Indian foster parents and families. But I'm not an official Indian. My Indian daddy gave me his looks, but he was never legally established as my father.
Since I'm not a legal Indian, the government can put me wherever they want. So they put me with anybody who will take me. Mostly they're white people. I suppose that makes sense. I am half white. And it's not like any of this makes any difference. I've had two Indian foster fathers, and they were bigger jerks than any of my eighteen white foster fathers.
Of course, I assumed those Indian men would automatically be better fathers to me than any white guy, but I was wrong.
I had this one Indian foster daddy, Edgar, who was great at the beginning. He was a jock, a muscular machine. He took me to Seahawks games. We played touch football and oneon-one hoops in the park. He bought me books.
One time, he gave me this amazing remote control airplane, an F-15 fighter jet. I loved that thing. It was the most amazing gift I'd ever received. It must have cost three hundred dollars. Edgar bought one for himself, too, and we drove out to this remote airplane field in the Cascade Mountain foothills.
"I've been racing planes for years," Edgar said. "So don't take it too hard if you lose, okay?"
"Okay," I said, but I didn't plan on losing.
We piloted our planes around this circular course marked by flags and landed them on a grassy runway.
I beat him three races in a row.
"Wow," he said. "Beginner's luck is something else, huh?"
"I guess," I said.
I could tell he was getting mad. And if I were a smarter kid or a diplomat, I would have let him win the next race. But I couldn't do that. Who wants to lose?
"There must be something wrong with my plane," Edgar said.
"You want to switch?" I said.
So we switched planes and I beat him two more times, landing my plane in the grass more quickly and smoothly than he ever would.
"There's something wrong with this plane, too," Edgar said.
"Yeah, the pilot," I said.
Edgar took my remote control out of my hands, taxied my plane down the runway, lifted it into the air, and flew it full speed into a tree.
I ran over to the plane, picked it up, and stared at the damage. One wing was broken; the rudder was bent; the miniature pilot was missing his head. I was scared and sad. But I couldn't show it. I'd always been punished for showing emotion. It's best to stay as remote as those airplanes.
"What do you think of that?" Edgar asked, and lip-pointed at the wreck in my hands.
"This is your plane," I said.
Yes, Edgar had forgotten we'd switched planes. But I suppose it didn't matter because he flew the other plane into a tree, too.
He didn't yell or cuss or get all crazy. Edgar calmly destroyed six hundred dollars' worth of model airplane.
If we'd had twenty airplanes, Edgar would have crashed all of them, too.
So who cares if Edgar was an Indian or not? His Indian identity was completely secondary to his primary identity as a plane-crashing asshole.
Yes, that's my life, a series of cruel bastards and airplane crashes. Twenty little airplane crashes. I am a flaming jet, crashing into each new foster family.
And here I am, for the twenty-first time, crashing into a strange pink bathroom in a strange house in a strange world, and all I can do is count my zits. How lame. The only positive thing I can do is change their name. Maybe I'll start calling them spots, like the British do. That almost makes zits sound harmless, doesn't it?
I can hear my new foster family. I don't want to see them. I wish I could stay in this room forever. I wish I had a television in my bedroom. I've never met any person who is as interesting as a good TV show.
I never understood the people who think that TV is bad for you. I guess they've never seen the Discovery Channel. You can learn science, history, geography, and politics from TV. If you want to find some faith in human beings, just watch one episode of Storm Stories on the Weather Channel, and you'll see heroic people risk their lives to save strangers.
I don't understand human beings. I don't understand the people who risk their lives to save strangers. I wish I knew people like that.
Everything I know about Indians (and I could easily beat 99 percent of the world in a Native American version of Trivial Pursuit) I've learned from television.
I know about famous chiefs, broken treaties, the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Indian wars of the nineteenth century.
I know all this stuff because it makes me feel more like a real Indian. Maybe I can't live like an Indian, but I can learn how real Indians used to live and how they're supposed to live now.
Jesus, I'm pathetic. I make it sound like I'm just a television addict. But I'm also addicted to books. And I know there has never been a human being or a television show, no matter how great, that could measure up to a great book.
But there are no books in this bathroom or in my bedroom, and I've already read the books in my backpack a hundred times each. So I'm living a new life without new books.
I bet you a million dollars there are less than five books in this whole house. What kind of life can you have in a house without books?
I give up counting my spots, walk into the kitchen, and look at a room full of strangers.
"Good morning," the foster mother says. "Do you want a bowl of cornflakes?"
She's a short fat woman. If this were a fairy tale, she'd be the evil stepmother who eats children. This isn't a fairy tale, so she's just a loser who gorges on food like alcoholics drink booze.
The foster father grunts from behind his newspaper. Foster fathers like to grunt and read newspapers. If I had to describe this guy to a police sketch artist, I'd say he looks like the sports section with a bad haircut.
"Excuse me," the foster mother says to me. "I said good morning."
I don't say anything.
"Hey, young man," the foster mother says. "We have rules around here. And rule number one is be nice."
"Whatever," I say.
The foster father puts down his paper and stares at me like I was a news story about a killer tsunami. He's got one eyebrow and a thick forehead like a caveman.
He's eating cereal flakes, but his breath smells like beer and onions.
"Good morning," he says.
"Whatever," I say again.
The other kids, the real and the fake ones, all stare at me. It's a riot of cold blue eyes. Those kids know what I'm doing. Some of them already hate me for being a jerk. The rest of them are bored. They've seen it all before.
"Good morning," the foster father says again.
He's challenging me. He thinks he's stronger than I am. He's bigger and taller and older, sure, and has a million more muscles than I do, but I am stronger. I am stronger than all of my fathers.
Excerpted from Flight by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 2007 Sherman Alexie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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