By Sherman Alexie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1996 Sherman Alexie
All rights reserved.
THE SHEETS ARE DIRTY. An Indian Health Service hospital in the late sixties. On this reservation or that reservation. Any reservation, a particular reservation. Antiseptic, cinnamon, and danker odors. Anonymous cries up and down the hallways. Linoleum floors swabbed with gray water. Mop smelling like old sex. Walls painted white a decade earlier, now yellowed and peeling. Old Indian woman in a wheelchair singing traditional songs to herself, tapping a rhythm on her armrest, right index finger tapping, tapping. Pause. Tap, tap. A phone ringing loudly from behind a thin door marked PRIVATE. Twenty beds available, twenty beds occupied. Waiting room where a young Indian man sits on a couch and holds his head in his hands. Nurses' lounge, two doctor's offices, and a scorched coffee pot. Old Indian man, his hair bright white and unbraided, pushing his I.V. bottle down the hallway. He is barefoot and confused, searching for a pair of moccasins he lost when he was twelve years old. Donated newspapers and magazines stacked in bundles, months and years out of date, missing pages. In one of the examining rooms, an Indian family of four, mother, father, son, daughter, all coughing blood quietly into handkerchiefs. The phone still ringing behind the PRIVATE door. A cinderblock building, thick windows that distort the view, pine trees, flagpole. A 1957 Chevy parked haphazardly, back door flung open, engine still running, back seat damp and bloodstained. Empty now.
The Indian woman on the table in the delivery room is very young, just a child herself. She is beautiful, even in the pain of labor, the contractions, the sudden tearing. When John imagines his birth, his mother is sometimes Navajo. Other times she is Lakota. Often, she is from the same tribe as the last Indian woman he has seen on television. Her legs tied in stirrups. Loose knots threatening to unravel. The white doctor has his hands inside her. Blood everywhere. The nurses work at mysterious machines. John's mother is tearing her vocal cords with the force of her screams. Years later, she still speaks in painful whispers. But during his birth, she is so young, barely into her teens, and the sheets are dirty.
The white doctor is twenty-nine years old. He has grown up in Iowa or Illinois, never seeing an Indian in person until he arrives at the reservation. His parents are poor. Having taken a government scholarship to make his way through medical school, he now has to practice medicine on the reservation in exchange for the money. This is the third baby he has delivered here. One white, two Indians. All of the children are beautiful.
John's mother is Navajo or Lakota. She is Apache or Seminole. She is Yakama or Spokane. Her dark skin contrasts sharply with the white sheets, although they are dirty. She pushes when she should be pushing. She stops pushing when they tell her to stop. With clever hands, the doctor turns John's head to the correct position. He is a good doctor.
The doctor has fallen in love with Indians. He thinks them impossibly funny and irreverent. During the hospital staff meetings, all of the Indians sit together and whisper behind their hands. There are no Indian doctors, but a few of the nurses and most of the administrative staff are Indian. The white doctor often wishes he could sit with the Indians and whisper behind his hand. But he maintains a personable and professional distance. He misses his parents, who still live in Iowa or Illinois. He calls them often, sends postcards of beautiful, generic landscapes.
The doctor's hands are deep inside John's mother, who is only fourteen, and who is bleeding profusely where they have cut her to make room for John's head. But the sheets were dirty before the blood, and her vagina will heal. She is screaming in pain. The doctor could not give her painkillers because she had arrived at the hospital too far into labor. The Chevy is still running outside, rear door flung open, back seat red and damp. The driver is in the waiting room. He holds his head in his hands.
Are you the father?
No, I'm the driver. She was walking here when I picked her up. She was hitchhiking. I'm just her cousin. I'm just the driver.
The phone behind the PRIVATE door is still ringing. His mother pushes one last time and John slides into the good doctor's hands. Afterbirth. The doctor clears John's mouth. John inhales deeply, exhales, cries. The old Indian woman in the wheelchair stops singing. She hears a baby crying. She stops her tapping to listen. She forgets why she is listening, then returns to her own song and the tapping, tapping. Pause. Tap, tap. The doctor cuts the umbilical cord quickly. There is no time to waste. A nurse cleans John, washes away the blood, the remains of the placenta, the evidence. His mother is crying.
I want my baby. Give me my baby. I want to see my baby. Let me hold my baby.
The doctor tries to comfort John's mother. The nurse swaddles John in blankets and takes him from the delivery room, past the old Indian man dragging his I.V. down the hallway, looking for his long-lost moccasins. She carries John outside. A flag hangs uselessly on its pole. No wind. The smell of pine. Inside the hospital, John's mother has fainted. The doctor holds her hand, as if he were the loving husband and father. He remembers the family of four coughing blood into handkerchiefs in the examining room. The doctor is afraid of them.
With John in her arms, the nurse stands in the parking lot. She is white or Indian. She watches the horizon. Blue sky, white clouds, bright sun. The slight whine of a helicopter in the distance. Then the violent whomp-whomp of its blades as it passes overhead, hovers, and lands a hundred feet away. In the waiting room, the driver lifts his head from his hands when he hears the helicopter. He wonders if there is a war beginning.
A man in a white jumpsuit steps from the helicopter. Head ducked and body bent, the man runs toward the nurse. His features are hidden inside his white helmet. The nurse meets him halfway and hands him the baby John. The jumpsuit man covers John's face completely, protecting him from the dust that the helicopter is kicking up. The sky is very blue. Specific birds hurl away from the flying machine. These birds are indigenous to this reservation. They do not live anywhere else. They have purple-tipped wings and tremendous eyes, or red bellies and small eyes. The nurse waves as the jumpsuit man runs back to the helicopter. She shuts the rear door of the Chevy, reaches through the driver's open window, and turns the ignition key. The engine shudders to a stop.
Suddenly this is a war. The jumpsuit man holds John close to his chest as the helicopter rises. The helicopter gunman locks and loads, strafes the reservation with explosive shells. Indians hit the ground, drive their cars off roads, dive under flimsy kitchen tables. A few Indians, two women and one young man, continue their slow walk down the reservation road, unperturbed by the gunfire. They have been through much worse. The whomp-whomp of the helicopter blades. John is hungry and cries uselessly. He cannot be heard over the roar of the gun, the chopper. He cries anyway. This is all he knows how to do. Back at the clinic, his mother has been sedated. She sleeps in the delivery room. The doctor holds her hand and finds he cannot move. He looks down at his hand wrapped around her hand. White fingers, brown fingers. He can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers. The phone behind the PRIVATE door stops ringing. Gunfire in the distance. Nobody, not even the white doctor, is surprised by this.
The helicopter flies for hours, it could be days, crossing desert, mountain, freeway, finally a city. Skyscrapers, the Space Needle, water everywhere. Thin bridges stretched between islands. John crying. The gunner holds his fire, but his finger is lightly feathering the trigger. He is ready for the worst. John can feel the distance between the helicopter and the ground below. He stops crying. He loves the distance between the helicopter and the ground. He feels he could fall. He somehow loves this new fear. He wants to fall. He wants the jumpsuit man to release him, let him fall from the helicopter, down through the clouds, past the skyscrapers and the Space Needle. But the jumpsuit man holds him tight so John will not fall. John cries again.
The helicopter circles downtown Seattle, moves east past Lake Washington, Mercer Island, hovers over the city of Bellevue. The pilot searches for the landing area. Five acres of green, green grass. A large house. Swimming pool. A man and woman waving energetically. Home. The pilot lowers the chopper and sets down easily. Blades making a windstorm of grass particles and hard-shelled insects. The gunner's eyes are wide open, scanning the tree line. He is ready for anything. The jumpsuit man slides the door open with one arm and holds John in the other. Noise, heat. John cries, louder than before, trying to be heard. Home. The jumpsuit man steps down and runs across the lawn toward the man and woman, both white and handsome. He wears a gray suit and colorful tie. She wears a red dress with large, black buttons from throat to knee.
John cries as the jumpsuit man hands him to the white woman, Olivia Smith. She unbuttons the top of her dress, opens her bra, and offers John her large, pale breasts with pink nipples. John's birth mother had small, brown breasts and brown nipples, though he never suckled at them. Still, he knows there is a difference, and as John takes the white woman's right nipple into his mouth and pulls at her breast, he discovers it is empty. Daniel Smith wraps his left arm around his wife's shoulders. He grimaces briefly and then smiles. Olivia and Daniel Smith look at the jumpsuit man, who is holding a camera. Flash, flash. Click of the shutter. Whirr of advancing film. All of them wait for a photograph to form, for light to emerge from shadow, for an image to burn itself into paper.
The Last Skyscraper in Seattle
WHEN NO BABY CAME after years of trying to conceive, Olivia and Daniel Smith wanted to adopt a baby, but the waiting list was so long. The adoption agency warned them that white babies, of course, were the most popular. Not that it was a popularity contest, they were assured. It was just that most of the couples interested in adopting a baby were white, so naturally, they wanted to adopt a white child, a child like them, but there were simply not enough white babies to go around.
"Listen," the adoption agent said. "Let's be honest. It's going to take at least a year to find a suitable white child for you. Frankly, it may take much longer than that. Up to eight years or more. But we can find you another kind of baby rather quickly."
"Another kind?" asked Olivia.
"Well, of course," said the agent. "There's always the handicapped babies. Down's syndrome. Children missing arms and legs. Mentally retarded. That kind of kid. To be honest, it's very difficult, nearly impossible, to find homes for those children. It's perfectly understandable. These children need special care, special attention. Lots of love. Not very many people can handle it."
"I don't think we want that," Daniel said. Olivia agreed.
"There are other options," said the agent. "We have other difficult-to-place children as well. Now, there's nothing wrong with these babies. They're perfectly healthy, but they're not white. Most are black. We also have an Indian baby. The mother is six months pregnant now."
"Indian?" asked Daniel. "As in American Indian?"
"Yes," said the agent. "The mother is very young, barely into her teens. She's making the right decision. She'll carry the baby to full term and give it up for adoption. Now, ideally, we'd place this baby with Indian parents, right? But that just isn't going to happen. The best place for this baby is with a white family. This child will be saved a lot of pain by growing up in a white family. It's the best thing, really."
Olivia and Daniel agreed to consider adopting the Indian baby. They went home that night, ate a simple dinner, and watched television. A sad movie-of-the-week about an incurable disease. Daniel kept clearing his throat during the movie. Olivia cried. When it was over, Daniel switched off the television. They undressed for bed, brushed their teeth, and lay down together.
"What do you think?" asked Olivia.
"I don't know," said Daniel.
They made love then, both secretly hoping this one would take. They wanted to believe that everything was possible. An egg would drop, be fertilized, and begin to grow. As he moved inside his wife, Daniel closed his eyes and concentrated on an image of a son. That son would be exactly half of him. He saw a son with his chin and hair. He saw a baseball glove, bicycle, tree house, barking dog. Olivia wrapped her arms around her husband, pressed her face to his shoulder. She could feel him inside her, but it was a vague, amorphous feeling. There was nothing specific about it. During the course of their married life, the sex had mostly felt good. Sometimes, it had been uncomfortable, once or twice painful. But she did not feel anything this time. She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling.
Olivia knew she was beautiful. She had been a beautiful baby, little girl, teenager, woman. She had never noticed whether it was easy or hard to be that beautiful. It never really occurred to her to wonder about it. All her life, her decisions had been made for her. She was meant to graduate from high school, get into a good college, find a suitable young man, earn a B.A. in art history, marry, and never work. Somewhere between reading a biography of van Gogh and fixing dinner, she was supposed to have a baby. Except for producing that infant, she had done what was expected of her, had fulfilled the obligations of her social contract. She had graduated with honors, had married a handsome, successful architect, and loved sex in a guarded way. But the baby would not happen. The doctors had no explanations. Her husband's sperm were of average count and activity. "In a swimming race," their doctor had said, "your husband's sperm would get the bronze." She had a healthy uterus and her period was loyal to the moon's cycles. But it did not work. "Listen," the doctor had said. "There are some people who just cannot have babies together. We can't always explain it. Medicine isn't perfect."
Still staring at the ceiling, Olivia moved her hips in rhythm with her husband's. She wanted to ask him what he was thinking about, but did not want to interrupt their lovemaking. She lifted herself to her husband, listening to the patterns of his breathing until it was over.
"I love you," she whispered.
"I love you, too," Daniel said.
He lifted himself off her and rolled to his side of the bed. She reached out and took his hand. He was crying. She held him until they fell asleep. When they woke in the morning, both had decided to adopt the Indian baby. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 1996 Sherman Alexie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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