If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close; my careening, zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in God, my collisions with joy and affliction, all of it has come, in one way or another, out of that moment on a summer morning when the left rear tire of a United States postal jeep ground my tiny head into the hot gravel of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
It was a typical July day, ten o'clock and already pushing a hundred, the whole world lit with a painful white light. Our house was particularly vulnerable to the heat because, unlike the other HUD houses on the road, it was covered with black tar paperthe siding had never been put onand there were no shade trees, not even a bush to block the sun. There was an old lightning-struck cottonwood in the front yard, a charred skeleton of a tree that offered no shade at all until my mother got into the habit of hanging beer cans from its charred branches with fishing line. The beer cansthere were hundreds of them, and more than a dozen new ones being added each daywould make a peaceful clanking when a breeze came up, but they never did much to keep the house cool.
When the mailman stopped in front of our house that day my mother was in the cave-like darkness of the kitchen polishing off breakfast (four Pabst Blue Ribbons and half a way of ice cubes) and Grandma Paul was out back under the bear grass ramada in her traditional skirt and Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, grinding acorns and managing not to perspire. I was outside somewhere poking around in the weeds by the side of the road, or maybe wreaking havoc on a hill of fire antsI guess it doesn't really matter where I was or what I was doing.
What matters is that the mailman, a small bird-boned man with sweaty orange hair that looked like the inside of a pumpkin, put his jeep into park and went to have a word with my mother. What matters is that during the time he was gone, somethingGod only knows whatcompelled me to crawl under that jeep. Maybe I saw something intriguing under therea page from a catalogue or a stray hubcapor maybe the purple rectangle of shadow under the jeep seemed like a good place to cool off. I have to wonder: is it possible that seven-year-old Edgar, with his perpetually drunk and heartsick mother and his disappeared fathernot to mention his crazy witch of a grandmothermight have considered suicide? Is it possible that Edgar, seven years old and tired of it all, simply laid down his head under the tire of that jeep and waited?
From the little I know of my life until then, it's not a possibility I could rule out entirely. Even with my less-than-ideal childhood, one of the small regrets I carry around with me is that huge parts of that boy are lost to me forever; I have a broken, leaking memory of him at best. I guess this wouldn't bother most peoplewho remembers what seven years old was like anyway?but for me, obsessed with memory, with facts, with history on the smallest scale, obsessed not only with the whys but the simple whos and whats and wheres, it is a nagging absence, like the gap a knocked-out tooth leaves. I know more about total strangers than I do about seven-year-old Edgar; I'll never know what his favorite TV commercial was or where he hid all the worthless knickknacks he collected or what he feared most when he had to visit the shithouse in the middle of the night. I'll never know why he crawled under that jeep.
I do know, though, what happened when the bird-boned mailman got back behind the steering wheel of his mail jeep, released the emergency brake and stepped on the accelerator. When he felt the jeep labor against some resistancemaybe he thought it was a bump or a rock in the roadhe gave it a little more juice. The back end of the jeep rose up sharply, dropped back down, and the engine died. The mailman got out to investigate and when he saw my little body under the bumper of the jeep, my face mashed into the gravel of the road, blood already seeping among the shards of black rock as if welling up from a place deep underground, he screamed so loud that the dogs in the vicinity, most of them hairless renegades used to the worst and loudest kinds of shouting and drunken argument, howled in terror.
Along the street only a few people came out of their houses, holding their arms against the sun. Grandma Paul took her time picking her way around the woodpile and up to the road: she knew someone was dead or dying, it was just a matter of finding out who. She saw five or six people crowded around and a few more coming out of their houses and she decided it had to be a pretty bloody disaster to bring people out on a day like this. Even a couple of huge, roadkill-fattened crows had landed in the beer-tree to see what was going on.
"Goddamn mail guy's run over somebody's kid," said big Emerson Tuskogie to nobody in particular, sucking down the last of his Coke through a straw. Emerson Tuskogie was well known on the reservation as somebody who held the government responsible for everything.
By the time Grandma Paul had made it to the scene, ten or twelve people were looking down at the sobbing mailman, who had rolled me over onto my back and taken off his shirt, which he held around my head in an attempt to stop the blood from seeping out of my ears.
When the mailman realized he couldn't stem the bleeding with only his flimsy government-issue shirt, he took off his pantsan almost impossible task the way his hands were shakingand pressed them around my head as if he might somehow keep the blood inside where it belonged. Everyone stared at his fiery hair and mayonnaise-colored skin, which seemed to be glowing, putting off a light of its own.
"Ambulance?!" he cried, looking around wildly. Old Oonie Neal had already sent her grandson off to call the tribal police, but nobody bothered to say a word.
The mailman put his ear to my chest, heard nothing, then looked into my eyes, the whites of which had turned a stark demon-red from the capillaries bursting under all that pressure. He looked up into the sun as if he might find some kind of answer there, but this seemed to disorient him even more. Finally, still holding my head in its bundle of clothes, he lowered his mouth over mine and began breathing into me, even though my lungs and respiratory system were fineit was my head that was the problem.
"Ambulance'll be coming," someone said, but the mailman kept on, blowing into me with everything he had. Blood gargled up out of my throat, making it difficult to get any air into me at all.
Emerson Tuskogie politely tapped the nearly naked mailman on the shoulder and said, "Kid's dead."
Everybody pretty much agreed with Emerson on this point, even Grandma Paul; you don't run over some kid's head with a mail jeep and hope to keep him going with a little CPR.
The crows looked down and seemed to whisper between themselves, the sun burned and the poor mailman had nothing left to do but kneel on the sharp rocks in the incomplete shade of the beer-tree, half naked and shuddering, his face covered with tears and snot, his mouth rimmed with my blood, holding his clothes around my head, waiting for the ambulance to come and take me away.
I DON'T BLAME my mother for not coming out of the house that day. When she heard the mailman scream she knew, just like Grandma Paul, that something terrible had happened and she didn't want anything to do with it. She stayed in her chair at the kitchen table and didn't move, didn't even stand up to stretch her legs until late that night when there was no longer anyone around who would fetch her a beer. From all that I know about her, my mother never was the kind of person who liked to confront things head-on; she was always standing back, protecting herself. It's one of the reasons she drank so much beerif you drink enough of it, beer can protect you from anything.
Until she became pregnant with me my mother had never tasted beer or alcohol of any kind. Grandma Paul's father and brother and both her sons had all died as a result of alcohol in one way or another and she forbade Gloria, her last living child, to touch the stuff. My mother obeyed Grandma without questionnever even had a dropuntil she was eighteen years old. It would take becoming pregnant with me to turn her into the dedicated alcoholic she would be for the rest of her life.
"She was a good girl," Grandma Paul used to say, "and then she met the white guy."
The white guy was my father, Arnold Kessler Mint. Arnold Mint was a would-be cowboy, and fittingly enough, he met my mother at a rodeo. He was only a spectator at the rodeo, though he had aspirations of becoming a bronc-busting star, and my mother was selling cotton candy in the grandstands. This was up north in Holbrook, where my mother was living with her cousin Lily for the summer, trying to get away from Grandma Paul and the dusty desolation of San Carlos and hoping to make a little money in the meantime. She was eighteen and probably not prepared for someone as good-looking and charmingly dumb as Arnold Kessler Mint.
After seeing my mother, the first thing Arnold did was buy all the cotton candy she had in her tray. He had just finished a two-month stint on a sheep ranch in Luna, New Mexico, his wallet was fat with bills, and he was working on growing a respectable mustache. He gave my mother a ten-dollar bill, lifted all the cotton candy out of the tray, and squeezed it to his chest in a great bear hug. He looked around, unsure what to do next, then took a big chomp out of the mound in his armsa long wisp sticking to his chin, making him look like Uncle Sam on the I WANT YOU FOR THE U.S. ARMY posterand said to everybody around him, "Boy, I love cotton candy!" This was his way of trying to impress my mother. My mother handed Arnold Kessler Mint his change and went back to the concession stand to pick up more cotton candy. When she had a new supply she went to the far side of the grandstands, as far away from Arnold as she could get, but he spotted her and waved his money in the air like a hankie.
Arnold Mint was trying his best to be the big, brash, the-hell-with-the-rest-of-you cowboy he had always wanted to be. He was originally from Lebanon, Connecticut, about as far away from cowboy country as you can get. He had come out West two years before, thinking he could hitch on with some outfit and become a carefree whistling buckaroo in no time flathe'd read the comic books and every Zane Grey novel he could get his hands on, signed up for the John Wayne fan club and watched all the shoot-em-ups on TV; he believed he was ready and qualified to start punching cattle. No, it didn't go the way he planned. He spent his first eighteen months in Arizona washing toilets and hauling horse carcasses for a dog food factory. There simply wasn't a pack of ranchers falling over each other to hire an Easterner with corduroy pants and a funny accent. Finally, two months before meeting my mother, Arnold, in spite of his corduroy pants, had got a shearing job with a desperate sheep rancher and now that the job was over, here he was at the Navajo County Rodeo, feeling pretty good about himself with money in his pockets (he had already spent thirteen dollars of it on a mouse-gray Stetson cowboy hat), an armful of cotton candy and designs on my mother.
If Arnold had been a true cowboy he probably wouldn't have looked twice at my mother. Among cowboyswhite ones, anywayyou kept to your own kind. Hispanic or Asian girls were okay for a one-nighter, but Indian girls, or Big Reds as most cowboys called them, were pretty much out of the question. According to under-the-hat barstool cowboy lore, Indian women had the unholy power to get themselves impregnated with your sperm one hundred percent of the time, whether you wore a condom or not. This little bit of hoodoo-voodoo, more than anything else, is often whatat least in terms of romancekept the cowboys away from the Indians.
But to Arnold Kessler Mint, who wasn't yet aware of these cowboy codes, an eighteen-year-old raven-haired Apache girl must have been the most exotic thing he could imagine. My mother marched up and down the steps trying to ignore Arnold, but the thick-necked guy in the new cowboy hat (there was still a tag hanging off the brim) would not give up. He waggled his money in the air, whistling and hollering for more cotton candy. By now he was so covered with the fluffy pink and blue stuff he looked like a huge baby bird just out of its shell.
Nobody had ever given my mother such attention, especially not in public and with two thousand people looking on. She didn't know what to do, so she wandered up and down the grandstand steps, trying to hide behind the remaining puffs in her tray.
Arnold bided his time until the call came over the loudspeakers for amateur bull riders. Anybody who had the desire could try their luck on an old worn-out bull named Wicked Joseph. A rider who could manage to stay on for the required ten seconds would win a fifty-dollar gift certificate from the B&B Williams Tack and Feed Store. Besides Arnold, the only other person who took the challenge was a fat teenage kid in a too-tight T-shirt who appeared to be drunk; he pumped his knees and shook his butt as he went down the steps, which made the considerable fat contained in his shirt jiggle and heave. Everybody in the stands clapped and hooted and agreed there's not much that can beat a fat drunk kid for entertainment. Not to be outdone, Arnold promenaded down the steps, kicking his heels and throwing his hips around like a belly dancerbut the drunk fat kid had been much funnier, so only one or two people bothered to give Arnold any encouragement.
The fat teenager went first and he fell off the bullright into a fresh puddle of cow shitbefore he made it out of the chute. Wicked Joseph never even got a chance to buck; the big gate swung open and the kid slid right off the old bull as if it had been slathered back to front with petroleum jelly. The kid picked himself off the ground, half covered in green, pudding-like bull puckey, raised both chubby fists in victory, and the crowd went crazy for him.
Undaunted that he was getting one-upped by a fat drunk kid, Arnold got on Wicked Joseph. He stayed on the bull well over the required ten seconds; he stayed on so well that once the horn had sounded, he didn't really want or know how to get off. The old Brahma kept bucking away, his gargantuan balls flailing like cathedral bells between his legs, and Arnold, holding on with two hands now, began to slip slowly off to the side, managing to hang on by wrapping both arms around the bull's neck and squeezing with such conviction that he looked like he was trying to strangle the thing. Wicked Joseph, who was, I imagine, thoroughly annoyed with Arnold's persistence, situated himself in a corner of the ring and began ramming Arnold into a steel livestock gate, which made a boom-boom-boom noise like somebody banging on a battleship with a sledgehammer. Still Arnold hung on, his brand-new, jammed-on hat getting loose from his head, quarters and nickels and dimes zinging out of his pockets, his big round face still caught in that oblivious grin. All around the arena cowboys were standing up on the fence, cussing and shouting, "Let go you idiot!"
Finally Arnold was rammed into the gate with enough force that his collarbone was broken and he had to relinquish his death grip on poor old Wicked Joseph. Even with the broken bone he hopped right up, looked around and yelled, "Where's my hat?" An exhausted Wicked Joseph galloped a wide U-turn and made a halfhearted attempt at goring Arnold in the back, but Arnold spotted him and scrambled through the slats in the fence. This time the crowd was duly appreciative; Arnold got a standing ovation.
After locating his hat, accepting his fifty-dollar certificate and having his shoulder inspected by the on-site doctor, who told him to get his crazy ass to a hospital as soon as possible, Arnold tracked down my mother near the concession stand. He stood next to her, his face still flushed from his bull-riding triumph. She tried not to look at him while she waited for the concessions manager to count out her pay; she had seen him ride the bull and thought he was a lunatic.
He cleared his throat like he was preparing for a speech. "I'dhahI'd like to ask you a favor, you know, help out a guy a little," he said.
Arnold took off his hat, which had been destroyed by one of Wicked Joseph's hooves, peered at it for a second and put it back on his head, where it clung like a clump of old moss. He pointed to his broken right shoulder, which slumped a good two or three inches below his left. "Looks like I broke my shoulder bone here and I was wondering what would be the chances of you helping me out. My rig's got a manual transmission and I need someone to help me shift so's I can make it to the hospital. The doctor over there with the hair sticking out his ears said I could do some damage to myself if I don't get there this very instant."
Arnold was doing his very damnedest to sound like a cowboy.
This time my mother glared at him with her oily-black eyes, hoping to scare him off, but Arnold Kessler Mint was not the kind of person who knew how to take a hint. He pressed on: "Anyhow, I got this gift certificateit's worth fifty dollars and I'll give it to you if you'd help me out." He paused, rubbing his bad shoulder. He couldn't stop smiling. Finally, he said, "Fifty dollars is a lot of money."
My mother didn't take long to decide; even though she thought Arnold was the strangest person she'd ever met, fifty dollars was a lot of money, more than she would make in her three days at the rodeo. She thought of the dresses she could buy, the nice shoesshe thought about getting herself a pair of sunglasses like Marilyn Monroe wore in Some Like It Hot. My poor mother wasn't aware that the gift certificate was for a feed and tack store.
With his good arm, Arnold guided my mother out to the parking lot, opened the door to his old, dented Ford, and helped her in. Down the road they went: Arnold, my father, worked the pedals and the steering wheel and Gloria, my mother, shifted. Exactly nine months and two days later I was born.
A GLOWING-WHITE mailman weeping over a boy with a broken head leaking blood and spinal fluid out of his ears, a throng of Apaches standing back at a safe distance, an old grandmother off to the side in the hackberry, already beginning her funeral wail, two fat crows in a tree full of blue-and-white cans presiding over it all: this is the scene Ed and Horace Natchez, twin brothers and tribal ambulance volunteers, came upon when they pulled up in the makeshift reservation ambulance. Ed and Horace lived only a quarter of a mile from Grandma Paul's house, and they were pissed off that there hadn't been enough open road for them to really get that ambulance hauling ass.
It should be noted that what Ed and Horace were riding in was not a true ambulance. It was actually a huge black Dodge van the tribal police had recently confiscated from a group of German hippies who had been caught selling marijuana from the side of the highway. Nobody had gotten around to painting it yet, and there was no money in the budget to outfit it with modern emergency equipment. All it had was an oxygen tank, an emergency field kit no bigger than a bass fisherman's tackle box, and a World War II army stretcher someone had found in the cellar of the elementary school. It wasn't much, but as could be said about most things on the reservation, it was better than nothing.
Ed and Horace had only minimal training, so when they got their first good look at me, they came to the same conclusion everybody else had: the boy with the mailman's clothes wadded around his head was a goner. They didn't even bother with any pulse-taking or pupil-checking, they simply pried the mailman's hands away from the boy's shoulder and gently put the limp body on the stretcher, which, in its time, might have transported wounded boys on the battlefields of France or Okinawa.
"Hey, will you guys bring me back a pack of Pall Malls from Globe?" Emerson Tuskogie asked. Emerson had to shout to be heard over Grandma Paul's wailing.
"Don't got no money!" Ed shouted back.
Emerson began digging through his pockets for change while Ed and Horace got the stretcher situated in the back of the van.
Horace took the clothes from around the dead boy's head and handed the bloody clump to the mailman, who knelt in the gravel, his face gone blank.
"You don't want to get sunburned," Horace told him.
Ed shut the heavy rear door of the van and Emerson said, "Damn, I only got thirty-five cents."
Off in the mesquite bushes, Grandma Paul's praying got even louder. She prayed to Jesus, and to Yusen, god of all living things, and to the ghosts of the dead. She prayed not that I would survive, but that I would find my way through the perils of the afterlife, that I would be free from the wily clutches of the devil and make my way home to Jesus. Grandma Paul wailed and prayed and paused only for a second to watch as Ed and Horace got into their seats, slammed the van's big black doors and started out over the damaged reservation roads, carrying me away into a strange new life.
THE RESURRECTION OF EDGAR
FOR ME, IT'S a little hard to acceptmy own death and I have no recollection of it. Like most of what occurred in the first seven years of my life, I'll have to take someone else's word that it ever happened.
All I can say for certain is that at some point between the time the tire flattened my head and I was wheeled into the tiny emergency room of St. Divine's Hospital in Globe, I stopped living. My ravaged brain threw in the towel and my other vital organs gave in shortly thereafter. My heart quivered to a stop, my lungs shut down and I became an inanimate object; just as alive or dead as a cereal bowl or a park bench.
Excerpted from THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT by BRADY UDALL. Copyright © 2001 by Brady Udall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.