Tales of Burning Love
Easter Snow1981Williston, North Dakota
Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache. From his rent-by-the-week motel unit, Jack Mauser called six numbers. His jawbone throbbed, silver-fine needles sank and disappeared. A handful of aspirin was no help. A rock, maybe bettersomething to bang his head against. He tried, he tried, but he could not get numb. The stray cat he had allowed to sleep in the bathtub eased against his pants legs. He kept on dialing and redialing until at last a number was answered by a chipper voice. Uncalled for, his thought was, wrong. Perky traits in a dental office receptionist. He craved compassion, lavish pity. He described his situation, answered questions, begged for an appointment although he had no real stake in the townhe was no more than temporary, a mud engineer due for a transfer. Today! Please? He heard pages rustle, gum snap. The cat stretched, tapped his knee with a sheathed paw, and fixed its eyes on Jack's lap where it had been petted. Jack cuffed at the stray. The orange-striped tom batted him back, playful.
The voice was sly, as though asking him a trick question. Air would hit the tooth, still he opened his mouth to plead and stood up, dizzy from too much aspirin. Just then, the cat, determined, launched itself straight upward to climb Jack like a tree. It sank thick razor claws a half inch deep into Jack's thigh. Hung there.
Jack screamed into the telephone. The claws clenched in panic, and Jack, whirling in an awful dance, ripped the cat from his legs and threw the creature with such force thatit bounced off a wall, but twisted over and came up strolling. No loss of dignity.
There was silence on the other end of the connection, and then the voice, less chipper.
"Are you experiencing discomfort?"
Jack whimpered as a muffled consultation took place, her hand presumably clapped over the receiver.
"The doctor will make room for you in his schedule." The voice was solemn. "About an hour from now?"
On his way to an unknown dentist, holes punched in his thigh, his jaw a throbbing lump he wanted to saw off his face, Jack sought temporary anesthesia. He was tall, in his early thirties, and the pain gave him an air of concentration. Otherwise, he didn't stand out much except for his eyes, a deeper slanting brown than most, or his hands, very rough but still attentive to the things they touched. His grim self-sorry mouth. From inside the Rigger Bar, he watched the street. A woman passing by outside briefly struck a light inside of himher hips, full-not-too-full, bare cold hands, taut legs. He hit the window with his knuckles, caught her attention, saluted. As she walked in, he wasn't sure about her. But then, there she was, slim in a white leatherette jacket, hair a dark teased mass, delicate Chippewa face scarred by drink.
She watched him peel an Easter egg, blue, her eyes sad in harsh makeup, then her face relaxed. She sat down beside him and shifted her legs, lightly crossed one thigh over the other to make that V shape.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked.
"Too bad." She put a finger on the pack of cigarettes he laid down between them, arched her eyebrows, plucked one cigarette out, and held it poised for him to light. He nodded. She grinned awkwardly and bummed another for her purse. The flare of his cardboard match warmed the smooth rounds of her cheekbones, lit the slight crinkle of laugh lines around her moody eyes. She had a pretty smileone tooth, a little crooked, overlapped. He put his hand out She drew back.
She drew back.
"Does it hurt much?"
He drank from the unhurt side of his mouth and then he ordered a beer for her.
"Better yet," she turned from him. "This old Ojibwa remedy? You take a clove in your mouth."
"I hate cloves."
"Well, you gotta suffer then," she laughed.
Besides, he felt better halfway through the second drink. "Cloves, aren't they from Europe or something?"
"Okay, maybe. Horseweed. You pinch it up like this"she rolled imaginary lint between her fingers"stuff it all around that tooth. Deadens it."
She took an egg, dyed blue like the one he'd been peeling when she walked in the door. She shucked and ate it quickly, he noticed, while the bartender had his back turned. Right off, he knew that she was from his mother's home reservation, just by little things she did and said.
"All right!" He stood up. He felt so much better he could not believe it.
"That doesn't work," she started on another egg, "you take a hammer . . ."
"Oh, Christ, don't tell me." But he was unaffected, feeling the pain but not caring anymore. There was just a buoyant ease he'd have to monitor, control so it did not shoot him skyward too quickly. So it did not send him whirling, like the cat.
"I have a cat."
"What's its name?"
"Doesn't have a name."
"If you had a cat, it would have a name."
She took a long drink, held the liquor in her mouth, swallowed.
"I have a son," she said, after a few moments.
Jack didn't want to touch that.
"We'll go back to my motel. The cat's lonely there. I've got a whole, ah, suitewe'll visit him. He clawed my leg this morning." Jack pointed.
"Where?" She laughed suddenly, a little painfully, too hard. Stopped when Jack stared overlong at her.
"Come on, let's go check the cat."
"No way." She looked serious, put down her drink. "I've got a bus to catch."
"Where you going?"
Her gaze flickered up to his and then held steady.
It was later, much later, the dental appointment missed. She refused again to visit the cat but went along with him as he made his rounds. One bar, the next. By then she maybe knew who he was although he lied and said that he did not know his mother's maiden name, or his grandmother's. His family would say too much to the woman, make her wary of him. So he pretended that he was adopted, taken out of the tribe too young to remember.
"Raised white?" She frowned.
"Don't I look it?"
"You act it. How's your tooth?"
It came to life, a flare of anguish.
"I need another drink. A double. I drink like an Indian though, huh?"
Mistake. She didn't think that was funny, didn't laugh. After a bit, she asked somebody next to her the time and frowned gently, troubled.
"I missed my bus, Andy."
"My fault." He had given her a fake name. "Here, you need a refill too."
Her hair was long, fine, slightly wavy, caught up in a cheap clip. He reached around and undid the barrette. At once, electric, her hair billowed around her face in a dark cloud. Storm's rising. He closed his eyes, imagined it falling in blowing scarves around his own face as her mouth lowered to meet his. Her hidden mouth. He kept wanting to press his finger on her tooth, line it up with the others. It would require an ever so slight tap. Her mouth was even prettier than when she first smiledas she relaxed a deep curve formed in her lower lip. Very sad, though, her eyes watching him so close sometimes. He put away his money.
"Hey," she mumbled, once. "You got to be."
He did not want to ask her what, but he did, tightening his arm around her. She would have told him anyway.
"You got to be different," she breathed.
He pretended not to hear.
"I know you," she said, louder. "You're the one. You're him."
He shrugged off her words. The afternoon darkened and the beer lamps went onbright colors, wagons and horses, fake Tiffany. Still, they kept drinking. They kept drinking and then they met up with some people. They got hungry, or needed something to do, anyway. They went out to eat. Steak, baked potato, salad with French dressing. She ordered these things in a shy voice, polite, saying thank you when the waitress set them down before her. As she put the first taste of meat in her mouth, she sighed, tried not to gulp it too quickly, put her fork down every second bite. She was hardly drinking anything by then. He caught her gaze once. His face was falling toward hers. Falling. Her face was still, a waiting pool, regarding him with kindness. The hard lines around her eyes had smudged into a softer mystery. Eyes half closed, she smiled over at him, and, suddenly, he realized she was the most precious, the most beautiful, the most extraordinary treasure of a woman he had ever known.
"Jack." A buddy of his, a roommate sometimes, nudged him. "Your squaw called you Andy."
"Shut up. You're an asshole."
"No hard feelings." Tales of Burning Love
A Novel. Copyright (c) by Louise Erdrich . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.