That Guy Wolf Dancing
By Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
Michigan State University Press Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
All rights reserved.
I felt a faked intimacy and was reluctant and nervous as I pushed back the curtain to answer her call light.
"Even a li'l smack ... anything," she agonized.
The woman's smoky voice deepened when I entered her lair, carrying fresh towels from the aide desk.
"Anything ... anything." She writhed and rubbed her wrinkled hands together and tried to touch me.
I couldn't tell at first glance whether this dark figure was a man or woman. The words spoken weren't spoken harshly, nor was it a demanding voice. It was a voice filled with anguish that left an aftertaste with me that said: get away ... get away.
This white woman, like so many others from around here, was well-off and well-known in the upscale part of this college town located a mere couple of hundred miles from the Crow Creek Indian Reservation where I've been hanging out since I was born ... just a few hundred miles, but in other ways as distant, like they say, "as the moon."
In this expensive, shiny hospital where I've been working for a while, the doctors are so bored with life and death and money, their wives and children, their pursuits of status and material passions that they just put people away and are not concerned with the implications of how to really care. Unless something puzzling happens. Then they want to know all the answers.
In many ways I understood the callousness of it all. It wasn't a stubbornly held view of myself that I was put on this planet to nurse the sick and the infirm, so my emotional reluctance as a caretaker made me a little anxious and withdrawn. I was here strictly by happenstance, or chance. Some would even call it by accident.
By the time I was getting to know this woman, she weighed less than ninety pounds and was said, by friends in her "set" in a neighborhood isolated from the mere middle class or poor people, to be suffering from "exhaustion." I guess she had been here in this hospital with her wealthy lawyer husband in attendance for years before I got a temp job here, yet she would be in my memory for a long time. Not so much because she was so unique, because she wasn't. She was like a lot of junkies I've known, only she had money and an endowment ... of sorts.
I can't explain why her awful life, her devastated life, hardly expected or explainable, has been part of the memorabilia about a brief hospital legacy I carry around with me. But, it has. Some things are just unforgettable, etched forever in some kind of personal, yet historical drama.
The room was dark, plush, and seemed to me to be a place for vipers and tree roots and fog and the dead. She was grinning and her face was skeletal and ugly. I was spooked the first time I caught a glimpse of her several days earlier, sitting up in bed smoking a cigarette held in an ivory holder, her eyes shining, her fingers brown and brittle, and I wondered then if a curse had been put on her because she was a princess whose suffocating parents pampered her and left her with no imagination to survive her luxury.
"No, Mrs. Larson," I said as gently as I could, "the nurses say it's not time yet."
Uh-hunh, I wanted to say sarcastically, why do you suppose they sent me, the new guy, the flunky, when your light went on? But there was something about her that made me ashamed of myself, and I hated my rugged response to her terrible needs.
I lifted her wrist and pointed to her thousand-dollar watch and said, "You've got another hour to wait yet, Ma'am." And then I patted her hand and was momentarily horrified when she clung to me and I had to take her hands away from my shoulders and put them beside her on the bed.
"Are you Indian?" she rasped.
She looked at me with terrible eyes, and I walked out of the room, shaken and embarrassed. From then on I did what I could to make her comfortable, but was careful not to let her see that I could be moved by her pain.
I hadn't wanted to end up here, a male nurse aide, all spiffy and white in the longest white uniform Sister Amabolis could find for me after a two-week training session learning how to take temps and empty bedpans and change sheets. And I still don't want to be here, so I never say that I am anything except temporary.
I had wanted to go to Minneapolis and get involved in Indian Affairs when I left the Crow Creek. I even told my Auntie Aurelia that's where I was headed. But then my Uncle Tony Big Pipe shot himself in September of 1981, and right after his funeral I left without telling anyone. From his Dakota tomb he has never said a word to me, and so I have failed to take into account any of the possibilities told to all of us by the whirlwinds of the prairie. And so I'm here. Temporarily.
Now I live in a rundown section of this miserable town. A section made up of mostly old two-story houses that have been here since 1900, fallen porches and cracked paint and old cars and broken sidewalks. But I'm one of those Indians who would never think that just because you live in a dump you have to be a bum, so I never do the drugs or drink the booze I'm offered. I've seen what that stuffcan do, and it's not a pretty sight.
When I'm offered pot or LSD or a shot of Early Times to while away the stinking hours in a few moments of forgetfulness, I think of my Uncle Tony, a guy born and raised in a good family, who served his country in Vietnam and shot himself in the mouth one afternoon when the leaves were turning brown and falling from the trees.
Tony had never married and he had no kids. Just me. I lived with him in a little trailer house after I left my grandpa's. We kind of felt like we had each other. Uncle Tony wore his long, silky black hair in two braids and had an archaic longing for total independence and was a man I can now see more clearly than before, a man with a pleasant, quizzical face that promised everything, and a grin that told you how much he loved living. All that makes his suicide even more puzzling.
But most of all, I think of the Valium and heroin shots and Demerol they dish out every four hours on the hour to that young-old woman on the third floor. Nembutal, no one needs to tell me, is what they call yellow jackets out on the streets, and Seconal is redbirds, and codeine is an opiate derivative, and they are on every street corner and in the backroom of every run-down house in any fragile community.
All I need to do when the desperate seller of drugs looks into my eyes is remember holding the ruined white woman over the hospital toilet as she tries to shit or puke or nod off, and remember trying to wake her as she dissolves into her lavish satin bed jacket, unable to turn herself back into a human being even at my insistence.
All this I see every day now.
I know this country, and what I've learned from living with the old gent is that the sacred fire has been nearly quenched, and family scenes for any of us here are not what they used to be. There is nothing piddling about this, nothing even unexpected, since the world changed when they killed off those who knew they came from the land and that trying to understand their relationship to it was their fundamental mission.
Such pain as I see every day was predictable, I guess, in a country now obsessed only with its wealth. The Indian people first understood what the future would hold in this country after the winds established the directions, and later when the four brothers were living alone. They told themselves those stories, but knew they had to bring themselves to accept the demands of wars and kings and power. It was almost like they knew they would be damned, and so would all the others who came here.
It's like the pitiful old-young woman trying so hard to die or to live, an example for all the people whose lives are made up of destructive and obsessive pleasures.
"She hasn't slept all night," complained Robert, the chunky RN from night shift.
"God! Her light on and off. On and off."
He waved his arms.
"You know you don't dare ignore it. Not with her kind of money and private room and long-suffering husband. In fact, he was here until three in the morning putting her light on and off. On and off. Jee-sus!!"
He took a gulp of water from a paper cup, crumpled it, and threw it with great force into the sink.
"Why don't they get a private nurse?"
"'Cuz. No one will stay. They had a private nurse for a while there, but then another one came on and then another one, and finally they just wouldn't do it. Not even for the money, which I understand was way up there."
Robert looked at me hard as though to say we ought to abandon this woman to a destiny without destiny and just let the peace and good will on earth prevail. The weak will perish and the strong get stronger. Not that I ever thought that was a story of decency.
Robert wasn't a bad-looking guy and he was very smart, but he had little compassion and knew nothing about Indians except what he saw in the movies. He was broad and bulky and white-skinned with a woman's blond fuzz on his freckled arms. He had a full head of curly hair cut short and it made him look boyish, though he was no longer young. Neither manly nor unmanly. The kind of Midwestern specimen whose origins were middle European. Though he had a reputation for being steady and reliable, he was always in a state of agitation, nervous and sweaty, and I just knew from the beginning that we had little or nothing in common.
When I first came to the hospital in this town filled with white folks (there are lots of these lily-white towns in the Dakotas and Minnesota and Iowa) the nuns wanted me to get rid of the earrings in my pierced ears and they wanted me to cut my hair, but I told them no. They wondered what the townspeople would think. I didn't want to reveal any more of myself than was absolutely necessary so I said nothing. Just no.
For some reason, they let me take the job and then helped me get my GED. It took the better part of four months, and all the while I lived pretty much in isolation. I didn't go home and didn't really let anyone know where I was.
While I lived here among them I would be celibate, too, I reasoned, like the nuns and even, maybe, like Robert—though I knew nothing of his personal life—and I would be noncommittal and I would take part in little of the life that was not work. I associated them all with the smell of medicinal pungency and bedpans and the antiseptic cleaning fluids of hospital work.
I didn't allow myself to dislike Robert, but he always patronized me. One time he asked me if I had an Indian name.
I felt like I disappointed him.
And the nuns, well, they sort of acted like they thought I was a well-meaning young man out of place and out of sync with the world but tactful and strong with a reasonably calm bedside manner.
One late afternoon when I came in early for the seven-to-eleven shift, the husband was standing at the foot of her bed, his head hanging and one hand rubbing what was left of the fleshy part of the ball of her foot.
He looked over at me with the sadness of a man filled with an unrelenting grief. "I remember her voice," he said slowly. "No one else remembers her voice, and now look at her. She's just lying there saying nothing."
From where I stood I could see that the hospital did not require underwear, and I felt like a pervert looking in on some strange woman's nudity—someone else's ruined body and someone else's privacy. But the husband seemed unconscious of the ragged display of blackened hips and red bedsores, blue-veined legs, and skinny feet with long colored toenails to match the long colored fingernails.
"Saying nothing," he whispered as though he was talking to her. "Just lying there. Saying nothing."
I wanted to help him. I wanted to tell him to be objective, that she was dying, not living, and that he shouldn't let himself struggle so damn much over the inevitable. Let it go, I wanted to say; sooner or later she would be gone and he had to just let it happen.
I had never known my father, but I always knew he hadn't loved my mother like this man loved this woman. In my family there had been no great gap between peace and ruination, between victory and ambush. My grandmother died of grief, and my mother, while she always claimed she wanted to avoid squandering her legacy as a daughter of an important Indian family, would probably end up senile and disorderly and defenseless and on her knees. What happened to women like my mother was almost as predictable as what would happen to the old-young drug addict whose womanly fortunes and good looks were now spent.
Who knew what kind of woman this old-young woman in this warm private room was. Was she tough and selfish like my mother? Religious? Serious or kind? Needy or independent? Impoverished in this land of maximum luxury? Was it only this devoted husband who knew her voice? I looked at him and knew the perfume of the dying lilacs was the only gift he could give her now, and wondered what he had ever given her before.
I felt bad that this heartbroken man couldn't admit that such an unappealing, humiliated life even at this dying hour was just a matter of human vanity! An incredible waste!
I went home that day, leaving the husband to sit at his wife's bedside, and I was filled with a forlorn sadness, but at the same time glad it wasn't me.
Little did I know, this woman would be a beacon I would pay attention to for a long time in spite of the fact that I've never really known many white folks, having lived in comparative isolation along the Missouri River always. The fact that I didn't know her well and the fact that I've known the Missouri country forever can be seen as reasons for pondering, however briefly, how they came together.
Anyone interested in the fluvial landscape of the waterways of this country where I've lived, though, has to know that these streams serve as a blank screen, just like my brief encounter with the woman, to provide colorful insights into a nitty-gritty life. Thinking about that poor unfortunate woman, and paying even a little bit of attention to my own love of the life I have had on the Missouri River, gives some clues to how both attractions changed my thinking.
About the Missouri: it has been a continual presence for me and those close to me. Some say there is an underwater being that lives there, too, in the Mni Sosa, and he has a strange relationship with the Dakotah Sioux Indians. Some people understand him better than others. But, for most of us it's just a matter of who you listen to. Some want to hold on to the past, stubbornly and without caring about the harmonious balance which makes life possible.
For me, I just try to get along. I don't think much about the significance of those other water beings, but I know they exist and I believe in them. When I started to work at the hospital I didn't know I'd end up rummaging around in all the things I've tried to ignore.
Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I'm paralyzed with a sense of catastrophe. Dreams. Dreadful dreams. That's when I need to go home and see people along the river I've known forever. One morning before I had let anybody know where I was, it was like that; and when I opened my burning eyes, a book I was reading fell to the floor with a clunk, and I felt like maybe I'd been underwater, too, like those beings they talk about.
I like to read far into the night, and I tell myself it is maybe not a good thing. Kind of like confession at the altar of the Catholic Church, it's supposed to be good for the soul, but like most recovering Catholics I can't help but be cynical—confessing and confessing, and reading page after page, book after book.
Everybody who knows me knows I'm "fallen away" but that I continue to be an obsessive reader.
I've been reading a lot of "abuse of power" stuff lately. That's what I'm into these days. Politics. Siege and war. Invasions. Migrations. I even started Jefferson and the Rights of Man. Phony stuff. Debo's A History of the Indians of the U.S. is really more my speed. Mostly because it is such a pathetic story and it seems—more than most—that it is my story.
Reaching for the glass of water at the night stand, I glanced at the clock. Ten to six. The sense of panic subsided. I ought to get up, I think. Maybe I should drive home to visit Kevin. I never did tell him I was leaving.
"You'll go far," he was always telling me. But, hey, I'm not going no place. Crummy job. Never went to the Army, like he did. I'm just barely surviving. Just spend my time reading. Reading. Reading.
As my feet touched the cold, bare floor I felt my bones aching. I looked at the open page at my feet: "One day the able Mangas Coloradas, chief of the Mimbrenos, made a friendly visit to some gold miners at Palos Altos in southwestern New Mexico. They tied him up and whipped him unmercifully. Understandably, he went on the warpath." Page 163, OKLA. PRESS. Debo. 1883.
Eighteen eighty-three. A hundred years ago. It's a nasty story, but my fascination with history keeps books like that on my shelf. I hardly ever read about the tastes and minds of my own generation. (Continues...)
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