The Drome first came to me in the mirror when I was six. Earlier that day my friend Mario, while hanging from the monkey bars in the sand park, said, “Why’s your face look like that?”
I don’t remember what I did. I still don’t know. I remember smears of blood on the metal and the taste of metal in my mouth. I remember my grandma Maxine shaking my shoulders in the hall outside the principal’s office, my eyes closed, her making this psshh sound she always makes when I try to explain myself and shouldn’t. I remember her pulling my arm harder than she’d ever pulled it, then the quiet drive home.
Back home, in front of the TV, before I turned it on, I saw my face in the dark reflection there. It was the first time I saw it. My own face, the way everyone else saw it. When I asked Maxine, she told me my mom drank when I was in her, she told me real slow that I have fetal alcohol syn-drome. All I heard her say was Drome, and then I was back in front of the turned-off TV, staring at it. My face stretched across the screen. The Drome. I tried but couldn’t make the face that I found there my own again.
Most people don’t have to think about what their faces mean the way I do. Your face in the mirror, reflected back at you, most people don’t even know what it looks like anymore. That thing on the front of your head, you’ll never see it, like you’ll never see your own eyeball with your own eyeball, like you’ll never smell what you smell like, but me, I know what my face looks like. I know what it means. My eyes droop like I’m fucked up, like I’m high, and my mouth hangs open all the time. There’s too much space between each of the parts of my face—eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink. People look at me then look away when they see I see them see me. That’s the Drome too. My power and curse. The Drome is my mom and why she drank, it’s the way history lands on a face, and all the ways I made it so far despite how it has fucked with me since the day I found it there on the TV, staring back at me like a fucking villain.
I’m twenty-one now, which means I can drink if I want. I don’t though. The way I see it, I got enough when I was a baby in my mom’s stomach. Getting drunk in there, a drunk fucking baby, not even a baby, a little fucking tadpole thing, hooked up to a cord, floating in a stomach.
They told me I’m stupid. Not like that, they didn’t say that, but I basically failed the intelligence test. The lowest percentile. That bottom rung. My friend Karen told me they got all kinds of intelligences. She’s my counselor I still see once a week over at the Indian Center—I was at first mandated to go after the incident with Mario in kindergarten. Karen told me I don’t have to worry about what they try to tell me about intelligence. She said people with FAS are on a spectrum, have a wide range of intelligences, that the intelligence test is biased, and that I got strong intuition and street smarts, that I’m smart where it counts, which I already knew, but when she told me it felt good, like I didn’t really know it until she said it like that.
I’m smart, like: I know what people have in mind. What they mean when they say they mean another thing. The Drome taught me to look past the first look people give you, find that other one, right behind it. All you gotta do is wait a second longer than you normally do and you can catch it, you can see what they got in mind back there. I know if someone’s selling around me. I know Oakland. I know what it looks like when somebody’s trying to come up on me, like when to cross the street, and when to look at the ground and keep walking. I know how to spot a scaredy-cat too. That one’s easy. They wear that shit like there’s a sign in their hands, the sign says: Come Get Me. They look at me like I already did some shit, so I might as well do the shit they’re looking at me like that for.
Maxine told me I’m a medicine person. She said people like me are rare, and that when we come along, people better know we look different because we are different. To respect that. I never got no kind of respect from nobody, though, except Maxine. She tells me we’re Cheyenne people. That Indians go way back with the land. That all this was once ours. All this. Shit. They must not’ve had street smarts back then. Let them white men come over here and take it from them like that. The sad part is, all those Indians probably knew but couldn’t do anything about it. They didn’t have guns. Plus the diseases. That’s what Maxine said. Killed us with their white men’s dirt and diseases, moved us off our land, moved us onto some shit land you can’t grow fucking shit on. I would hate it if I got moved outta Oakland, because I know it so well, from West to East to Deep East and back, on bike or bus or BART. It’s my only home. I wouldn’t make it nowhere else.
Sometimes I ride my bike all over Oakland just to see it, the people, all its different hoods. With my headphones on, listening to MF Doom, I can ride all day. The MF stands for Metal Face. He’s my favorite rapper. Doom wears a metal mask and calls himself a villain. Before Doom, I didn’t know nothing but what came on the radio. Somebody left their iPod on the seat in front of me on the bus. Doom was the only music on there. I knew I liked him when I heard the line “Got more soul than a sock with a hole.” What I liked is that I understood all the meanings to it right away, like instantly. It meant soul, like having a hole in a sock gives the sock character, means it’s worn through, gives it a soul, and also like the bottom of your foot showing through, to the sole of your foot. It was a small thing, but it made me feel like I’m not stupid. Not slow. Not bottom rung. And it helped because the Drome’s what gives me my soul, and the Drome is a face worn through.
My mom’s in jail. We talk sometimes on the phone, but she’s always saying some shit that makes me wish we didn’t. She told me my dad’s over in New Mexico. That he doesn’t even know I exist.
“Then tell that motherfucker I exist,” I said to her.
“Tony, it ain’t simple like that,” she said.
“Don’t call me simple. Don’t fucking call me simple. You fucking did this to me.”
Sometimes I get mad. That’s what happens to my intelligence sometimes. No matter how many times Maxine moved me from schools I got suspended from for getting in fights, it’s always the same. I get mad and then I don’t know anything. My face heats up and hardens like it’s made of metal, then I black out. I’m a big guy. And I’m strong. Too strong, Maxine tells me. The way I see it, I got this big body to help me since my face got it so bad. That’s how looking like a monster works out for me. The Drome. And when I stand up, when I stand up real fucking tall like I can, nobody’ll fuck with me. Everybody runs like they seen a ghost. Maybe I am a ghost. Maybe Maxine doesn’t even know who I am. Maybe I’m the opposite of a medicine person. Maybe I’m’a do something one day, and everybody’s gonna know about me. Maybe that’s when I’ll come to life. Maybe that’s when they’ll finally be able to look at me, because they’ll have to.
Everyone’s gonna think it’s about the money. But who doesn’t fucking want money? It’s about why you want money, how you get it, then what you do with it that matters. Money didn’t never do shit to no one. That’s people. I been selling weed since I was thirteen. Met some homies on the block by just being outside all the time. They probably thought I was already selling the way I was always outside, on corners and shit. But then maybe not. If they thought I was selling, they probably woulda beat my ass. They probably felt sorry for me. Shitty clothes, shitty face. I give most of the money I get from selling to Maxine. I try to help her in whatever ways I can because she lets me live at her house, over in West Oakland, at the end of Fourteenth, which she bought a long time ago when she worked as a nurse in San Francisco. Now she needs a nurse, but she can’t afford one even with the money she gets from Social Security. She needs me to do all kinds of shit for her. Go to the store. Ride the bus with her to get her meds. I walk with her down the stairs now too. I can’t believe a bone can get so old it can shatter, break into tiny pieces in your body like glass. After she broke her hip, I started helping out more.
Maxine makes me read to her before she goes to sleep. I don’t like it because I read slow. The letters move on me sometimes, like bugs. Just whenever they want, they switch places. But then sometimes the words don’t move. When they stay still like that, I have to wait to be sure they’re not gonna move, so it ends up taking longer for me to read them than the ones I can put back together after they scramble. Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not gonna hurt as much anymore. One time she used the word devastating after I finished reading a passage from her favorite author—Louise Erdrich. It was something about how life will break you. How that’s the reason we’re here, and to go sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples fall and pile around you, wasting all that sweetness. I didn’t know what it meant then, and she saw that I didn’t. She didn’t explain it either. But we read the passage, that whole book, another time, and I got it.
Maxine’s always known me and been able to read me like no one else can, better than myself even, like I don’t even know all that I’m showing to the world, like I’m reading my own reality slow, because of the way things switch around on me, how people look at me and treat me, and how long it takes me to figure out if I have to put it all back together.
How all this came about, all the shit I got in, is because these white boys from up in the Oakland hills came up on me in a liquor-store parking lot in West Oakland, straight up like they weren’t afraid of me. I could tell they were scared of being there, in that neighborhood, from the way they kept their heads on a swivel, but they weren’t afraid of me. It was like they thought I wasn’t gonna do some shit because of how I look. Like I’m too slow to do some shit.
“You got snow?” the one as tall as me in the Kangol hat asked. I wanted to laugh. It was so fucking white for him to use the word snow for coke.
“I can get it,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure if I could. “Come back here in a week, same time.” I would ask Carlos.
Carlos is hella flaky. The night he was supposed to get it, he called me and told me he couldn’t make it, and that I’d have to go to Octavio’s to get it myself.
I rode my bike over from the Coliseum BART Station. Octavio’s house was in Deep East Oakland, off Seventy-Third, across from where the Eastmont Mall used to be until things got so bad there they turned it into a police station.
When I got there, people were pouring out of the house into the street like there’d been a fight. I sat back on my bike from a block away for a while, watched the drunks move around under the glow of the streetlights, all stupid like moths drunk on light.
When I found Octavio, he was all kinds of fucked up. It always makes me think of my mom when I see people like that. I wondered what she was like drunk when I was in her. Did she like it? Did I?
Octavio was pretty clearheaded, though, even through the heavy slur. He put his arm around me and took me to his backyard, where he had a bench press set up under a tree. I watched him do sets with a bar without weights on it. It didn’t seem like he realized there were no weights. I waited to see when he would ask the question about my face. But he didn’t. I listened to him talk about his grandma, about how she saved his life after his family was gone. He said she’d lifted a curse from him with badger fur, and that she called anyone not Mexican or Indian gachupins, which is a disease the Spanish brought to the Natives when they came—she used to tell him that the Spanish were the disease that they brought. He told me he never meant to become what he’d become, and I wasn’t sure what that was, a drunk, or a drug dealer, or both, or something else.
“I’d give away my own heart’s blood for her,” Octavio said. His own heart’s blood. That’s the way I felt about Maxine. He told me he didn’t mean to sound all sensitive and shit, but that nobody else ever really listened to him. I knew it was because he was fucked up. And that he probably wouldn’t remember shit. But after that I went straight to Octavio for everything.
It turned out those goofy white boys from the hills had friends. We made good money for a summer. Then one day when I was picking up, Octavio asked me in, told me to sit down.
“You’re Native, right?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, and wondered how he knew. “Cheyenne.”
“Tell me what a powwow is,” he said.
“Just tell me.”
Maxine had been taking me to powwows all around the Bay since I was young. I don’t anymore, but I used to dance.
“We dress up Indian, with feathers and beads and shit. We dance. Sing and beat this big drum, buy and sell Indian shit like jewelry and clothes and art,” I said.
“Yeah, but what do you do it for?” Octavio said.
“Money,” I said.
“No, but really why do they do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Whatchyoumean you don’t know?”
“To make money motherfucker,” I said.
Octavio looked at me with his head sideways, like: Remember who you’re talking to.
“That’s why we’re gonna be at that powwow too,” Octavio said.
“The one they’re having over at the coliseum?”
“To make money?”
Octavio nodded, then turned around and picked up what I couldn’t tell at first was a gun. It was small and all white.
“What the fuck is that?” I said.
“Plastic,” Octavio said.
“It’s 3-D printed. You wanna see?” he said.
“See?” I said.
Out in the backyard, I aimed the gun at a can of Pepsi on a string, with two hands, my tongue out and one eye closed.
“You ever fired a gun before?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Shit’ll make your ears ring.”
“Can I?” I said, and before I got an answer I felt my finger squeeze and then the boom go through me. There was a moment when I didn’t know what was happening. The squeeze brought the sound of the boom and my whole body became a boom and a drop. I ducked without meaning to. There was a ringing, inside and out, a single tone drifting far off, or deep inside. I looked up at Octavio and saw that he was saying something. I said What, but couldn’t even hear myself say it.
“This is how we’re gonna rob that powwow,” I finally heard Octavio say.
I remembered there were metal detectors at the entrance to the coliseum. Maxine’s walker, the one she used after she broke her hip, it set one of them off. Me and Maxine went on a Wednesday night—dollar night—to see the A’s play the Texas Rangers, which was the team Maxine grew up rooting for in Oklahoma because Oklahoma didn’t have a team.
On the way out, Octavio handed me a flyer for the powwow that listed the prize money in each dance category. Four for five thousand. Three for ten.
“That’s good money,” I said.
“I wouldn’t be getting into some shit like this, but I owe somebody,” Octavio said.
“Mind your business,” Octavio said.
“We good?” I said.
“Go home,” Octavio said.
The night before the powwow, Octavio called me and told me I was gonna have to be the one to hide the bullets.
“In the bushes, for real?” I said.
“I’m supposed to throw bullets into the bushes at the entrance?”
“Put ’em in a sock.”
“Put bullets in a sock and throw them in the bushes?”
“What I say?”
“It just seems—”
“You got it?”
“Where do I get bullets, what kind?”
“Can’t you just print them?”
“They can’t do that yet.”
“There’s one more thing,” Octavio said.
“You still got some Indian shit to put on?”
“Whatchyoumean Indian shit?”
“I don’t know, what they put on, feathers and shit.”
“I got it.”
“You’re gonna wear it.”
“It won’t even barely fit.”
“But will it?”
“Wear it to the powwow.”
“All right,” I said, and hung up. I pulled my regalia out and put it on. I went out into the living room and stood in front of the TV. It was the only place in the house I could see my whole body. I shook and lifted a foot. I watched the feathers flutter on the screen. I put my arms out and dipped my shoulders down, then I walked up to the TV. I tightened my chin strap. I looked at my face. The Drome. I didn’t see it there. I saw an Indian. I saw a dancer.