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Lewis is standing in the vaulted living room of his and Peta’s new rent house, staring straight up at the spotlight over the mantel, daring it to flicker on now that he’s looking at it.
So far it only comes on with its thready glow at completely random times. Maybe in relation to some arcane and unlikely combination of light switches in the house, or maybe from the iron being plugged into a kitchen socket while the clock upstairs isn’t—or is?—plugged in. And don’t even get him started on all the possibilities between the garage door and the freezer and the floodlights aimed down at the driveway.
It’s a mystery, is what it is. But—more important—it’s a mystery he’s going to solve as a surprise for Peta, and in the time it takes her to drive down to the grocery store and back for dinner. Outside, Harley, Lewis’s malamutant, is barking steady and pitiful from being tied to the laundry line, but the barks are already getting hoarse. He’ll give it up soon enough, Lewis knows. Unhooking his collar now would be the dog training him, instead of the other way around. Not that Harley’s young enough to be trained anymore, but not like Lewis is, either. Really, Lewis imagines, he deserves some big Indian award for having made it to thirty-six without pulling into the drive-through for a burger and fries, easing away with diabetes and high blood pressure and leukemia. And he gets the rest of the trophies for having avoided all the car crashes and jail time and alcoholism on his cultural dance card. Or maybe the reward for lucking through all that—meth too, he guesses—is having been married ten years now to Peta, who doesn’t have to put up with motorcycle parts soaking in the sink, with the drips of Wolf-brand chili he always leaves between the coffee table and the couch, with the tribal junk he always tries to sneak up onto the walls of their next house.
Like he’s been doing for years, he imagines the headline on the Glacier Reporter back home: FORMER BASKETBALL STAR CAN’T EVEN HANG GRADUATION BLANKET IN OWN HOME. Never mind that it’s not because Peta draws the line at full-sized blankets, but more because he used it for padding around a free dishwasher he was bringing home a couple of years ago, and the dishwasher dumped over in the bed of the truck on the very last turn, spilled clotty rancid gunk directly into Hudson’s Bay.
Also never mind that he wasn’t exactly a basketball star, half a lifetime ago.
It’s not like anybody but him reads this mental newspaper.
And tomorrow’s headline?
THE INDIAN WHO CLIMBED TOO HIGH. Full story on 12b.
Which is to say: that spotlight in the ceiling’s not coming down to him, so he’s going to have to go up to it.
Lewis finds the fourteen-foot aluminum ladder under boxes in the garage, Three Stooges it into the backyard, scrapes it through the sliding glass door he’s promised to figure out a way to lock, and sets it up under this stupid little spotlight, the one that all it’ll do if it ever works is shine straight down on the apron of bricks in front of the fireplace that Peta says is a “hearth.”
White girls know the names of everything.
It’s kind of a joke between them, since it’s how they started out. Twenty-four-year-old Peta had been sitting at a picnic table over beside the big lodge in East Glacier, and twenty-six-year-old Lewis had finally got caught mowing the same strip of grass over and over, trying to see what she was sketching.
“So you’re, what, scalping it?” she’d called out to him, full-on loud enough.
“Um,” Lewis had said back, letting the push mower die down.
She explained it wasn’t some big insult, it was just the term for cutting a lawn down low like he was doing. Lewis sat down opposite her, asked was she a backpacker or a summer girl or what, and she’d liked his hair (it was long then), he’d wanted to see all her tattoos (she was already maxed out), and within a couple weeks they were an every night kind of thing in her tent, and on the bench seat of Lewis’s truck, and pretty much all over his cousin’s living room, at least until Lewis told her he was busting out, leaving the reservation, screw this place.
How he knew Peta was a real girl was that she didn’t look around and say, But it’s so pretty or How can you or—worst—But this is your land. She took it more like a dare, Lewis thought at the time, and inside of three weeks they were a nighttime and a daytime kind of thing, living in her aunt’s basement down here in Great Falls, making a go of it. One that’s still not over somehow, maybe because of good surprises like fixing the unfixable light.
Lewis spiders up the shaky ladder and immediately has to jump it over about ten inches, to keep from getting whapped in the face by the fan hanging down on its four-foot brass pole. If he’d checked The Book of Common Sense for stunts like this—if he even knew what shelf that particular volume might be on—he imagines page one would say that before going up the ladder, consider turning off all spinny things that can break your fool nose.
Still, once he’s up higher than the fan, when he can feel the tips of the blades trying to kiss his hipbone through his jeans, his fingertips to the slanted ceiling to keep steady, he does what anybody would: looks down through this midair whirlpool, each blade slicing through the same part of the room for so long now that ... that ...
That they’ve carved into something?
Not just the past, but a past Lewis recognizes.
Lying on her side through the blurry clock hands of the fan is a young cow elk. Lewis can tell she’s young just from her body size—lack of filled-outness, really, and kind of just a general lankiness, a gangliness. Were he to climb down and still be able to see her with his feet on the floor, he knows that if he dug around in her mouth with a knife, there wouldn’t be any ivory. That’s how young she still is.
Because she’s dead, too, she wouldn’t care about the knife in her gums.
And Lewis knows for sure she’s dead. He knows because, ten years ago, he was the one who made her that way. Her hide is even still in the freezer in the garage, to make gloves from if Peta ever gets her tanning operation going again. The only real difference between the living room and the last time he saw this elk is that, ten years ago, she was on blood-misted snow. Now she’s on a beige, kind of dingy carpet.
Lewis leans over to get a different angle down through the fan, see her hindquarters, if that first gunshot is still there, but then he stops, makes himself come back to where he was.
Her yellow right eye ... was it open before?
When it blinks Lewis lets out a little yip, completely involuntary, and flinches back, lets go of the ladder to wheel his arms for balance, and knows in that instant of weightlessness that this is it, that he’s already used all his get-out-of-the-graveyard-free coupons, that this time he’s going down, that the cornermost brick of the “hearth” is already pointing up more than usual, to crack into the back of his head.
The ladder tilts the opposite way, like it doesn’t want to be involved in anything this ugly, and all of this is in the slowest possible motion for Lewis, his head snapping as many pictures as it can on the way down, like they can stack up under him, break his fall.
One of those snapshots is Peta, standing at the light switch, a bag of groceries in her left arm.
Because she’s Peta, too, onetime college pole vaulter, high school triple-jump state champion, compulsive sprinter even now when she can make time, because she’s Peta, who’s never known a single moment of indecision in her whole life, in the next snapshot she’s already dropping that bag of groceries that was going to be dinner, and she’s somehow shriking across the living room not really to catch Lewis, that wouldn’t do any good, but to slam him hard with her shoulder on his way down, direct him away from this certain death he’s falling onto.
Her running tackle crashes him into the wall with enough force to shake the window in its frame, enough force to send the ceiling fan wobbling on its long pole, and an instant later she’s on her knees, her fingertips tracing Lewis’s face, his collarbones, and then she’s screaming that he’s stupid, he’s so, so stupid, she can’t lose him, he’s got to be more careful, he’s got to start caring about himself, he’s got to start making better decisions, please please please.
At the end she’s hitting him in the chest with the sides of her fists, real hits that really hurt. Lewis pulls her to him and she’s crying now, her heart beating hard enough for her and Lewis both.
Raining down over the two of them now—Lewis almost smiles, seeing it—is the finest washed-out brown-grey dust from the fan, which Lewis must have hit with his hand on the way down. The dust is like ash, is like confectioner’s sugar if confectioner’s sugar were made from rubbed-off human skin. It dissolves against Lewis’s lips, disappears against the wet of his open eyes.
And there are no elk in the living room with them, though he cranes his head up over Peta to be sure.
There are no elk because that elk couldn’t have been here, he tells himself. Not this far from the reservation.
It was just his guilty mind, slipping back when he wasn’t paying enough attention.
“Hey, look,” he says to the top of Peta’s blond head.
She rouses slowly, turns to the side to follow where he’s meaning.
The ceiling of the living room. That spotlight.
It’s flickering yellow.