"Elegant and gritty, angry and funny. Staples’s work is emotional without being sentimental. Dennis unmakes something in us, then remakes it, a quilt of characters that embody this town, this place, which sleeps but doesn’t dream, or it is all a dream we want to wake up from with its characters." Tommy Orange, author of There, There
On an Ojibwe reservation called Languille Lake, within the small town of Geshig at the hub of the rez, two men enter into a secret romance. Marion Lafournier, a midtwenties gay Ojibwe man, begins a relationship with his former classmate Shannon, a heavily closeted white man. While Marion is far more open about his sexuality, neither is immune to the realities of the lives of gay men in small towns and closed societies.
Then one night, while roaming the dark streets of Geshig, Marion unknowingly brings to life the spirit of a dog from beneath the elementary school playground. The mysterious revenant leads him to the grave of Kayden Kelliher, an Ojibwe basketball star who was murdered at the age of seventeen and whose presence still lingers in the memories of the townsfolk. While investigating the fallen hero’s death, Marion discovers family connections and an old Ojibwe legend that may be the secret to unraveling the mystery he has found himself in.
Set on a reservation in far northern Minnesota, This Town Sleeps explores the many ways history, culture, landscape, and lineage shape our lives, our understanding of the world we inhabit, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.
About the Author
DENNIS E. STAPLES is an Ojibwe writer from Bemidji, Minnesota. He graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction. He is a graduate of the 2018 Clarion West Writers Workshop and a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Nightmare magazine. He is a member of the Red Lake Nation. This Town Sleeps is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
What Boys Do
I DON'T KNOW WHY I keep coming back here.
Geshig is a reservation town situated on a major highway about fifteen miles from Half Lake. The population sign reads 6 67, one digit from freaking out the superstitious and religious.
That's a common thing in Geshig. There are five churches, after all, including an Ojibwe-Christian fusion chapel that started as a Masonic brotherhood. The whites, the reds, the boxes for "other," and any remaining groups: all are superstitious here.
I drive in from Half Lake, where I live and work as a payroll clerk for a dental office. Sometimes I drive around town at one a.m. but during the daytime I shop at the local grocery store. I pay more money than if I were to just shop at the Walmart in Half Lake but I like the meat from here better. And if my money can help this little town's economy, I guess that's good.
When I come during the day, the parking lot is more than half filled with cars. Not all are local. I can tell just by looking at the paint jobs. If there's no rust, or if it has a full grille on the front, or has never been broken into, then it probably doesn't belong to Geshig. The closest reputable car dealership is thirty miles away, and on the high side of budgets that this town can't support except for some of the only good-paying jobs with the reservation.
On the Friday when I cash my check at the grocery store and buy a few small bags of food, there is a woman and her daughter sitting on the sidewalk out front. It's a hot day in early June but they don't appear bothered by the heat. They have a cardboard box with five puppies and a bowl of water inside. Three are brown with white underbellies and legs. Two are black and gray. All are staring up and out of the box, yipping for attention. No more than two months old.
On the side of the box in thick black marker is the word Free.
"You want one?" the woman says. She's a lithe Ojibwe woman with a bubbly olive face and long, swamp-tea hair. Her daughter is focused only on another pup, in her lap with a collar on. It's brindled, but with a white underbelly and piercing blue eyes.
"Oh I don't know ..." I mumble, though I know instantly that I want one.
"Can't argue with free," she says. "You got a cigarette?"
"I don't." I walk away from them and then, without thinking, I turn back. "What kind do you smoke?"
I buy a pack of cigarettes for the woman. "This for the brindle."
She lets out a surprised, satisfied laugh. "Damn, deal, guy!" There was no hesitation.
I pick up the other brindle from the box and get a good look. Male. Not shy. He licks my face as soon as he can and doesn't stop until I pull him away. The little girl is sad to see him go.
"I'm Marion. What's your name?"
She has the same face as her mother, except with a wider smile, with big, bright teeth. "Ma'iinganikwezens! Mommy calls me Maya."
Ma'iinganikwezens. Wolf Girl. I smile. "That's a great name. And how about you?"
"Gerly. Short for Gertrude." She blows her first puff of smoke to her right, as if that will protect her daughter's lungs. "Pokeg- ama. I know. White-lady name. I always hated it."
The name seems familiar to me, but I don't think I recognize her face. "I know how you feel. 'Marion' got made fun of a lot growing up. Also didn't help that 'Lafournier' was easily made into 'La-Four-Eyes.'"
Gerly shakes my hand. "Good luck with the pup. He's a rezdog."
I have a name picked out for the dog before I leave the city limits. Basil. Because the herb was on sale in the store, two for one, but I only needed one. Now I have the other.
* * *
THE LIGHT ON THE message screen pings. The profile is blank but in a small town that could mean many things. Discretion. Shame. Desperation. The need for relief in a failing marriage. This man on the other end doesn't say much about what he wants. He won't even send a face pic and he doesn't want to see mine. I'm not closeted; I used to have my face showing but men wouldn't reply when they saw my Indian skin.
After hearing a brief description of my body, the only thing he will agree to is meeting at a dark place in the middle of the night. To most men this is probably a red flag.
Basil is sleeping in his pen near my TV and has food and water. He'll be okay for the next hour or two.
Right at the south end of Geshig, there is a rest area near a small park and a few acres of marshland. Until a few years ago, the park was an aging, dangerous structure filled with slivers, metal bars, and, according to some rumors, dried blood where children were either murdered or simply scraped their skin. Now it's a plastic pastel paradise with padded corners and a soft mulch ground instead of the pebbles that were once the endless ammo for rock fights. But most kids still prefer the elementary school park because of how much bigger it is.
The parking lot is well lit from the streetlights, and the new playground catches enough of it to discourage post-curfew children or drug deals.
Far behind the rest area building, away from the light pollution and near the cattails is where I meet him. As soon as I see his silhouette approach from another far end of the area, I begin my typical bout of last-minute nervousness and convince myself that he is a murderer. He is coming here to strangle me and throw me into the marsh. My body will not rot and future generations will study my mud-mummified corpse during their wetlands section of general science. That will be my reward for anonymous sex.
He sits next to me in the grass. "Hi." We sit there for a few moments before he reaches over to me. I expect his hand to land right at my groin, but instead he touches my stomach. His hand traces my sternum up to my shirt collar and then brushes over my neck and chin. For a long time, he touches the stubble on my face and says nothing. Then he moves back to my chest, lifting up my shirt and running each finger through the short tangles.
He removes my shirt and with both hands begins to squeeze my pecs, softly at first and then harder. I haven't experienced this before. Is this how a woman feels?
His hands dig into my skin. I let out a squeal and he stops. "Sorry! Sorry! I didn't mean to ..."
Even in a quiet whisper in the night, I recognize his voice. I smile and bring his hands back to me. "Don't worry. I liked it." He lets out a breath that sounds like a smile and begins grabbing me again. "Can I kiss you?" "Yes."
"I wanna see you first."
The outline of his head looks over to the parking lot before standing up. He caresses my hand and leads me toward the back of the rest area.
I see his face before he sees mine.
The moment Shannon recognizes who he's been groping in the dark, he pulls his hand away and runs back to the shadows of the grass.
"I knew I shouldn't have done this. I'm so fucking stupid!" His whispers are full of anger, almost enough to scare me. I follow him and repeat "Calm down" until he sits back on the grass and puts his head in his hands.
"Good to see you?" I pull my shirt back on and zip up my jeans.
"I shouldn't be here ..."
"But you are here." I scoot closer a few inches. "Might as well make the best of it."
"Sorry. I don't think I can."
I laugh. "How were you having a better time feeling up a guy you didn't know?"
"You won't get it."
"I won't ask you to keep going but you had a need. You're here. I'm here. It's up to you."
"Do you have anything to drink? Whiskey? Beer?"
"At a rest area in the middle of the night? No, I don't. I have weed in my car though."
"No, I don't smoke. Can we go back to your place?"
It's a nice surprise to hear those words. Usually the men who meet in the dark would never want to have any contact outside of the shadows.
"If you want."
He lets out a loud sigh and falls back on the grass. "Or maybe we could go for a walk first?"
"I guess it's as good a time as any. Where to?"
Shannon Harstad was voted king at our junior prom. The theme was Fairy Tales and he danced with the queen, Leah Littlebear. I was working the concession stand, not actually part of the fun. Shannon's own participation was reluctant. He was never the spotlight kind of person, not like the other popular boys.
Without looking at me much, Shannon leads me across the highway and onto the sidewalk off Fourth Street. Every time I try to catch up, his shoulders go tense and he walks faster.
"Have a place in mind?" I ask.
"It's past the curfew."
We walk past the Geshig Elementary School and just as we're about to pass the park, he stops. His gaze is transfixed into the darkness of the wooden fences and metal slides.
At the edge of the fence we stand and look at each other's silhouettes. I didn't get a good look at him on the way here, even with the streetlights around, but I recognize the outline of his face. Even with age, he's still the same Shannon Harstad that I grew up with all through school.
"So ... you're gay?" He turns from me and starts walking away from the fence. "Wait, I'm sorry."
At first it seems he is angry but then he leads me toward another dark shape, about fifty yards from the park.
He stops at the edge, but doesn't turn it. "Do you remember this thing? No one liked it because of the dog thing."
Every child in the elementary school knew the story. A dog went under the merry-go-round to die and no one would play on it. There was one time, though, a guy dared me to. The same guy I'm now hooking up with in the dark.
"Do you know if that was true or not?"
"No clue ..."
He turns to me and finally starts kissing me again. His hands grip my shoulders and he tries to lay me down on the merry-go-round.
"Um, bad idea," I say, pulling away from his tongue.
I push the iron bars and a loud, rusty screech blasts into the night. "Too loud. And we're way too close to a school. What if we get caught?"
He sighs and his lips brush mine just a little. "You're right. I'll take that drink now."
His truck follows my car through Geshig and westward toward Half Lake.
The first chance I had to move out of Geshig and off the Languille Lake reservation, I took it. I moved to the Twin Cities for college. And then as a few years passed, and after a disastrous relationship or two, I found myself back in Half Lake, and spending a lot of time in my hometown. It pulls me back here like the door at the end of a dream that you don't want to go through, but you can't control your feet.
My house is just on the inside of the Half Lake city limits, close to the highway. It's a small, pale cream house with a decent yard, and rent to own, so I'll be here for the foreseeable future.
Inside, I grab a bottle of whiskey and bring it to Shannon. He sits on my couch and I sit across from him in a small armchair. I would sit next to him but it's probably best to let him get a few drinks before we start again.
"I'm guessing you're not out?"
The bottle is thrown back. Eyes wince. "Fuck no."
"You're twenty-seven, right?"
"Exactly," he says with a bitter whiskey laugh. "I'm almost thirty. No wife. No kids. No fucking anything."
He takes another drink and then stands up. "You're hard." He's right. I had thought about being polite and hiding the bulge but I didn't think it would matter since whatever else he was feeling his lust is what got him in this situation.
"I have patient boners."
He walks over to me and grips it through my jeans. It's not an uncomfortable grip, but it feels unsexual. "What if I squeezed really hard? Would you like that? Would you still wanna fuck?"
I have no response but a hope that he doesn't deliver on that offer. I don't want that. And I don't know him, not anymore, probably not ever. I have no idea if saying the wrong thing will set him off and make this whole thing end badly. "Is that what you'd like to do?"
The grip relents a little and he traces the tip with his index finger. "Do you have a bed?"
"Of course I have a bed."
His hand stops. "Never done it on a bed before."
My first instinct is to laugh but instead, I stand up and lead him to my bedroom. The overhead light is off but there is a dull blue glow from the muted TV in the corner. Nearby in a pen is where Basil is sleeping. I sit at the edge of the bed and look up at Shannon. In the dusky light standing over me, he looks more imposing than ever. He has a round face and a shaved head, but his short beard looks thicker, bushier. The glare from the screen reflects in his glasses so I can't see his eyes.
Shannon wastes no time. I feel his hands grab my shoulders and push me down. His body, softer than in high school but no less powerful, covers me. The taste of the whiskey hits my tongue. He smells sweet, fruity, almost like a car air freshener or a candle. The smell is soft, but his body is urgent, wanting.
Urgency doesn't equal grace, and it shows in the awkward, inexperienced way he positions my body and prepares to enter me. He avoids touching my ass with his hands, which does not make lubing an easy task for me with him on top. When the condom is on, he works himself inside slowly, asking over and over if I'm okay. As soon as I grab him by the hips and pull him in faster, his concern and gentleness are gone, and his body begins to take mine.
I lose myself in the fucking and when he finishes his last thrust, I'm not sure how much time has passed. He stays inside and on top of me for a few moments before pulling out and lying down next to me. We speak only with heavy breaths and light touches across our chests.
Though I enjoy myself during the entire encounter, I can't help but feel that his excitement, his moans of pleasure, his climactic roar, were not really for me.
He sits at the edge of the bed and stares down. "Cute pup."
"He's a little shit."
"Have you trained him?"
"Every day. But he chews things."
"Then you're not training him. He your only one?"
"Yeah ... Gonna take off now?"
"Unless you want me to stay."
I reach over and rub my hand across his side where his once-toned obliques have turned into soft, lightly haired love handles. "I want what you want. Plus, you drank half that bottle. Shouldn't drive."
"You have no clue how much I drink, do you?"
"Well, I do now." My hand moves to his thigh. "Next time I'll return the favor."
Shannon turns back to me. The screen is behind him, so his face is a silhouette that I can't read. But I think I saw a shadowed smile. "My phone alarm goes off at five a.m. And you're little spoon."
He wraps himself around me again and says no more.
* * *
IN THE MORNING, SHANNON doesn't explain what had bothered him so much when he realized who he was kissing in the grass. He doesn't say anything as he leaves, no forced small talk about meeting again, no awkward goodbye kiss. One moment I was sleeping against a warm, slick body, and then his alarm made him vanish into the still moist air.
I send him a message on the app that first connected us and thank him for his time. The light is no longer active.
Basil's bed is empty. I step carefully into the living room hoping the little guy hasn't pissed or shit on the floor. I find him in the kitchen eating, his bowl filled to the brim. It looks like a splash of milk is at the bottom of the brown pellets. Shannon must have done it before he left.
It's a lazy Saturday and I pass time by training Basil with small chunks of off-brand hot dogs, failing over and over to get "lay down" to stick. My neighborhood is not the best for walking, so I drive back to Geshig. Basil loves car rides, so he can't stop jumping from the front and back seats.
While walking him, I run into Gerly again. This time she isn't smoking.
"Hey!" She kneels to pet him and he greets her just as enthusiastically as the last time they were together. "How's the rezdog?"
"Learning. Slowly. Would you like to join us?"
"Uh, sure. I have some time. Wanna go to the Red Pine Diner?"
The diner is about as small-town stereotypical as you can think of, except instead of white housewives and truckers there are Indian mothers, on welfare or with full-time jobs. Either way, they are often the sole providers for their children. I know from experience with my mother.
Gerly orders for the both of us, insistent that I need to try the frybread/omelet combo. And she talks way more than I'm used to, almost like the pep rally girls back in high school. It turns out she is on the Geshig Elementary PTA, got her spot easily. She lives right in town. Runs a day care. Volunteers at many school events. Adored by the town mothers. If I was half as perfect for this town as she is, I would not still be here.
"So, is Maya's father in the picture?"
"No." She takes a small bite of frybread and eggs. "He died about twelve years ago."
Some quick mental math almost makes me spit out my food. "Oh! Kayden?"
The realization stuns me, where I knew Gerly's name from. Why hadn't I remembered that? Kayden and Gertrude had a daughter. I knew that, but I never knew the girl's name.
"Oh — I — wow, it's been that long already." Maya is only eleven and she's spent her entire life with a murdered father. I have no idea what to say now.
"God, feels like yesterday sometimes," Gerly says. "You remember all that?"
How could I not? For Geshig, it was a "where were you?" kind of moment. The town, for those few years, existed as pre– and post–Kayden Kelliher. I was thirteen, less than a month left of eighth grade, sitting in my room listening to Souvlaki and star- ing at the walls. I remember because that's the only thing I did on school nights, listen to my mother's stoner records.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Town Sleeps"
Copyright © 2020 Dennis E. Staples.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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