T-e-c-u-m-s-e-h But Not Like William Tecumseh Sherman
by NATE KANIA
I’m waiting at a stoplight out by the strip mall in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, when I notice a woman sitting on the raised flowerbed of a traffic island. She’s wearing a woolen hat, a camouflage jacket and dark green pants. She’s hunched over to protect herself from the wind. A sleeping bag and a suitcase rest at her feet, and she holds a cardboard sign with her bare hands. Hungry, broke, and stranded. Need money or ride. Will do anything for food. God + Bless. Growing up, my parents always told me to look homeless people in the eye, because, they said, all homeless people really want is an acknowledgement that you know they exist. I assume this woman is homeless, so I look her in the eye as I drive past, and I turn into a Dunkin Donuts across the street. Because it’s past noon, and I haven’t had my coffee yet.
At Dunkin Donuts, I start to imagine what might happen if I took the woman out to lunch. She might stab or rob me. That’s pretty unlikely. I’m a well-built six-foot tall varsity athlete. She couldn’t have been more than 5’ 5”. And she looked cold. Still, she might get my car dirty. The least I can do is bring her some food. I buy her a coffee muffin—muffins generally have about twice as many calories as donuts—and I drive back across the street. The “Will do anything for food” makes me think of sex, and I imagine myself walking over to her, coffee muffin in hand, suavely saying, “You’ll do anything for food eh? Well how ’bouts I write about you?” I resolve to go through with it. Right as I’m about to approach her, I see a man hand her some money from truck window. It rattles my confidence, but I get out of my car and walk over.
“Mind if I sit here for a bit?” I motion to the flowerbed.
“No, go ahead.” She smiles at me, moving some things so that I have room. I can see that her teeth are yellowed and not entirely intact.
“Here,” I say, handing her the coffee muffin. She thanks me and puts it beside her, next to a large unopened can of dog food and a pile that includes tacos, a sandwich, and some peanut butter. I sit next to her for a few minutes, not saying anything. The sleeping bag at my feet rummages and a head pokes out. “You’ve got dogs.” More a statement than a question.
“What are their names?”
“That one’s Opi,” she says nodding to the protruding head, “Got him from my ex, who got him to try and get me back. Told me he’d spent $150 on the dog, but I said nope, you ain’t getting me back and I’m taking the dog! Got a bag of weed out of the deal too.” Not bad, I tell her. “Yeah,” she says, “I wish I had a bag of weed now.” I ask about the other dog. It’s named Baby Girl, and the woman got her when a family offered her shelter for the night before kicking her out an hour later with a dog they didn’t want. Baby Girl is seven-and-a-half. The woman says Opi and Baby Girl will have a hell of a litter someday.
A low-end sedan pulls up, and a grey-bearded, longhaired man with glasses sticks his head out. He hands the woman a pizza box. “There’s over half of one in there, and still warm.”
“I love the old hippies,” the woman tells me. She offers me some pizza. “Help yourself if you’re hungry. No way I’m gonna be able to finish all that.” By now, I’ve reduced my coffee to an empty Styrofoam shell, and the wind has blown it away. I open the pizza box. Little Caesars. It’s warm pepperoni. There are five slices. I take one. I’m eating a homeless person’s pizza.
“So where are you from?” I ask, mouth half full. She’s from Old Saybrook in Connecticut, she says, by the beach. She got stranded in White River when her car broke down. She looks to be in her forties, with a face that could have been pretty if not for years in elements. A heavy man walks towards us. He’s wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and cream striped polo. He has glasses and a rash around his neck, and his skin is pale. I make eye contact with him when he is about thirty feet away, and we stay that way, eyes locked, until he is standing right in front of me. He folds a ten-dollar bill the long way between his fingers, and he slides it through the air, not to the woman, but to me. I nod “thanks” and hand the bill to the woman, who slips it into her coat pocket. Does he think we’re a couple?
I stay with the homeless woman for over an hour. In addition to the pizza from the hippy and the ten from the fat man, we get a five, another ten, some ones and a taco. The woman also collects cash from about five additional cars, but she slips it into her pocket before I can see how much. “Last night, I made $189 in the hour before sunset,” she volunteers.
“Really? Wow. What’s your single car high score?”
“$238. I once made over $600 in three hours.” She tells me she has a court date over in Vermont in a few days, regarding weed. “The cop asked me if I had any weed, I was like yeah, so what?”
“Never cooperate with cops,” I tell her. In the last sixty minutes, I’ve learned that her tent just got driven through by a railroad spike, that she spent time last year in North Dakota—“I ride the freight trains”—that the cops in Lebanon know her by name and don’t bother her, that she smokes Indian Spirit cigarettes, loves coffee, and prefers Starbucks. I learn a lot, but as the afternoon wind picks up and forces me to weigh the pizza box down with a Bible (“a woman gave that to me with a dollar inside”) I know I need to pop the question. And I don’t even know the woman’s name.
“Do you mind if I write about you?”
“I’m Nate, by the way.” I extend a hand. She turns and smiles at me, beaming. Then I notice her hands. She’s wearing one of those shirts that goes halfway up the palm, with a hole for the thumb. Her hands are red and smooth, covered in silver rings.
“I’m Tecumseh,” she says, “T-E-C-U-M-S-E-H.”
“That’s a beautiful name.” I mean it.
“Yup, got a bit of Cherokee in me. I’m Tecumseh like my grandfather five times who was the first Injun to sign a treaty with the white man.”
“Not like William Tecumseh Sherman?”
“Oh God, no.” Disdain noted.
I tell Tecumseh that I’d better be off, but I get her cell number (she has a cell) so that I can “check back in on her someday.” I walk back to my car, and Tecumseh starts to pack up. As I wait for the stoplight to let me out of the parking lot, the dogs come out of the sleeping bag. Baby Girl can barely walk. She’s some sort of short-legged hound to begin with, but her legs are nothing more than wrinkled pillars of fat. She has a grapefruit-sized cyst dangling from her belly. She less walks and more drags, but her expression looks cheerful. For a second, I consider going out, finding a vet, and guilt-tripping him to come down and take a look. But what would that accomplish? It’s probably better that Tecumseh and Baby Girl go on believing that summer will bring heat and a healthy litter of pups. The light turns green. I go.
* * *
I could call or text Tecumseh, but that would mean commitment. I’m not ready for that just yet. I’ll just drive down to West Lebanon and see if she’s around.
I come upon Tecumseh’s flowerbed. She’s here. She’s ditched the camouflage jacket in favor of a black sweatshirt. The dogs are out, and there’s no sign of the lime green sleeping bag from last week. After circling the shopping plaza for several minutes, I pull into the Dunkin Donuts across the street. My plan is to observe Tecumseh, but I’m fifty yards away and I can only see her back. This isn’t going to work. I turn the car on and drive across the road, parking in the Kmart lot. I am now about twenty yards away from her. Not ideal, but I don’t want to be discovered. Especially since my car is a bright blue Jetta station wagon.
Soon after I shut off the engine, Tecumseh begins to pack up. It’s 2pm, and she has told me that on Sundays, she “works” 11-2. Paranoia strikes. What if she walks towards me? I’m aware that I’ve parked right on the line connecting Tecumseh’s traffic island and the area of the woods where she’s told me she stakes her tent. I release the emergency brake, switch on the car, clutch into reverse, and execute sweeping backwards semi-circle that takes me into another parking space, further away. I throw on a pair of pink Oakley sunglasses. I feel like a spy.
Tecumseh walks right past where I had been parked, heading towards the woods. She’s wearing a heavy hikers backpack, and she has the dogs on two separate leashes. Every few steps, Opi tugs on his leash, throwing Tecumseh and her heavy pack forward. This releases the slack on Opi’s leash for just long enough that Tecumseh regains her balance, before Opi surges forward again. Behind Tecumseh, Baby Girl walks, slow and heavy, so that Tecumseh and her pack are continuously jarred in both directions; yanked ahead by Opi and tugged back by Baby Girl. Soon, Tecumseh’s back is to me. She’s almost to the woods. I start the Jetta and slowly creep towards her. Doing my best to blend in with the other parked cars, I get within about fifty feet of her as she disappears into underbrush and naked deciduous.
The forest continues along the back of the shopping plaza. I drive following a service road, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tecumseh’s camp. I come across a river, winding below me on the other side of a guardrail. The water gurgles as it rushes over rocks, creating whirlpools and drowning out the noise of the nearby interstate. There’s no sign of Tecumseh. I’m now behind the Kmart—in a land of delivery trucks and smoke breaks—but for now I’m alone. All around me is trash. Styrofoam containers, trash bags, plastics, litter. It permeates the sepia spring wilderness like a bad experiment in collage.
* * *
A week later, and she isn’t here. Sunday, 3:30 pm. She’s probably already off work. It’s sunny—55 degrees, trees just starting to bud—and the unforgiving wind that’s been blowing for weeks seems a little softer today. My story is starting to die. I haven’t spoken to Tecumseh a second time. I need to call her. After a minute of ringing, I get Tecumseh’s answering machine. “You know what to do.” I decide to go look for her home.
I head to where I saw her and her dogs head into the woods. There’s a path that leads between two painted yellow poles. I follow it over a mound of uncut grass and into the woods, past a half-filled gallon Poland Springs jug and a plastic bag that waves in a tree like a flag. I come across a pile of trash—several brown shopping bags, a 40-lb plastic bag of Purina dog food--Healthy Morsels--empties, shiny 24-oz Natural Light tall boys. The river runs by ten feet away. The shopping bags are filled with beer cans, mostly Natural and Busch Light, and an empty bottle of Mr. Boston; its label showing a top-hatted man on a palm-treed island, with the words VIRGIN ISLAND RUM printed, all caps, in a font that looks warning and imperative. I find a bottle of zero-calorie blackberry flavored water.
I continue down the path, which stays alongside the river. The woods become denser and the path less trodden, forcing me to push aside thorn bushes and to pay close attention to where I put my feet. About 100 yards on, I hear voices. Through the underbrush I can see tents and the blurry form of a person—a woman in a camping chair. A lanky mutt stands by her side. Opi. Tecumseh sits in this little opening in the woods, where a few white birch trees poke out against brown bramble. A ray of sunlight streams down onto her face. Tecumseh is soaking it up, with the same expression I imagine Opi would have if someone were rubbing the flesh beneath his chin. I’m drawing closer, when a shirtless man puts his quartered profile between me and Tecumseh. He is short with a beer belly, which he rubs with one hand while putting the other on Tecumseh’s shoulder. I’m not meant to be seeing this. I run.
* * *
“Hello?” Tecumseh’s voice croaks through the phone.
“Hey, Tecumseh, it’s Nate Kania.”
“Nate Kania, the kid from Dartmouth.”
“Oh hey, I remember you!” She sounds drunk. We agree to meet tomorrow. She’s in Waitsfield, Vermont, about an hour and a half from Hanover. So the next day, I find myself on I-89, heading north through Vermont. I cruise over budding hills, slowly climbing into the Green Mountains. Six miles north of Montpelier, I take the exit for Middlesex, and I breeze along Vermont 100B, the Mad River byway, a road in a mountain valley that’s flanked by a bubbling brook. A solitary telephone line follows me, running across fields of lush Vermont pasture. I put the windows down, and breathe.
I’m meeting Tecumseh at Mehuron’s Market. The Mt. Ellen Ski Resort rises in the distance. It’s May, but there’s still snow on the trails at the top. Back down in the plaza, there’s a grill where you can order at a window. At least thirty children and their parents are waiting in line for soft serve and burgers. I go into Mehuron’s. It’s a classy place. Tecumseh isn’t here. I walk back to the parking lot, soaking in the fresh air and that addictive feeling of being somewhere else. Maybe I’ll just stay in Waitsfield. Get a job and an apartment; spend the summer eating soft serve and swimming in the Mad River. Spend the winter skiing.
* * *
“It’s Nate. Where are you?”
“Nate Kania. The kid from Dartmouth.”
“Oh! I remember you!”
“Yeah, how’s it going?”
“It’s going great! How are you?”
“I’m good. Hey, I’m at Mehuron’s, and I can’t find you.”
“Mehuron’s. We spoke a few hours ago and agreed to meet here.”
“Oh yeah! I’m in the cemetery.
“Yeah. It’s behind Mehuron’s.”
* * *
The cemetery. She’s slouched against a chain-link fence, next to a grafittied gardening shed. Nearby, the sun beats down on granite tombstones. It’s warm. There are two people with her: an old man and another man, younger, with his back to me. The three of them are lounging in half-leafed shade. Tecumseh introduces the old man as Alan. His face is tanned by dirt and sun. Long, unwashed hair spills out from under his baseball cap. Four words, “Brother Hood Of Man,” are tattooed on his right hand. Pen-and-ink style. Alan says hello, then falls back against the fence and goes to sleep.
The other guy isn’t as friendly. He’s wearing a sweatshirt and camouflage cargo shorts, with a shaved head. Mid-thirties. Jesse. He ignores me. I ask Tecumseh where the dogs are. She points through the fence at a sleeping Baby Girl. “There she is. Opi’s around here somewhere.”
A white Hyundai pulls up and Tecumseh tells me that the driver is “Hollywood”—some guy who produces movies and is searching the area for Sasquatch. She walks over to the driver side window and returns with a bag of weed. I watch as she and Alan, who has been roused by the weed, pass a bowl back and forth. I don’ partake.
When they offer the bowl to Jesse, he declines. “I’m already high. Everything is just too bright.”
After a little while, Tecumseh says, “Wow, I’ve got absolutely nothing accomplished today.
Jesse says, “I got something accomplished. I got high and met some new people. That was all I wanted.”
I explain to Alan and Jesse that I’m a college student from “down the road.” Jesse hisses under his breath. Dartmouth. Then I realize I still have my sunglasses on. This wouldn’t be a big deal if they weren’t obnoxious pink Oakleys. At Dartmouth, they mean “rich douchebag that likes to party,” and I get lots of compliments on them. But here, I don’t think they’re doing me any favors. I push them to the back of my head.
“Hey, check this out!” Jesse has found something in the dirt. It’s a piece of metal shaped like a T. It’s golden and shiny.
“What do you think it is?” he asks the group.
“I don’t know,” says Alan, awake and inspecting, “Maybe part of a chainsaw.”
“Let me see,” I say. Alan hands it to me. The top part of the T is hollow, like a pipe, while vertical stem is a flathead screwdriver. “It looks like some sort of wrench,” I say, handing it back to Jesse.
“Naw,” he says, “I think it’s a car part. You know, like for a big old car? Maybe one day, I’ll find some guy whose car is broken and who needs it. And then, I’m gonna sell it to that guy, and I’ll make a hundred bucks!”
Tecumseh starts telling me stories. They are all begin, “We were all so fucking trashed.” “Like that one time, when Stacy and Rob and me were in Texas, and we were all so fucking trashed, and the cops took our bottle, and we were like, ‘Fuck you!’ so we went and got a handle, and then we went to McDonalds. And we used the free soda machine to mix the vodka until Rob got so drunk that he fell off his chair and got arrested!”
Tecumseh is especially proud of an interaction she had with a small-town Missouri cop. “He took me to the train yard and was like, ‘Get the fuck out of here,’ but I was like, ‘Fuck you!’ and I showed him! I stayed two more days and then left!”
From 2001 to 2004, Tecumseh owned a farm where she bred champion bulls. She was friends with one of her bulls, she says, and she rode him and chased him around the yard. One time, she says, the bull’s electric fence was broken, and he came knocking on her door for food. Another time, she gave him a bath. “I have a way with animals.” In 2004, Tecumseh gave up the farm. “I wanted more freedom to travel.” Now, she’d rather talk about White River Junction and all the different kinds of weed there. Or how she senses that a drought is coming.
Tecumseh’s drought comment sparks a conversation on global warming. “I don’t believe in that stuff,” says Jesse. He’s gotten up from his spot against the fence and is walking in circles, taking little sticks between his fingers and breaking them. “Man, you look at history and the climate has been fluctuating forever. Like thousands and millions of years, the temperature has gone up and down. You’re gonna tell me a few warm years goes against all of that history?”
Tecumseh agrees. “Yeah, and that hole in the ozone layer that they said was getting bigger and warming everything up is starting to get small again.”
“Exactly,” says Jesse, nodding. Consensus reached. I stay out of it.
A short man in a Marker Bindings tee shirt bikes across the cemetery lawn to join us. He introduces himself as Justin, and mentions owning a house down the road. Soon after Justin arrives, Jesse leaves. Alan’s asleep again. He’s passed out, with an arm drooped over Baby Girl, who he calls “the pepperoni dog.” They both look dead.
“Hey, Alan,” Tecumseh says, “You want some granola?”
“Sure,” says Alan, shaking himself awake. Tecumseh takes out a bag of granola and hands it to him. Without sitting up, he shovels the food into his mouth. He chews it slowly, and when he bites down, his wrinkled face scrunches and becomes wider than it is tall. Like a cartoon. Then, he relaxes. He keeps his eyes closed the whole time. Opi is chasing a robin between the tombstones, and Justin and Tecumseh are discussing technology. Tecumseh wants to buy the new version of the Samsung Galaxy, the one with the big screen that you can watch movies on.
“But,” she says, “they only sell the small Galaxy with the prepaid plans. And the big one is only $260. I could afford that. And it’s practically a laptop!
Justin nods. “If you need a laptop, then a laptop is the way to go.”
“Yeah,” says Tecumseh, “just trying to use the phone and watch movies.”
* * *
A week after our rendezvous in the cemetery, I travel to Waitsfield again. Tecumseh is camping at an outdoor hockey complex called The Rink, which is advertised in neon green letters spray-painted onto a piece of plywood. Most of Waitsfield is farmland, but The Rink is near the woods. Tecumseh has moved into a little red shed that’s meant to shelter people while they put their skates on. The floor is covered with clothing, empty beer cans, and spilled beer. Tecumseh’s passed out on top of Jesse. She’s wearing boxers and a tank top. She looks weary. Her skin is white and flabby. Baby Girl rests in the corner, in a puddle of beer that’s begun to attract flies. A dog bowl is filled with cigarette butts.
“Nate!” Tecumseh sits up when she sees me, extending her arms in a “come and hug me gesture.” Jesse looks at me, either territorial or skeptical or high.
“Mind if I sit here?” I say, pushing aside a pile of clothes.
“Sure,” she says. Then, “Do you have any rolling papers?”
“Um, no. But I could pick some up for you at the gas station.”
Tecumseh looks at Jesse, then at me. “Could you?” she says, fumbling with a wadded ball of dollar bills. “I’m just not sure I have enough.”
“It’s fine,” I say, “I got you.”
At the gas station, I ask the attendant what options they have for rolling papers. “We have white, blue, orange and King.” “King,” I say, then on second thought, “Actually, white will be fine.” She smiles at me. “$2.17.”
I walk back into the shed and toss the papers at Tecumseh. “Thanks,” she says. She reaches into the dog bowl for a handful of cigarette butts, empting out a few strands of tobacco from each. She collects these strands on top of a book, rolling a cigarette every time the pile gets big enough. The book is called Learning Chinese. “You speak Chinese?” I ask.
Tecumseh looks up, a big gap-toothed smile at me. “Nishi,” she says. When I don’t respond, she repeats herself, still smiling. “Nishi.” I don’t know what she’s saying. “Sprechen Deutsche?” she asks.
“I like to learn languages,” she says. “Even English. You know I used to read the dictionary? But I got bored—only got halfway through the As.”
I notice Tecumseh’s right arm has a poorly done Swastika tattooed on it. Or maybe it’s a Native American symbol.
Last week, Opi was hit by a car. Tecumseh tells it like this. “He was hit, and I ran up to him and I was like, ‘Who’s the douchebag that did this?’ And this guy got out of car—he was a New Yorker—and was like ‘I’m that douchebag, and I’ll be right back!’ Opi’s leg was busted up real bad, and the dog warden game and said that I had ’til Friday to come up with 500 bucks if I didn’t want to lose him. But I couldn’t get the money.”
“Where is he now?” I ask.
“Some fucking vet took him.” She spits. “And with all the work, and agility training that I did? And with Opi’s breeding? That dog’s worth a lot.”
Then she tells me a joke.
“Do you know the one about the one-legged pig?”
“You mean the three-legged pig?”
Tecumseh counts on her fingers. “Yeah, three-legged. Well, one day, this farmer is walking down the street with a three-legged pig, and this guy stops him and asks, ‘What happened to that pig’s leg?’ And the farmer says, ‘That pig there is the best pig in the whole world,’ and the guy is like, ‘Well, okay, but that doesn’t answer my question.’ The farmer is like, ‘That there is the best pig in the whole world, and one time, I got caught under my tractor, and that there pig rescued me,’ and the guy is like, ‘Okay, great, but that still doesn’t answer my question about the leg.’ And then the farmer is like, ‘Ah, the leg. Well, that there pig is the best pig in the whole world, and one time he saved me from under my tractor. And that’s such a good pig that I’m gonna eat him piece by piece and keep him alive until the very end!’” Tecumseh laughs, turning to Jesse. “I suck at telling jokes, don’t I?”
Jesse wants to know how old I am. “I’m 20,” I say.
“Ha,” says Tecumseh, “You can’t even drink.” She’s quiet for a moment. Then, she says, “My son was 20 when he OD’d on heroin.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Tecumseh shrugs. “I’m from Old Saybrook, see? Around there, there’s a mental hospital called the CVH, and all the graves just have numbers on them. Because, they find these people wandering on the side of the road, and they don’t have names, so the doctors from the hospital just come down and throw ’em in a straight jacket and take ’em up to the hospital! And the people stay there until they’re dead, and then they get put in the ground, with a number on their grave.” She laughs. “Yup, that’s me. Born with the crazies.”
Tecumseh’s phone buzzes. “Oooo!”
“What’s up?” I ask.
“It’s Steve and Tammy!” She reads the text aloud. Party 2night, got 2 30 racks of beer and a pound of weed gonna b a good time, come over whenever. “You wanna come?” she asks me.
I absolutely want to come.
“Good. Then you can give us a ride right?” We decide to couple the trip to Steve and Tammy’s with a run to Shaw’s. If Tecumseh gathers up her empty beer bottles, she’ll have enough money for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Jesse stands up to relieve himself against a tree, swaying like a boxer who’s just been hit. Tecumseh packs a bag. I head over to my car to make sure there’s room. I put on my pink Oakleys. Baby Girl barks incessantly at me. On her way out, Tecumseh pours the remainder of a Milwaukee’s Best tall-boy on the ground—with the promise of beer at Steve and Tammy’s, the five cents she can get by redeeming the can is more valuable than a few sips of lukewarm hops.
At Shaw’s, I park next to the can machines. Tecumseh stuffs empty beers into the kiosk, and every time, you can hear the aluminum being crushed inside. “Sixty cents? We’re rich!”
* * *
We get to Steve and Tammy’s place around three. It’s a house and two barns. I park next to a blue pickup truck with a CB radio. Tecumseh, Jesse, and I head down a slope and around to the back of the house. There’s a mountain stream and a dormant fire pit surrounded by plastic chairs. There’s also a pile of junk—mostly rusted metal and old electronics—and a clothesline with some woman’s underwear and a beekeeping suit. I meet Steve. He’s fat, with a tobacco-stained shirt tucked into his jean shorts. His beady eyes squint out from under a hat with a patriotic eagle on it. He places two thirty-beer cases of Natural Ice next to a tree by the stream.
There are three dogs at Steve and Tammy’s. A dark brown stud that looks part pit-bull, part lab is chasing Baby Girl, who lumbers through the grass. The lab-pit bull, named Bingo, keeps catching Baby Girl and humping her. “They’re in love,” says Tecumseh. The third dog can barely walk. Kiki. She is the color of coffee ice cream. I watch as she makes her way into the shade, gingerly, like she’s walking on glass. Kiki is thirteen. Ninety-one in dog years, with the kidney stones to prove it.
Steve hands out beers to me, Tecumseh and Jesse, but he doesn’t take one for himself. “What about you?” I ask him.
“I only drink the hard stuff, but not 'til later.”
Tecumseh starts talking about how there’s a bridge nearby that’s been built on top of an old junkyard. “Yup, got a lot of history around here.” Last time I hung out with her, we talked about how Warren, Vermont was named after a military commander who fought in the revolutionary war. “Like Warren?” I ask.
“Fuck Warren,” Tecumseh spits her beer. “But tell me they don’t got the best sandwiches on the planet.” I’ve never been. “Hey Steve, don’t they have the best sandwiches at the Warren Village Store?”
“Well, they’re good, but I wouldn’t say the best.” Steve talks in bursts, like there’s a catapult at the back of his mouth that he loads with every sentence before it comes flying out.
“Aw, come on Steve! Jesse, don’t they have the best sandwiches there?” Jesse is non-committal. Steve heads back inside. Tecumseh finds a Frisbee and wants to play catch. It’s a flimsy red Frisbee, but I play anyway, so Tecumseh and I have a toss, next to the mountain stream, in light dappled by the maple trees budding above our heads. While we play, Jesse sits by himself and drinks.
Tecumseh is pretty athletic given that I’ve seen her do nothing but drink for the past two hours. We play for a while and Steve’s daughter comes outside to join us. Our game is complicated by the presence of some machine that looks like it’s meant to shoot giant nails into the ground. “What is that?” I ask.
“It’s a wood splitter, silly,” says the girl.
“Nate!” A voice comes from behind me. “Never thought I’d see you again, buddy, but life’s so strange that way, isn’t it?” It’s Alan from the cemetery. Where did he come from? Alan walks over to the inactive fire pit, cracks a beer, and sits down in a plastic chair. I go back to the Frisbee. Not for long.
“Ron!” Alan screams. Some guy, presumably Ron, is walking down from the road. He’s short and muscular. He joins Alan over by the fire pit, and I walk over to introduce myself. Steve comes out of the house again, and he, Alan, and I sit down in the circle of plastic chairs. Then Ron starts to talk.
“Just came from that swimmin’ hole down the road. Was there to catch me some trout, but instead, I see five naked women. I’m just fishin’, mindin’ my own business, when these old girls come down. They take their clothes off, and jump right in! And their nipples poked out like this!” Ron holds his thumb and index finger about two inches apart. “I ain’t never seen nipples poke out that much! You wouldda loved it, Alan.”
Alan laughs and punches Ron on the arm. “You sick perv.”
“Yup, that’s me. Hey Bingo, you like that pussy?” Bingo has been chasing Baby Girl around for the last hour, and Ron wants to give him some advice. “What the fuck you doin’, man? Just sniff and lick. You ain’t gotta talk to it!” Alan asks if he can do some work with Ron—apparently Ron runs his own construction outfit. “You can work with me,” he tells Alan, “But you gotta be muthafuckin’ sober when you do it.”
“Muthafuckin’ sober?” Alan asks, imitating Ron.
Ron nods. “Yup. Mutha. Fuckin’. Sober.”
Tecumseh isn’t happy that I’ve stopped playing Frisbee. She comes over to grab another beer and tell me about it. Then something catches her eye.
“Do you know about defying gravity? You can defy gravity, and I’ve done it.” Tecumseh searches until she finds what she’s looking for—a small rock with a pointy end. “Do you think I can balance this rock?”
“No way,” says Jesse.
“Watch,” she says, “I’m gonna defy gravity.” Tecumseh squats down on the dirt. Her toes are pointed outward and her chest is pointed up—good hip flexibility. She’s still in her boxers, and that tank top. Tecumseh spends several minutes trying to balance the rock on its pointy end. She can’t do it. People start to laugh. Every time she almost gets the rock to stay, there’s a sarcastic “Ooo-ooo!” from the group, as the rock teeters for a second before collapsing.
“Come on, you old bag,” says Ron.
“Should we be videotaping this?” says Steve.
“Now shut up all of you!” shouts Tecumseh. “I’ve done this before. Haven’t I, Alan?”
“Yup. I’ve seen it,” replies Alan.
“You’ll see,” says Tecumseh, bolder now. “Defying gravity, it can be done! I’ve done it with rocks smaller than this. I’ve done it with big boulders. Alan’s seen me do it! You can do it if you do it properly!” She keeps trying for a few more minutes. The group starts to call her Kelly. Steve explains. He’s only ever known her as Kelly, ever since his wife hired her to help in the yard a few years back. “Tec-cuh what?” he says, laughing. “What’s that, Indian or something?” I stare at Tecumseh’s white arms, hunched over the rock she’s trying to balance. She gives up on the first rock and tries another. It’s about the size and shape of a football.
“I swear I can do it!” While Tecumseh tries with her new rock, I take the old one and in about a minute, I’ve got it standing on the pointy edge. “Did you dig into the ground?” I tell Tecumseh that no such digging has occurred. “Here,” she says, handing me the big rock, “Try this one. I know I can do it, but I just might be too buzzed right now.”
“No kidding,” says Steve. I take the rock and try to balance it. Tecumseh cheers me on.
“You have to be become one with the rock. One with the earth. If you can make your mind the same as the rock, then you can do it. You can defy gravity!” I’ve had a few beers, so this proposition sounds just a little less ridiculous than normal. Several times, I almost succeed, getting the rock to stand for ten or fifteen seconds before it falls down.
“It’s hard, right?” Tecumseh says. Soon, Justin from the cemetery joins us.
“Have I showed you the canoe yet?” Ron asks Justin. Justin shakes his head.
“You’re gonna love this,” Steve says to me, heading back inside.
“Come on, boys,” says Ron, beckoning to me, Justin and Alan as he heads up to the street. He stops beside a gray, 1970s Dodge van and opens the side door. “Ladies and gentleman, I give you Vermont’s first solar powered canoe!” Ron looks up, expecting to see astonished faces. Instead, he sees me, face down, scribbling in a notebook. “What the fuck you doin’ man, writin’ a fucking book?”
I give a tentative yes; it’s the best I can come up with under the circumstances. Ron gives a brief appreciative nod.
“Well, put that fuckin’ thing away and talk to me.”
Justin is fixated on the canoe. “What’s it do?” he asks.
Ron leads us around to the back of the van. “Here’s a better look.” The canoe takes up the entire length of the van, from the back door to the center console of the cockpit. In the middle, a solar panel stretches across the gunnels, with some wires running to a motor in the back. There are two vinyl seats at either end of the hull, facing in towards each other. Ron explains how even the fish finder (a little, GPS-like screen) runs on the solar panel. “Pretty neat, huh? And check out the patent.” He opens the passenger-side front door and points to something on the hull. It’s the letters “VT,” followed by a string of numbers. The boat’s registration number. I can’t tell if Ron is making a joke.
“I came up with another thing,” Ron tells me. “You know about chimney fires?” I don’t. “Everybody in this country is fuckin’ dyin’ of chimney fires. You see, the soot gets stuck up in the flu, and a spark makes it catch fire, and before you know it, your whole house has burned down while your family is sleepin’ inside it! I used to work in the restaurant business, and they had these systems where, if there was a grease fire on the grill and the flames started gettin’ up the chimney, it would trigger a retardant that would come crashin’ down and put everything out. I made something like that for house chimneys.”
“So this is what you do, work construction and invent things in your spare time?”
“Exactly.” Ron’s face is dark and weathered, and his eyes are a deep brown. “That’s exactly what I do. I work construction, and I dream.”
* * *
Back at the party, the group teases Ron. “Ronnie, you a millionaire yet?” “He ain’t yet, but he’s always got at least a thousand on him!” Steve takes a survey of what people want to eat. The choices are beef or salmon. I tell him I’d like salmon. “You would,” he says. I ask him where the men’s room is. “Uh, it’s the second tree on your left.”
Steve does a double take. “Well, I guess you can go in the house if you want…”
“No it’s fine, I just don’t want to piss in your yard without your permission.”
“Hell if I care.” I walk a little bit away from the group, and start to relieve myself next to a tree. “Not that one!” Steve’s voice screams behind me. I turn around. He’s laughing, holding his belly with one hand and waving with the other.
Bingo is still trying to mount Baby Girl. Ron tells him to lay off. “She’s an old lady, saggy tits, grey pussy hairs!”
Tecumseh retorts, “Bingo’s the sexiest nigger I ever saw!”
I sit back down. I must look out of it, because Ron comes over to me and asks me if I’m “counseling.”
“You know, counseling. Sitting back, taking it all in. Thinking, ‘how does this effect me?’ or, ‘what if this was me?’”
I laugh. “More or less, although I’m not sure ‘counseling’ is the right word.” Does he mean I’m doing this as a form of self-therapy?
“Aw, fuck it, man. You know about the black bag shit?”
Ron stands up and steps back. “Do you know about the wall, man?” I don’t. “It’s like, here’s this wall, and it’s behind you” Ron turns around and pantomimes a wall. “And on the other side of that wall is all that shit you don’t want to acknowledge. Like all your flaws, man. You’re what, 20? You got all these flaws, I do, everybody does, and over time you just put those behind the wall and they start to become who you are. All that shit in the past, your dad being a fuckin’ drunk and beatin’ your mom, all that shit, it’s behind the wall.”
“So it’s like your subconscious?”
“Kinda, man. You gotta step onto the other side of the wall to live. Me, I’m behind the wall. I’m livin’, man! I’m what, 46? 47? God, I don’t even know, but I’m livin’!” I congratulate him on living. “Yeah, man, but you gotta have friends in your life. A real friend is the kind who’s gonna go behind the wall for you and drag out all that shit that you don’t want to see. You need friends to be like, ‘Uncle Alan, you’re a fuckin’ drunk, and you’re drinkin’ way too much, and it really fuckin’ worries me.’”
It’s now close to six, and cooling. Time to light the fire. Steve drives across the lawn in his blue pick-up and dumps a bunch of wood in the fire pit. Ron pours some gas on top of the wood. A lot of gas. Tammy, Steve’s wife, comes out of the house.
“Damn, Steve, how’d you get that piece of ass?” It’s Tecumseh again.
“She thought I had money,” says Steve. Tammy checks him on the shoulder. Ron screams, “Stone him!” and chucks a small rock at Steve’s belly. Then, he walks over to the pile of junk and picks up a 2-iron. He douses the head in gasoline, prances over to the fire pit, and thrusts it between the logs. Flames erupt. Ron sets up in a golf stance. He swings, knees gyrating in and out, then puts his up his hand as a brim over his eyes and starts to stumble backwards, pretending to lose sight of the ball. “And it’s going… going… gone!” Everybody cheers.
Steve asks me when I have to be back at Dartmouth. I tell him whenever. “So, are you just not in class?” he asks.
“No, I am, I just don’t have a need to get back any time soon.” I mean that I can stay a few more hours, but this statement elicits awe.
“You mean you can just go to class whenever you want?” asks Tecumseh.
“Yeah stupid,” says Ron, “That’s the way college is,” says Ron. He turns to me. “Is it hard being in a group like us without feeling, what’s the word, prejustical?”
“You mean prejudicial?”
“Yup, that’s it. I don’t got mommy and daddy to put me through college. Just a redneck tryin’ to make it in this world.” It’s getting dark and dinner is about to be served. The burgers are up first. Justin, Tecumseh, Jesse and Alan paw on ketchup and settle back to the chairs around the fire. “Wow, not even eight, and you guys are all FUBAR,” says Steve. I still haven’t seen a drop of alcohol cross his lips. Ron reappears with a blue bottle. I didn’t realize he left.
“65-year old German whiskey right here! Rare! Once in a lifetime! Come one, come all!” Ron hands around the bottle as people take swills.
“I miss Opi!” screams Tecumseh.
“Come over here,” Alan says to me, “You gotta try this stuff.” He is wide-eyed and beckoning, holding the blue bottle.
“Is that really 65-year old German whiskey?” I whisper to Ron.
“Nah man, you can buy it at any old liquor store. It’s a story, but he loves it,” he says, gesturing to Alan. “It would be my honor if you took a swig.”
“Well, in that case, I guess I have to.” I take the bottle and tilt it back. The liquid is warm. It tastes like peppermint schnapps.
The salmon is ready. Tammy and her two girls come out of the house—they’ll be eating the fish, with me. Steve and Ron assemble burgers. We head over to a red picnic table, a few yards removed from the circle around the fire. Over by the fire, Jesse is fondling Tecumseh’s hair. She’s got her back towards him, and she’s packing a bowl of weed with Alan. It must be Alan’s pipe—Tecumseh told me that she pawned hers a week ago for a pack of cigarettes. Justin is sitting by himself, clutching a beer and staring off into space. It’s hard to tell if there’s even a person inside. The heat of the day has burnt off, leaving sunset and a soupy, gentle breeze. It’s the kind of weather that would make you worry about mosquitos, except the last few weeks have been cold, so the bugs haven’t had a chance yet to breed. Every few minutes, a car passes—you can hear it from a mile away—but mostly there’s just the sound of the wind and the river.
Steve and Tammy’s two daughters seem nice enough. One is in fifth grade; the other is in high school. The older one is curvy, wearing jeans and a purple sweater. Earlier, I heard her telling Ron that she fits into “every C-cup, except Victoria’s Secret.” I missed the rest of the conversation. She’s got a high GPA, according to her mother. 4.3. I ask her if she’s planning on college. She nods an enthusiastic yes. “Any idea where?” I ask. Standard upper-middle class table conversation.
“Well, Harvard would be nice,” she says. Steve and Tammy laugh, but it’s clear they’re very proud. She thinks she has a shot. Maybe she does. I ask her what she thinks of Dartmouth. “Eh.”
Tammy says she met Tecumseh a few years back. “She was flying a sign, and she said she’d do anything for money, and I really needed help closing up the gym, and she was the only one that was there to help me. She’s a good worker.”
“She camped out right there all last spring,” says the fifth grader, pointing a spot on the lawn.
Alan is Steve’s uncle, and he lives in the basement. Steve and Tammy feed and clothe him, but it’s his drinking that really costs them. Alan loves Captain Morgan’s, but it’s expensive. Lately, they’ve started slipping him cheap vodka after he’s a few drinks in. He tells them that the vodka doesn’t taste like Captain’s (it’s mixed in coke) but they’re usually able to convince him otherwise.
The conversation turns me. Tammy wants to know what I’m writing for. I tell her it’s a little bit journalism, a little bit creative work. She asks what my major is. English. “Well there you go,” she says. “If you’re a good writer, you can write about anything and make a story out of it.”
“What do you plan to do with an English major?” asks Steve.
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably go into finance and end up hating myself.”
“Now that’s stupid,” Steve says, “Why would you ever do something that you hate?” I tell him it’s for the money. “Bullshit,” he says, gesturing to the group to our right. “You’d probably be happier if you ended up like these people here.”
“Nate!” Alan is calling me from over by the fire.
I turn to table. “Do you mind if I excuse myself?”
“Yeah, I don’t care,” says Steve.
When I sit down next to Alan, he grabs my arm. His speech is slurred and swaying, but his blue eyes lock onto mine.
“I don’t give a fuck what you’re writing about me, if it’s good stuff, or bad stuff, I don’t care. You’re a good person, Nate, I want you to know that, okay.” I laugh. “No seriously man, this is important shit. At first, when I saw you writing in your notebook, I was like, ‘Damn, is this guy trying to put me in jail or something because Jesus, I don’t fucking need that right now.’ But then I realized that you’re just trying to make a difference. And trust me man, I’ve met Jesus. I’ve seen shit. I’ve seen the Creator, man. I know. You and me man, we’re both from Massachusetts—we’re Mass-holes, man, Mahhss-holes. And I know that I’m a fucking alcoholic, I know that, man, you give me 80 bucks and I’ll drink it before sundown, but you know what gives me happiness in this world? People like you.” I think he’s sincere. “That and John Lennon, man. Oh! ‘Imagine all the people...’ It’s beautiful!” Alan’s voice cracks softly over the “Oh.” His eyes glaze over.
“I want Opi baaaaaack!” Tecumseh again.
It’s getting cold, so I go up to my car to grab a fleece. The car’s been sitting in the sun all day, and when I climb in, the air is warm. So warm. It would be so easy to just turn the key, put in the clutch, back out onto the road…
I get my fleece and head back to the group, where I’m told that someone else will be joining the party. “This new guy’s great,” says Tammy. “Get your pen and paper out,” says Steve. But when the newcomer arrives, an intoxicated, unremarkable looking man in a Cliff Bar t-shirt, I know it’s time to leave. I make my rounds to say goodbye, making sure to thank the hosts. As I start to walk back to my car, I hear Ron calling from behind.
“Hey man, what’s your name again?” Ron must finally be drunk. “Do you remember what that word was I used earlier? You know, the one that you laughed at but then thought kinda made sense?” I tell him that I don’t remember. Ron thinks for a second, trying, desperately, to wrestle the word out from the darkness and the haze. Then he gives up. “Whatever man. Wasn’t meant to be.”