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Off the Reservation My Mother’s House The Lawyer’s house was a low rectangular building with a roof that overhung the walls by about two feet. The paint was faded and chipped. The Lawyer parked under a metal ramada that stretched over the driveway. I parked on the street. A door on the side of the house led into the kitchen. There was a coffee pot with stains of long forgotten brew on its glass. A stack of newspapers and magazines were piled on a table that had metal legs. The open trash can was filled with fast food bags and pizza boxes. A couple of dishes sat in the wire drainer next to the sink.
“I eat out a lot.” The Lawyer said. He set his briefcase on the table and moved the pile of newspapers. He indicated I should sit. “You had dinner?” He sputtered around the room without waiting for me to respond, pouring out the old coffee and getting rid of the grounds. “I know this is hard for you. I want you to know that leaving you was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
I stood near the doorway, watching him. If it was so hard, why did you leave? I decided he wasn’t going to get the chance to crawl into my brain, so I said nothing.
He put a new filter in the machine and scooped coffee from a can on the counter. “I knew you’d be happier with Lila. She was better able to take care of you.”
What kind of a man abandons his child and doesn’t come to see him for twenty years? I took a few steps across the room to sit at the table. I didn’t look at him. If it weren’t for Jon, he still wouldn’t know me. Lila told me he left me because he thought I would be a better man if I were raised by the people. I trusted Lila. She’d never let me down. But, he could have come to visit and not let me think he was a ghost.
He was gazing at his folded hands. “After your mother…died, I was no good for anything. I was…You needed more than I had left.”
The comforting smell of coffee began to fill the room, but I wasn’t soothed. That was a convenient way for him to look at things. If I hadn’t come across him by accident, I probably never would have met him. It wouldn’t have hurt me. I sat very straight and still, with both hands on the table top. I wasn’t going to ask why he never came back to see me. I had my pride.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you? I did what I did to save you.” He looked at me intently.
I looked at my hands. “I understand.” You did what was easy for you. It’s a long ride to the Reservation. Inconvenient to spend a day to see the child you didn’t want. Looking up, I said, “Is the coffee ready?”
He smiled and brought me a mug with a police logo on it. “Do you want cream and sugar?”
I shook my head.
He stood over me, smiling like a dog trying to sneak a piece of meat. “I’ve got pictures of you when you were little. They’re a little faded. I had them with me while I was in the army, and they got a lot of sunlight.” He practically bounced into the other room.
The jars on the counter looked like bears sitting on their haunches. There were three sizes. Those bears had danced in my dreams as a child. I never thought they were real. Getting up, I lifted the head off the largest bear. It was filled with round, black cookies.
The Lawyer returned with a big album. “Let me show you.” He was looking at the table and seemed startled that I was at the counter.
“How long have you had these jars?”
“Someone gave them to us for our wedding?”
“Your mother and me.” He sat the album on the kitchen table. “Help yourself.”
My breath caught in my throat. I had a flash of my mother handing me a cookie from the squatting bear. I stepped back leaving the bear’s head next to its smaller friend.
The Lawyer put his hand on the picture book, looking at me expectantly. I didn’t want to look at his memories. I have my own, and he wasn’t a part of them. “I’m tired. Do you have a place I can sleep?”
“Ah, yes…sure. You must be exhausted.” He passed a hand over his eyes.
His mouth turned down. He glanced at the book on the table and turned quickly. “Let me show you where your room is.”
Down a short hall, he pointed out the bathroom. A couple feet past it he pushed open the door of the room where I was staying. The warm tans and burnt orange of the walls were covered with images of cavorting cartoon animals. The small bed had a wool blanket, woven in the cloud ladder pattern used most often by my clan mothers. A lamp shaped like a bucking horse sat on the night table. A rag rug lay on the wooden floor. Several cloth animals inhabited a shelf in the corner. Dust covered everything in a thick layer.
“This is your room. I…ah…don’t come in here often. Sorry about the dust. Let me shake out this blanket.” He gathered it up and scuttled out like he was carrying a stolen lamb.
Standing in the doorway, my mind reeled. I knew this place, the horse and the elk on the wall above the pillow, a memory of a woman’s voice… singing.
Turning, I lurched into the bathroom, kicking the door shut behind me. I grabbed both sides of the sink to still my trembling hands. My mouth was dry, and the coffee soured in my stomach. Turning on the water, I rinsed my mouth, splashed water on my face, and wiped it with a blue towel. The instinct to run was pulsing through every fiber of my body. Did my mother die in this house? I let the water run in the sink and soaped my hands and arms, to waste time. I’m here to help Jon. For Jon, I can do this.
The sounds of The Lawyer in the next room dwindled. Then his voice from outside the door made me jump. “Let me know if you need anything.” When I didn’t reply, he continued, “I’ll leave some extra towels out here if you want to take a shower.” I heard a door opening and closing. “I’ll leave them on the floor out here.”
I was leaning on my arm against the door. Maybe I should leave. I can’t let this place get inside me. I don’t owe him anything. I took a ragged breath. I need him to help Jon. “Okay,” I said in a voice I didn’t recognize.
“That’s great then…I guess I’ll see you in the morning.” I heard a door close at the end of the hall. After a few minutes, the sound of water started in the back of the house. I opened the bathroom door and picked up the towels. I held them against my face to catch the gulping breaths that tore from my lungs. On the wall opposite the door, my mother gazed at me from a faded picture. The towels caught my tears as well.
Downed Sheep The next morning, in the jail, Jon in his orange clown suit was sitting so still when we came in, I had to look closely to see him breathe. The lawyer agreed I should do most of the talking. Jon barely nodded as I explained about the hundred thousand dollars, and how the evidence they collected at the jail would be helpful. He reminded me of wild sheep who, once pulled down, would lie without a struggle while the coyotes ate them.
Since I came with The Lawyer, we met in a regular room with tables and chairs. The walls were dirty. Grime crusted the table. The whole place smelled of sweat and hopelessness. I touched Jon’s hand, and he looked at me with blank eyes, like he was already gone. I told him I’d left a message for his mother and would talk to her this afternoon. He didn’t react.
“Brother!” I wanted to reach across the table and shake him. “Quit acting like a downed sheep. You need to help yourself,” I said in Diné, a language that softens even the harshest words. He looked me in the eye. He didn’t believe me. At least it was a reaction.
Switching to English so that The Lawyer could follow, we talked about what he remembered. How he thought, the two men were going to have sex. The taller man was the one who put the knife in his hand and hit him. He didn’t see the smaller man get killed, or remember getting from the bar to the loading dock. He couldn’t remember any details about the tall man. He was sure he scratched the man’s arm but didn’t think he would recognize him if he saw him again.
“Did you go near the dead man?” I asked. The dead man’s spirit energy, his Chindi, might have invaded Jon.
“No, I was clear over the other side of the loading area.” I gave a sigh of relief. Jon had enough problems without trying to deal with a crazed spirit inside him. The Lawyer looked confused at the turn of our conversation. I didn’t bother to explain how when a person died his energy tries to find a new body to inhabit. It would try to take over any person, or animal that was nearby instead of spreading out into the universe like it was supposed to. It wasn’t something The Lawyer would understand. When it was time to leave, I hugged Jon hard and whispered in Navajo, “The lawyer is my father. I think he has magic.”
His muscles stiffened in our embrace. Jon’s indrawn breath was very nearly a sob. He turned and walked away with the jailer. The man took his arm, as though he were a coyote dragging Jon to a den. I watched until they were gone. ~
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