8.11 / November 2013

Three Shorts


I agreed to chaperone the eighth grade field trip to Denver. The completion of eighth grade is a rite of passage here on the reservation, and all ten of the Shannon County middle schools arrange to be in Denver at the same time. And they all book three nights at the Drury Inn on I-70. A hotel full of eighth grade Indians—every eighth grader on the reservation almost—for three nights. It’s like The Lord of the Flies or Jurassic Park or something.

All of the chaperones have different jobs assigned by our trip leaders, just to maintain the illusion of control. They ask me to watch the pool area, so I do. I sit in one of the flimsy white chairs, and I watch as the kids rip the pool area apart. The boys are throwing all of the reclining lounge beds and the cheap plastic tables into the pool, and they ask very nicely if I would get up so they could throw my chair in as well. I get up and let them, and I am not unhappy about it. All of this destruction, a part of me loves it. I look up at the video camera in the corner of the pool area and I wonder if anyone else is seeing this.

After they shut down the pool, I go back to my room where I wrap myself in hotel blankets, and I go to sleep in my clothes with the lights on, watching the TV. I wake up briefly when the three eighth grade boys assigned to my room come back to sleep. One of them crawls into bed with me, and for some reason, I didn’t find this odd. The boy in my bed is named Lester. He wakes me up in the middle of the night because he is yelling in his sleep. I don’t remember everything he said. And then he is screaming, and his screams terrify me.

I dreamed of an angel that night, this rough handed cynical angel with bad breath. He had all of my notebooks—every notebook I’d ever owned—and he was tearing pages from them, slowly and deliberately, and he was setting them afloat in the ocean where they became waterlogged and sunk slowly to the bottom where they were eaten by something dark and solitary. There was nothing I could do about it. He told me that I should be ashamed, standing there while he ruined my notebooks. I didn’t say anything. Then he picked me up and began crushing me between his palms, and he had these sharp teeth. They filled his mouth like diamonds.

I wake up in the lobby of the Drury Inn, right in the middle of the fancy fake Persian rug, beneath the fancy fake chandelier. The desk clerk is looking at me like I am an insect, or something he would normally take care of with a broom.

“Can I help you?” he says, which is exactly what he would say.

I tell him I am fine. I tell him I am a chaperone, so whatever. I am sitting on the floor for some reason, Indian style, which is what they call it at summer camp, but they say “cross-legged” on the reservation. I get up.

“It’s like upside down world, these rez kids,” he tells me. “Every year it’s like this. So you’re one of the chaperones?” I nod.

“Really admire what you do—young white guy like you, working with these animals.”

“They aren’t usually like this.” I say. I tell him that I am as shocked as he is by their behavior—which isn’t exactly true, but for some reason I want to defend them.

There is this awkward pause, and he offers me a cigarette, and we go outside to smoke. I think he probably wants me to talk some more about the reservation, but it turns out he doesn’t. So we don’t talk. We watch the city lights and we smoke his cigarettes. It has been a long time since I was in a city at night, and black sky is milky with the light pollution.

“You’re doing a real good thing,” the guy says before I go back upstairs.

Next morning Lester tells me that I’ve been talking in my sleep. He says that I asked him to kill a spider, that I kept saying, “kill that spider, Lester, and I’ll give you a nickel.” Everyone laughs because it’s funny. I say funny things in my sleep. I knew this about myself before. And because we are all laughing, I don’t feel right telling Lester about what I heard him say last night—what he asked me to do for him. And the three boys go downstairs to bring me some coffee and donuts from the continental breakfast. They tell me that I deserve breakfast in bed because I work so hard. This is all their idea, and it’s nice of them. And while they are gone, I watch the morning talk shows.

Dolly Parton

Derrick Many Horses was her real name, because she was born a man. I knew her as Dolly Parton, because that was her transvestite name. Her father was Travis Many Horses and her mother was Denise Swallow. We used to go to the bars in Nebraska together, Dolly Parton and I. She liked me because I always introduced her as a woman, and she could tell that sometimes I forgot she was really a man.

We met because I knew her father. Travis got me out of some minor legal trouble, which shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place because I’m not native, and I’m not subject to tribal law. But there was this loophole—anyway he made some calls for me, and to thank him I brought some deer meat over to his house—I had all of this venison, it’s an unrelated story, doesn’t matter.

We ate the venison together, and that night I met Dolly Parton for the first time. After dinner, Travis brought out the whiskey. His wife doesn’t drink, but the rest of us got pretty lit. His wife did the dishes while we three drank together, Travis and Dolly Parton and I.

“I can’t help noticing,” I said to Dolly Parton—I was pretty drunk, “Aren’t you actually a man?”

Travis laughed.

“See child,” Travis said. “They’ll always see through you. Everyone will always know about what you are.”

We’d been having a good time, but I knew it was rude what I’d done.

“It’s a pretty good though,” said Travis, “you gotta admit it. What our kid has done with her face. A real wizard with makeup she is.”

“Is that your real hair too?” I asked her.

She said it was, but she didn’t look at me.

Through the window, I could see her mother turn on a flashlight and go out to get wood for the stove.

“Denise just loves it,” Travis said with a sarcastic smile. “But me. I guess I’m different, but then, I’ve always wanted a daughter.”

“You just wanted someone else to cook and clean for you,” said Dolly Parton.

“Oh is that supposed to be you?” Travis said with a chuckle.

“Eee, I’m not that bad,” said Dolly Parton, and something in the room relaxed, and talk became easier. Maybe it was the whiskey.

Dolly Parton and I struck up a friendship after that, independent of her father. We drank together mainly. And one night, after the bars, I was driving her back to her parents’ house, and she reached under the steering wheel and put her hand in my pants. I got hard right away, and I didn’t stop her. It was dark, and I kept my eyes on the road—little wisps of rain in my headlights, and road dropped off suddenly.

“Don’t get weird, now,” she told me when we got back.

“What do you mean?” I knew what she meant.

“Just call me. That’s all.”

And she was out the door and moving her way through the cut of my headlights, though the night. She smelled like cigarettes and unwashed clothes and the kind of fruity perfume teenage girls wear, and alcohol. I ended up not seeing her again. She called me a month later to tell me she’d gotten a disease, something bad, she didn’t say what. I asked her dad, but he got unfriendly about the question.

“I don’t know,” he told me, “and if I did—” So I left it, and I forgot about her.

I found out through Facebook that she ended up in Denver. I’m not sure what happened with her disease. From the pictures, it looks like she had fun. Party lights, home cooked dinners, theme parks, dogs, some of her friends were black, some were Hispanic some were native—she hung around with this one white boy, and I wondered if it could have been me. They all looked a little gay except for the white boy. She’d been going through hormone therapy. Her breasts were bigger, and her face—it’s difficult to describe what makes a woman look like a woman, but she did, something to do with the cheeks and the mouth and the eyes.

One time we were all sleeping at someone’s house because we were all drunk, and I was awake, and the light from the security lamp outside poured through the dirty window like rice. I could hear Dolly Parton panting on the couch. She was with a woman—someone I didn’t know. I listened to them struggle.

“Dolly?” I finally said. The panting stopped, I heard the sound of clothing rustle.

“What?” she said. “Who’s talking?”

“It’s Kaj,” I said. “Want to look at the moon with me?”

There was a long pause. I heard them whisper a little.

“Why?” Dolly Parton said.

“It’s important,” I said.

I heard some more shuffling and whispering. And then everyone went quiet. The silent darkness became delicate, and then crystalline, and then it became hard, and I felt so alone that I had to go to sleep quickly because I knew that if I stayed awake the silence would crush in its fist.


At noon, they brought over Hosanna’s body from her mother’s house, still banged up from the road, but at least she looked peaceful—that’s what people said—what they were all saying at the wake. Three cars hit her while she was crossing the highway by the school in the early morning. And now she was dead. Hosanna was not quite fifty—not old, even by reservation standards.

There was a lot of damage to her face, but her mother insisted on making the wake an open casket—her family agreed it was something that people needed to see. That seeing it would be therapeutic. It was like they said when they were outside smoking their cigarettes or when they were waiting in line for bowls of soup—there’s no point in denying the truth—we can’t just close the casket and pretend she died peacefully. And maybe they were right. There was something honest in seeing her like really was.

Hosanna’s face was scraped to the bone on one side—but for some reason the bone had turned black. The children were not allowed to look at her. There were some men standing in front of the star quilts by her casket, keeping the children away. But all of them wanted to see. They begged to be allowed to see.

There was a line to pay respects, and I had to wait, and when it was my turn to look, I looked, and I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. I decided that it was something that I needed to carry alone.

I went outside with her face burned into my mind because I wanted some air—because I felt people were looking at me.

The night before, a water main broke at the school—no one knew how it happened—and Augustine woke me and Calvin up in the middle of the night to help save the computer stuff. Hosanna happened to there too because she had been working late in her classroom. She told us it was the latest she had ever been at school. It had been eerie, she said, she heard all of these voices and footsteps in the hallways and in the bathrooms. But we didn’t pay her much mind because were panicked about the computers, and Augustine ordered us around frantically like we were children.

We took all of the computers and the filing cabinets up from the basement to the landing on the first floor and just piled them there in the middle of the staircase. Finally, a guy showed up around four in the morning and shut off the water main, and that ended it.

After that, we all collapsed back in staff lounge and Augustine got on the phone with Don Two Bulls, the school superintendent, and recommended that we cancel school the next day. It made everything better, knowing that we could go home and sleep until noon.

Calvin shook me awake at seven to tell me about Hosanna. It happened while she was walking home, crossing the highway by the school. The police thought that three separate cars hit her over the space of an hour before someone called it in. That might have been the most disturbing detail of all—the first car, it killed her probably, but then two other cars hit her while she was lying in the road. Three people at least, and you would know it if you a human body—you would have to know. Three people, and only the fourth called it in.

The funeral parlor in Pine Ridge released Hosanna’s body to her mother, just as it was. And her mother washed whatever was left of her with soap and water—she told me it wasn’t as bad as you’d think—whatever that meant.

Lakota people keep money saved away specifically for wakes. They are expensive and they happen suddenly, so lots of people keep a shoebox full of cash just in case, because people die all of the time on the reservation without warning. Death is extraordinarily common here.

And I stay up all night with Hosanna’s body. We all do. And I eat fry bread and cake and I drink gallons of coffee, and when the sun comes up, I am so tired that I am on the verge of hallucination, but when I get back to my trailer, I cannot sleep for whatever reason. And I go to the kitchen, and standing there, I have this impression that there is this tall man beside me—the one that the children here talk about—the tall man who takes people. And he walks with me as I pace around my trailer, and he follows me like a column of smoke, and I secretly wish that would take me too, the way he took Hosanna.

Kaj Tanaka is a graduate of the University of Arkansas MFA program in creative writing and translation. Kaj was a 2012 finalist for the Bristol Short Story Prize. He is an assistant editor for Bull: Men’s Fiction.
8.11 / November 2013