[ Issue 4 / February 2013 ]

Read by Shanti Perez

Foster mom has so many complaints they stick in the back of her throat. Her lips move without sound, the way a fish prays to be thrown back in the water. I cup my hands behind my ears so I’ll be ready when the first words break free. Listening with the biggest possible ears. Listening the way Apaches always do when white people speak, I wiggle my fingers so the fosters will know I’m trying hard, but it doesn’t help. Dad squeezes his fingers into a ball, holding his anger so it can’t get away.

Mom tells me, “Stop acting crazy, Wylie.”

She takes my right hand in hers like a fortuneteller who sees bad things in my future. Foster mom is looking for spray paint. Foster dad looks too, but from a distance, the way he checks a rental car for scratches before he gives the company his credit card.

“Not all Indians huff paint.”

I talk slow, so my good luck key stays underneath my tongue. Talking slow is good for hiding secrets. Not talking is better, but that reminds the fosters about Indian ways, and that reminds them of my Apache mom and they wonder if I’m huffing paint all over again—the way she did before they saved my life. Before they gave me a chance to grow up like the white son that never happened. Before things didn’t work out like they planned.

My good luck key clicks against my teeth the way it does sometimes. My tongue pushes it underneath again, but it’s too late. Foster mom heard the click. She looks at foster dad like he should be able to fix me, like maybe I have a loose part he can fasten with super glue. The fosters cross their arms and squint like they’re inspecting cracks in the foundation of the house they let me live in. Like I am their real son. Like I am really a white boy in a clever Apache disguise.

Foster dad says, “The tattoo is the last straw, Wylie.”

One more thing I should have hidden.

I say, “Lots of people have them. Indians especially.”

Sometimes the fosters need reminding: I am Wylie E. Chatto, descended from an Apache scout who tracked Geronimo down just to prove he could. I’m wearing a T-shirt with pictures of Apaches on the back, Geronimo, and Cochise, and maybe Victorio. It’s hard to tell because I can’t read the names any more than I can read the tattoo hiding underneath the Indians. According to foster dad it says, WHITE POWER. The thing he hates most is the two swastikas, one on each of my shoulder blades, propping up the hateful words like bookends.

I tell him, “Words don’t matter when you can’t read.” That disappoints the fosters too. I want to explain how Apache warriors painted white men’s power symbols on their bodies when they rode into battle. American flags and crosses, anything the spirits liked.

“It’s all about pleasing the spirits.” Another disappointment. The fosters don’t want to hear about heathen gods—even Usen, who’s almost the same as the big white God who lives in the sky.

“Just another name for God is all,” I say before I remember we are talking about tattoos.

Usen makes me think about my real mother who met to him when she huffed paint. My real mother would understand about the tattoo, and not being able to read, and even the voice of Geronimo, who always talked to me in dreams, but now talks to me all the time.

“White man’s power runs through copper wires,” he whispers too softly for the fosters to hear. “When the wire is cut, their clocks all stop. The white man’s time is finished.”

Geronimo has secrets for me, but I can’t hear them all. His voice is louder than it used to be but the most important words are still too quiet.

“Geronimo can’t read the tattoo either,” I tell the fosters.

“I think he should see somebody,” foster mom tells foster dad. She reaches into her plastic alligator skin bag for a cell phone. I wonder if Geronimo knows about that kind of white power.

He says, “The wire spirits still run the show.” He’s about to tell me something else when foster mom touches her fingers on the cell phone screen. With each touch the room smells more like trouble.

“Rosemary,” I tell the fosters. “The smell of complicated things.”

“The smell of trouble brewing on an electric range,” I tell them. “The favorite herb of crooked spirits.” The more I explain, the less they understand.

“Dr. Goldberg, please.” Foster mom holds the phone next to her ear and looks at the ceiling. Taps her foot in time to the music Dr. Goldberg plays for her while she works out the best way to get rid of me.

Foster dad looks at his watch—a clear sign it’s time to act. My Apache war cry makes foster mom drop the phone. I stomp on it and run out of the house. I’d go faster if I had a horse, but Apaches on foot are fast enough—if they aren’t huffing paint. Geronimo floats beside me so I’ll know he’s a ghost. His lips move without sound, but Geronimo doesn’t have complaints stuck in his throat. He’s telling me what I need to know about visions and directions and bravery. I listen carefully, but at first Geronimo’s not loud enough and then he isn’t talking. It’s hard to know about Indian ways when your teacher is a dead medicine chief. Maybe I should ask somebody else. Another Indian, who’s alive and not so full of Apache ways. Geronimo doesn’t say no, so I start looking.

Oklahoma City is full of Indians. Lots of Choctaw and Cherokee; they’re mostly civilized, but at least they weren’t saved from being Indians by white fosters. Maybe one of them can tell me what Geronimo can’t say louder than a whisper—what every Indian in the world knows except for Wylie E. Chatto.

“Indications are positive,” Geronimo talks like the magic eight ball foster mom gave me on my tenth birthday. It told the future in printed words I never learned to read.

“What does it say,” I asked the fosters after every magic eight ball question.

“Indications are positive,” was what they told me. Sometimes without even looking. Magic eight balls can’t solve spirit problems. That’s what visions do. Visions need things like fasting and chants and steam and drugs. But Geronimo says huffing paint is the wrong way to get them. He and the fosters agree on that much. Geronimo says Indian spirits are hard to find, not like the white man’s spirits that talk to you on the telephone.

“Peyote,” he whispers in my ear.

“Where do I find that?” I ask, but my Geronimo service is temporarily interrupted. So now I have something else to ask a real live Indian. The trouble is finding one, because most Oklahoma Indians are so civilized they look like fosters. Somebody with dark skin and black hair and eyes filled up with death—that’s who I’m looking for, but nobody fits that description all the way. This one’s too frightened. That one’s eyes are blue. Some of them push their fingers over cell phone screens instead of looking out for enemies. Some listen to the electric spirits sing through little speakers in their ears.

Strangers don’t like it when I study them close up. Most look somewhere else, hoping I’m harmless-crazy instead of dangerous. They’re not brave enough to tell me what I want to know. But there is one across the street. Hard muscles show underneath his T-shirt with the picture of Geronimo on the front. It’s a spirit sign, like when I found my good luck key in the front seat of a police car with an open door, a beam of sunlight shining on it through a cloud. Usen’s finger pointing out a miracle.

Indications are positive. The man across the street has death behind his eyes. He has a shaved head. He has tattoos, a swastika on his neck and words that might say WHITE POWER. I can tell from his broken nose, he’s a warrior.

In a handful of heartbeats I’m across the street looking at Geronimo on his shirt, waiting for another sign, because you can never be too careful when it comes to spirits. Geronimo’s lips are moving but picture Indians hardly ever talk out loud. The words on his thin angry lips might be English or Apache, but I’ll never figure it out because the owner of the shirt says, “Get lost Tonto.”

Now I see he’s not all the way Indian. The hair stubble on his head is brown not black, and even though his eyes are full of death, they are halfway between brown and green.

“Hazel,” I tell him, as if we’ve been talking about his eyes all along. His hands turn into fists and he bobs his head forward. It comes so close to mine I can see the broken veins in his eyes and the pimples on his chin and the hateful way his lips turn up at the corners. He has blue letters on his knuckles, and green numbers on his forearms and black spider webs on his elbows. He pulls up the edge of his Geronimo T-shirt that’s not tucked in so I can see the pistol in his belt.

Now I can read the shirt-Geronimo’s lips perfectly.

“Take the gun Wylie. It’s a gift from Usen.”

There’s no beam of light like with the good luck key, but Geronimo never lies, so I snatch the gun while its owner finishes his last cuss-word.

“. . .ucker.”

I say, “Thank you,” before he has a chance to say another one. The fosters taught me all about politeness. Say thank you whenever you take something you shouldn’t. Say, “Thank you God,” when no one is around to hear—just in case. Send a thank you note even for gifts you don’t like. Have your foster mother write them if you don’t know how.

The gun-giving-man doesn’t have much death behind his eyes anymore. He backs away really fast because now he knows I’m not a pretend Indian. He moves fast and jerky like a movie running backward on the fosters’ television.

“He says, “Holy crapola,” when he’s too far away for me to read Geronimo’s lips anymore. He breaks into a run. Not nearly as brave as I first thought.

I un-tuck my T-shirt and stick the pistol into my pants. I cup my hands like a megaphone and shout, “Thank you,” once again, because now I have a pistol and a lucky key and that is sure to help me learn what every other real Indian in the world already knows even without peyote.

“Let me see your hands.” It’s a cop voice behind me, like the ones on America’s Most Shocking shows foster dad likes to watch.

I hold up my hands, criminal style and get ready to say, “Is there a problem officer?” the way fosters do when they get pulled over for speeding. But this isn’t a speeding ticket, because the cop has one hand on the butt of his pistol and he’s reaching behind him with the other one. Handcuffs. I’ve always wondered what those are like, and now I’ll find out, because the cop pushes me toward the car and makes me, “Assume the position,” like I’ve seen on TV hundreds of times. He snaps the cuffs on—way too tight.

The air smells like it did when foster mom called Dr. Goldberg. Rosemary. Trouble on the way, cooked up by white man spirits in their complication kitchen. Geronimo tells me, “Look out Wylie,” but I already know indications are way positive this cop wants to arrest his very first Apache.

Pat-down time. He spins me around, getting ready to find the pistol in my pants, but I can’t let that happen, because it’s a gift from Usen and Geronimo. So while he’s looking at the bulge under my shirt, I lurch forward and crack my forehead against his.

I say, “Ouch,” before I can stop myself—embarrassing, because Apaches don’t say ouch. The cop moans and slumps to his knees, while I take off running with my hands cuffed behind me. People watch, instead of turning away like they usually do. They see me when I leap into the air and swing my arms under my feet like a jumping rope.

“I have extra long arms!” I shout, so everybody will know how it’s done.

I don’t say, “Like a monkey,” the way foster dad described me to a doctor. I don’t say, “It’s not quite a syndrome, but close,” the way the doctor did, or “It’s God’s will,” like foster mom. I’m too busy running.

The cop is on his feet, but still not ready to move fast. “Stop!”

I listen for, “In the name of the law,” but that never happens.

I run into an alley that turns into another alley that has a gray dumpster where it opens to the next big street. I climb into the dumpster, lower the lid and spit my good luck key into my hand. In three heartbeats the cuffs are off—Usen always knows what he is doing. I throw the cuffs away because I don’t like them, and I throw the key away because it doesn’t taste lucky anymore.

“Apaches know how to run,” I tell Geronimo. He knows that already so he doesn’t have to speak.

The air inside the dumpster smells like garbage instead of rosemary, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe. Red rat eyes stare at me from inside half eaten chickens and cans of pork and beans—albino rats, bred by white scientists to be satisfied with cages and laboratory food, but still clever enough to escape. Black rat eyes glitter in streaks of sunlight poking through the misfitted dumpster lid. Black and white together—the rats have done what people haven’t.

My heart is steady and my breathing is too, so I’m not afraid of rats. I call them, “Brothers,” even though they can’t understand me anymore than I understand Geronimo when he whispers in Apache.

“Brother rats.”

I empty a green plastic bag and pull it over me like an Indian blanket. The brother rats climb over it like I’m not underneath. When the policeman opens up the dumpster lid, he believes them.

“Rats!” he tells the electric voice that lives in a black box on his shoulder. The voice says my name mixed in with static and numbers. The wire spirits know my name.

“Not your real one,” Geronimo tells me. “Not your war name.”

I don’t know my war name either, but I have one. That’s why the rats are hiding me. That’s why Usen gave me a lucky key and a pistol. That’s why I have to learn what every real Indian in the world knows except for Wylie E. Chatto who was stolen from his mother before anything important happened. But important things are happening anyway. The electric voice sputters and spits as the cop walks away, wondering how a wild Apache with syndrome arms and handcuffs can hide in the middle of Oklahoma City.

“Thank you brothers.”

The rats twitch their noses at me like a handshake. Usen likes them. Geronimo likes them. Wylie E. Chatto likes them, but cops and fosters don’t. When the wire spirits sleep, the rats and the Apaches wake up. I feel Geronimo’s flat angry smile behind me as I climb out the dumpster. He can hate white people and be happy at the same time.

The Indian knowledge I’m trying to figure out is close now—the way rats are close even when you can’t see them. Indian knowledge is bigger than the rats—important and invisible, like the moon hiding in the shadow of the earth. Like a mountaintop hiding in the clouds.

I hear Mexican words mixed up with English a few steps away—right around the corner. Mexicans are Indians too, conquered by the Spanish, pretending to be white long enough to take their country back. They gave Geronimo his name, so maybe they can tell me what I need to know. Their ears are turned to the street so they don’t notice me until I’m close enough to touch them.

“Yaa ta sai.” That’s how Geronimo says hello when I can hear him. I smile at these Mexicans before I remember that’s a white man thing.

There are three of them. Exact copies of each other with their short hair and goatees. The Mexicans keep their normal length arms crossed and remember about not smiling. One of them says, “You smell like garbage puto.”

“Puto. Is that my war name?”

“Collons de Déu.”

Now I see it. The leader’s eyes are filled to the brim with being mean.

“Stupid pendejo.”

“Mayate.”

They all talk at once, frowning like the Indians on the back of my T-shirt. I turn around so they can see.

“What you want man?” I can’t tell who asks me that because I’m giving them plenty of time to look at my Indians. I want to tell them about the tattoo under my shirt, because these Mexicans have lots of ink on their skin. The fosters call it jailhouse ink, but I’ve only seen it on the street.

When I turn around again, they are standing like a formation of geese with the meanest one in front. He lifts up his T-shirt and shows me his pistol.

“Already got one.” I lift my T-shirt and show him the pistol Usen gave me.

The Mexican takes his pistol out and points it at me, holding it sideways like the black gangsters do on television. The three Mexicans back down the sidewalk spitting Spanish words into the air. When they get to the corner, the one with the gun fires three shots before they take off running. I don’t shoot back because I don’t know how many bullets I have, and it isn’t a good day to kill someone.

Cars skid to a stop behind me. Doors open and slam. People shout things about wild Indians and guns. They all take off running when I turn around to see—except for a big man who steps out of an old pick up truck wearing overalls and an oil field cap with the bill in front. He walks up to me like there hasn’t been a one sided gunfight in the street and says, “Buddy, you’d better get out of here.”

I tell him my name’s Wylie E. Chatto and he tells me, “Mine’s Governor Annotubby—and not those Annotubbys that run the Chicasaw’s neither.”

He’s the most Indian looking man I’ve ever met—not afraid of anything, not even rats or Apache kids with long arms and a pistol.

“Power failure.” He points at the traffic light that’s gone dead. Horns are honking at it, like the wire spirits will hear and make things right. Only horns aren’t honking behind Governor Annotubby, because everyone has run away from the gunfight but him.

“They’ll be after you when the electric comes back on,” he says. “And it always does. At least it has so far.”

I tell him, “When the wire spirits sleep, the rats and the Apaches wake up.” That is one of the things I’m supposed to figure out, but there is a lot more.

I ask Governor Annotubby, “What is it every Indian in the whole world knows except for me?”

“You better take off, Wylie. Somebody’s sure to call the cops.”

The stoplights are flashing red now, and Governor Annotubby tells me: “They’ll start working proper soon.”

I can see he’s right about that. Before long, people are driving through green lights and stopping for red ones, except for the cars that are stuck behind Governor Annotubby’s old pick up truck.

And pretty soon, even those cars manage to get clear, and there is no one on the street but me and Governor. He’s still not told me what I need to hear. There are sirens all over town, cops and ambulances cleaning up after the power failure, and Governor tells me I’m part of what they want to get off the street.

“The fosters are tired of me,” I tell him. “Didn’t know what it would be like to live with an Apache who can’t read or write.”

Governor Annotubby doesn’t mind my crazy talk.

“You’d be a holy man back in the day, but now . . .”

I tell him about my WHITE POWER tattoo. I tell him about Geronimo. I tell him about the spirits who live inside electric wires and give white people their power.

“You got to go, Wylie. Before they come for you.”

Governor Annotubby sounds exactly like Geronimo only louder, and the air fills with a trouble smell that’s stronger than the garbage splotches on my T-shirt. I look past Governor Annotubby and see a policeman with a bruised forehead getting out of a police car, and a man in a khaki uniform getting out of an ambulance, and the fosters watching everything. The air is so full of rosemary it stings my eyes, and the man in the khaki uniform has a rifle like the ones animal police use to tranquilize tigers.

Am I one of those? Indications are positive.

I can read the fosters’ lips perfectly—even better than Geronimo’s. They’re taking turns telling each other, “We really had no choice.”

The man in the khaki uniform says, “Put up your hands,” but he’s already taking aim.

Even though I do exactly what he says, he pulls the trigger—once, twice. Two darts sting me on the chest like yellow jackets. I pull them out but it’s too late. The electric gods sing their victory song.

“The cowboys always win,” I tell Governor Annotubby, who looks exactly like Geronimo now.

“Your time will come,” he tells me. “Got to wait until the sacred alarm clock wakes you up.”

The man in the khaki uniform stands beside Geronimo, waiting to catch me when I fall.

“Peyote?” I ask him. Geronimo is winding his sacred alarm clock, one that doesn’t need electricity. It’s got to be a vision.

“Ketamine,” the khaki man tells me. “I guess they’re pretty similar.”

He catches me as I pitch toward the pavement. Then he lets me down gently, like white people always do.

*

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John Biggs is a Southwestern U.S.A. regional writer with about a dozen stories published online, in small circulation magazines, and in several anthologies. Most of his fiction deals with Native American issues which are commonly encountered in his home state of Oklahoma. He is the 2011 grand prize winner of the Writer’s Digest annual competition, third prize winner in the 2011 Lorian Hemingway short story contest, and was a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award in 2012. John’s first novel, Owl Dreams is under contract with a regional publisher, Pen-L Publishing, and should be coming out sometime in 2013. You can visit him on his website: www.johnbiggswriter.com.

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