Adrian C. Louis (M.A., Brown University), is a member of the Lovelock (Nevada) Paiute Indian Tribe. Since 1984 he has taught at Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota. Vortex of Indian Fevers, a collection of poems, will shortly be published by TriQuarterly Books. Skins, a novel, is due to be released later this year from Crown Publishers.
Three years since I seen that girl Mariana and I guess it's high time to find her. My nephew, Timmy John Pretty Bull, he say he seen her up in Montana, in the city of Billings and I say what's she doing up there and he says, well, you know, drinking and stuff. So when I find out he's headed for Crow Fair to fancy dance, I ask him to drive me and I'll catch a bus into Billings. I guess it's high time to find that girl I tell him.
"I doubt she's gonna want to come home," he says.
"Why you say that?" I ask him.
"Well," he says. "If she wanted to be down here in South Dakota, then she wouldn't be up there."
"Hummppphhh," I say. Sometimes talking to that boy is like talking to a television set. The set it don't hear you and it says things that don't make much sense. And some of those programs laugh to themselves over something not funny. That's how that boy is. Sometimes he just let out a high giggle for no reason.
"Well, it's up to you," he say and shakes his head and let out a young pony whinny-giggle.
Well, I tell him yes, it sure is up to me and he says okay and we go. It's warm, too warm out, and there's a lot of dead skunks on the road when we leave the rez, go to Rapid City, and then north on highway 90 into Wyoming and towards Montana. A good thing his car radio work but that boy only play what you call rap and it don't make no sense to me.
Seven hours later, Timmy John drive me from Crow Agency to Hardin for me to catch the bus. Last time I was up here many years ago, them Crow Indians stacked like cordwood outside the bars. And here they are again. A shame to be seen that way and only a few miles from Custer Battlefield and all them tourists looking for a whiff of something noble Indian. Well, that's what they get for siding with the wasicu against us Sioux and Cheyenne. Damn them anyways.
And damn that Mariana for running away, I'm thinking when I see all those drunk Crows. Oh, it's sad to be an old woman. Sad to be sixty-three, but I ain't dead yet, so it's even sadder to be looking for my niece Mariana. Thank God I got my AA to keep me sane. And I got one of their books with me in case I feel weak and need some good words.
She's just a kid, sure, almost twenty even if she already had two babies she adopted out besides Sherman who died. And here Timmy John said he seen her all drunked up in the bars downtown Billings. Said that's where to look. And that she looked pretty rough and all like some kinda tramp. I didn't like him saying that , but at least he's a honest boy even though he does drink. Well, he don't drink no more than anybody else. These kids these days. They make ancestor spirits cry.
And so I ride the bus to Billings. There's some Indians, maybe Cheyennes, on the bus, but I don't look at them. I got things on my mind. This ain't no joy ride and I ain't on vacation. When the bus pull into the station, it is starting getting dark and all the lights of the city is coming on. The streets full of traffic from all the people going home from work, whatever kind of work they all do downtown Billings. It sure is a big city and it don't look too friendly.
So I tie my old blue scarf on my head get out with my shoulder bag and purse and go looking for Mariana, damn her drunk hide. Timmy John he say all them bars downtown is all close together and not too far from the bus station and that's where to look if he was me. And here by the time I make it to the first bar, it is now pitch black out and this bar only has a small blinking Budweiser sign on it, no name far as I can see. There is a young Indian boy standing in front of the door, blocking it.
"Nephew," I say. "Is this where all the skins hang out?"
"I ain't your nephew, old lady," he say real rude to me. Well, what a little bitch he is. And dressed in a leather vest and tight Levis, and wearing dark glasses at night. His black hair is short and all greased back.
"What tribe are you?" I ask him and wonder if his whole damn tribe be as rude as him.
"Tribe? Whaddya mean tribe? I ain't no damn Indio. I'm a Chicano, mama. From Denver."
Well, I almost want to slap him and ask don't Chicanos teach their children to respect elders, but I don't. He really make me mad. And don't he know that Mexicans are Indians too. Where does he think his brown skin come from? Eating too many bean burritos? Oh, this boy he make me mad, but I just ask him if there is many Indians inside the bar. If there is any young Indian girls.
"Oh, so that's what you're looking for," he says and chuckles and then raises his eyes to the sky. He don't know it, but he is sure close to getting his Taco lips slapped good.
"Well, yes I am," I say. "One about twenty, good-looking. Long black hair down to her waist."
"Damn," he says. "You lezzies got an appetite even when you're elderly," and laughes and stands aside from the door. I don't know what he means, but I walk in and am I surprised. There's guys dancing with guys. And here they are kissing each other too. Most are dressed in leather. This is a winkte bar. It's like I opened a trap door to hell. I can't believe it. They can't believe me either. They all stare at me like I'm the one just came in from outer space and not them.
"Is there something you need?" a big muscleman with tattoos all over his arms asks me. Well, there is lots of things I need, but I don't have time to give him my list. He's wearing rhinestone ear rings and cowboy chaps of black leather. I can't take my eyes off them chaps and ear rings. Geez, what is wrong with these people anyways.
"Well, I'm looking for my niece, name Mariana Two Knives," I say and try to keep from giggling at his chaps. I want to ask him if he going to a rodeo later tonight, but I bite my lips. No sense in being rude like them.
"Two Knives? Try the next bar up the block. That's where all the war whoops congregate for prayer services," he says.
"War whoops?" I ask. War whoops?
"Yeah, you know, those of the Native American Indian persuasion. War whoops—like you."
"Thanks, Tattoo," I say to this jackass and turn and leave the winkte bar not a minute too soon. "I hope you don't get bucked off easy tonight," I say and wink but he just give me a blank stare like my putdown ain't even stuck to him. As I'm heading out the door, two boys on the dance floor are starting to fight, screaming like women, and trying to scratch each other's eyes out. Now I seen it all I think. Now I seen it all...
But I sure ain't. Walking to the next bar, there is a street full of prostitutes. Shaking their rear ends, waving at traffic and such. I know what they are and they're Indian too. I start to walk up to one to ask about Mariana, but when I do, this young girl I approach glance quick at me then turn her eyes. I can tell she is shamed.
"Excuse me," I say.
"I'm too busy," she says, chewing gum not even looking at me when she talks. She is close to Mariana's age.
"I'm looking for someone," I say and just then she snap her eyes and walks away before I can even finish what I'm saying. What is the matter with these kids these days? Damn, if she so shamed out about what she is doing then she shouldn't be doing it.
"I'm gonna tell your family," I say at her rapidly moving backside even though I don't know her family. "I know your mother and father," I lie. When I say that, she starts to run. I don't know. Maybe I'm being too mean to the poor child. She looks like a Cheyenne girl. Probably from Lame Deer. I keep going towards the other bar when a man's voice comes out of the darkness.
"Who you looking for, Grandmother?"
"Huh," I say and turn around. "Grandmother?" I say when I see the man is close to my age. "Grandmother?"
"Who are you looking for?" the man says again. I squint my eyes and see he's a middle-aged Indian man with short hair and bad, bad complexion. He is wearing a green suit coat, a dirty, white shirt, and baggy Levis. His pimply face got a straw Stetson squatting on top of it. "My niece Mariana Two Knives," I say. "Who are you anyways?"
"Richard Tall Elk," he tell me. "Cheyenne."
Well, at least I'm a little relieved he ain't no Crow Indian. I tell him my name and tell him where I'm from. He tell me he's been to Pine Ridge, he might know my relatives, and then asks me if I can buy him a drink.
"Sure could use one, if you don't mind," he says.
"Well, I do mind because I'm in AA," I tell him. "But, if you help me look for my niece, I'll give you two dollars."
"Yeah, sure I'll help you," he says. "Best place too look is right up this street here. Come on. I'll take you in and introduce you around. Lots of wild Indians in there."
"Well, I didn't come up here just to gander at drunk Indians and I don't like the idea of going into these bars. I'm still recovering," I tell him just so he know I ain't some tramp or something.
"You want to preach me that AA stuff or you want to find your niece?" he ask and keeps walking. I follow. He don't seem dangerous or sneaky like some drunks.
"Never heard of her," a strange, fat, bald Indian gent in the bar where we first go tells us. Well, nothing to do but go down the row of barstools and ask until someone say something I want to hear. And halfway down, I hear something I have come to hear.
"Ennut, I know Mariana," a young girl about twenty or so says when I ask her. She is dressed good, wears glasses, and I wonder how come she is in this stinky saloon.
"Mariana went back to Rapid City just yesterday," she says.
"You her friend?" I ask.
"Not really," she says. "We just covered some of the same territory. Drank together and stuff. I know her pretty good."
Territory, I think and then I wonder if Mariana been out on the street selling her fanny like these other Indian girls. I hope not. I say a silent prayer and give this Tall Elk guy the two dollars like I promised. One thing, I am not an Indian giver. Thanks, he tell me and he scoots out the door fast as can be.
"See you," I say, then I leave too, walking the direction back to the bus station.
On the way there, not one minute after I leave that bar, is this same Cheyenne guy and two young blacks, hasapas, is talking to him. They are wearing big, baggy-bloomer shorts which look downright silly. I am walking towards them and soon I can hear the Indian guy say that he don't got no money and to leave him alone. And here one of the black guys, maybe seventeen years old, he shove this Richard Tall Elk down to the ground real hard.
"Hey," I yell. "Leave that man alone." Both of them are trying to go through his pocket while he is on the sidewalk. In the darkness, they look like black wolves ripping chunks of flesh off some poor deer or something. It is scaring me. "Help," I yell and look around but nobody is there to help. And one of the blacks he leap up and run towards me.
Next thing I know he is trying to punch me with one hand while his other is trying to steal my purse. I am kicking and yelling and trying to hit him back with my free hand. Some of the things I am saying are bad, bad cuss words, but even those don't stop him. It become clear to me that I am dealing with the devil, even if his skin is black.
For a second his hand release my purse and I am swinging it to his cruel head. It smacks solid, clunk. His eyes go blank so I do it again and again. Clunk, clunk, and then crack. His nose gushing blood and I don't feel no pity for him. Then his black buddy is helping him escape down some alleyway. And nobody left on the Billings street but me and the Cheyenne man. His nose is bleeding too and he stand up shaking from fear. He is crying and so I start too.
"They got my two dollars," he says.
"That ain't nothing," I tell him. "At least we're alive. They coulda cut our throats. What's the matter with them anyways. Lord, don't they have no respect for old people?"
"Naw," he say. "They don't respect nothing, even themselves. There didn't use to be none of them around here. Now these past couple years a whole bunch of coloreds move up from Denver, L.A., whatever. This place is dangerous now at night. They don't care. And it ain't only blacks. It's the Mexicans, the Indians, the whites too. They'll kill you and take your money, these young ones. This the third time this year I got rolled by young boys. And not only that, they sell dope to the Indians like Indians ain't got enough trouble handling just booze."
"Damn them anyways," I say. What's the matter with those blacks? No wonder those cops beat up that Rodney King."
"Honest, it ain't only the black ones," he says. "Some of these Indians and Mexicans just as bad, if not worse," he say and take my hand. "You talk to any Indian in Billings. Damn hard to live on skid row anymore."
"Why you doing that?" I ask and nod with my lips toward his big hand holding mine.
"You saved my life," he says and then he give me a big hug. We is still both shaking, but then his hug start to feel good. And I am so glad I got an Indian man to hold me in this cement jungle.
"They took your money," I say.
"Yeah," he says and shrug his shoulders.
"Come on," I say. "I'm gonna buy you a drink or two. You look like you need it after what you just been through. Now don't expect me to drink with you. I'll just sit next to you and read my AA book. He look at me and smile and says, "Then I guess you don't got nothing against us Cheyenne?"
"Why should I?" I say. "You Sihiyelas were with us at Little Big Horn weren't you? You held our horses didn't you?"
He tells me I am a nice woman and my face blush a little. I tell him come on, I ain't got all night to sit with him. I gotta be back at the bus station before midnight.
"I'll buy you three drinks," I say. "Me, I'm just gonna drink a Coke and read my book. Come on, let's go."
"Fine," he say.
"That's what I thought," I say. Even if he is a wino, he smell clean and soapy like he just took a bath. We is walking back up to the Indian bar and I look at him good when we come under a lamp. He is like me. When he was young, I bet he was one good-looking war whoop. And I feel young, younger than I felt in years. And more than that, I'm starting to get that old, real warm feeling, if you know what I mean.