James Welch was born in 1940 in Browning, Montana. He earned his B.A. at the University of Montana. His wife, Lois, is a professor of English at the University of Montana, Missoula. James Welch has been a Visiting Professor at University of Washington and Cornell University. He has served on Montana State Board of Pardons and also on the literature panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1969, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, both for Fools Crow. Read his interview in this issue of Weber Studies.
The Loose Screw
It was the morning my father decided to come in from the cold. I had not heard from him for two years and he had grown small in my mind. Even now I was surprised to hear how small his voice seemed. In my youth, his voice had seemed big and important. I could have asked myself, as I had done over the years because I thought I might sound like him, if it was his or my voice—this tiny humming over the wires. He seemed to be calling from a long way off. And it could have been my voice, it was so familiar.
I had not heard from him for two years when he decided to call me, and it was a bad time. Or rather, his timing was bad, which was not unusual for him. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand but I didn't need to. I knew within a minute what time it was and it was now 5:03 AM.
"Hello, Jack!" he said. "I didn't wake you up, did I?"
Any other morning he would have. I work late at night on my writing, readings, grading papers, and I don't get up until eight, eight-thirty, sometimes ten on Saturdays. Oddly, on Sundays, I like to get up early and go to mass at 7:30.
I pulled a navy blue crew-neck sweater from a chest of drawers and dropped it on the bed next to my open suitcase. "No," I said. "Not at all."
He laughed and his laughter sounded compressed and far away.
"Where are you? Where are you calling from?" My suitcase was already full of clothes, including a pair of running shoes (although I don't run), but they said I would probably need a sweater. It could be chilly in early May over there. It might even rain for the whole two weeks. Be sure to bring a sweater and a raincoat.
"You won't believe this," my father said. There was a pause, just long enough for a rip of static to die away. "B.C. British Columbia. Vancouver." He laughed again, a little too heartily, as though I might see the humor in his location, as though the years would roll away and it would be just the two of us driving around or sitting in a skiff fishing for walleyes, him teasing and telling jokes.
The trouble was, I didn't have time for this. I didn't have time to chat with my father whom I had not heard from for two years. I had a plane to catch in an hour and a half. But he was already explaining the setup to his odd little joke a couple of thousand miles west of Minneapolis. It had to do with a woman. It had to do with him living in Fargo, North Dakota, until he and a buddy just decided to drive west. I wondered how old his buddy was. My father was seventy-two now, seemingly past the age one just jumps in a car and drives west for the sheer hell of it.
Now he was back to the woman again. I kept the cordless receiver to my ear and walked into the living room. I swept back the curtain and looked down into the street at my car. The woman was a Bella Coola, which made him laugh when he said it. She came from a reservation up north in B.C. The light outside the window was a deep opaque blue. Night was giving up and I could see that the street was wet.
"She's a dandy, Jack. You'd be proud of the old man. She's younger than you are."
Because I knew he wanted me to ask, I said, "How old?"
There was that tiny, hearty laugh again, then: "forty-three. But you'd never know it."
Two men passed along the sidewalk, huddled beneath an umbrella, shoulder to shoulder, almost touching in the blue light. Gays, I thought. There were a lot of gays in my neighborhood. My father had always hated them, although I'm not sure he ever met any.
"You're forty-six now, aren't you, Jack?"
"Forty-five. Listen, Pop, I'm going on a long trip. I have to be at the airport in an hour." I walked back to the bedroom. The clock said 5:17. I had less than an hour.
"Where to?" His voice had lost that chipper quality. I tried to imagine him as I remembered him. He was a tall, white man with thick, sandy hair and big hands and blue eyes and an air of defeat. That's what his voice reminded me of, a forced cheerfulness that was easily defeated. My mother had defeated him with her sensible nature, even though he ran out on her. And now, he must have sensed my indifference to his triumph, his younger-than-me Bella Coola woman.
"France," I said. "A conference over there."
"That's nice, that's real nice, Jack. You always were one hell of a smart kid." I could almost hear him shaking his head. "France! Gay Paree! You know, your uncle Esker liberated that town. 101st airborne. Or maybe 82nd. Got shot up pretty bad."
It probably wasn't exactly a lie. My father wanted to believe his brother had done something heroic and so he believed it. Everybody else said Uncle Esker had gotten run over by a jeep while celebrating the liberation of Paris with two buddies and a bottle of cognac. At least he was there.
"How's your mother?" Tentative.
"She's okay. She's got a lot of friends here. She goes home once in a while."
"To Pine Ridge?" His words came without breath.
"She visits her family. I've driven her a couple of times. Otherwise she goes with whoever is going there."
"That's … incredible." I knew what he meant. It was incredible. During my youth, during their marriage, she only went home once, to go to the funeral of her father. She wouldn't let my father and me accompany her. But in the past five or six years, since retiring, she had made a dozen trips to visit her Oglala relatives.
"I've got to go, pop. I'm late."
That's amazing," he said, as though my urgency hadn't registered.
"So what's up?"
If he had been amazed to distraction before, he now picked up the thread of his purpose. "Say, Jack…" His voice became deliberate and drawn-out. I remembered that cadence, and I knew what was coming. "I'm in kind of a pickle up here. I'm having a hell of a time getting my social security. You know, all that damn red tape. Goddamn American system is all screwed up. I'll tell you what—I'm glad I'm a Canadian now."
"How long have you been up there?"
"Damn near three months now."
"How much do you need?"
"Well, I owe some rent. You know how it is—man's got to live somewhere. I just chose the most expensive city in America."
"Canada. How much?"
Well, between that and food" Once again his voice was drawn-out.
"A thousand? I'll wire it."
"That's the ticket, Jack. You always were one hell of a kid. You have a piece of paper?"
He gave me an address—Western Union, King's Court Station, Vancouver. Oscar L. Dawes. My old man.
He had actually been something once—quite high in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, land department, then irrigation—but now he was a roamer. Before Fargo, he had lived in Laramie, Wyoming, and before that, Las Cruces, New Mexico. He wasn't exactly a bum—he had lived in each of these places for two or three years. And he had a decent pension from the government—and the social security. But he always ran into an old friend, or made a new friend, or became involved with a woman, and he was on the move again. And usually out of money.
My mother thought he had a screw loose. She remembered the exact date it became loose. June something or other, 1971. I don't remember the day, but I do recall the new Chrysler. My mother had called me that night—I was still at Berkeley, working on my doctorate—and told me about "her" surprise, as the old man put it. A bright yellow Chrysler New Yorker parked in the driveway of their St. Paul house. My mother was alarmed because my father had always been a no-frills Chevy man. To be honest, I was a little surprised too. During our drives, he used to tell me that six cylinders were enough for any man. Those extra two just got you in a lot of trouble. Bucket seats, who needs 'em. He always felt a lot safer when his ass was high enough he could see the shoulders of the road. So the big yellow Chrysler with power windows, automatic transmission, bucket seats and 400 horses had convinced my mother that a screw had come loose somewhere.
Maybe so. Maybe that was the day the old man lost interest in his job, his family, his well-regulated life with us. Nevertheless, he did stick with his job another thirteen years; he continued to live at home; he took supper at six sharp every evening and was in bed by ten. If he had a screw loose back then, you couldn't have told it.
It was several years later that I began to suspect something that was perhaps even more alarming than the purchase of a fancy car by a no-frills man. I began to suspect that my mother had for some reason stopped being his wife at that moment the new Chrysler pulled into the driveway. I remembered later that when she called me at Berkeley she had referred to him as "that man," as in "that man has a screw loose for sure." Before that, she had always said "your father." "Your father took Butch fishing up at Minnetonka today. He's going to drown that damn dog one of these times. You'll see." My mother began to spend more and more time with her St. Paul friends who, like her, were Indians. She began to go to the Indian center with them where she helped with feasts, giveaways, naming ceremonies and the like. She hadn't been much interested in Indians before then. At least not in a traditional way. The Indians who worked with her in the BIA office were friends in that distant way any office workers are friends. They celebrated birthdays, births, engagements and marriages. They mourned divorces and deaths. But they left these occasions at the office, more preoccupied with picking up a roast for dinner or the drycleaning before 5:30. Perhaps at the dinner table my mother would mention that so and so's father had died of cancer, or that lovely Chippewa girl in employment was going to marry a lawyer or grocery clerk and was so happy. Ironically, my mother's maiden name was Theda Bad Marriage.
I said goodbye to my footloose father, called Western Union and used a credit card for the transaction. The clerk said that my father would need all of it, that cigarettes cost five bucks a pack up there, don't get much bang for your buck in Canada. The odd thing is, he said, their money is practically worthless down here. C'est la vie, he said.
I finished packing and walked down the flight of stairs with a large suitcase and a rucksack loaded with books. It was an old building and the stairway was narrow. As I plodded and bumped down the steps, I remembered that my mother was right about the dog. One day Butch spotted a flotilla of Canada Geese out in the middle of Lake Mille Lacs and jumped in after them. My father called and called, but Butch's head got smaller and smaller, and finally just disappeared. Flight
I was scheduled to leave Newark, after an eight hour layover, at 7:10 p.m., but the big Air France jet didn't get off the ground until 8:15. The sudden rush of the plane down the runway woke me up. I turned to the window and watched the gray blocky buildings of the Newark airport slip past. Several airplanes of all sizes and colors were lined up nose to tail in a wavy haze of exhausted fuel waiting their turn to take off. Then the plane lifted and drove up into the lighter sky.
In spite of my excitement, or perhaps because of it, I had fallen asleep immediately after boarding. I dreamed of my daughter's eighth-grade picnic in a park I didn't recognize. The park was on the edge of a small lake and there were cabins on the other side, all white, all alike, like a summer camp. Smoky blue mountains rose up behind the white cabins and my daughter stood at the edge of the water and threw a pebble.
I don't know how I knew it was her eighth-grade picnic—I certainly hadn't been there—but I did. She wore blue jeans and a large white shirt, tails out, covering her behind. Her black hair, spiky on top, stopped just short of the collar. She searched the shoreline for another pebble, found one and tossed it a good distance. Plunk. Then a man, tall and thin, walked toward her. The other children were still crowded around the picnic tables, eating hot dogs and marshmallows, laughing, talking. The man looked back at them, but they were not paying attention. He stood beside my daughter and looked at the circles the pebble had made. Then they both looked at the smoky mountains beyond the white cabins. The man was naked, his pale body as thin as an icicle. He moved closer, then put his arm around my daughter. Her head came half-way up his ribcage.
They stood that way for a long time, until one of the children at a picnic table spotted them. Then all of the children saw my daughter and the naked man together and started to scream. My daughter looked back at them and smiled. She waved at them, but they screamed and pointed, as though they were pointing at some impending disaster beyond her, a tree falling, a boulder rolling, a meteor crashing into the lake. My daughter waved at them and smiled as the naked man, concentrating on the far shore, slipped into the cold water and started swimming. He barely disturbed the water, his hands and arms knifing silently, his kick hardly a bubble on the surface. Suddenly his head came up clear of the water, then disappeared. His white legs followed, rising to the vertical, then slowly sinking beneath the steel-blue shimmer. The cabins turned blue and smoky, as though a chilly fog had descended from the mountains. My daughter looked back at me and smiled just as the fog closed in and pushed me back in my seat and the plane lifted off.
The plane banked to the right and I watched the buildings of Manhattan, still distinct in the fading light. I picked out the trade towers, the Chrysler building, the Empire State building, bridges across the waterways. The city beneath me looked blue and hazy and lifeless—not a light, not a car, not a life.
One of the flight attendants was saying something in French on the loudspeaker. Her voice crackled smoothly through the cabin. At the same time, the television monitor at the head of the compartment snapped on and a map of the coast of New England and Canada appeared. A line, perfectly arced, followed the coastline out to the east and north, out to the open ocean. A yellow blip flashed over Connecticut.
Then the attendant was speaking English as effortlessly as the French, but the English had a silky accent and the words ran together with polite efficiency. I heard the words menu, drink cart, movie, but the plane was still climbing, making odd groans and hisses through the monotony of her voice. Most of the other passengers were talking with each other, craning to see over seats, leaning out into the aisle, laughing. Some of them were wearing cowboy hats.
I looked out the window again. I hadn't realized how much I treasured this window seat, how lucky I was to get it. It seemed important to me just now to look out the window, eastward, into the blackness of the coming night.
I hadn't thought of Elsie for a week or two, and now I had just dreamed about her. Of course I had had dreams of Elsie before, but they were pleasant, uneventfulriding our bikes, eating fish we had just caught, playing Clue at the breakfast nook in our new apartment.
Most of the dreams had some element of distance or estrangement—her disappearing over a hill on her bike or walking out the door without explanation—but this dream was new and frightening, the image of the white cabins perhaps more ominous than the naked man. They had not only looked empty, they had looked like mausoleums with their cold black windows like eyes.
The attendant announced first in French, then in English that the seatbelt light had been turned off and we were free to move about the cabin. Almost instantly there was a jumble of people in the aisles. My seatmate, a tall round man with thick dark hair that stood straight up, was speaking French with a middle-aged blonde woman who stood leaning against the seatback in front of him. Although she was dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt that said SANTA FE, her fingernails were deep red and she wore gold rings and chains. She listened intently and murmured with pursed lips in response to his excited gestures. Although it was May, she was already tan.
The naked man. What did that mean? I leaned back and watched the French woman but I saw the pale thin back. I saw Elsie's black hair against his ribs, and I suddenly felt a tingle of sweat on my forehead. Had I dreamed something sexual about my own daughter? The man seemed quite gentle, non-threatening. But he was naked. Why wasn't I outraged when he put his arm around her, when she leaned her head against him in a gesture of trust? I didn't even know if I was in the dream—I didn't seem to have a body, a face, or any feeling of movement. Only a pair of eyes, and the eyes were looking through a dirty window or maybe a chainlink fence. Some sort of barrier.
I shook my head and the blonde woman was gone. My seatmate had a small knapsack in his lap, more like a student's bookbag. He unzipped a small compartment, rummaged around a bit, then came up with a Hershey bar.
"Ah!" he said. Then he turned to me and said in English, "First time in France?"
"Yes," I said. I was surprised and mildly annoyed that he had pegged me right away. I glanced down at my own lap. Tan slacks, blue striped shirt, and a blue sportcoat in the overhead bin. Didn't the French wear these things?
"I am Roland Gaspard. You are…?"
"Pleased to meet you, JackDawes." He said my name as one word.
"Enchante, Monsieur Gaspard."
"Ah, you speak French then."
"No, no," I laughed. "Just a word or two. Nothing, really."
Monsieur Gaspard laughed too. "Some chocolate?" he said. He had unwrapped a portion of the bar and held it out to me. It would have seemed impolite not to take a piece.
"But how did you know I was an American?" I said as I sucked the melting chocolate.
"Oh, one knows these things. See?" He waved his chocolate bar toward the center of the compartment, to the talking, laughing people. "We're all together. All French. One big party."
Suddenly I understood the cowboy hats, the blonde woman's SANTA FE T-shirt. "A tour group," I said.
"And you've been to Santa Fe."
"And how did you find Santa Fe?"
"Very nice. We see much adobe. Even our hotel is adobe. And the colors of the earth, the mountains, the sky—magnificent."
"Yes," I said. "I used to live in Santa Fe. When I was a child. My parents worked for the Indian Service—in the old days."
He looked at me and his brow came down. Somehow, I knew the connection that he was making. I had seen that look before. Finally, he said, "You are ... American Indian?"
"Sioux," I said. "From the northern plains."
"Voila! Peaux Rouge!" He looked up and down the aisle. "Sioux," he said. I guessed he was looking for the blonde woman. He turned back to me. "You are perhaps a member of the American Indian Movement?" He had bitten off a piece of the Hershey bar and was chewing rapidly. His bushy hair was extraordinary. It stood straight up four inches.
"No." I shook my head.
"Do you know Leonard Peltier?"
"No," I said. "Not personally."
"Too bad," he said. "He is a great hero in France. I myself have signed a petition. It is bad the way America treats her Indians. All around Santa Fe and Albuquerque, we see Indians—Jemez, San Felipe, Santa Clara—Gallup, New Mexico! Many of us bought jewelry there. Very cheap. See?" He pulled back the sleeve of his denim shirt. He wore a Timex with a silver and turquoise bracelet. "Less than a thousand francs. I felt bad, taking advantage, but what is one to do? The poor man had a family."
For some reason the cheap knockoff cheered me up. I realized that the strange dream about my daughter had left me exhausted. But that was not a new thing. For five years after her death, I could not think about her without becoming despondent. I could not look at a picture of her without feeling a great sadness come over me. Whenever I looked at the bike I had bought her, which had rested against a wall in the foyer of my apartment for five years, I had felt a crushing blow across my shoulders. We had only ridden together four or five times before she was killed. For five years I could not look at a young girl on a bike without feeling a profound sadness.
Then two years ago, I stopped mourning. When I saw a young girl on a bike, I saw a young girl on a bike. I could look at Elsie's picture on my study desk and see a bright, smiling face with a small gap between the front teeth, with short black hair, with just the hint of a scar above her left eyebrow. I could think of her wearing one of my old oxford shirts and smile at the vagaries of youthful style. But always, such sights, such thoughts still left me exhausted, as though the effort of keeping her image before me was too much. And so I thought of her less often, and when I did think of her, she was her own self, not always connected to me. I had come to realize that that was a good thing.
And now I was having a conversation with a Frenchman.
"The man has his own secret turquoise mine," Monsieur Gaspard was saying. "You see the little red flecks? Only the turquoise from his mine contains such qualities. It is unique in all the world."
It was true that the turquoise in the watchband had red flecks. Perhaps it was unique in all the world. I had not seen such turquoise.
A pocket of rough air rattled the bottles in the drink cart as it stopped beside Monsieur Gaspard's elbow. "Ah," he said. "Permit me." He rattled off a stream of French to the attendant which she punctuated with the occasional "Oui, monsieur." She was very formal in her blue uniform, but attentive and polite in a closed sort of way. Perhaps it was the fact that she was French and slightly older than the other attendants, but I found myself drawn to her as one is drawn to a kind smile by a stranger of no importance. And as a matter of fact, she did smile, almost to herself, as she leaned over and set a small bottle of champagne and a plastic wine glass on my tray. Then she handed me a picture.
I started to reach for my wallet, but Monsieur Gaspard wiggled his finger at me. "On the house," he said.
"Merci, madam," I said.
"Tant pis, monsieur," she said, still smiling to herself, pushing her cart to the row behind us.
I unscrewed the cap on the champagne bottle and poured a little into the glass. Monsieur Gaspard was holding his glass toward me. I lifted mine. "Salut," he said, "To your health."
"Viva la France!" I said. It had occurred to me for the first time that I was actually going to an exotic country and that I would become a changed man. It was inevitable. I sank back into my seat, exhausted with the knowledge.
The round of visiting among the tour group seemed to be over and now the cabin, illuminated and dark, was mostly quiet, except for the steady almost inaudible whine of the jet as it lumbered further into the night.
I turned on my reading light and picked up the picture. It was a farmyard scene—a rooster, a barn, a red tractor, a shock of wheat, a cow in the distance and the back of a black cat in the foreground. The cat seemed to be eyeing the rooster. The colors were bright, the figures hard-edged. It was a sweet picture, but just as I was wondering about its purpose, Monsieur Gaspard, who had been sipping his champagne with his eyes closed, took the picture from me, turned it over and handed it back. It was the menu. "Try the tournedos, Jack, the chicken is no good," he murmured, then closed his eyes again. I wanted to ask him about tournedos, but he seemed to be asleep. His spiky black hair stood at attention.