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Jul/Aug 2004 spotlight

Remade Tobacco

by Joan Shaddox Isom


"See to your papa, Josie Blackbull."

My grandmother tells me that at least five times a day, especially when I'm doing my homework.

Question # 3: What is the number one cash crop in Oklahoma?

I wonder what my geography teacher would do if I wrote the truth. Everyone knows what the main crop is in Keetoowah County. The sheriff and his men cut and burn it every month or so.

I get up and go to my father's bedroom. He has a football game on TV, but he's not watching it. His striped flannel bathrobe that he wears every day is open, and his belly bulges out over his blue jeans. He's barefoot, and he's pacing the floor, smoking the last of his ration of cigarettes. Any minute now he could start badgering me to go to the store and get him another pack of Camels. My mother stopped that a long time ago, so I'll explain it to him one more time, and he'll get mad and throw things against the wall. His shoes, the pillows, his Field and Stream magazines he never reads. His wall is a dirty yellow with scratches and scars. Once, my father traced his finger on the wall and tried to show me what he called a secret map. When I told him I couldn't see any map, he said I was as stupid as my old lady.

My mother works at the Indian hospital. Its real name is C.C. Hendricks Medical Center, but nobody calls it that. She's a practical nurse, a fancy name for piss pot carrier, my father says. She says he ought to be glad someone's making the living. He hasn't worked since he came home from Desert Storm. My mother tries to get him to go for counseling or at least go to a veterans' group in town, but he won't. Once a month he goes to a doctor where my mother works and gets some kind of pills.

He tells me about the war. Not hero stories, but how he was scared out of his gourd and hid in supply closets and smoked pot. At this point in the story, he always stops and lectures me about how I shouldn't do drugs. My father used to play football in high school. He was all-state one year, but he doesn't care about that anymore. He gave me his football with all the players' names on it.

But this evening, before my father starts throwing things, my mother comes home. I go into the kitchen to help her with supper. She's banging pans around. "Have to get back and work E.R. tonight. Full moon, a weekend, and a payday to boot. It'll all break loose about midnight," she says as she rummages around in the fridge and pulls out four pork chops. "Peel some potatoes, Josie." I start peeling while she clangs the iron skillet onto a burner and lights it with a match. Our pilot light went out a few months ago, and we can't get it started. That's why the kitchen smells like gas all the time.

My mother is still talking about her job. "That George Birdtail—you know, he played ball with Jackson in high school—got in another fight. His pals throwed him in the back of their pickup and drove him to the hospital." She scoops a big blob of Crisco out of the can and drops it into the cast iron skillet. "They called for me to come out and see to him, but when I climbed up into the truck, I seen he was already dead. Someone beaned him with a bottle out at the Steal-In."

Grandmother leans on the door frame, listening. "Don't tell Jackson," she whispers. I don't know why she bothers to warn us. My father can't hold a thought for ten seconds unless it's about cigarettes. He's bellowing for more now. I guess my mother's too tired to argue. She gets a pack of Camels out of her purse and throws it into the bedroom. She ties a denim apron over her white uniform and starts to dredge the pork chops in flour. The grease is getting hot, and the potatoes are bubbling on the back burner.

"Set the table, Josie."

I get out the plates and the knives and forks and put them around the kitchen table. Grandmother is at the back door scolding the cat. "He's lapped up the milk I set outside," she mutters.

"What does she expect?" I whisper.

"Shhhhh." My mother puts her finger over her lips. Grandmother puts out saucers of milk near the vents in the foundation. Sometimes she gets down and peers under the house, making a funny little whistling noise.

"Who is it comes into my room at night and tucks the blankets around me?" I ask my Grandmother. She wags a finger at me and shakes her head.

I pour myself a glass of milk. I know Grandmother is watching me, so I leave a little in the bottom of the bottle and hold it up and shake it. Grandmother grunts and smiles.

"Shhhhhh." My mother warns us again. Grandmother waves her wrinkled hand as if to say, "Mind your business," and turns away to stare out into the backyard. She always wants us to take her to the stomps and the pork fries. My mother glares at her when she mentions these things. "Josie's going to Tulsa after she finishes school. She'll get a good job, maybe be a secretary with a computer and a fine office," my mother says.

At supper, my mother and grandmother talk about the tough new manager out at the Cherokee Living Museum where the next-door neighbor kids work in the summer. Boise, the one in my grade, gets paid for wearing a breech-clap and playing stickball all day. His sister wore a deerskin costume and showed the tourists how to grind corn the old way before she got fired.

"Was Boise's sister really talking on the phone in front of the tourists?" my grandmother asks.

"Yeah, her cell phone," my mother says. "Holding it with her chin while she ground corn with that wooden mallet thing."

"That girl's crazy. They didn't have none of them phones back then." My grandmother takes a hunk of bread and sops up some grease from her pork chop and plops it into her mouth.

My father doesn't seem to hear the supper talk. He's busy tearing strips off his bread and making little partitions between his food, not letting the potatoes touch the meat.

After midnight I go into his room. I know he won't be sleeping. There's no light on, and he's crouched by the window, looking out.

"Duck down! Duck down, Josie!" he whispers. I get down on the floor beside him. He's smoking a cigarette, and he holds it below the window, bending down to take a puff.

"Them Bastards behind the well. Think I can't see 'em. Look!" He points. "Look hard!" I study the dark. The wind is blowing the trees around, making the shadows move. I guess they look like the enemy to my father. Somewhere a dog howls, and the cottonwood leaves rattle.

"Go to bed, Jackson. There's nobody out there," I say. But he shakes his head and lights another cigarette.

"I have to pull guard. Someone has to. Your mama, she thinks I'm good for nothing. I seen Loney Lynch bring her home from work more than one time. And she took my twenty-two away..." His voice trails off. He's still peering at the dark outside the window.

I sit there and wonder what Mr. Aimens would say if he met my family. Last week he called me to his office. He's the school counselor when he's not teaching Oklahoma history. He wanted to know how I was getting along in math. I made a "D" last semester, but I'm beginning to figure out fractions. Mr. Amiens is from New Jersey, and he's always badgering me to tell him about what he calls "my cultural legacy." Once he asked me about Jack Hummingbird. Jack's my uncle, and he works medicine. People call him when they want favors. If you have a mean boss on your back, you can ask my uncle for help—like Mickey Thompson did. Jack went out to the river right at sunup and remade some tobacco. I didn't see him, but he does this by facing east and singing the remaking song over a handful of Bull Durham. Then he rolled cigarettes and gave one to Mickey, and Mickey smoked it in front of his boss, and the boss got real afraid of him and let him alone after that. I don't tell Mr. Aimens about these things, but everyone in town knows what Jack does.

Mr. Aimens doesn't give up easily. "Now these Little People, Josie, that some of your old ones claim to see, does your uncle know anything about them?" Marie Blackfox, the librarian, says Mr. Amiens wants all us Cherokees for his exotic artifact collection. During Territory Days, Mr. Amiens divided us into groups. Melissa Sillbury's was the white settlers and mine was the Native Americans. Mr. Amiens lumps all the tribes together and calls them that. We were supposed to present our side of whether the West should have been settled by the whites. No one would argue for their side, and Mr. Amiens got so mad I guess he forgot about being politically correct. He yelled at me, "Josie! You're an Indian! Why don't you present your side!" When I wouldn't talk, he said I was "reverting to type," which made all us kids laugh.

On Tuesday, my father is not at home when I get there. Grandmother says Sheriff Blount came for him. Some neighbors had complained that he kept coming to their houses to mooch cigarettes, that they were afraid of him. "What will happen to him?" I ask.

"Mebbe send him to Vinita," Grandmother says. Vinita is where the State sends people they don't know what to do with.

"What will Mother say?" I ask.

Grandmother cocks her head to one side like a chicken. Then she snaps her fingers. "That one—she'll say 'good riddance!'"

I go into my father's room. His bed is unmade, his shoes on the floor. I wonder if they took him away barefooted. There's a crumpled pack of Camels lying on the bed. I take the pack to my room and hide it under my pillow. I stretch out on my bed and think about how my mother's always saying she can't sleep with my father prowling all night long. She shares a room with Grandmother, and they keep their door closed. I always leave my door open in case my father gets really scared. When that happens, he cries. Then I go in and give him another one of his pills. They make him rest a little easier. I wonder if anyone will give him his medicine at Vinita.

I throw my history book against the wall. It makes a good thud. I lock my door, pull the shades down, and get into bed, even though it's just six o'clock. The tobacco scent from under my pillow fills the room. I shut my eyes and watch for the pictures that sometimes show up underneath my eyelids. When I'm lucky, I can see faces, all different, changing one into the other. Only this time, there's just a flat, plum-colored darkness. I guess I fall asleep, but the sound of my mother's car wakes me up. I hear her come inside, and pretty soon the house is quiet again.

I take the pack of cigarettes and slip into my father's room. I leave the light off and sit on the floor by the window. I light a cigarette and smoke it while I stare out at the dark for a long time. The wind has stopped blowing, but the tree shadows are still moving. The longer I study them, the more they look like squat little shapes beginning to circle our house.

I crush out the cigarette, kick off my shoes, and get into my father's bed. It's so quiet. Not even the cottonwood leaves are stirring. As I pull the tobacco-scented sheet up under my chin, I think about the gentleness of the small hands that tuck the blankets around me sometimes at night.

I wish I'd thought to ask my father if they ever did the same for him.

 

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