short story: Cherokee
Based on travels around the Smoky Mountains, Nantahala Forest, and Cherokee regions of western Carolina
For what felt like a long time, Paul stood gazing over the small lot he’d come to know as home, one hand sick with arthritis caressing the flap of his own belly. Seventy plus ten equals eighty, he was thinking. Eighty could mean lots of things, but for Paul Collins eighty was a darkened hall—not a very long one—cluttered with the unknowable toys of cancer and heart failure and, at the other end, a big mouth. Along with his cholesterol, Paul’s weight was sky-high, which meant that mouth would have teeth, tiny daggers razored with experience in matters of human misery.
He wobbled from the window and over to a worn La-Z-Boy recliner, a gift from his son back when his son wasn’t a grown man or married and hadn’t given them a couple grandbabies they got to hold twice a year. Paul sat down, staring into the stain-dappled wall at the far end of the room. He was still staring like that when Marie walked in and said, “So, what do you think? Wanna ride down to the Casino?”
Sometimes Marie liked to go down to the Casino and have a few drinks. It was the only place on the whole reservation they sold alcohol, and sometimes Marie liked to go out and get a little tipsy. She also liked to put fives and tens in the slot machines—there were over four thousand to choose from—and when that happened, drinking was the only thing Paul had left to do.
“No,” he told her. “No, I don’t.” Before she could say anything, Paul said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve changed my mind about the flagpole.”
She came over, placing a tentative hand on his knee.
“But Paul! The man is scheduled for Tuesday.”
“Cancel it,” Paul said. “Call him and cancel it, I don’t want it.”
“But Paul, honey, are you sure? You’ve put so much into this already—what about your sketches? And all your catalogues…” Marie gestured to the stack of catalogues on the corner table, their covers filled with bright, rippling flags hung from brighter poles. Then she glanced out the window and said, “What, what about the neighbors…”
“Don’t want it, I said. Drop it. They have their own flagpoles, why should I buy one for them, too?”
They’d talked a lot about flagpoles over the last year.
They were in this for the long haul, they’d decided, and Marie imagined the pole would maybe help them fit in, make a few friends, become part of the neighborhood. Neighborhood? he’d thought. What you had here was a twice-ravaged plot of campers and RVs with a filthy stream running along one side. The mountains were nice, no doubt about that, and should he and Marie ever leave Paul was sure the sky would seem too big anywhere else, but these so-called neighbors of theirs were frigid as a crypt.
“Paul,” she said, “are you okay? Are you, Paul? Ever since the party, you’ve been acting a little, well—”
“Just fine,” Paul told her, standing to his feet, thinking how much easier it used to be to stand to his feet. “Listen, honey, I think I’ll ride down to the library, check out a couple those new military books they got in. Want anything?”
“I want you to be okay,” Marie told him, dropping another, even more tentative hand on his shoulder. He thought he saw a tear in her eye then, but that was just a trick of the light, had to be. The last ten years may’ve done a number on her face but her eyes were as green and pretty as ever, like emeralds, and sometimes they sparkled. She said, “I just want you to be happy.”
Then he told her she was batty as hell and walked out the door.
Paul started for the Jeep, still limping a little from the fall he’d taken earlier that week. He climbed in, had almost turned the key when he remembered what his doctor said about the human body, and how it needs exercise. Pretty smart for a guy right out of diapers.
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled, and got out, closed the door.
He thought, Seventy plus twenty equals ninety. Impossible.
He walked along the Oconaluftee River, watching the young families play and the young men fish. Friendly couples sat on benches with their full hair and all-teeth smiles, staring blindly into the world, and watching this tiny circus of life Paul found himself spinning the Rolodex of his own mind, watching the pictures roll by like old friends he’d forgotten were still there. He’d always heard that memories fade over time, that eventually all those pictures are tarnished in the exhaust of Life Full Speed Ahead. But Paul, in his seventies as of last month, knew that wasn’t true. Memories of his sweltery tobacco-picking days, or of long summers with a cane pole and Mason jar of worms, and especially of his wild nights dodging bullets in Southeast Asia, all these had never faded from his mind. Staring at his loafers as they carried him farther down the path ahead, Paul imagined these memories were just as alive and real as if they’d happened only last week, tops a month, and the feeling of them kicking around in the pink mass within his skull made him nervous and excited and a little confused.
He hadn’t gone much farther when he noticed two teenagers embraced on a small wooden bench. For a brief moment the teenagers and the memories melded, becoming one, and it was him and Marie on the bench, two newlyweds brimming with untold joy at the future. Only these two were doing more than kissing—quite a bit more, actually—and Paul felt himself grow strange the closer he came to where they sat beside the burbling water. Before knowing it he had stopped, staring, his jaw hung loose like a door kicked by the wind. The boy opened his eyes and, seeing Paul, jumped to his feet.
He said, “Hey, what’re you looking at? Huh?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Paul said, the words too quiet to be heard over the rushing water. He felt like he’d just woken up.
“Hear what I said? Beat it, gramps, before I beat your face. Get lost.”
The boy stepped closer, and Paul felt his chest tighten; without knowing it he lifted his hands, not to fight but to keep from being hit.
The girl said, “Scott, come on, leave him alone, come back…”
The boy spat a little ball of something into the earth at Paul’s feet. He glared a moment, drawing it out, and Paul thought what he wouldn’t give to be twenty years younger, to have his own body back for a change, if only long enough to administer a swift lesson on respect; his body, after all, had once been trained for such lessons…
Instead he looked away and kept down the river, letting the sound of the waves against the rocks carry him far, far away. Ten minutes later, when at last he stopped to take a rest, his ankles felt full of broken glass and his thighs were greasy with sweat. He swallowed a couple Lipitor for his cholesterol, doc’s orders, and imagined what sort of excitement lay ahead for the weekend. Some old friends from Tennessee—Marie’s friends—were staying over, and he wasn’t so sure how he felt about that. He was still trying to decide when again he remembered the line that had been stuck in his head all morning, and got to wondering if maybe he could find who said it. Time makes strangers of us all, that was the line. Something like that. Who knows, maybe he could trademark it, put it on some shirts, or maybe a front-porch rug like all those other absurd welcome mats he’d seen over the years. WELCOME, BUT DON'T EXPECT MUCH. WIPE YOUR FEET, HONEY CHILD. Or his favorite, CHECK FOR DOOKIES.
After arriving he spent a couple hours piddling in the stacks at the Qualla Library, searching for the quote but not having much luck. When the young librarian suggested he Google it, Paul thought maybe she was speaking some sort of regional slang and decided it was time for him to leave. He was halfway home when a man in a headdress walked up to him and said, “How’d ya like your picture taken? Hey-hey, how about it?”
“A souvenir,” the man said, “how about it? Have your picture taken with a real live Indian?”
Paul thought the waitress they’d had the other night—a dark-eyed girl, beautiful but with too much mascara and a bunch of fishing hooks in her face—was a “real live Indian” too, and you couldn’t have paid him a million bucks to have his picture taken with her. But this guy seemed pretty nice, so he said yeah, all right, and when the picture was done he slipped the man five dollars and the old Indian smiled and waved him on.
The Childers arrived around noon the following day.
The two couples spent the afternoon gabbing on the little rectangle that served as their front porch—Marie had planted a flower garden along the front, and there was a birdbath and a couple of those hanging ferns—and later that night they drove over to the Casino, where things were very much as Paul remembered. Forget what you’d seen in the movies; here there were no pinstriped card sharks, no glamour girls, no high rollers tossing dice and chomping on cigars. Just a lot of mostly old, mostly white, mostly overweight misers—something he saw way too much of in the morning mirror, in other words—some buzzing around on those little motorized carts, but most of them sitting there staring blankly at a flashing screen while one finger taps…taps…taps.
After breakfast the next morning they went out to all the local shops, where the Childers purchased authentic Native American pottery and colorful beadwork and a couple coffee mugs—ten dollars apiece for the mugs. But mostly Paul thought about that line, about sharp teeth at the end of darkened halls, and about time and what sort of terrible things it had in store for an old man like himself.
He thought, Twenty years ago, I was a real person.
They visited the old Mingus Mill and took pictures with the Indian-in-a-headdress from two days before—if he remembered Paul, he didn’t let on—before motoring out to the Oconaluftee Indian Village, where for twenty bucks apiece they were shown how real-life Cherokees lived during the 1750s. They were taught how to knap arrowheads from stone, and shown how a tree is prepped with clay and gutted by fire to form a canoe. Then they were treated to several traditional Native American dances: the Beaver Hunt, the Mauling Bear, and, last of all, the Friendship Dance, during which Frank and Judy Childers were pulled from their seats and consumed by the chain of tourists swept round the sacred square.
When the dancing was finished, a Cherokee man of medium height stepped into the square, entering from the east, always the east, which they had been told was the direction of new beginnings, of renewal. He took up a drum with one hand and a stick with the other. He banged the drum with the stick—once, twice, make it three times—and when it was over he settled the drum and took up his voice.
“The Cherokee,” he said, his words gravelly and potent, “were once a great people. Our various clans covered an area from this land to as far south as Georgia, east into Tennessee, north up into Kentucky and parts of West Virginia.”
Seventy plus thirty equals one hundred. That’s a good bingo.
“For a long time that’s the way things were. Then one day we found ourselves forced from our home, driven like wild beasts to a place we did not wish to go. Defying this brutality, brought about by threats and chicanery, over four hundred of our people escaped to these-here hills, and here they waited, a remnant who would someday inherit this land once more. Who would not succumb to tyranny, but would rise again from the ashes of persecution…”
And as this stranger began to recite the history of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, to explain the harsh realities of such things as forced exile and the Trail of Tears, and of long-suffering remnants marching to the future, Paul sensed something shift down deep within. He assumed the movement was a corporeal effect—an overstuffed gut, heartburn, maybe a coronary—and upon discovering it wasn’t, he sat up and for a moment held his breath. Again the elder beat at his drum—one, two, three—and shutting his eyes Paul witnessed the mad flight of the refugees, a band of warriors running and hiding in the great clefts of the Smokies, flourishing in secret, finally emerging to come and dance before him like bears and bang on drums and to show themselves without shame of all that had come before, of all they’d suffered and endured.
Paul glanced down, and when he did something flashed from his face, splashing onto his arm. The crowd began to clap, some standing, others whooping loudly in his ear. He looked over, and through his tears saw Marie staring at him queerly.
“Paul? Paul, hon, are you okay?”
Once more the drum sounded over the crowd—once, twice, three times—and when it was done Paul took her hand and squeezed tight, and said he was fine, just fine.