A northern Pacific rattlesnake. NATALIE MCNEAR/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
First published in Prairie Schooner, winter 2005.
I went to high school in an unfriendly town in New Mexico. And yes, my father did often keep a gun in his car--for shooting snakes, he said. He passed away in 1996 (no snakes involved), so I never got to ask him exactly why that was so important to him ... Here is a taste of otherwise fictional teenaged desperation in the New Mexico of the 1980s.
In 1976, Miss Elaine Pratt surprised the neighborhood by adopting an eight-year-old girl off the Tesuque reservation. Miss Pratt was a schoolteacher, and many of the neighbors suspected this was her way of teaching them some kind of lesson; but the women in the Stitchers’ Club pointed out that she was also thirty-four and too fat to get married, so it was her one chance at parenthood.
Miss Pratt called the little girl Ileanna, though to the aunts on the reservation she was still Mary. None of them minded what her name was, so long as she had somebody to take care of her now that her mother was dead and the aunts had so many children of their own. “It’s a beautiful thing Miss Pratt is doing,” the nicer neighbor ladies used to say, and they’d all nod and feel they were good and beautiful, too, for approving of her.
“She might lose some weight chasing after a child,” my mother said at dinner. “Maybe she’ll take the girl hiking on the wild land down the road, like your father’s always saying he’ll do with you . . . You know, if we aren’t careful, when you grow up you’ll look like Miss Pratt.”
While she talked, I ate my mashed potatoes as fast as I could; I’d begun to sense when she was about to take something away from me.
Ileanna went to the school where
Miss Pratt taught rather than the one up the
street, and I knew her only from the
neighborhood. While other kids played
cowboys and Indians with plastic guns and
arrows made of sticks, I used to see Ileanna
spinning circles around her front yard, with
the starched pink and lavender frocks that
Miss Pratt made ballooning around her
skinny legs. The women said those frocks
were baby clothes blown up to third-grader size, but I was a big Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. I used to walk by the Pratt house to peek through the chain-link fence and imagine that I had been adopted, too, and got to wear dresses that looked like something out of Little House on the Prairie.
I was even more jealous when, on the third anniversary of her adoption, Ileanna got a baby potbellied pig. After school she would chase the pig around the yard until she caught it and wrapped her arms around the bristly black middle. I thought it would be wonderful to hug a pig and to tote a heavy slop bucket out of the kitchen and empty it into something called a trough. The wonders were compounded by imagining myself with dark skin and slanted eyes and black hair--instead of beige-all-over, as I was. Imagining myself called Ileanna Pratt instead of boring old Tracy Wilson.
The pig was followed by a pair of soft gray rabbits that quickly multiplied, and then a glossy brown dog missing a leg. I almost couldn’t bear to go by the Pratt house anymore; of course my parents refused to let me have a pet. A pet might distract me from my studies.
As a reward for the first time I got straight A’s, my father finally took me out on the wild land and taught me to use his .45 revolver. We shot at juniper bushes and yucca blossoms and a dead rattlesnake until my mother got wind of it. “Nine-year-old girls don’t shoot guns,” she said. “Period.”
When it was time for junior high, the children of White Rock were bused up the mountain to attend one big school in Los Alamos. In that year, Ileanna Pratt became my friend. It turned out that she was two years older than I was, but I’d started school early and she’d been left back when she got to White Rock, so we were in the same grade. I was surprised to find out she was as unpopular as I was; her beautiful frilly dresses and fat schoolmarm of a mother made other kids snicker as she walked by. She did not know how to talk to people, either, and although she curled and gelled her black hair and piled it high on her head in imitation of the loudest, happiest cheerleaders, she never fit in. I, too, was ill suited for public school life, with my nose always in a book and my stocky body cased in the ugly sweaters my mother knitted out of novelty yarns. Ileanna and I were outcasts together, riding in the front seat of the bus and eating brownies in Miss Pratt’s kitchen, thumbing through her old copies of Ladies’ Home Journal and gossiping.
We talked, of course, about boys.
“I’m sure Tommy Baldwin looked at me today,” Ileanna said at least once a week when we were in ninth grade. For variety, sometimes she would add, “And he smiled.”
I pretended to believe her, just as she pretended to believe it when I said that Andy Pullman had borrowed a pencil from me. We both knew that no boy worth his salt would have anything to do with one of my toothmarked, stubby pencils. But I spun out the fantasy: He’d asked me for the pencil, waited while I dug one out of my backpack, let his hand touch mine as he took it . . . Ileanna and I were on different academic tracks, and our paths never crossed at school, so it was possible to keep up the fiction between us, at least until five o’clock.
“Time to feed the animals,” Ileanna would say then, so we went into the backyard to look after the growing menagerie. The potbellied pig, Fern, had grown big and slow, and over the years she and the growing family of rabbits had been joined by lizards, snakes, and more crippled dogs. The rabbits had an immense enclosure full of holes and warrens they popped in and out of. I liked the good green smell of their food, so I fed them, then I watched while Ileanna raked up their droppings. I wandered around looking into the kennels and cages, staying carefully away from the snakes in their mesh cages. They ate frozen mice that Ileanna ordered from a pet store and kept in Miss Pratt’s freezer. I always left before Ileanna got the mice, though she told me it was all just natural, just what snakes had to do to survive. My father had taught me to hate and fear snakes; he tried to shoot as many as he could.
“Where have you been?” my father would ask if I walked through the door after he did.
“Stayed late to use the library,” I said in adolescent shorthand, knowing the excuse would please him. “Took the activity bus home.”
I could never admit to wasting time with Ileanna; my father did not like her. He did not consider her a responsible person, and responsibility was taken very seriously in our house, at least where I and my studies were concerned.
“She gets very bad grades,” my father would say, having collected this information from some unknown source. When I turned fourteen and began at the high school, he added: “A girl who does not study is an irresponsible girl. You should hang out with kids who are going to college.”
“It has nothing to do with her being an Indian,” my mother put in, unprompted. “Excuse me, Native American.” She never seemed to remember the difference until too late. That evening she was working on a tangle of yarn that looked like seaweed but was resolving itself into a sort of camouflage sweater for my father to wear when he went for target practice at the Shootists’ Club.
“Ileanna wants to be a veterinarian,” I said. “You should see her with her pig and her rabbits.”
My mother came to the end of a row and paused, counting stitches. “She bought all those animals with her Indian Council welfare checks. And her share of the bingo palace money that comes in every month, whether she works for it or not.”
My father said, as if settling things once and for all, “Her mother died in a drunk driving accident, and nobody knows who her father was.” He rattled his newspaper. “The rest of the family lives in shacks.”
I knew what he was thinking about. Shortly after moving to New Mexico, we had gone to the Tesuque reservation for a display and sale of handwoven blankets. We parked on the the edge of a wide, dusty plaza where the Indians held their ceremonial dances and tribe meetings, and we wandered among card tables laden with glowing wools. The blankets were beautiful, but my parents were shocked to look up and see, all around the plaza, people living in tumbledown houses with broken window panes.
“It’s just a few miles from where we live,” my mother said over and over. We left shortly after discovering that absolutely no unwoven wool was for sale.
Thinking of those awful houses and my wonderful friend--whose mother was a schoolteacher but didn’t seem to mind that Ileanna wasn’t good in school, because she was just so glad to have a daughter--I interrupted both of my parents in a rare moment of defiance: “Ileanna’s mother is alive and her name is Miss Elaine Pratt.”
For that I was sent to my room to do my homework, and that weekend I raked the early autumn leaves and mowed the lawns and mopped the floors. Ileanna eventually came by to see what I was doing, but my father told her I was being punished. She went away with no idea that she was the reason I was in disgrace.
In mid-October, Ileanna finally got her driver’s license. She’d turned sixteen over the summer, but it took a few tries to pass the written test; she did just fine when she got behind the wheel. She still had to take the bus to school, but she told me Miss Pratt would let her borrow the old silver Buick that weekend.
“Where will you go?” I asked, trying to hide my envy. I wouldn’t drive for another two years, if then; my father did not approve of teenagers with cars.
“Well,” said Ileanna, flipping her crunchy curls in a gesture the popular girls had perfected, “I thought we would go see my aunt Stella.”
We. I thrilled at the thought that I was now someone who could drive around in a car with a friend, no parents. It almost made up for not being the driver myself. “Doesn’t she live on--in--Tesuque?” After all those years, I still wasn’t sure if it was polite to remind Ileanna that she came from a reservation pueblo.
“Yeah.” Ileanna shrugged, as if it were no big deal; but I knew for a fact that Miss Pratt allowed her only one visit to the pueblo each year, and the family never, ever came up to White Rock to see her. This was surely a forbidden trip, and of course my own parents would never give me permission to go. Ileanna and I would have a real secret, the kind that other teenagers, normal ones, kept regularly.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “I’ll bring snacks.”
That Saturday, I told my parents I was going on a long hike over the wild land. They approved, and my mother again voiced a hope that I would finally lose some weight. I pulled on old jeans and the seaweed-camouflage sweater, which had turned out too small for my father; he reminded me about rattlesnakes. Ileanna, at her house, told Miss Pratt that she was going to drive me to Bandelier National Monument, where we would hike among the Anasazi ruins and come back before sunset turned the yellow cliffs red, having learned something about the history of our state. To fit the story, Ileanna wore jeans and an old example of the frilly dress tops, and she filled two water bottles at the tap. Miss Pratt reminded Ileanna to be careful on the curves. Then we slid into the car and fastened our seatbelts as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and we took off on a twenty-seven-mile drive.
Apart from a little rough braking, the trip went smoothly, and when we got to Tesuque Ileanna parked the car like an expert. Loud music was coming from the rotting house that she said was her aunt Stella’s, and when we got closer we heard people singing “Happy Birthday.” The name attached sounded like Julie.
“Dammit,” Ileanna said, stopping dead on the edge of the deserted plaza. “It must be my cousin Dooley’s birthday. I don’t have a present for him.”
She looked so crestfallen that I peeled off the camouflage sweater and held it out to her. “Here. It’s the first time I’ve worn it. We’ll fold it up and give it to him.” I hardly thought how angry my mother would be if she knew; I only considered how generous and good I was, offering up a brand-new sweater to my friend.
Ileanna brightened immediately. “There might be some ribbon in the trunk.” Of course there was; Miss Pratt taught second grade, and her trunk was a traveling arts-and-crafts supply store. We sprinkled some confetti stars over the top of the sweater and tied it up with blue ribbon. Pioneer resourcefulness, I thought. The whole day looked suddenly beautiful; even the sweater was pretty.
On the other side of the house, the party was loud and dizzying: fold-out tables covered in empty cans and plates of cake and fried foods I didn’t recognize, a boombox blaring seventies rock music, a couple dozen people sweating on a cool fall afternoon. They all seemed to be a little bit drunk, too. Even Ileanna’s aunt Stella’s face was flushed bright red, and she flung her arms around Ileanna’s neck and then mine indiscriminately.
“My boy’s birthday,” she confided in my ear, though at the top of her voice. Her body was plump and firm and warm. “Eighteen today.”
She released me to hug Ileanna again,
and I held out the now-sparkly sweater to the
man called Dooley, feeling stupid, wondering
if he would realize my arms were covered in
goosebumps because I was giving him my only
wrap. But no, he didn’t even see me. He was
struggling with a difficult beer bottle.
Aunt Stella shouted into Ileanna’s
ear: “Mary, honey, when you turn
eighteen you can come back to the pueblo
to live with us. You can choose that for
yourself. What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Ileanna said, obviously embarrassed. If she hadn’t been so dark, I would have been able to tell if she was blushing.
A bunch of tough-looking boys drinking along the house wall were watching Ileanna with interest. Suddenly Dooley gave up on his bottle and swept her into his arms, dangling her feet above the ground.
“Long time no see,” he shouted into her hair. “I’m eighteen today.” Some scruffy dogs came to sniff at Ileanna’s toes, and I finally realized where she got the crippled pets that lived in Miss Pratt’s backyard.
When Dooley put her down, she took the sweater from me and gave it to him. “It’s hand-knit.”
He whistled and took a swig from the nearest bottle, then pulled the sweater over his flannel shirt. “Sharp,” he said, looking down.
I felt as if he actually meant it, and so it was probably my delighted grin that drew his attention at last to me. When he looked at me I saw that Dooley was cute, in a thick, spiky manner, and I thought that if there were a way I could make up a story about him and get Ileanna to believe it, I would.
“This is my best friend, Tracy,” Ileanna said, though she’d already introduced us once. Dooley folded my pudgy hand in his hard brown one. It was the most exciting moment of my life.
Sometime during that long, golden afternoon, I realized I wouldn’t even need to tell Ileanna a story about Dooley, because she could see very well for herself that he liked me. He was drunk, yes, but he was actually listening to what I had to say. The fact that I was the only female there who was not a blood relative did occur to me, but I pushed it out of my mind. I took a sip from his beer bottle--just a sip, no more--or maybe two, but that was it--and instead of telling stories to Ileanna, I told stories to him. I told him about Fern, the potbellied pig he’d never seen, and about Faith Rhodenz, the head cheerleader, who I hinted was a good friend of mine; about my mother’s passion for novelty knits (realizing too late that he would put two and two together and come up with the sweater he was wearing now; but then, he didn’t seem to make that connection after all); about my father and the Shootists’ Club.
“They have this barbecue every summer where they cook buffalo meat,” I bragged. Buffalo was still exotic in 1984. “I tasted it once. It was weird.” Suddenly I thought that maybe, just maybe, the Indians at Tesuque ate buffalo, so I rushed on: “Sometimes my dad goes by the shooting range after work to practice on targets. He hardly ever hits anything but the bull’s-eye. He keeps his .45 under the front seat of his car. He has to shoot snakes when he’s out on a hike.”
All of this was true, of course--but as soon as I said it, the beer-fog cleared away and I knew I’d done a terrible thing. Back in my childhood, when I’d first reached into the mysterious well beneath the driver’s seat and found that gun, my parents had sworn me to secrecy. Guns were legal in our state, but my mother insisted that no one should ever know about where my father kept his. It was fine on the wild land, she said, but shameful if known to anyone in the neighborhood. Only gangsters kept handguns in their cars--and who ever heard of a snake holding still long enough to be shot anyway? Which was precisely why I never actually did hike on the wild land.
“Your dad’s a cowboy,” Dooley said, grinning over me. “Cool.” And that made everything all right. I managed to forget my embarrassment and to let myself sparkle as I’d seen other girls do with boys. Ileanna was doing all right, too, with a couple of those tough-looking boys at the wall--but they were her second cousins.
The crowning touch to that glorious day was that, as Ileanna and I slid back into the car with our new casual gesture, Dooley leaned in my window and asked me out on a date. “We can go to Lotaburger or something,” he said. “We can even play bingo if you want.”
Those places were down in the valley near Tesuque. “I can’t drive,” I said, embarrassed once again, and feeling Ileanna’s dark eyes burning into me.
“Then tell me where you live.” He shifted weight from his left hip to his right. “I’ll get a truck and come up and see you.”
I couldn’t look at him then, just nodded, too astonished to speak. Then I realized I could never have him come to the house. “Meet me at Pizza Hut in White Rock,” I whispered. “You know where that is?”
“Sure,” he said easily. And that was that: I, Tracy Wilson, had my very first date.
Ileanna was quiet as we drove out of the plaza, even when we got to the highway. It was while we were passing the Pojoaque bingo palace that she said, “He knew you couldn’t drive. Everybody knows how young you are.”
Not even my best friend’s smoldering jealousy could spoil my mood that week. If anything, I would have to say it heightened my sense of good fortune. I woke in the mornings full of anticipation, counting days and hours till Saturday. Occasionally I suffered a crisis of nerves--what if there were other high school kids at Pizza Hut, what if they made fun of me and Dooley found out I was a nerd--but overall it was a happy time, and while I washed the windows and varnished the porch swing to make up for losing the seaweed sweater, I whistled “Happy Birthday” to myself.
I actually had a date. I had a date before Ileanna had one, and she could drive. A boy liked me.
At dinner on Thursday, my mother said, “I went to Safeway this afternoon and I saw Ileanna getting out of a car. On the driver’s side. Does she have a license?”
When I nodded, chewing through a mouthful of gray beef, my father said--as I had known he would do-- “You are not to take a ride from her anywhere, Tracy. She’s too irresponsible to have a license; it’s only a matter of time before she gets in an accident.”
“Dad,” I said, “plenty of people with bad grades can drive. They drive trucks for a living.” Dooley sometimes did that, delivering fry bread to the bingo palace. He’d said that someday he’d like to drive an armored car.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t punished for that retort; there was little that needed doing around the house. But I heard my parents talking after they thought I was in bed.
“Tracy is becoming a handful,” my mother said, sighing just the way Ma Ingalls would have done.
“She’s a teenager,” my father said in the tone of voice with which I imagined him addressing a snake just before he shot it.
My mother blamed Ileanna for a while, then concluded, “Well, we can’t forbid them to be friends. You know how it is. The Stitchers’ Club thinks they’re so cute together.”
From the sound of my father’s answering sigh, which came through his nose, I could tell they’d had this part of the conversation before. He turned on the TV, and I tiptoed silently back to my room and closed the door.
Finally it was Saturday. Ileanna made a noble gesture and let me squeeze myself into one of Miss Pratt’s creations, a two-piece pink number with a mercifully elasticized waist. She also agreed to lie for me and say, on the off-chance that my parents called, that I was outside with her telescope, making a star chart for science class. She had her own phone line, so Miss Pratt would not be a problem. Ileanna even drove me to Pizza Hut and waited till Dooley pulled up in a red truck that she said belonged to one of their uncles.
Dooley gave me a hug, merely waving at Ileanna, and I felt happy and protected as we went into Pizza Hut.
But then everything went wrong. The pimply waiter, who enjoyed a sort of third-tier popularity at school, asked if we had a reservation, and Dooley said, “Yeah. We call it the Tesuque Pueblo.” I laughed politely, but it wasn’t funny, and even Dooley knew it. The realization put him in a bad mood, and he slumped into our booth as if I’d dragged him there against his will.
The place was crowded. I was right about one thing--there were lots of popular kids hanging out, sprawling over tables and laughing, laughing, laughing. I felt them darting looks at me, saw them giggling behind hands held up to elaborately painted mouths. Tracy Wilson on a date. Tracy Wilslob. Tracy Fat-facey.
But Dooley looked around and blushed. He obviously thought they were making fun of him. In fact, he did not fit in any better than I did; he was wearing that horrible sweater over another faded flannel shirt, and his hands were grease-stained, his spiky hair obviously cut at home. I knew he’d only made the reservation joke because he felt out of place, but I was so uncomfortable myself that I did not know what to say about it. I wanted to tell him it was my fault they were laughing at us, but how could any girl admit that on her first date? I tried to shrink into my seat as Dooley ordered a beer and the manager asked to see his license.
While we waited for our pizza, Dooley sucked grudgingly at a Coke and told me about a friend in Santa Fe who knew somebody who could get him a fake i.d. After the food came, he fell silent. It was my turn to step into the breach, but it seemed I’d used up all my stories at his birthday party the week before. I could not think of a single thing to say, not even to drown out the whispers I was sure were raging around us. I picked off the olives and green peppers and crammed slice after slice into my mouth, hoping that hunger would excuse my awkwardness. Ileanna’s buttons strained over my belly, but still I ate; we’d ordered a large, and I didn’t see why there should be any leftovers. The sooner that pizza was gone, the sooner we could be out of here and on to something better.
“Well,” Dooley said as the last crumb disappeared down my gullet, “I guess I’ll take you home.”
So that was all there was going to be to this date. I choked back my disappointment while Dooley paid the bill and led the way outside and past more high schoolers in the parking lot, lounging on the hoods of their parents’ cars and drinking out of paper bags. Dooley was gallant enough to insist on driving me home, and after a short, nervous argument, I gave him the directions. Within five minutes we were idling in front of my parents’ house.
Sitting behind Dooley’s uncle’s dashboard, I saw the house through his eyes, that low blue-gray ranch home squatting behind the juniper bushes atop a short hill. My father’s Honda and my mother’s station wagon, both badly in need of a wash, blocked the driveway. The lights were on in the living room, and you could see right through to the enormous blue-and-yellow wall hanging my mother had made during her brief infatuation with macrame.
“Nice place,” Dooley said.
“Oh,” I stuttered, embarrassed, “this truck is much nicer than our cars.”
My father walked past the window carrying his newspaper, and I realized I couldn’t get out now. I made Dooley drive down to Miss Pratt’s. “You’ve never seen Ileanna’s house, have you,” I said. I pointed to a dark shape rooting through the side yard: “That’s Fern, her pig.” I had to raise my voice to say it; the crippled dogs had started barking furiously, as if they remembered Dooley from a previous life.
“Yeah,” said Dooley, “this is a nice place too.”
I waited a few more moments before getting out, so my parents wouldn’t connect the sound of a car with my arrival. I on my side and he on his, our breath filled the cab of the truck, and the tension got so thick I didn’t even say good-bye when I got out--I was too afraid I would start crying.
“Where did you get that dress?” my mother asked when I walked in. She was knitting with the seaweed yarn again, making a bigger sweater this time.
“Ileanna and I traded for tonight,” I said dully.
“Well, trade back in the morning. That ruffly look is not for you.”
“How was Saturday?” Ileanna asked on the bus.
I shrugged, as I’d practiced doing before the mirror. “Okay.”
She knew better than to ask any more questions, and she pretended to believe me. So then the date was okay. I had never liked her more than I did that morning
--I was almost able to forget the awful embarrassment of it all as I thought up new stories I might soon tell her. The Dooley episode was over.
Then, some days later, my father reached under his car seat and came up empty. He broke every speed limit tearing home from the Shootists’ Club.
“Did you hide it?” I listened to him interrogating my mother. I sat across the table from her, trying to make myself small, with a sick feeling in my stomach as if Saturday’s pizza still sat there cold and congealed. “Did you put it somewhere, Helen?”
My mother said, “I always knew there’d be trouble with that gun. Nobody we know--”
He cut her off. “There’s a rifle rack in every truck in the county. You never know when some redneck--”
“And then there are the snakes,” I supplied nervously.
He turned to me. “You’re the one,” he concluded. “Probably took it when your mother and I went out to dinner last week. Tracy, did you let Ileanna”--he put all the contempt he could muster into the name-- “drive my car somewhere?”
Of course I hadn’t done that; I wouldn’t dare, though I had already dared so much. But I know I looked guilty. My father had very nearly touched on what I did fear had happened, which would also have been my fault.
Everything made sense. Dooley wasn’t interested in me. Even if he were much drunker than he’d been at his party, he wouldn’t be that stupid. The one reason he had asked me on the date was to see where I lived and steal my father’s gun.
I burst into tears. “I didn’t do it!” I sobbed, and I repeated myself so often and so passionately that at last my parents believed me.
“Well then,” Mom said at last, “I suppose we’d better call the police.”
My father moved faster than I’d ever seen him in my life, grabbing her wrist and pulling her sharply away from the phone. “No police,” he said. I realized then that his anger came mixed with fear.
The missing gun called for drastic action. Late that night, I sneaked out my bedroom window and down the street to Ileanna’s house. I climbed the Pratts’ fence and made my way to her backyard, patting Fern on the head, and I threw a stone at the kennel to get the dogs barking. When they didn’t stop after a few minutes, Ileanna came to the back door. Standing under the patio light in her lacy Laura Ingalls nightgown, she looked like an angel of mercy. The dogs quieted down immediately.
“It’s me,” I whispered, coming out of the darkness. “There’s a problem with Dooley.”
Once I explained the situation, Ileanna agreed instantly to help me. She dressed and sneaked the keys out of Miss Pratt’s purse, and then she sat in the driver’s seat and held the clutch in while I pushed the Buick down the driveway.
“Mom can sleep through any kind of racket, but it’s good to be careful,” she said as I climbed in. For the first time it struck me as somewhat strange that Ileanna, who belonged to two completely different worlds, should call this large white woman her mother. It was also strange that she didn’t seem at all upset or embarrassed that I had just accused her cousin of stealing from my father. I thought she must be the kindest person in the world--but maybe she just saw it as a chance to get behind the wheel again. She started up the engine and we took off.
Driving at night brought an extra element of excitement. We were on a mission, we were righting a wrong. On the way down to the valley we talked about what we could do to replace the gun without letting anyone find out we had done it. We decided I would tear a natural-looking hole in the carpeting under the seat and wedge the gun inside: problem solved and no harm done, except a little embarrassment for my father, and I felt he could take it.
The Tesuque plaza was silent and dark. One lone light in a window on the far side seemed to emphasize the utter blackness; White Rock never got completely dark, for there were streetlamps and porch lights everywhere. This place was eerie, almost as if electricity had not been invented yet.
Ileanna knocked lightly on Aunt Stella’s door, then tried the knob and found it unlocked. We entered through the kitchen. “Maybe we won’t have to wake up anybody except Dooley,” she whispered--but her whisper awoke the dogs that lived in that house, and the barking woke everyone else. Someone switched on the light--electricity after all--and the whole family came trickling in, wearing their faded pajama bottoms and torn T-shirts, blinking and yawning. Three girls, a boy, Stella; no Dooley. Somebody smelled like beer, but I tried not to notice. If I ever told anyone about this night, I did not want to say anything that might suggest Ileanna’s family fit into a stereotype.
“Mary, honey.” Aunt Stella hugged her but only stared at me. “What’s wrong? You got trouble at home?”
“It’s Tracy’s thing,” Ileanna said, and pointed at me.
Everyone stared then. Now I wondered if Ileanna believed me--if she, too, thought Dooley must have taken the gun--or if she thought I was making everything up because, like my parents, I thought somebody who got bad grades in school must be related to a gun thief.
“I told Dooley about my father’s gun,” I said, blunt because I didn’t know how else to say it. “I think he asked me out so he could get it. It’s gone. I have to get it back.” Most of this came out between sobs and sniffles, but Ileanna’s family waited patiently for me to finish.
“Oh, honey.” Aunt Stella rubbed at her eyes, but that was probably just to clear the sleep away. “Doo really liked you.”
It would be a long night, waiting for Dooley to come home. The children went to bed, but Stella sat up with us on the old plaid couch, all of us blinking and talking, marking time. Ileanna and I tasted our first coffee.
The longer I sat there, the less convinced I became that my theory was right. Aunt Stella was the nicest lady I had ever met, nicer even than Miss Pratt. Dooley hadn’t done anything wrong; he just thought he liked me when he was drunk, then realized he didn’t when he was sober. Someone else had taken the gun, or maybe my father had lost it.
One thought did not occur to me till later: If Stella had been certain that Dooley would do no such thing, she would not have sat up with us. If she had known my theories were unfounded, she would have told Ileanna and me to leave immediately. But she sat and kept us entertained with her scattered memories of Ileanna’s birth mother, the first Mary, who had been wild as a girl “but sweet, always thinking of something to do for other people. And she loved animals, just like you.” She was buried in the big reservation cemetery in the hills.
Around four o’clock we heard an engine and a rattling fender outside. A few minutes later, Dooley came stumbling in and staggered into a wall when he saw Ileanna and me.
Stella said, “Doo, baby, did you take a .45 from this little girl’s father?”
Dooley said, “Shit.”
We decided the best thing to do with the gun was what my father did, stow it under the front seat. We chose my seat because the gun belonged to my family. As Ileanna and I drove away, I felt that gun swelling and burning under me, like a coal fire, and when Ileanna turned the corner, it slid about and banged into the seat supports. It didn’t fit in this car the way it did in the Honda.
We did not speak. What is there to say when you’re sixteen years old and your cousin has stolen a weapon from your best friend’s father? Or when you’re fourteen years old and your best friend has just discovered that this marvelous event that you called a date was really just some grown man’s scheme for taking advantage--not even of you, but of your father. I’m sure we both just hoped we could make it back before sunrise, replace the gun, and go on to high school as if nothing had happened.
Dooley hadn’t had much to say, either, when Stella asked him why he took the gun. He’d simply shrugged: “I didn’t have one before.” He never even looked at me during that awkward period in which he knelt by the bed he shared with his little brother and reached between the ancient mattress and box springs, careful not to wake the sleeping boy. He handed the gun to me grip first, the barrel pointing toward his chest.
Looking around at the house where he lived, I thought I knew why he’d taken the gun. For him it would be just like getting a fake i.d., something a guy acquired at a certain stage in life. I blamed myself: I should never have put temptation in his way.
“You girls better get going if you’re going to make it to school,” Aunt Stella said then, and we went shivering out to the Buick, the gun heavy and hot in my hand.
As we passed the bingo palace eighteen miles away from home, the dashboard clock showed 5:00. Ileanna pressed down on the accelerator. “It’s still Indian land,” she said when she saw me looking over at the speedometer. “Nobody’ll give me a ticket here.”
The Buick’s massive engine gave a burst of speed, and the gun knocked against the floor well’s back barrier. I braced myself on the dashboard but didn’t say anything. Of course she could drive any way she wanted to.
We made it into the foothills as the darkness began to thin slightly. Going upward, the road coiled snakelike, and Ileanna had to slow down. The gun’s movements grew fainter, and I let go of the dashboard. Ileanna took the last and tightest curve very slowly, so as not to tempt fate at this final, crucial moment. There was still a slight chance we’d make it home before our parents woke up.
But not all drivers were so careful. As our car straightened out, a pair of headlights careened around the curve behind us. Too late, that driver saw us and tried to go around. There was a thud and sudden rush of speed, and then the Buick slammed into the cliffside. The crash was deafening. It seemed to come from somewhere deep inside me and spread outward, to Ileanna, the dashboard, the windshield, the other car, the mountainside into which we skidded and which was now flush up against my window hole, the glass of it in my lap. The car seemed to travel forever, but it can have been only a few seconds before everything was settled and quiet, engines ticking, a hush as both drivers gathered their strength to get out and see exactly what had happened.
I stretched my neck and found that all my limbs worked. While Ileanna sat, dazed, I turned around and got up on my knees. “It doesn’t look too bad,” I said. “At least, not as bad as you’d expect.”
The two cars were locked together in a deep embrace: one corner of the Buick crumpled flat, one half of the other car’s hood caved in and smoking. I thought hopefully that it appeared to be the other driver’s fault--not that it would make much difference to my parents or Miss Pratt when they found out.
As if I’d given her courage, Ileanna shoved her door open and stood in the feeble glow coming from the one headlight left, waiting for the other car’s driver to get out and take responsibility.
I had thought that we knew the worst, but there was more. Tom Baldwin emerged from the driver’s side, Faith Rhodenz from the passenger’s. The two most popular kids in school, basketball’s center forward and his cheerleader girlfriend. They had been Homecoming King and Queen--there was no archetype of high school social success they did not fit.
Tom started talking, but with the ringing in my ears I couldn’t make out the words. I climbed over the gearshift and got out to stand beside Ileanna. She and Tom pulled out their licenses and held them in the light.
“Let’s just settle this here,” he said, though any of us could see there was no way that could be done. Neither car was about to drive away.
“What am I going to tell my parents?” Faith wailed. “We thought we could get back before . . .” She didn’t bother to finish.
We would all have to tell our parents something very soon: In no time, it seemed, a police car arrived with two county cops. I think we were actually relieved to let them take control of the situation. They checked us all for broken bones and concussions, then while the darker officer radioed in the accident, the taller, heavier one shone his flashlight about, assessing the property damage.
“You kids were lucky,” he said. “Was any of you drinking?”
“No,” Ileanna and I said immediately.
Faith and Tom took a few seconds longer, so their car was the one the blond officer looked into first. He reached in and held up two brown bottles triumphantly.
“Your parents will meet us at the station,” said the other policeman, hanging up the radio. He turned to the Buick and switched on his flashlight, though he hardly needed it in what was now a light gray morning.
Please, please don’t find the gun, I prayed silently. I had been stupid to get out of the car without hiding it--getting caught with Dad’s gun was about the worst thing that could happen to me. And of course the dark officer did find it, and right away, for it had been thrown forward to lie on the floor by my feet, black metal catching the light and spitting it carelessly back. He held it up--not triumphantly, as his partner had done with the bottles, but incredulously, as if he could not imagine how two girls like Ileanna and me had come by a gun.
“There must be a story in this,” he said.
The rest of it is simple. Tom was held responsible for the accident and lost his license, but Ileanna and I got probation for the gun, and my father was so ashamed that he sold it and dropped out of the Shootists’ Club. Ileanna and I were also forbidden to have anything further to do with each other. The order came from Miss Pratt—but only because she arrived at the station before my parents did. From then on, Miss Pratt would drive Ileanna to high school every morning, and the two of us hardly saw each other, even from a distance.
Oddly enough, the accident was my salvation. News circulated around campus, growing more and more dramatic with every mouth it passed through. Some kids swore I’d pulled the gun out from under my seat and aimed it at Tom and Faith. Others had me come out shooting. I became suddenly popular with the large population who resented people like Tom and Faith; they came up to me one by one and asked what I was doing with the gun in the first place. I learned to say “Target practice” and flip my hair over my shoulder, or “Shooting snakes” and wiggle my tongue. I became known as something of a wit, as well as a dangerous person. After I lost thirty pounds from the diet my mother forced on me, I was even invited out on some dates. My parents, who first threatened to lock me up in the house for the next three years, actually relented, fearing I would never be normal if I did not learn to socialize. I went to my junior and senior proms.
While I enjoyed my new life, I rarely caught a glimpse of Ileanna. When I did, I noticed she had given up the Laura Ingalls dresses to wear plaid shirts and jeans. The neighbors said she’d gotten a job cleaning the stalls at the local riding school, earning money to buy Miss Pratt a new car. That was to be how she learned her lesson . . .
But my mother always cut off the gossip before I could hear anything more. “We don’t talk about that young lady,” she would say with a long-suffering sigh. “You know she almost killed our Tracy.” If I was somewhere within reach, she’d grab me for a hot, bony, wool-covered hug that made the Stitchers’ Club smile.
“Mom!” I’d squirm out of her grip, but deep down a part of me was pleased. I was at last the heroine of a story. I thought Ileanna must be happy, too.
But abruptly, right after her eighteenth birthday, she was gone. The pig and the rabbits and lizards and crippled dogs vanished too, and though I had stopped thinking much about them, the neighborhood seemed eerily quiet. I thought Ileanna might come back for graduation, but the principal did not read her name at the big ceremony, and no one seemed to notice.
It was pretty clear to me what had happened, and as I waited on a hot metal chair for my own turn to come, I thought about the crunch of the car accident and the dizzying push into the cliffside. In memory, I thought I could see the lights of the bingo palace glittering below us as we got out of the Buick; but that was impossible. A whole mountain separated the crash site from the reservation. And yet there could be nothing easier than sliding downward into a place so well prepared for you.
Then my name was called, and I got up to collect my diploma--the promise of a future carried so lightly in my trigger hand.
New Mexican landscape from Wikimedia Commons.
Vintage Tesuque Pueblo postcard.