Excerpt from the Upcoming Novel Homegrown
By Eddie Chuculate
Jordan’s driving his Mark Five to a club out in the country, submerged in music, thought, and Seagram’s, when he sees a pair of bluejeaned legs protruding from under an old bleached-blue pickup at the bottom of the hill. The figure crawls out and starts waving him down, arms criss-crossing above his head like he’s guiding a plane to its gate. Jordan brakes to a crawl, turns down the radio, hears gravel ping and pop. First thing he sees is a shotgun cradled in the rack on the rear window. The figure becomes a tall black person wearing overalls with no shirt, just denim against dark skin. Country, he thinks. Probably harmless. He scans both sides of the road for cohorts in an ambush, discards the thought it’s a ruse to jack his car and wallet. Fifteen-year-old Lincoln and maybe fifty bucks? He thinks if the gun was for mischief or mayhem it would have been hidden. He stops and powers the window all the way down. In front, the sun is a fat tangerine globe, not as white and hateful as earlier. The guy leans in. “Hey, man, can you help a brother out with a jack?” he says, sort of breathless. He looks him over again. He doesn’t look nutty, or like a county-jail escapee. The Seagram’s speaks up, says, “All right, cat daddy.”
Jordan pulls over in front of the truck, making sure cars coming either way will have room on the narrow road. He pushes the button for the trunk, kills the engine. He’s about to get out when he sees a squatty dog galloping down the middle of the road like a bullet, right in the sun. Little puffs of reddish dust rise beneath its blurry legs. As it nears he sees it’s a brindle-colored pit bulldog, young, its hanging tongue the color of baseball-card bubblegum. It streaks by, huffing, and in the mirror Jordan watches it jump against his owner’s thigh, stump of tail wagging like an admonishing finger.
“That dog bite?” Jordan yells out.
“Naw, it’s OK,” he answers. “He just a pup.”
Jordan gets out and the dog shoots over to him, head down. Jordan braces, but it only wants to be petted. He leans down and scruffs the wide skull, feels its short stiff fur. It grunts and whines, looks up at him with eyes rimmed in pink. Panting heavily, it seems to want to go in four directions at once.
“This car’s new,” he tells the guy while rummaging for the jack, pawing through tennis rackets, golf clubs and ball bats. “New to me, that is.”
He offers his hand and they shake.
“Victor Caesar,” he says, strokes his moustache. “You already met Sheriff.”
Jordan offers him a beer from the cooler. Victor snaps it open and guzzles like he’s about to die of thirst, Adam’s apple bouncing. He drinks the whole thing, stomps the can flat with a tan work boot, belches.
“Not bad manners, just good beer,” he says, and takes the jack. “You mind if I keep the can? I collects cans.”
The guy is about six-five, lanky as a hoe handle. You can see the bones of his ribcage around his chest, near the brass snaps of his overalls. His eyes are pale yellow and red at once. Like a shot of hot sauce on eggs. High as a kite, Jordan thinks. His pant legs are so short they don’t even come to the top of his grass-stained work boots. He instantly feels sorry for him. Jordan himself had been taunted in school for wearing “high waters,” been told he was “flooding.”
Right leg lifted, Sheriff is shooting a golden stream on Jordan’s front tire. Victor claps his hands and yells and Sheriff cuts it off. Jordan laughs and lights a cigarette, watches Victor kick his own broken jack out of the way and begin the assembly, placing the square base on bottom, then the post into the triangular hole. He trips the switch and the horse-head part clicks rapidly to the bottom, then he flips the lever and slides it back up, clacking. It works.
“Hell, yeah,” Victor drawls. “I appreciates this. My narrow black ass would have been walking till sundown you hadn’t come along. These retread tires ain’t worth shit.”
Victor takes the tire tool and starts breaking off lug nuts, each one shrieking as it comes loose. He begins to pump the jack, and the rear lifts ever slightly. Jordan checks to make sure there’s something blocking the front wheel, but Victor already has a big rock there. Jordan drains his beer and throws the empty in the pickup bed where it joins a few dozen more.
“What you doin out here in a big Continental like that?” Victor says, spinning the lug nuts off all the way, twirling the tire tool. He stops and wipes sweat from his forehead with a red bandana.
“Heading to that blues club over in Rentiesville. Heard of it?”
Victor laughs, pulls the wheel off. Jordan grabs it for him and heaves it in back, careful not to get dirt on his new shirt. He dusts off his hands.
“Hell, I’m from around here,” Victor says. “That place been there since I was a kid. It was the Little Red Rooster back in the day. Don’t go there much nowadays, but I’ve had my streaks.”
He’s wiggling on the fresh tire. Jordan looks down on top of Victor’s head and sees the oily swirling curlicues of thick hair, bits of dead grass from crawling on the ground. It dawns on him that Victor probably isn’t much older than he is – 26 or 27.
Victor cranks down the pickup, flat fixed. He seems a regular pro at it. He disassembles the jack and is striding over to stow it in the Lincoln’s trunk when Jordan tells him to keep it. It stops him in his tracks.
“No shit?” he says, incredulous.
“I got another one in there anyway. Keep it, you might need it.”
Victor has a squirrelly way of not looking you in the eye, sort of down at the ground, the way someone with a bad tooth will cover their mouth when smiling, but he does this time, truly appreciative, as if favors for him were an endangered species.
“You a whisky man?” Jordan asks.
“Showl is,” is what the reply sounds like, so he gets the Seagram’s from the chest. Victor takes a shot, tossing his head back, then smacks his lips and passes it back. The whisky slides to Jordan’s stomach like glowing coal. Behind him, a rabbit darts into the road then back into the brush when it sees them. Up ahead Sheriff is sniffing around a brown-and-yellow turtle. He lifts a leg and urinates on it, makes the shell glisten.
“The devil’s in the bottle and he aims to kill you,” Jordan says. “My grandpa would say that. He had a truck just like this. Used to ride around out here in the country all the time, too.”
Victor lights a thin, cherry-smelling cigar. They are at the back of the pickup, each with a foot on the bumper, classic country style. Above the numbers on his license plate it says “OKLAHOMA: NATIVE AMERICA.” Rakes and hoes are tied up with rope in the bed along with an old-fashioned wooden-handled weed whacker some folks call a yo-yo. There’s shears, snippers and spades. Smoke bends from Victor’s mouth up into his nose holes and back out his mouth again. Victor looks to see if Jordan was looking. Jordan blows a big smoke ring, and a smaller one into that, and yet a smaller one into that. They both laugh.
“What’s up with the shotgun?” Jordan asks.
“That thing?” Victor says. “Old .410 my granddad gave me. Rabbits, squirrels. If I’m lucky, a few quail.”
A car tops the hill before them and passes slowly, a man and woman wave. Sheriff chases, barking, but stops when Victor yells. He trots back, tongue lolling.
“Can you tell me how to get to that club?” Jordan asks.
He’s sure he can find it on his own, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
“See that crossroads?” Victor says, pointing west with his cigarillo. In profile, Victor’s chin hair looks like curled metal shavings. “Cross it, then take the first left after the horse apple tree. Keep going south down over Wildcat Creek low-water bridge and keep on, oh, I’d say, another mile. Before you hits the next intersection, they be a little dirt road turns off right. Take it, and it’ll take you straight to the front door.”
“Any women there?”
“Tonight Saturday ain’t it?”
Jordan nods. Victor smiles so big the heavy western sun glints off the gold tooth again.
“Don’t get none on ya,” Victor says. “Thanks again, partner.”
Jordan drives off toward the creek, watching the truck grow smaller in his mirror. When he looks back again, it’s gone. Never heard the truck start, didn’t see any dust. Must have turned at the crossroads, he thinks.
He sees the horse apple tree and stops. He’s in no hurry, would like to drink a few more before he gets there, anyway. He can see for miles all around. Weatherbeaten gray barn off to the right, but no house. Old wooden windmill to the left. Two scissortails, tailfeathers like slender, swooping peace signs, light on a highline wire. On top of a telephone pole are the bell-shaped lens-blue glass insulators Granny liked to collect. He picks up a fat parrot-green horse apple, feels its furrows, gets a little of the white sticky glue on his fingers. He fires it at the birds for the fun of it, just to watch them fly. They soar off together, violet underbellies flashing. He walks around the car looking at how dirty it’s gotten on this little backwoods road trip. Nothing but a little mud splatter along the sideboard on the passenger’s side and red road dust covering the midnight-blue paint all around.
Across the field, haze shimmers off scorched grass, and winged grasshoppers fly near a pond, which is motionless except for the occasional concentric rings created by fish fanning their tailfins just under the surface or rising to eat a dragonfly. The pond looks serene, but it’s likely full of copperheads and cottonmouths, baby bullheads and bluegill, surly snapping turtles. Skinny white cattle birds stand storklike in the shallows, plunge their heads in. There’s the buzz of locusts and crackling sounds like cellophane unraveling. It’s as if the earth is frying. Diamondbacks, chiggers, ticks, scorpions, centipedes, fiddleback spiders: He knows what lies underneath this layer of serenity. Caught Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever when he was a kid out of a field like this. Had him seeing rats and giant rabbits on top of hospital TVs, and running a 103 temperature for days.
A bull moans from far off. Jordan’s Native, but not much of a nature boy. Likes to fish is about it. Rather see a play than kill animals. In San Francisco he usually went on the last day of previews, when admission was canned goods for the homeless. Corn and green beans allowed him to see “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where, after the players returned to the stage, linked hands and took a bow, the actress playing Stella was still weeping, after seeing her sister Blanche led off to a mental hospital.
He lived there while he was in a program writing short stories, which is what he’d rather do than work at a paper, even though the paper pays good for work that comes easy for him. He’s published a few short stories in journals that come out a couple times a year. Couldn’t buy them anywhere within a thousand miles even if you wanted. Meanwhile, he writes a column for the Trib that comes out all over the state the next day, even if it winds up lining parakeet cages or wrapping carp.
He tosses a rock at several fuzzy-headed dandelions. He remembers when his grandpa challenged him to shoot one and on the first shot the BB popped it dead center and all the fluff vanished. Poof! They never got over that one. Drank two or three beers in his honor. This is his first time in the Oklahoma countryside since his grandparents died two years ago within months of each other. He died from lung cancer; she from cirrhosis compounded by a broken heart.
He tries to find a radio station, but there’s nothing but an AM show called “The Country Swapper.” A woman says she will trade a good used “ice box” for a washing machine. She’s Jenny at 867-5309. He pops in a tape, turns it down low. It’s so peaceful out in the country. When he first returned from San Francisco he was aghast at how slow life moved here. It took a while to get used to the crawling traffic, the hem and haw at the grocery store, the chit-chat, the wide-open spaces, the silence: No trash trucks beeping at 7 a.m. And he could actually see the stars!
Dropping down toward Wildcat Creek, which runs into the Canadian, which runs into the Arkansas, which runs into the Mississippi, which empties into the Gulf, he sees a Creek family fishing at the corner of the bend. He recognizes the place as where his grandpa took him fishing as a kid. He goes slow over the cement-slab spillway so he won’t create a lot of racket. The whole family, a woman and three kids, wave. He’s sure if he got out and talked to them they’d know each other, or have some common kinfolk or friends, but he drives on in respect of their privacy. It’s a narrow but deep stream, full of tasty channel cats and spotted bass, willows forming a canopy over the creek. Near the bank a duck goes under to feed, fluffed white fanny flashing and orange web feet paddling for balance. You don’t even need to bring bait here, you can flip logs and root around in the sand with a stick for the type of worm known as the Red Wiggler. He’s hard to get on your hook, but you roll him in the sand and he becomes manageable. The wiggler curls and twists and is irresistible to the cats, carp and drum - the fish with rocks in its head.
Crossing the bridge and back in the dirt he hears mud slapping the undercarriage, then it lessens and quits. The sun in the rearview says about two hours till dark, and it’s cooler in the shade of the big oaks and elms, the latter what old-timers call “ellem.” It’s more woodsy here, the buzz of locusts a surround-sound rattle as they rage at the dying of the day. A pickup approaches from the opposite way, a family waving, kids in the back. Everybody waving. He’d forgotten that part about the country after living in the big city. He’s starting to feel a little melancholy, a little buzzed, a little generous, a little sorry for everybody. He takes another swig of the Seagram’s and decides to head on to the Dusk Til Dawn. He punches the pedal and makes the big car fishtail into the road, hears ice and cans slosh in the chest. He turns the music up full blast, passes a handpainted sign in front of a farmhouse touting “Eggs Fer Sale.”
He remembers the time at Reflections in Muskogee when this older drunk came over to where he and his cousin had started in on their catfish specials, and asked for a piece of fish. He’d said sure, but before he could get the words out the drunk started digging in his plate, big ashy-knuckled fingers with rims of dirt under the nails, and the owner hustled over and told the guy to get out. He offered a little fuss at first in a whiny voice, but the owner pulled out half of a very heavy and very chrome pistol from an inside vest pocket. The drunk shut up and left meekly. He had to admit to a little leg-shake after that event, but nothing a couple 7-and-7s didn’t knock down. They’d went because the new R&B club was something different than the usual honky-tonky type bars he was tired of.
So even though there was that little trouble at the black club, it was the black owner who came over and rescued them. He figured he got along well enough with the blacks in Muskogee. He grew up playing baseball and basketball with many of them. Spent the night in their houses. It was a black girl, Anthila Craft, who gave him his first “frog,” telling him when they were kids to make a muscle. He did, thinking she wanted to see how big it was. Then she popped it hard with her knuckle and a pointed knot of tendons jumped like something was inside. In high school he’d ride with his best friend and his friend’s mom to the 7-Eleven by the library. When his mom saw all the blacks around the payphone and hanging inside the store, she’d send Jordan in for her cigarettes instead.
None of his friends would go to the black clubs with him, telling him he was crazy, would get shot, rolled, beat up. All of the other places were countrified. Not that he doesn’t like a little George Jones or Johnny Cash now and again, but all the new stuff is unlistenable. You’d ask, Aren’t there any Indian bars in Muskogee? Wouldn’t he rather hang around his own kind? The answer is yes and no. Sure, he’d like to mingle, but the only place he can tell they gather is downtown by the tracks on Okmulgee Street: The Roundhouse, Villa Cantina and American, the three seediest bars in Muskogee – even the paper said so. He went there once and gnats landed in his beer. It was no problem: you just showed your beer with the gnat stuck in the foam and they’d give you another on the house. People so drunk they were drooling. He went into the bathroom and interrupted a couple making love on the floor. No thanks, he’ll pass. True, he’d like to find a nice Indian girl around his age. But chances are they’re related and she’d already have two or three kids. No thanks, he’ll punt.
He sees a sign shaped like an arrow nailed to a post pointing right. Faded gray, it says simply, “Blues Club.” He follows this dirt road for about a mile and comes to a wooden, one-story unpainted house with chicken hutches and a shack out back with smoke puffing out of rusty piping. A big porch as wide as the house extends in front about five yards, the top covered in green shingling. He turns off the music. It looks like someone’s residence and he’s about to keep driving when he hears percussion and guitar - real live music. Cymbals ticking, bass thrumming. Quick snare roll and crash. Unmistakable. This must be it. There are three or four cars in the grassy front yard so he pulls in. He brushes his hair, looks in the mirror, sprays his Cool Water cologne, tucks an extra twenty in his sock.
Four or five black folks turn around and look at him after the screen door slams and all turn back around just as fast. Like they’d do anybody, he tells himself. There’s lines of booths along the walls left and right, and tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths - like a regular restaurant. Ahead is the bar with mirrors in back and bottles of liquor - gold, silver, and clear. To the right is a dance area and at the very back a guitar player is goofing around, tuning up and laughing. The bartender, a slender black woman with breasts straining against a T-shirt that says “Check out my rack” over a triangle of racked pool balls, has her head wrapped in a traditional blue bandana. He takes a seat in front of her and asks, “Is this the Dusk Til Dawn club?” He still hasn’t seen any sign.
She stares at him wide-eyed for a beat, then backs away and points to a digital screen that has been programmed to read, in flashing red flanked by two big treble clef symbols, “DUSK TIL DAWN BLUES CLUB!” It flashes again: “TONIGHT! THE WILDCAT JUNCTION BOYZ WITH GUITARZAN AND JANE!”
“Sorry,” he says, “my eyes are still out of whack.”
“That’s all right, honey,” she says, wiping off the area in front of him and plopping down a stack of napkins. “Take off those glasses might help. What’ll it be, lover?”
He’d forgotten to remove his sunglasses. He orders beer in a glass and gulps it down before she has a chance to turn around. He slaps a five on the counter.
“Make it a couple bottles of Michelob this time,” he says. “Why they call it Dusk Til Dawn?”
“After two we close the bar, but you can bring your own drinks in after that. We don’t close till the sun comes up. Dusk til dawn, sugarchild.”
In all of San Francisco he’d never seen a club that stayed open all night. She brings the beers and he lights a cigarette, observing the guitarist. He’s classic looking, down to the sunglasses and faded ivory fedora with a small red feather. He wears glossy black wingtips with perforated holes forming a classy swirling pattern at the toe, and thin, nearly transparent blue dress socks. A couple inches of shiny brown flesh glisten under overhead lights until his sharp-creased slacks begin. He’s even by God got a toothpick jutting from his mouth! He hasn’t played a note but is already looking like a legend in his peach-colored dress shirt with cuffs rolled midway to elbow. Jordan feels he’s come to the right spot, although he hasn’t seen any women other than the bartender.
He turns around and barks, “I’m a columnist at the Tulsa Trib!” Normally, he never told anyone unless he had to, preferring to stay anonymous.
“What do you write about?” the bartender asks, dunking a mug in soapy water.
“Anything interesting. You know, ‘HOUSECAT RAISES LITTER OF PUPS,’ ‘BLIND MAN FASHIONS OWN FISHING LURES.’ Quirky, slice-of-life fluff,” he says.
“You should write about this place, then,” she says, and points to a wall covered with framed but yellowing newspaper articles. Figures in hats hold guitars and horns.
“Two more, youngblood?”
“Yes, ma’m,” he says, “and while you’re at it make it a round for the house!”
He makes a circular motion in the air with a finger like an umpire signaling a home run.
He thought it would be just for the four folks over in the corner playing dominoes, but she cracks two for herself and the guitar player, and three for the musicians out under an old-fashioned tree arbor, which he sees through the back door, a tunnel of light in the murkiness. Shit, there goes that $20. Oh, well, maybe he can do a column on the place and expense it. He’ll need to write down his mileage from here and double it. Looks quirky and down-home enough.
“Guitarzan” was only tuning up as he plucks a few strings and twists the pegs, cocking an ear, before going out back, lifting the beer at him, eyes hidden behind thick, black frames. Jordan takes a good look around now that his eyes have grown accustomed. It looks authentic with “Jax,” “Brown Derby,” “Old Milwaukee,” “Schlitz,” and “Hamm’s” beer signs nailed to the walls, along with car tags from various decades that say “Oklahoma is OK,” Dutch Masters cigar boxes behind the counter, the smell of woodsmoke wafting in from out back and the owner in an apron chopping brisket and onions on a cutting board with a shiny cleaver. It beat the place he’d seen in Japantown in San Francisco. It had been the excellent “Wok Around the Clock” 24-hour Asian restaurant before it became the “Boom Boom Room.” He had taken some guests from Oklahoma there to scope it out, but all they had done was thrown up a bunch of framed photos of all the customary blues legends, put blues on the jukebox and called it a blues club. Way too much vinyl and plastic. Even the barbecue had been nuked and served in Styrofoam. The Dusk Til Dawn seems mostly solid, well-worn wood, he thinks, pounding the counter with a fist. He looks up and sees dozens of one-dollar bills and the odd two-dollar bill pasted to the low ceiling. Some of their corners have come loose and flutter occasionally from the slow-whirring ceiling fan with blades like boat paddles, dirt furred on the edges.
He’d been a big blues fan as a teen. There was a radio program came on every Sunday night out of Tulsa called the Smokehouse Blues he listened to religiously for a few months, and he even wrote a bunch of blues songs, bought some tapes. Went to the library, checked out a mountain of books: Ledbelly, Blind Lemon, Muddy Waters, Big Alabama Jefferson, Howling Wolf, the Crossroads, all that. Fancied himself the moniker Bull Alligator. Never wrote any music, just lyrics, about 20 songs before he quit. Wrote them all on two or three pieces of paper. Just a formula. Too repetitious. Too depressing. He reminded himself of a young actor trying to play a homeless, grizzled Vietnam vet: pasted-on moustache and beard, no experience.
The screen door slams. Everyone turns and checks out the young black girl in the frame. She’s sort of muscular; a strong bicep forms at the simple exertion of shielding her eyes. She wears short-shorts and a yellow tank top, scans the room like she’s looking for someone. Looks toward the domino players in the corner, the stage area and the bar, where Jordan raises a beer bottle to her for the hell of it. He thinks she’s about to turn around and walk out, but she saunters over and plops in the next barstool.
“I thought you was someone I knew,” she says to him.
“We can remedy that,” he says. “Stay a while.”
“Deader than a doorknob.”
“But it’s dark and cool in here. Like you. Care for a beer?”
“Shoot, yeah,” she says, fanning herself. “Hot as hell out there.”
The barmaid yells out, “YoYo! What’s up, girl? You come for some pie?”
“A cutie pie, maybe,” she says. “Let me get my drink on first, Rosie.”
Jordan thinks this is a good thing. Why do they wear their shorts so short if they don’t want anyone looking? She has the physique of a tennis player, long toned legs and meaty thighs. She’s wearing tiny socks that have a puff of cotton like dandelion fuzz above the heel. They’re yellow, match her Asics Tigers.
Finally, she says, friendly enough, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”
“Innkeep, bring us a couple Michelobs here. Michelob OK?” he asks, and she nods.
He listens to the jukebox crank out something called “Crawling Kentucky Kingsnake.” He taps his feet on the pole brace below and plays a little leg guitar for her benefit.
“I’m a crawling kingsnake, baby, crawling on back to you,” some bluesman croons.
Piano takes over and he switches to bar-counter keyboard, then to air drum as the song ends with a dramatic cymbal wash and crash.
“You likes this old shit?” she asks, angles her bottle toward the juke.
“I’m an old bluesman myself,” he tells her. “I write the songs that make the young girls cry.” Fuck, he’d say anything with a few drinks in him.
“Ha!” she blurts, but raises her bottle to cheer. “You barely look 21. I’m surprised they let you in. Babyface.”
He looks over at Rosie, who’s chatting with the owner, waving the beer bottle in the air for emphasis.
“Look who’s talking,” he says, leans over and squeezes her shoulder quickly. She doesn’t complain. He gulps from his beer.
“How do you know Rosie?”
“She my auntie,” she says, rhymes it with “Montie.”
They grow quiet a minute, staring ahead, drinking their beers. Dominoes slap, a blade chops through ribs, the chain on the wobbly fan clinks against a light bulb. She gets off the stool, jerks her head toward the porch. He looks around to confirm it was directed at him, then follows her out and lights a cigarette, leery of what she wants. To keep from staring at her he looks down the dirt road stretching around the bend into darkness created by the oak grove. The sun is setting, a few golden spears jab a purple sky.
“Damn, you’re taller’n I thought,” she says, looking up at him with her hand out wanting a cigarette. He gives her one and lights it.
“Six-two. I was six-one two years ago. Guess I’m still growing,” he says, and looks in her eyes, which are honey yellow against her light-brown skin. But she’s definitely black.
She puffs smoke and bounces on the tips of her toes like a boxer readying for a fight, or like she’s nervous. Yellow marbles dot the ends of two braids that each arch over her head like horns. She looks like a big yellowjacket, the nastiest and angriest kind of wasper. Yellow and black, might attack.
“You Indian or something?” she says, extending her arm alongside his to compare skin tone. Her’s isn’t too much darker than his.
“Dots or feathers?” he says.
“Cause I am too,” she says. “Creek. Got the card and everything.” She nods affirmatively. “My grandma was full blooded. Makes me a quarter.”
She’s as much Creek as he is, although he’s also half Cherokee. He’s thinking she’s becoming more attractive by the minute. The sun illuminates turtle-shell clouds golden from underneath. He points at it and she looks, blowing smoke through her nostrils and tapping ash on the gray planking.
“What you doin here with all these old folks? Ain’t nothing happens here till late at night. You gotta car?”
“I could ask the same question.”
“I only lives about a mile from here. I was about to go back home, then I saw you.”
Direct hit, he thinks.
“So, you got a car? I know you didn’t fly out here or ride no horse.”
He points. “Right there.”
It’s smoldering blue, almost black, and growing shinier as it gets darker.
“Ooh, that’s pretty,” she says. “That a Lincoln ain’t it?”
“Showl is,” he hears himself say, parroting the distressed motorist.
A red sedan comes slowly from around the corner, muffler growling, hesitates, then pulls into the lot. An older black couple get out, climb the short steps and go in, arms around each other, laughing. She’s tall and slim and he’s short and stocky, wearing an OU ball cap.
“Hey,” he says to the girl, hand extended. “My name’s Jordan. Jordan Coolwater. I’m a columnist for the Tulsa Tribune.”
She takes his palm and they shake. “Yolanda. Ledbetter. My friends call me YoYo. You can call me Yolanda.”
This catches him off-guard.
“Just joking,” she says, slaps her thigh, laughing. “Shoulda seen the look on your face. You full already? Are you really an old bluesman yourself?”
“Twenty-five and already a bluesman, yes, ma’m. How old are you?” he says.
“Old enough,” she says, flutters her eyelashes at him. “I used to run track in Arkansas.”
“You look it,” he says. “What happened with that?”
“I blew out my knee and they dropped my scholarship,” she says and lifts a knee. “That’s where they cut on me.”
He grimaces and turns away from the surgical pink scar, a vertical slash along the knee. He can’t even stomach the injury replays on TV. He wants to admonish her for smoking like his uncle does to him, but they grow quiet. The locusts have shut down, too. Then one starts up, another joins in and soon every tree around is rattling again. Jordan stretches his arms above him, tiptoes, touches the roof of the porch. He guesses he did come a little early. But how was he supposed to know? He stifles a yawn. It’s the alcohol. Second-wind time.
“Can we sit in your car for a minute?” she asks.
He pops the trunk for beers and unlocks her side. He gets in and starts it for the AC, plugs the Zeppelin back in, punches on the equalizer. Red and green dots jump up and down along the face. He turns it down low:
“With a purple umbrella and a fifty-cent hat (Livin’, lovin’, she’s just a woman) Missus cool rides out in her aged Cadillac (Livin’, lovin’, she’s just a woman)”
He shows her how to adjust her seat. There are about a dozen controls: Seat down or up, back or front, tilt. She plays with it a while and gets settled. The sun has sank; the horizon is a vivid mauve, but fading. YoYo looks around, rubs the velvet, the fake-wood paneling. She has a smile on her face and is acting like she could get used to the car. Flips the visor to see if the lighted mirror works. It does. She checks herself out, widens her eyes, bares her bright teeth. Then she snaps it shut and, leaning toward him, reaches into her pocket and withdraws a joint.
“You get high?” she asks, running it back and forth underneath her nostrils. “This is some potent shit. Homegrown. But it does the trick.”
So this is why she wants to sit in the car. She is smiling at him, holding it in the air. He guns the motor to give the AC some juice. He doesn’t smoke much dope, has bought one entire quarter-ounce sack his whole life. Never failed a drug test. He might have a toke or two when he’s drunk, but, even as he tries to explain it away to himself, he knows he’s going to smoke it with her.
She lights it above a little red Bic. The twisted end flames and glows, the smoke seeps out serpentine, a seed pops with a small flare as she sucks. Oh, what the hell, he thinks, relax and enjoy it. So he turns up the music a little, eases the seat back, and hits it every time. It’s harsh, scorches the back of his whisky-coated throat, but he nearly chokes himself holding it in as long as he can. They sit there as it grows dark, under the big oaks. He only gets out to get beer from the trunk. Now for sure he can’t take his eyes off her, she seems so fascinating. Her smooth skin, cute face with the high cheekbones. Long lashes above slanted eyes. Mysterious smirk like she knows something he doesn’t. He keeps staring at her to see what it is that makes her black besides the skin, which could be anybody’s. The hair? But it looks silky. He reminds himself she’s Indian, too.
“Who was your grandma?” he asks as she takes another puff.
She holds up a finger for him to wait, her cheeks balloon, then she exhales. Smoke rolls out like clouds before a thunderstorm. Nothing wrong with her lungs, he thinks. All that track.
“Maxine Tigertail. She’s still alive. Lives in Wildcat Junction,” she says on half-breaths.
Jordan thinks about this as a swarm of sparrows wheel and swoop over the fenceline in silhouette against the sunset. They stay amazingly together in formation, like a school of darting minnows, then zoom away.
There are many Tigertails. Some work at the tribal headquarters, and their name or picture is always in the tribal paper doing something magnanimous like cutting a ribbon with enormous scissors or holding up a giant cardboard check. The photographers usually stand 10 yards back instead of filling up the frame so all the figures are tiny, wearing their stupid suits and ties, acting white as possible, digging at dirt with shiny shovels. Ninety percent of their constituents don’t own a suit and tie.
“How’d you become Ledbetter?”
“Momma married a Ledbetter. You know there’s a ton of those.”
He remembers a few Ledbetters from school. They were neighbors with some when he lived with Granny.
“I knew a CoCo Ledbetter in Muskogee,” he says.
“That would be my cousin. About my age? Yay tall?”
“Yep, that’s her.”
They’ve smoked the joint to a roach, and he lets down her window so she can flick it. Thankfully, she doesn’t eat it like he’d seen people do. He pounds his chest with his mouth open and more smoke leaks out. Full to the gills. He inches closer to her figuring now or never and leans in and they kiss for a minute or two. He rubs the tip of his index finger lightly along the raised welt of her scar after they break away.
“There’s a lot more where that came from,” she says.
This was going to be less complicated than he thought.
“The smoke I mean.”
They both laugh at this for an unusually long time, he thinks. Her lemon-scented perfume slices through the burnt-leaf smell.
“No, really, I don’t want any. That there should hold me. But thanks,” he says, thinking she wants to sell him a bag. She must think he’s rich, with the Lincoln and newspaper job.
“It’s free. Right down the road here, growing wild.”
He takes another drink, trying to get his cool-act back together, shakes his head, looks around. Next to the shack in back is a tumbling stack of hickory split into firestove lengths. It hits him that this is the smokehouse where the brisket and ribs are cooked. As if on cue the owner in the white apron walks out carrying a platter of steaming meat. It seems Jordan can smell the smoked food from inside the car. Suddenly, he’s powerful hungry.
“Oh, well, thanks, Jordan,” Yolanda begins, and opens the door to get out. The light and buzzer come on. He can’t let her get away that easy.
“Wow,” he says, getting his attitude back. “Let’s go check it out if you want. I know a guy who’d take some, if you’re not just BSing me.”
She puts her fine leg back in the car.
“Dang, that’s a heavy-ass door,” she says.
He passes her the bottle. She takes a swig without delay. Yep, she’s got a little Indian in her. She grimaces and waves her hand back and forth in front of her mouth. He figures there’s a mountain of time before 2 in the morning, which is the action he wants to see. Right now there’s four cars in the lot and no live music, just a few brisket eaters and beer drinkers. He’s taken a liking to YoYo, so it wouldn’t hurt to drive around a little with her, show off the Lincoln. Never know, could get lucky. But who would actually be getting lucky? Him or her, or both of them? Lucky? Why is it called lucky? He’s thinking too much, he thinks. He observes her coolly as she’s got the mirror down again, patting her hair, smacking her lips.
“You look good,” he says. “Smell good, too. Don’t worry.”
“Thank you,” she says, closes the visor. She’s got good manners, he thinks.
“Now, where’s this place at? I ain’t gonna get shot am I?”
“Hell, naw. You think I’d take you to a place like that? It’s just up here along Wildcat Creek. I fount it one day going fishing with my brother. He pulled up some plants and dried them out in the oven.”
YoYo says “clear” and the gravel crunches when he gets on the road. She fiddles with the seat some more, getting comfy. There’s still light, unlike in winter when after sundown it’s pitch black within minutes. He turns down the radio and hears the locusts buzzing, crickets chirping and tree frogs burping. The pot plays tricks on him; he looks at the speedometer and is going only 10 miles an hour, but what’s the hurry? His face feels flushed and by that feeling knows his eyes are bloodshot. He stops the car and looks in the mirror, but can’t tell. He leans over and sticks his face in YoYo’s.
“Are my eyes shot?”
She looks him in the eye, bobs her head like a boxer to get another view.
“They ain’t crystal clear, put it that way. It don’t matter, who cares?”
She rubs his leg up and down. He feels the stirrings of a hard-on, turns the music back up, drives on. He smells dope on his fingers every time he puffs on his cigarette, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth opposite YoYo. It’s cool this evening, a much-appreciated respite from the hot, humid day. The biggest thing he dislikes about Oklahoma is the summer heat and humidity. Even at night it’s sweltering. Growing up in the Creek Indian housing projects, they were officially the last ones to cave in and buy an air-conditioner. The little window unit only cooled half the house and that was after hanging a blanket to cut off the hallway and back bedrooms. They were also the last to get cable and a telephone. As a kid he ran up a mammoth bill by following the international instructions inside the directory to call Japan. He made several connections, including the last one when he kept a woman on the line for several minutes by telling her he was calling from “Oklahoma.” She kept responding “Yokahama?” before passing around the phone to various family members, who finally hung up. He called them right back and repeated the interaction.
He begins to wonder how much dope YoYo smokes. She doesn’t look like a typical stoner.
“Do you smoke a lot?” he asks her.
She holds up her cigarette and arches her eyebrows. He shakes his head.
“More than I should, probably,” she says. “I never smoked when I ran. But this shit’s free. You try living out here, stuck in the country, nothin’ to do.”
He thinks if they got together maybe he could wean her off it. But damned if she doesn’t reach down in her sock and pull out another.
“We’ll wait till we get to the woods,” she says.
They drive into the thick shade canopy that leads to the creek. They say Oklahoma’s No. 1 cash crop is marijuana. There was a story about it recently in their paper. And the stuff does grow wild. When he was a kid they saw a big patch by the side of the road. Grandpa said “looky there” and pulled over. It became one of those family stories you heard so much it became lore. Grandpa said it was from people throwing “left-handed cigarettes” out the window with seeds in them. It was ironic because when Grandpa rolled his Velvet or Prince Albert, people always thought he was rolling doobies. A pickup full of teenagers pointed and laughed outside a QuickTrip once while Grandpa, oblivious, arms braced on the steering wheel, filled an OCB paper and rolled it, slowly licked it back and forth.
They cross the creek slowly, water spraying in arcs on both sides. YoYo has her arm hanging out the window and gets some on it.
“Just go on up a little ways and stop off to the side,” she says.
They stand together at the trunk and take another shot apiece.
“Now where’s it at and how far?”
She does the fan-and-grimace routine, points right.
“I’d say about 10 minutes in, if that far.”
On the road it’s twilight, but midnight in the woods.
“Will it be hard to find? It’s dark in there. I don’t have a flashlight.”
“Simple,” she says and sparks her lighter, holds it in the air like a torch as the flame wobbles across her face, reflects off the silver dove on her necklace.
They jump across the ditch and wade through some Johnson grass. He’s right behind her, wondering what the heck he is doing walking into the woods with a strange black girl (Creek, too, he reminds himself), stoned drunk, hunting a marijuana stand. She reaches for his hand as they duck under a limb, and instantly they’re cloaked in darkness. She lights the lighter, holds it in front to get her bearings.
“C’moan,” she says.
With every step they crunch twigs, snap branches. The going is fairly easy, though; in fact it’s a relief to get out of the open into some secrecy. She heads straight for a while, then veers east, toward the creek. A barn owl hoots eight notes from across the road: “What’s up with you, what’s up with youuuu?” Locusts have quit, but crickets pick up the chorus. It smells damp and like hay.
“Do you ride horses?” she asks.
He can only see her heart-shaped rump in front of him.
“Hardly ever. Every time I do, they take off and won’t mind me when I try to get them to stop.”
“They know you’re scared. We got three of them: Blaze, Smoky and Peaches. I ride Smoky every day. Over to the club sometimes.”
He envisions a horse tethered to the porch, like something out of Gunsmoke. He laughs. “Damn, you are country, aren’t you? Where do you keep them?”
“We got 32 acres. Let’s take a break,” she says.
They hug and kiss, he feels her stiff tongue in his mouth. It tastes like Seagram’s. He rubs up and down her back, squeezes her bottom, traces an eyebrow with a thumb. She doesn’t resist. After a while she lights the joint.
“How much farther?” he croaks, cheeks full of air, smoke oozing from his mouth and nose.
“Right up ahead. Got to be quiet, though.”
They start off again. He hears a buzzing that he realizes is coming from inside his head. He laughs out loud, stops and takes a drink.
“Shhhh,” she says.
He catches up to her. She has the lighter going again.
“We’re here. There it is,” she whispers, pointing.
“Why are we whispering?”
“Shhhh!” she answers, irritated.
It stands out even in the dark: a circular patch in a clearing obscured from above by foliage. She walks up to the edge and squats next to a plant, pulls at it with both hands. She has to tug a few times, then he hears the roots tear. It comes out and she bangs it on the ground to break off clots of dirt, roots dangling like white worms. She raises it to her face and inhales deeply.
“My brother call this here Stilwell Spider Tops,” she whispers, hands it to him.
There is the unmistakable skunky smell, the leaves bend and hang down like tarantula legs. It’s much heavier than it looks, he thinks, as he strokes it through his hands, sniffing it. She’s bent over pulling plants as fast as she can, grunting, throwing them to the side. He strolls through the head-high growth, yanks one up. He breaks off a stalk and gets a fragrant, sticky substance on his hands. She tells him he’s supposed to pull it out at the base.
“Like this,” she says, rips up another.
She wastes no time, going stalk to stalk, uprooting plants until she’s got about two dozen in a heap. She’s breathing heavy. He whips his back and forth, making zipping sounds.
“OK,” he says, “fuck it. Let’s get out of here.”
“A couple more,” she says, then collects her booty.
“What you going to do with those?” he asks.
“Take them home,” she says, which he gathers involves his vehicle, but by this time he doesn’t care, just wants out.
“I’m coming back after all these motherfuckers tomorrow, watch,” she says.
The dope is making him paranoid. He pictures electric fences, poles with tips sharpened into picks, jungle traps that sling you upside down, potheads with pistols. He hears splashing and thinks someone is coming after them, but it’s only a jumping bullfrog. They tramp back the way they came and she shoves the plants behind the ice chest. He gets a beer out of the cooler. The ice has turned to mainly water, but it’s still cold, so he empties the other case into it so he’ll have something to take to the club.
“Satisfied now? Got your plants,” he says, rubbing his hands down her sides and over her hips. She leans into him and they begin to kiss again. He has to bend down a little and she’s on her tiptoes. Stars speckle the sky. It’s completely dark now but he thinks she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. Their teeth click. He tells himself not to forget to get her number, which reminds him to give her his card. He imagines showing up to clubs or parties with her at his side. Everyone going around saying how Jordan has a black girlfriend now. Indian, too, he keeps reminding himself. Miss Homegrown.
“Here’s my card. It’s got both my numbers on it.”
It says: Jordan Coolwater/Columnist/The Tribune
“Oh, how romantic,” she says, laughing, with a hand over her heart, goofing. She puts it in her pocket.
“Here, you drive,” he says and gives her the keys. She turns around in the middle of the road. The parking lot is full at the club, and he hears music and shouting from the road. It’s morphed into a jumping little juke joint. She finds an open spot near the front.
“Damn, this a long-ass car,” she says after backing up three times to angle the car in.
They listen to the music and tangled voices, punctuated by abrupt laughter and shouts. She turns in the seat and stretches her legs across his lap. He begins to pick the burrs out of her yellow laces. Someone on the mike inside tries to talk above the clamor while a neon-blue bug zapper zaps every few minutes on the porch. Through the mirror he sees a truck crawl by behind them. It could have been any truck until he sees a dog, a pit, hanging out, paws on the window frame. It’s Sheriff.
“Hey, there’s that dude I helped out today. Gave him a jack,” he says, pointing, thinking it seems like last week instead of hours ago.
YoYo turns then ducks, hides her head in his lap.
Eddie Chuculate (Creek/Cherokee) is the author of the story collection Cheyenne Madonna (Boston: Black Sparrow Press) and a winner of the O. Henry Prize. He held a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford University and graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He later earned a Master's of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa's Iowa Writers' Workshop.